I have wanted to write a post on Roberto Bolano's great work, The Savage Detectives, for quite some time but I haven't known how to approach it. A mere recounting of the novel's plot and major themes seemed insufficient, but I wasn't sure where else to start. My previous post got me thinking about a new approach, which I'll attempt to undertake here, based on my subjective experience with the novel.
First, I have to write about Rimbaud yet again, because he is a major player in my interpretation of Bolano's novel, and literature in general. I say this without ignoring the irony of using the term "literature" which was abhorrent to Rimbaud, with him once using the expression "mere literature" to dismiss something. For the unfamiliar, a brief overview of Rimbaud's life is necessary. Arthur Rimbaud was a late 19th century French poet who, in the eyes of many, changed the course of modern poetry. He was precocious and wrote the majority of his poems between the ages of 16 and 19, after which he essentially abandoned writing and dismissed all mentions about his youthful interest as his fame began to grow following his rejection. His abandonment has been a source of mystery for as long as he's been famous and still debated. He then traveled and worked a variety of jobs, eventually settling in Africa where he was a trader/explorer. He died in his mid-30s of cancer.
Rimbaud opened up new vistas in writing by emphasizing that the act of writing was inseparable from lived experience. This is not to say that life experiences inform his writing, which was and remains a relatively commonplace thought, but that the two were essentially indistinguishable. He wrote that the poets job is to "become a seer" and that poetry could "change life." These are idealistic expressions and he lived them with conviction, but Rimbaud showed great insight in his careful wording of them: he wrote of the "rational derangement of the senses," but countless followers have ignored the qualifying word "rational;" he said "change life" but this has been misconstrued to suggest the trite expression that, as mentioned earlier, life informs art rather than his intended meaning that the act of reading and the act of writing can radically alter the way one sees and inhabits the world. In short, he espoused idealistic ideas that were very appealing to my nineteen year old self when I first discovered him. (As can be seen in one of my earliest blog posts, not all of this idealism has left me, or better said, it has been rejuvenated to some degree to which I can credit Bolano.)
Rimbaud also wrote that "other horrible workers will come" after him to pick up where he left off, and this provides my entry point into writing about Bolano's The Savage Detectives. Bolano recognized Rimbaud as a major influence in his writing. The translator's introduction to The Savage Detectives (regrettably missing from the hardcover edition) tells one tale where in his youth Bolano urged a small audience to follow the example of Rimbaud. Whether Rimbaud would have considered Bolano to be one of his envisioned "horrible workers" can never be known, but my reading of the Detectives places him in this lineage. At the core of the work are Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, Belano being a thinly disguised Bolano (how thinly remains to be seen as the definitive biography, or any English biography for that matter, has not yet been written). They are poets and they essentially embark on a poetic quest, with the novel following their lives and ultimately their failures. The novel is populated with writers, both amateur and professional, and by people who care deeply about writing. It is a world in which literature counts.
But I digress because I have already hinted too much at the plot, which I'd hoped to avoid. I wish to get at the essence of his novel. Rimbaud, for me, was a great influence of how I viewed writing and reading. However, as I grew older and matured, I began to see his pronouncements more soberly. I had lost faith in the idea that the role of poets (all writers, in my opinion) should seek to become seers, however that term is interpreted. I doubted that writing and reading could change life, at least as how I understood that phrase in my youth. The Savage Detectives was like stepping on a landmine and the experience of reading it was like reading a fireworks display. It was a reaffirmation of the value of writing and reading, and a rebuttal of the cynicism that had developed in me. Bolano, the older Bolano who wrote all of his major novels while gravely ill (he died at 50, and knew he would die early for several years) provides the mature take on Rimbaud's youthful claims: reading and writing can change life, but not for everyone; it is worth living for and fighting for, but not for everyone. Furthermore, this "not for everyone" is fine; it doesn't need to be for everyone to remain significant. Bolano is a writer who writes for those who believe that literature counts.
In one of his short stories in the collection Last Evenings on Earth, I believe Bolano writes a key phrase in the understanding of The Savage Detectives. He writes, "the other letters, few and far between, were from South American poets adrift somewhere in South America, with whom I engaged in desultory exchanges, tetchy and melancholic by turns, just like me and my correspondents, coming to the end of youth, coming to accept the end of our dreams." For me, the term "accept" is critical because it is entirely without regret. Despite the futility of the quest Belano and Lima are on, there is never the slightest indication that it is without value, without meaning. Their pursuit is what gives it meaning and it needs no other justification.