Bolaño Salvaje

There’s a democratic quality to much of Bolaño’s writing that might explain the best-seller craze surrounding his work right now in the U.S. The Savage Detectives projects a multitude of voices, from pimps and drug dealers to sensitive poets, housewives, drunk old men, even Octavio Paz’s clueless secretary gets several pages. More importantly, this multiplicity is sustained by the impeccable structure Bolaño provides his readers, beginning with a youthful, self-absorbed personal diary and moving into the staccato counterpoints of the hundreds of testimonials narrating the disintegration of a group of radical poets across the globe.

From the moment I began reading his first masterpiece (how many writers come up with two masterpieces within five years of each other?), I knew The Savage Detectives was a text that included actual parts of my childhood, adolescence and early twenties. So it doesn’t surprise me that this novel continues to hold a particular allure for me. I haven’t read it a second time yet, as I’m waiting for the right moment to do so, already anticipating the new vistas it will provide. Maybe part of what gives the book its distinctive quality is the aesthetic stance (actually, a credo) Bolaño reveals in an interview Rodrigo Fresán quoted from last year in his Letras Libres review of El secreto del mal (Anagrama, 2007) and La Universidad Desconocida (Anagrama, 2007), “El samurái romántico”:

“Literature looks a lot like a fight between samurais, but a samurai doesn’t fight against another samurai: he fights with a monster. He generally knows, moreover, that he will be defeated. Having the courage, knowing ahead of time that you’ll be defeated, and going out to fight: that’s literature.”

Fresán’s review is reprinted in the excellent volume of essays on Bolaño’s work edited in Barcelona, Spain by Edmundo Paz Soldán and Gustavo Faverón Patriau, Bolaño Salvaje (Editorial Candaya, 2008). Fresán compares Bolaño’s posthumous collection of prose texts, El secreto del mal, gathered from fragments in the author’s computer, to “a collection not of greatest hits but rather of essential B-sides, demos and rarities, those kinds that help you listen to the greatest hits yet again and even more closely.”

The essays in this book range from personal reminiscences by friends, to more theoretical explorations of specific themes in Bolaño’s work. Bolaño’s literary executor, Ignacio Echevarría writes (in a 2002 essay entitled “Bolaño extraterritorial”) about his work within the frame of two concepts: mathematical fractals, as invented by Benoît Mandelbrot in 1975, and George Steiner’s notion of extraterritoriality. Echevarría reminds us that all of Bolaño’s books, whether poems, short stories or novels, remain open-ended, unfinished, and thus provide the reader a chance to contribute to their process:

“This principal of fractalism operates in all of Bolaño’s work in a more or less diffuse manner. As with so many writers who are masters of a singular world and style, even if in his case it occurs in a particularly acute fashion, whatever book of Bolaño’s one might begin with inducts the reader into a common space where all the remaining books coincide.”

It is the notion of extraterritoriality that probably speaks most directly to me in Bolaño’s writing, a sense of permanent displacement, of perpetual travel and alienation from any notion of belonging to a single nation or cultural identity. The multiplicity of forms and voices in Bolaño’s work often reflects his own personal concerns, as someone who early on lost any hope of belonging to a specific place, group or identity. Echevarría discusses Steiner’s 1971 essay as a signpost towards work that writers like Bolaño would soon be creating in response to the late 20th century, particularly in Latin America:

“Steiner attributes the condition of exile that so many contemporary writers share as “the central impulse of literature today.” And it is important to note how this condition of exile doesn’t necessarily have political motivations. It has to do with something broader: “It has to do with the more general problem of the loss of the center.” ”

Many of the essays in this book come from Latin American writers who belong to generations emerging under Bolaño’s generous influence, writers in whom Bolaño expressed an interest, reading their work and befriending many of them. Jorge Volpi’s essay “Bolaño, epidemia,” addresses how he serves as a rare moment of agreement for younger generations of writers, whose projects and goals are too varied to really fit into any simple maps or categories. Bolaño exists as a vortex of sorts, even if it’s in the inevitable reaction against his ubiquity that’s already emerging among some writers and readers. Volpi recounts Bolaño’s last public appearance, at a conference in Sevilla shortly before he died, when his particular brand of humor and irreverence charmed the audience of young Latin American writers. As with so much in Bolaño’s writing, Volpi identifies the democratic and demotic nature of Bolaño’s voice. As well as the romantic, at times mystical, impulse one occasionally feels in his writing:

“In Sevilla, where he was supposed to read “Sevilla me mata,” but where he wasn’t able to read “Sevilla me mata,” in front of a dozen young writers – young by decree, I repeat – who admired and envied him and listened to him like a wizard or an oracle, one night Bolaño repeated, over and over, the same joke. A bad joke. A terrible joke. One of those jokes that make no one laugh. A guy goes up to a girl in a bar. “Hi, what’s your name?” he asks her. “ My name’s Nuria.” “Nuria, do you wanna fuck?” Nuria responds: “I thought you’d never ask.” Five, ten, twenty variations on the same topic. On that futile, banal, insignificant topic. That bad joke. That terrible joke. That joke that makes no one laugh. But the young writers gathered in Sevilla listened to it out of their minds, positive that somewhere within it the secret of the world was to be found.”

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