I finished The Savage Detectives on the flight back from Los Angeles Monday night, thus ending my sustained encounter with Bolaño’s longer novels. (I read 2666 in an exhilarating 11 days in January.) The first of piece of his fiction I read was an excerpt from Nazi Literature of the Americas, published in Harper’s Readings section in March 2008. The Savage Detectives was published in November 2007, so I imagine I’d heard the buzz by the time I read “Luz Mendiluce Thompson.” This sharp, ironic portrait of an exiled Nazi poet reflects Bolaño’s ongoing interest in literary hagiography, not least a self-constructed one. Indeed, I’ll admit to being leery towards the cult of personality surrounding Bolaño, one that was cultivated and tended during his lifetime.
“Luz Mendiluce Thompson” owes a lot to the fictional reviews, biographies and re-writes of Jorge Luis Borges—to whom Bolaño acknowledges a great debt, along with Julio Cortázar. But it also adds another layer in its acknowledgement of the close relationship between literature and politics that is central to 20th century Latin American culture. The Savage Detectives satirizes many of the entrenched relationships between oppressive governments and the hacks willing to write paeans in exchange for salaried appointments and protection. For those not completely versed in this particular cultural history (myself included) it can be dizzying to track who is on which side of the Octavio Paz debates, evidently the most important aesthetic and ideological demarcation for a poet in the milieu of Mexico City circa Bolaño.
2666 swirls around a violent moral abyss, while The Savage Detectives instead focuses on losses in literature and love—a bildungs roman both of its protagonists and of a generation. 2666 begins similarly with “The Part about the Critics,” but becomes increasingly ominous before descending into the unflinching litany of murders with “The Part about the Crimes,” a catalogue of the hundreds of women in Santa Teresa (Ciudad Juárez)that are mysteriously killed as though through a conspiracy in which an entire culture is complicit. A number of reviewers have described this long section, with only minimal advances in plot, as difficult and slow, but almost all agree that it is the core of the book. Jonathan Lethem sums it up brilliantly:
If the word “unflinching” didn’t exist I’d invent it to describe these nearly 300 pages, yet Bolaño never completely abandons those reserves of lyricism and irony that make the sequence as transporting as it is grueling. The nearest comparison may be to Haruki Murakami’s shattering fugue on Japanese military atrocities in Mongolia, which sounds the moral depths in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Bolaño’s method, like Murakami’s, encapsulates and disgorges dream and fantasy, at no cost to the penetration of his realism.
Like Murakami, Bolaño describes a world unhinged. Although the five parts of 2666 are each arguably capable of standing alone, the totality is awesome; the very structure seems calculatedly perfect. But the very notion of the novel’s structure and Bolaño’s intentions are open to dispute. The Frieze editors’ blog recently included a post (via AFC Fresh Links) about the ethics of posthumous publishing in relation to the recent discovery of two additional manuscripts of novels by Bolaño, as well as what is thought to be a sixth part of 2666. This first made headlines over a month ago, so it is unclear why Sam Thorne is writing about it just now, but for my purposes it is timely.
Hypertextual dialogues abound within Bolaño’s ouevre, so it might be appropriate to disregard the boundaries of each book’s cover. The very notion of a proper form for his work may be irrelevant in considering Bolaño’s literary project. Bolaño’s notes evidently suggest that 2666’s narrator was intended to be Arturo Belano, a stand-in author and one of the picaresque protagonists of The Savage Detectives. While the year 2666 is never mentioned in the actual book, reviewers frequently point out that it does appear in his novella Amulet. What they also fail to mention is that it is alluded to in The Savage Detectives. The last section of that earlier novel finds the young visceral realist poets in Sonora (the setting of 2666) where they finally track down the obscure original visceral realist poet Cesarea Tinajero. In their sleuthing, they interview a former acquaintance of the poetess who recalls Tinajero making a detailed map of the canning factory where she works, explaining it is for “times to come;” pressed further about what time, she mentions the year 2600-something. Might not this be related to the “hidden center” of 2666 that Bolaño noted? Tinajero works at one of the maquiladoras along the US-Mexico border, also where many of the murdered women are employed fifteen years later in 2666’s Santa Teresa . At the chronological (but not sequential) end of The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano has become a journalist, reporting on civil wars and internecine violence in Western Africa. Ever the “detective,” it is easy to imagine him returning to Sonora (the site of his own violent past) and recording the atrocities taking place there. That it would coincide with his adolescent interest in Tinajero provides another return, a literary hall of mirrors in which pasts converge on a single point on the horizon, spiraling towards the ominous year of 2666.