Hawking Up Hairballs

Friday, November 16, 2007

I May Be Savage, But I'm No Detective

"Discipline and a kind of ingratiating charm, those are the keys to getting where you want to go. Discipline: writing every morning for at least six hours. Writing every morning and revising in the afternoons and reading like a fiend at night. Charm, or ingratiation: visiting writers at home or going up to them at book parties and telling them exactly what they want to hear. What they desperately want to hear."

I just finished reading The Savage Detectives (Los detectives salvajes) by Roberto Bolano. (There should be a tilde over the "n", but I don't know how to do that here.) It's the story of a group of poets and literary wannabes, in particular, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, who call themselves the visceral realists. The novel begins in Mexico City in the mid-1970's and concludes some twenty years later. The book is divided into three sections. The first and the third are first-person narratives from the point-of-view of a 17-year-old poet, Juan Garcia Madero. The second section takes the form of interviews with various people who knew or encountered Lima and Belano in their travels through Europe and Latin America. The "detectives" of the title undoubtedly refers to Belano's and Lima's quest to find the very obscure 1920's poetess, Cesarea Tinajero, who they take to be the inspiration for their visceral realist movement. This quest is the subject of the third section of the book, and it ends in an act of violence, which is probably the reason that Bolano chose "savage" for the title.

There's a lot of autobiography in The Savage Detectives. It's impossible to miss the similarity between "Bolano" and "Belano", though the character in the novel has "Arturo" as his given name. There's no mystery as to what that means. It alludes to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and Belano's fate parallels that of Rimbaud. Both men ended up in Africa, Rimbaud as a shadowy arms dealer, Belano as a sometime journalistic stringer. The last we hear of him, he is disappearing into the jungles of Liberia, where he is presumably killed by one of the factions in the country's civil war. There are a lot of similarities between Belano and his creator and, when I looked up Roberto Bolano in Wikipedia, I learned that Arturo Belano is an actual literary alter ego, who is the main character in at least one other Bolano novel, La pista de hielo, a mystery set in a Mediterranean town. As for the character Ulises Lima, I don't know what the intended allusions are. The novel is definitely an odyssey, so that might be the reason for the given name, but the "Lima"? I don't know.

I have to say that The Savage Detectives left me cold, and it was a real chore finishing it. The first section was pretty much an endless round of partying and fucking. It quickly came to seem like the same thing over and over again. The second section was the longest, one story after another in the style of Borges, but I like to finish a book when I start it, so I soldiered on. The third section was somewhat better. At least there was some dramatic tension, and that moved the narrative along. That said, I may not be the person to give Bolano a fair reading. He's much influenced by Borges and Cortazar, two writers who have never interested me at all.

Now, all of the above could be taken as preface to this entry. The quotation that opens it is from The Savage Detectives. It comes from the mouth of one of the characters in the second section. It struck me when I came across it. (All right, I guess that's obvious, since I saw fit to cite it.) My own literary aspirations have come to nothing, and I never really stood a chance, mainly because I couldn't do that second thing. I've never been able to ingratiate myself to the people who could help me. There are plenty of writers who I like a lot, but there isn't a one who hasn't published works that I don't care for. I could never tell those writers that I liked those particular works. I just couldn't make the words come out of my mouth. I don't make a good acolyte.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming to be some paragon of integrity. It's not a matter of a decision on my part. It's a question of temperament. I just can't do it. I think it's something in the blood, something passed down in the genes. My father was the same way, so are my four brothers. All of them were or are intelligent and diligent in their chosen fields, but all have hit the glass ceilings above which one doesn't rise without playing brown-nose politics.

When I was young, I was on a track to get a doctorate and teach in a college somewhere. I threw it all over and left grad school because I was going to become a great poet. Strange how that didn't happen, and I occasionally regret my decision, but I never would have made it in the academic world. Getting and keeping a position there is all about ingratiation.


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