Hauling the fizzing, poisonous, carbonic dream of becoming a poet through cafes, beds, bars, bookstores, crappy jobs and the urban and rural landscapes of Mexico and Spain, the excitable protagonists of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (1998) make, in the end, more skid marks than poems. Searching from barrio to barrio for an obscure poet associated with a literary movement called Stridentism, dragging a girlfriend in tow and chased by a homicidal pimp, the novel’s two main characters, Ulises Lima, modeled on Bolaño’s close friend Mario Santiago, and Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s alter ego, eventually cross oceans and deserts. Through fragmented testimonies divulged to an unidentified detective by Lima and Belano’s former friends, the would-be poets come clear as tragic antiheroes. Meanwhile, right down to its yellow eyeteeth, Mexico City is rendered as vividly as Balzac’s Paris. This chronicle of frustrated youth, with ambition burning up its resources of afflatus and dream, found a wide readership when it appeared in translation in America in 2007, a year that also saw the fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Eliciting rave reviews (New York magazine hailed Bolaño as “literature’s new patron saint”), The Savage Detectives sucked American readers into the wake of its Rimbaldian adventure.
Now, in the bright light of Bolaño’s American fame, his biographical note looks like a set piece. He’s born in Chile in 1953. Reads omnivorously. Moves with his family to Mexico as an adolescent when his father senses the darkening political climate. Returns to Chile in 1973 to help promote Allende’s socialism, but arrives too late. Is arrested after Pinochet’s coup against Allende, then released when a guard, by sheerest coincidence, recognizes him from school. Returns to Mexico, launches an improbable, confrontational literary movement called Infrarealism in 1976 and then, after a year of traveling, moves to Spain. Although he believes poetry is the one literary activity that “puts into play one’s own life,” he starts writing fiction to support himself. His fifth novel, The Savage Detectives, brings him wide international acclaim, and for five years he pumps out stories, poetry, novels, reviews and essays as if possessed. Finally, he succumbs to liver disease in 2003 at 50.
Is The Savage Detectives Bolaño’s best book? The contenders would have to include By Night in Chile, a much more gemlike and austere novel narrated by Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a seminarian and initiate into Opus Dei who writes poetry, becomes a literary critic and keeps mum about tortures he witnessed during Pinochet’s reign. Distant Star, another gripping novel, concerns a fascist poet-pilot in Pinochet’s air force who skywrites his poems over Santiago and murders his former friends. The short novel Amulet is narrated by the “mother of Mexican poetry,” a Uruguayan poet who also appears in The Savage Detectives, where she is trapped in a toilet stall in the deserted Mexico City university after riot police storm the campus during the 1968 student protests.
These four novels (and many of Bolaño’s stories) share two notable qualities. First, each alludes to a harrowing, ironic way to political violence, although the violence itself is rarely depicted. A story will end the moment before a fight breaks out. The door to a torture room will be quickly shut. A collaborator will let secret police into the house of people he is betraying, but we’ll read only that “the bodies will never be found.” In Bolaño’s oeuvre, violence redeems no one, no one kicks clear of it, and even those who condemn it, particularly writers and intellectuals, are complicit. In fact, Bolaño insistently exposes the hypocritical marriage of literary ambition and political opportunism. His heroes, meanwhile, are locked in toilet stalls, lost in exile and forgotten in tiny desert pueblos.
Second, most of Bolaño’s prose is inhabited by poets obsessed with poetry, which was Bolaño’s first and greatest love despite the fact that, as he noted, “There are so few readers of poetry that to publish it is almost a gratuitous or futile act.” For Spanish-reading critics, Bolaño’s posthumous novel, 2666 (to be published in English by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this fall), is considered his greatest achievement. But Bolaño considered Tres (Three), a book of poems published in 2000, to be “one of my two best books.”
In his 20s, in Mexico City in the 1970s, Bolaño was an infamous poet-provocateur. In a neo-Dadaist manifesto he introduces the poetics of Infrarealism with a series of short blasts:
Sensations aren’t derived from nothing (most obvious of the obvious), but from a reality conditioned, in a thousand ways, by constant flux.
Multiple reality, you make me puke!
So, it’s possible that on the one hand we’re being born and on the other we’re in the front row for the death throes. Forms of life and forms of death crisscross our retinas every day. Their constant collision gives life to infrarealist forms: THE EYE OF TRANSITION!…
the poem as a journey and the poet as a hero who unveils other heroes….
The young Bolaño and a tiny band of friends, including Santiago, sabotaged and skewered more mainstream poets (Infrarealists considered them reactionary), whose most famous and articulate spokesman was Octavio Paz. Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa once described her terror that Infrarealists would heckle her at her first important public reading in Mexico City in 1974. Bolaño considered himself a Trotskyist at the time. Later, he decided he was simply crazy in his youth. In any case, he became known as an enfant terrible. Stylistically, he had apprenticed himself to the great Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, author of Poems and Antipoems and, most recently (Parra, in his 90s, is still writing), Antipoems: How to Look Better and Feel Great. Eager to step out from under the enormous shadow of Pablo Neruda, Parra had studied physics at Brown University. He then transferred the twentieth-century scientific imagination of antiparticles and antimatter into literature. He retooled mathematical formulas into poetic forms; he wrote in a mock-heroic tone about hilariously self-absorbed archetypes; he drew on obscenities, scientific lexicons, comedy and street vernacular; he cracked lyric rhythm into declarative charges. In short, he busted open the literary tradition.
Parra and Bolaño were equally dismissive of canonical authority, transcendental longings and belletrism. They preferred the slight to the monumental, the colloquial and improvisatory to the studied. They practiced a witty, sardonic poetry, the likes of which could be called “unimproved”–lacking the polish of a shiny commodity. With Bolaño, we encounter not only “fist-fucking” but “feet-fucking” in a poem that also mentions Pascal, Nazi generals, Shining Path bonfires and a teenage hooker. With Bolaño, the explicit description of a sexual encounter is fragmented by temporal disjunctions, heuristic leaps of thought and a barking dog; in the end, God and an author show up.
Four years after his death, a big selection of Bolaño’s poetry was published by Anagrama, his loyal Barcelona press. Its more than 458 pages include previously unpublished poems and many that appeared in books (Bolaño published only three volumes of poetry in his lifetime) and magazines in Chile, Spain and Mexico between 1978 and 2000. The collection is titled La Universidad Desconocida (The Unknown University). The title is all the more apt for English-language readers for whom Bolaño’s poetry has remained in the dark stacks, untranslated and unread. But in the autumn, New Directions will bring out the first selection of English translations of Bolaño’s verse, The Romantic Dogs (which takes its title from Los perros románticos: Poemas 1980-1998, a collection Bolaño published in 2000). What are we going to find when we get down to the glowing lick log of poetry that nourished all of Bolaño’s highly regarded fiction?
For those who have read Bolaño’s prose, the poetry will seem both more outrageous and more familiar. Many of the characters who haunt his stories and novels under pseudonyms show up in his poetry with their real names intact. Words, even whole sentences from the fiction, cycle through the poems (or vice versa). Much of the work is prose poetry, and even the lyric poems can read a bit like chopped prose. Bolaño wasn’t interested in enjambment, complex sound patterns, line breaks or classical prosodic techniques often associated with poetry. With the American Beats and Nicanor Parra as his aesthetic allies, he gave himself over to the subversive, to antiheroes, to ballad and saga. So the poems shine their beery light on life’s romantic dogs: dreamers, detectives and poets who do double time as saints and martyrs. The language is speedy and colloquial, spiced by Bolaño’s exposure, in Chile, Mexico and Spain, to three strains of Castilian Spanish. Chileanisms pop up in a poem set in Mexico. The twists of idiom sometimes make, Bolaño admits, “un lio bestial,” a terrific mess. But the messier it gets, the more fun it is.
Steeped in the clichés of detective fiction–rain, tears, graphic sex, guns, grunge and corpses, which can’t be disassociated, in Bolaño’s case, from Latin American histories of state-managed violence–the poems often begin with narrative structures that, loosed by unconventional metaphors, spill into surreal dreamscapes. In “La Francesca,” a speaker admits, with regard to the woman he is with, that
I really didn’t know what to say,
Except to caress her and support her while she moved
Up and down like life,
Up and down like the poets of France
Innocent and punished,
Until she returned to planet Earth
And from her lips sprouted
Passages from her adolescence that filled our bedroom on the spot
With copies crying on metro escalators
With copies making love to two guys at once
While rain was falling outside
Over garbage bags and over abandoned pistols
The more adventurously the narratives are disturbed, the more fascinating the poems become. One of the best, “In the Reading Room of Hell,” occurs as a sequence of spliced prepositional phrases–“On the iced-over paths,” “In the reading room of Hell,” “With cigarette in mouth and with fear”–that lead to the surprising conclusion: “Sometimes/green eyes And 26 years Yours truly.” That last phrase, “Yours truly,” is an inspired translation of “Un servidor,” literally, “a servant,” by Laura Healy, the English translator of Bolaño’s poems.
There are poems spackled with quotidian details–“I settled for a chamomile infusion and slices of/Wheat bread”–and references to real and imaginary characters–Caliban, Ernesto Cardenal, Defoe, Duchamp, Hercules. With an appealing slouch and bouncy gossip, a typical poem might begin, “I was chatting with Archibald MacLeish in Los Marinos Bar/In Barceloneta when I saw her appear.” It may sound a bit like a story, but Bolaño, nodding to Harold Bloom, considered that some of the best poetry of the twentieth century was written in prose. “In the Ulysses of James Joyce,” Bolaño notes in an interview, “is contained The Waste Land of Eliot, and Ulysses is better than The Waste Land.” One of his favorite books by Neruda was El habitante y su esperanza (The Tenant and His Hope), which Bolaño considered poetry although Neruda called it a novel. Bolaño’s own best book of poems, Tres, contains three sections: a series of short prose paragraphs that might be called flash fictions; a series of lyric poems; and a series of prose poems, each beginning with the declaration, “I dreamed.”
A die-hard romantic (lampooned by Chilean poet and critic Andrés Ajens as “the Cervantes” of our time), Bolaño repeatedly uses words such as “dream,” “hope,” “pain,” “beauty” and “courage” without irony. His poems are spoken by and for those losers whose dreams have been “Sacrificed beneath the wheel/Unchronicled,” as he writes in “Parra’s Footsteps.” Sexual acts are endlessly described and diagnosed, as they should be by any disciple of Nicanor Parra, the antipoet who wrote that “Fucking is a literary act.” Bolaño’s poem “Lupe,” for instance, depicts the speaker’s erotic liaisons with an adolescent whore and ends with the lines,
This is the part of you I want to suck, she said to me one night.
What, Lupe? Your heart.
American readers might hear in these last lines an echo of Robert Hass, in whose poem “Forty Something” a woman threatens to stick a knife into the heart of her lover if he ever has an affair with a younger woman. Hass’s poem ends: “You understand? Your heart.”
But Bolaño is more surreal, more rashly ebullient and sappier than Hass. Sometimes he veers headlong into the sentimental, as in these stanzas from “Muse,” the next to last poem in The Romantic Dogs:
Sometimes I see her walking
over the mountains: she’s the guardian angel
of our prayers.
She’s the dream that recurs
with the promise of the whistle.
The whistle that calls us
and loses us.
In her eyes I see the faces
of all my lost loves.
Oh, Muse, protect me,
I say to her, on the terrible days
of the ceaseless adventure.
Because each line is broken in the same way, where it completes a syntactically stable phrase, we see all those prepositions, conjunctions and subjects stacking up in the left margin. The weird reference to “the whistle” is wonderful and characteristic of Bolaño’s unpredictable swerves, but the language of the poem in general is so bathetic that it raises our suspicions that the author is being tongue-in-cheek. And yet, and yet. By the time Bolaño finishes this poem with the sixth-gradish
more beautiful than the sun,
than the stars.
the sheer lack of effort to be original, to use “powerful language,” to “make it new,” can seem a kind of honesty, a kind of humility before the god of poetry. What were you going to do, anyway? Try to impress her?