The precocious teenage poet who narrates parts of Roberto Bolaño’s novel, The Savage Detectives, has an encyclopedic knowledge of esoteric poetry terms, and loves to quiz people on the difference between tetrastichs, zéjels, proceleusmatics, and molossi. But early in the book, this young intellectual has an encounter which is more visceral than cerebral. He is sneaking through the decrepit men’s room of a dive bar in Mexico City when a voice calls his name from within an impenetrable cloud of marijuana smoke.
“Poet García Madero,” the stranger says. “Your penis… It’s hanging out.”
Young García Madero has been fooling around with one of the waitresses in a back room and has just narrowly escaped an encounter with her boyfriend, forgetting, in the rush of things, to put the car back in the garage. And it just so happens that two of his friends, for whom he has been searching all over the city, are ensconced in a corner, hidden behind a billowing chimney of Acapulco Gold. There is more than comedy to the scene. Exposed throbbing adolescent desire is Bolaño’s subject. Here, poetry and sex are linked, and rebellion is the finest muse. The two veiled figures are the founders of an iconoclastic poetry movement, archetypal romantic outlaws who break with every convention and are idealized by their followers like mythic heroes, but they are also just a pair of kids turning their angst into art.
They call themselves Visceral Realists. But they have no dogma, style or poetic philosophy. They simply insist on a complete rejection of authority, literary or otherwise, and they spend most of their time stealing books, going to bars, talking about poetry (not writing it), smoking weed, and trying to get laid. We laugh, but their movement is only kind of a joke. Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and all the other great vanguard Art movements of the twentieth century began by trying to shock established tastes, showing an anesthetized art world what was “real” with a visceral blow. And Bolaño’s avatars draw their inspiration straight from this tradition: they are “detectives” in one sense because they search out and interview aging members of the Estridentistas, a movement active in Mexico during the 1920’s, somewhat akin to Italian Futurism. Most of all, they are chasing after an entirely forgotten poet, who left only a single, mystifying poem/drawing behind her before disappearing into the desert of Northern Mexico, where we imagine a treasure-trove of undiscovered poetry waiting to be found and read.
Readers of Spanish will know that there is no shortage of Mexican poetry yet to be translated, a real-life literary trove of authors who are beloved and classic there, though most English readers will never have heard of them. Bolaño himself has enjoyed more success in the English-speaking world than any other Latin American author in half a century. Since his death ten years ago, more than a dozen of his books have appeared in English, including a number of pieces unpublished during his lifetime, culled from a seemingly bottomless hoard of material. This July, a substantial collection of his poetry translated into English by Laura Healy will be released under the title The Unknown University. New Directions, the publisher, has long been a leading purveyor of books translated from Spanish, including lots of poetry. The Unknown University came out in Spanish in 2007, and it corresponds to a manuscript Bolaño typed in 1993, the earliest pieces of which come from a version subtitled, “poems 1978-1981.” Bolaño had already left Mexico when he wrote these poems. They are not from his “Infrarealist” years. But it is his earliest work published in English to date, and fans of The Savage Detectives will hope to find in it some hints of what the real Visceral Realist poetry was like.
The unprecedented success of Bolaño’s masterpiece – which people will still be reading many years after you and I and everyone we know is gone and forgotten – likely derives at least in part from the way it glorifies and mythologizes the author’s own history. Modern readers like to read fiction as autobiography. We are obsessed with the author’s life, and he becomes a product, a kind of brand. We imagine Bolaño himself as an outlaw poet, just as he meant us to do. The Savage Detectives is designed to invoke this response. That’s why it’s written as a series of eyewitness testimonials circling around the two main characters, but never slipping into their actual voices, a trick which ends up making them seem larger than life. The story is partially true. In 1976, Bolaño wrote a “first Infrarealist manifesto,” reminiscent of Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto. He was part of a group of splenetic young poets who crashed literary gatherings in Mexico City and, purportedly, once even threatened to kidnap the great caudillo of Mexican Literature himself, Octavio Paz. He also published interviews with three Estridentistas in Paz’s magazine, Plural. But the effect of The Savage Detectives is to blur the line between history and fiction, to envelop whatever Bolaño and his friends actually did in Mexico in the 1970’s in a self-aggrandizing, romanticized cloud of smoke – a cloud which is beautifully written, and a lot of fun to inhale too. The careful reader sees that this is a brilliant ruse: Belano the fictional prodigy stands in for Bolaño the author, and we imagine all of his poetry, written so many years ago in a notebook lost somewhere in Mexico, must have been really good.
But it turns out that Bolaño’s juvenile writing reads very much like juvenile writing. Though he was in his twenties when he wrote these poems, many still reek of angsty teenager, and I’m not talking about Rimbaud. There’s some real poetry-notebook stuff here. Think lovesick, embittered recollections of ex-girlfriends, like, “There’s a secret sickness called Lisa.” Think excessively literary invocations of obscure precursors, like “Guiraut de Bornelh.” The Savage Detectives is about angsty teenage intellectuals too, but a measure of ironic distance lets us laugh at them and connect with them. Juan García Madero’s exposed genitalia is hilarious, and we sympathize. He reminds us how shameful and awkward desire is for an adolescent virgin. But the same idea leaves us cold when we find it in a line of poetry like, “I am the penis observed.” The Unknown University is too varied a book to qualify as entirely puerile. Its most recent poems were written fifteen years after its earliest, and many of these newer ones remind us of all the reasons why Bolaño is such a fantastic writer, one of the best of our times. But when asked why he thought he was a better poet than a novelist, Bolaño supposedly said, “The poetry makes me blush less.” Some of the poems here may have the opposite effect on readers.
Yet the way this early collection prefigures Bolaño’s mature work is fascinating: twenty years before The Savage Detectives, he was already dramatizing his teenage literary rebellion in Mexico. His poetry is filled with ideas, characters, and even scenes that will reappear in that novel. Now we can say for certain that Bolaño’s mature work did not appear in a flash, but was the result of many years of gestation and labor, of the author mulling over his material and trying out different forms. The series of “Detectives” poems, “Lupe,” “Self-Portrait at Twenty Years,” “The Last Savage,” and “Roberto Bolaño’s Devotion” are obvious antecedents. Some lines, like, “Death is an automobile out driving the avenues of Mexico City,” seem to describe moments from the novel. Take this passage from, “The Donkey”:
On the outer limits
of the dream, and without quite knowing
Its meaning, its ultimate significance,
I still understand its music:
A cheerful farewell song.
The Savage Detectives is a cheerful farewell song, sung to Bolaño’s lost generation, and you would be hard pressed to come up with a better description of it.
“The Unknown University” refers to Bolaño’s years of toiling in literary obscurity, a story his fans will already know. He has always been a self-proclaimed outsider. It’s part of his appeal. There is an unknown universe waiting to be discovered outside of the doldrums of academia and the staid confines of the literary establishment, he tells us. But this is the same cloud of smoke which enfolds the Detectives, whose heroes drop out of college to write “real poetry.” And we must read their story, at least in part, as an ironic commentary: their romantic rebellion only earns them years of hard living and lost friends, during which time they publish nothing. Even their search for the lost poets of the Mexican avant-garde ends in tragedy, with a crime that forces them to flee Mexico for Europe and literary oblivion. But before the book ends, Garcia Madero does manage to read the long-lost notebooks of that poet who vanished into the desolate, desert towns of Sonora, and on the last page we find another of her cryptic poem/drawings. The ending is as powerful as it is enigmatic. The reader is left on his own to interpret the mystery. It is a testament to Bolaño’s fundamental artistic honesty that buried here, in his own long-lost notebook, we find Cesárea Tinajero’s poem/drawing, written twenty years earlier. He was the master of smoke and mirrors, but he couldn’t lie.