28 June 2009

The Romantic Dogs (Roberto Bolaño)

The first book of Roberto Bolaño that I have read was The Savage Detectives. I was impressed with a book review of it that I asked C., a friend of mine, to hunt me down this book of Bolaño in Manila. That was last year.

And like a drop of mercy, The Savage Detectives was found in a used book shop. When it arrived I did not start reading it immediately. It’s quite hefty. The bulk of it warned me it’s one of those tomes that you would need to be very committed in order to finish.

It was not a breezy read. It took me about 5 months to finish. But in the midst of reading the book, the simple sentences acquired an undeniable power. The narrative became more and more inevitable. Something was coming alive and felt in the guts. The multitude of voices crowded in my head and a poetic universe opened up. Something just clicked in my mind, rearranged the atoms in me, and crystallized a certain resolve. I told myself, I have got to collect all of this author’s books.

After a bit more of my friend’s sleuthing, a copy of Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth was spotted in a bookstore. It was an anthology of short stories. I must really be lucky as his books were sold out in bookstores at that time. There must be a few copies available in the first place.

The Savage Detectives is about a group of young poets traipsing around the desert landscape of Mexico. The first part of the book (“Mexicans Lost in Mexico”) is in the form of a journal of one aspiring young poet. It introduces the major characters (all poets) in the book. It is a straightforward narrative charged with poetry recitations and with sex. Not a single poem of the characters is really written up in the book. And the sexual encounters are either awkward or interrupted. This part ended with the poets on a journey with a prostitute in tow to help her escape from the wrath of her pimp-lover.

The second part of the book (the novel’s title “The Savage Detectives”) is a series of interviews of dozens of characters scattered all over the Americas and Europe. The poets’ mission is revealed: to find a poetess who is believed to be the founder of "visceral realism," a literary movement that is being resurrected by the young poets. This section of the book spans two decades (1976-1996) of “detective work” and covered vast grounds of raw emotional feelings and mental wreckages.

The final part (“The Sonora Desert”) picks up the journal entries from where the first part left off, the poets still in search of the missing poetess while the betrayed pimp-lover is hot on their heels. The book which started on All Souls Day in 1975 ends here, in apocalyptic manner, a day after the Valentines Day of ’76. The unusual structure of the novel is something like a freestyle journal writing at the bookends with a chorus of tragedies and comedies in the middle. It's the stuff of poetry of high and low seriousness.

When I heard of another Bolaño book coming out, with the devilish title of 2666, I couldn’t let the first opportunity pass. I asked R., a friend of mine who is a book seller in the US, to secure a copy for me. It arrived beautifully, in a three-volume boxed set edition, just a few days after the New Year. I knew then that 2009 is going to be a good reading year for me.

2666 is a much longer (close to 900 pages) work and with a more non-linear plotting. Surprisingly, I find it an easier read than The Savage Detectives. If The Savage Detectives is a chorus, then 2666 is a concert. It is a concert of five subtly interconnected parts, whose fragmentation belies the singular design of its construction. At the time of its publication 2666 is considered unfinished, but a definitive version of each part is already prepared by the author before his death in 2003.

Yet again, in this brave book of visceral power, Bolaño plays with the novel form to populate a canvas with multiple characters. The characters are of different nationalities, they come and go like chess pieces, and they play against each other and against some of the darkest periods of twentieth century history. The book tells of another search for a missing writer, this time a novelist.

(This persistent theme of Bolaño, the obsessive search for a writer, is emblematic of his view of mythmaking and myth-breaking. It seems to suggest that the mere sight of the writer in question will cure the searchers’ obsession of the writer. As if the books read by the obsessives were not enough to produce the desired effects, as if seeing the writer of the admired books in full view, in motion, speaking to you, is the culmination of a literary journey. But we intuitively know this to be untrue. The search calls for something deeper than the satisfaction of literary curiosity. The search is only a metaphysical symptom of a lack of authentic experience. If Bolaño was still alive today, will readers have to search for him, too?)

At the start of 2666, we find four scholars in pursuit of the last traces of this vanished writer, again in the Mexican desert. The trail eventually went cold, and the book was suddenly flung in another direction. Defiantly digressive, the novel supplies new characters (all equally "lost") and new tangents of plot. The connection of each new part with the previous ones appear to be superficial at first, but it takes on a sinister shape once the novel completes its twisted knotting of the plotlines. The book's affinity with unspeakable and unnameable acts and silences is palpable. A monster is hiding in the barren desert.

What is remarkable with 2666 is its consistent standing in the large body of work that is Bolaño’s. The novels are for the most part concerned with writers and artists, and the characters appear from one novel to the next. They are recycled, reused, and reduced to different aspects of the same project. The books are self-referential and interlocking. Important motifs are given in one book and they recur or are amplified in the other texts. There are so few modern writers who are gifted with this ability to constitute an oeuvre that is its own complete universe. Who come to mind are W.G. Sebald and Javier Marías and, to some extent, J.M. Coetzee.

(To illustrate this allusiveness of Bolaño’s books currently available in English translations: The characters in 2666 appeared previously in works such as Nazi Literature in the Americas, the last chapter of which is expanded into the novella Distant Star. Amulet is also a reworking of a long monologue in The Savage Detectives, the characters in the latter also appearing Amulet and in Bolaño’s short stories collected in Last Evenings on Earth. The intriguing title of 2666, referring to a portentous year in the future, is also prefigured in Amulet and at the end of The Savage Detectives.

This leaves us with By Night in Chile, with no apparent connection with the rest of the books. But then this novella (the first book of Bolaño to appear in English and in its compact form is considered his most perfectly constructed work) quintessentially tackles the ethical roots of collaboration with the Pinochet regime. Evil, Nazism, and their slippery intertwining with letters and poetry are the prominent arcs of Bolañoland. By Night in Chile is hardly a fluke in the author’s visceral universe as it shares with the rest of his works the perpetual struggle of poets against historical and personal circumstances. Besides, Pablo Neruda appears hysterically in this book, and Bolaño has this intimate love-hate relationship with Neruda.)

For posterity’s sake, Bolaño in 2666 has given us a credo, or more precisely an exhortation, in which to measure literary ambitions for the present and future practitioners of the novel:

He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

Bolaño stretches the novel form to accommodate his fatalistic vision of men as self-destructing and destructive creatures. At the center of 2666 is the deployment of a brute force method of writing, to describe a series of murder reports on the violence inflicted against hundreds of women in the City of Sta. Teresa in Mexico. The gruesome mass-murder and rapes are based on the actual events in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The book unflinchingly depicts the graphic violence and its horrid details.

To see evil in the eye then, “amid blood and mortal wounds and stench,” is Bolaño’s abiding and dangerous preoccupation here. His poetic licence is devoted to the annulment of human complacence through numbness and a numbing experience of reading in discomfort. We are the missing witnesses of these heinous crimes and our testimonies are direly needed. It is cruel. It is offensive. And most important, it is human.

Horror is not the sole feature of the book. There are many facets to it that will feed a lot of bookish readers. Comedy is also present. It is potent and, well, comic. There are passages to incite horror, and forgiving passages to assuage the tedium. Sympathy, most of all, is not lacking. It is sympathy, tolerance, and human understanding that lift Bolaño’s book from the ruts of storytelling. It is the perennial absence of goodness that makes it more conspicuous. Albeit distributed in small measures, comedy and goodness functions like the lost poetry that is still remembered in the recesses of the mind.

In this matter, 2666 is comparable to The Savage Detectives whose non-inclusion of the characters’ own poems seems like an insidious joke. There are only three or four poems quoted in The Savage Detectives and the way they are delivered is probably timed to provoke a hoot. The first is a poem by Octavio Paz called “The Vampire,” after the reading of which, the narrator of the story couldn’t help to jack off. Another is a poem in French attributed to Rimbaud. The only "original" work in the novel is hardly a poem. It is a visual curiosity composed only of squiggles and lines. The joke, well-calculated, implies that surely there is really something serious and postmodern going on behind those lines.

Poetry in absentia functions like the hidden talisman that interprets everything that is lacking in The Savage Detectives. Poetry won’t save the world. And there is no indication yet that it can prevent the characters (and the readers) from completely becoming savages.

Which brings us to The Romantic Dogs, Bolaño’s first collection of poetry. This is a collection of nearly two decades of poems from 1980 to 1998. The translation into English is by Laura Healy and it came out last year. There are forty-odd poems presented in a bilingual edition, which makes it more transparent for Spanish speaking readers to deduce meanings that are otherwise lost in translation.

Bolaño was first of all a poet before branching out as a prose writer. This forced change in literary form was motivated by the practicalities of the writing trade. His stature as a novelist has somewhat eclipsed his outputs in verse. Despite the forced division between the two, the continuity in his literary projects can be viewed as occupying its proper niche. Whether in free verse or in free indirect style, his distinctive voice is heard in suspense. He may have articulated in The Romantic Dogs, for example, what his other poet-characters might have uttered in their romantic dreams.

The first poem, the title poem, speaks of a dream won by the poet, aged twenty, after having just “lost a country.” It announces a calling, presumably a poetic one, and hints that this collection will be autobiographical and will chart experiences of “growing up” which “back then … would have been a crime.”

Clearly this is a collection of love poems whose chosen emblem is a dog, man’s best friend but a lowly animal still. Politics and regimes, its cloak, are inescapable from the experience of poetry because the experience is a Latin American one. But at the same time, the tone strives for freedom from the ideological banality of history because the experience is also universal and, in the light of the poet’s path-breaking prose, bridges the global post-national territory.

The poems are about ceaseless and aimless wanderings, encounters with friends and lovers, casual sex, poverty, isolation, and dialogues with established poets. The existential baggage is delivered through the oblique telling of the anecdotes and loves of the twenty/twenty-something poet. The idealism and innocence of youth are being tested.

It is notable that the poet’s efforts at a conscious artistry, for such a highbrow subject as poetry and a dangerous calling as living on the edge, is peopled with individuals coming from low standing (prostitutes, vagrants, homosexuals, emigrants, and exiles), lowlifes who in their pathetic fates and decadence are pictured sympathetically in poetry even as they also took centerstage in the novels. Clearly the inner workings of Bolañoland are metaphorical identifications with the oppressed and their progress in this hostile civilization.

The backdrop of the poet’s romances is the dark undercurrents of history (Nazism, dictatorship, torture, kidnapping), which is often likened to a horror movie. The escape is often through sexual trysts but the comfort they bring is ephemeral, sometimes fake, and oftentimes they do not really bring comfort at all.

An unforgettable love
Beneath the rain
Beneath the sky bristling with antennas in which
17th century coffers coexist
With the shit of 20th century pigeons.
And in the middle
All the inextinguishable capacity to inflict pain,
Undefeated through years,
Undefeated through loves
Yes, that’s what she said.
An unforgettable love
And brief,
Like a hurricane?
No, a love brief as the sigh of a guillotined head,
The head of a king or Breton count,
Brief like beauty,
Absolute beauty,
That which contains all the world’s majesty and misery
And which is only visible to those who love.
(“La Francesa”)

(“Shit of birds”: In By Night in Chile, we encounter several episodes where the blood of birds was literally falling from the sky after being preyed upon by falcons. This massacre of the birds is undertaken by falconers, who are priests, to prevent the birds from defecating inside the old Catholic churches.)

Another major theme in the poems is the figure of the “detective,” who fastidiously contemplates the scene of the crime. Frozen and lost, desperate and crushed, this portrait of the poet as a detective is also a romantic notion as it borders on obsession. The detective, in various guises, is always present in the novels and novellas. In Distant Star, a detective was hired to hunt down an assassin poet who has been killing other poets. And who else will assist the detective but another poet commissioned to track down the whereabouts of the assassin by identifying his works in magazines and publications? In The Savage Detectives, the detectives are unidentified, but they can easily be the interviewers of the many characters (witnesses) in the second part of the book, or the interviewed people themselves, or the poet-characters who were in search of the missing poetess. They may even be the readers of the book who can't help but attempt to decipher the layers of meaning in it. Also teeming with detectives is 2666, most notable of which are a neophyte detective who was accidentally plunged into the action of the novel, another who tracks down a notorious serial transgressor of churches, and the detectives who are investigating the serial killings and violation of women.

For Bolaño, poetry (and by extension, his writings) is not so much a political statement but an ethical one. He is establishing the roots of his fiction and his art in various ways: as a detective, as a poet, and as a romantic. Each of these figures is the face of the same individual who sometimes finds himself at a loss while contemplating the modern horror movie that is constantly unfolding in the theatre of the living. The poet/detective/romantic is always on the road in search of the completion of a lost humanity, his and those of his kind.

In poetry as in prose, Bolaño is first rate. The Romantic Dogs shows that the novelist’s essence dwells in his poetry. It is possible to dissociate the poems from his novelistic writings, but the writings take on new meanings when read side by side with the poetry. Even if the book of poems is intended to be self-contained, its echoes and reverberations in the novels gravitate toward the comprehension of an incomplete and unfinished poetic universe. It may be entirely justified to treat the poems without reference to the torrential works of prose. But to do so is to remove the fuel from the fiction machine, to admit the defeat of true poetry.

The defeat of true poetry, which we write in blood.
And semen and sweat, says Darío.
And tears, says Mario.
Though none of us is crying.
(“Visit to the Convalescent”)

Yet the defeat is still one of two options. With so much disappointments and lost loves, the book can choose to end with the lost idealism of youth, with the loss of innocence, or with the plain lost of youth. But one can feign to detect a positive note ringing in the last poem “With the Flies”:

Poets of Troy
Nothing that could have been yours
Exists anymore

Not temples not gardens
Not poetry

You are free
Admirable poets of Troy

Perhaps a declaration of freedom is the only necessary thing for the modern poet to survive damning upheavals. His lost possessions are irretrievable, yet his verses are still intact. Here to stay with the romantic dogs.


  1. Whoa! what a hefty review! you should re-title this as "My comprehensive review of Roberto Bolano's work". ;-)

  2. I was planning to review just the poetry book, but I got caught up with the other titles. *_*

  3. Where did you get 2666? I've been looking for that edition for the longest time! I saw one at Bibliarch today, but I didn't get it since it was a huge paperback.

  4. I had to order it from overseas, Peter. I asked a friend who ships books in bulk. I still want a hardcover though. *_*

  5. रॉबर्टो बोलानो कि नोबेल रोमांटिक डॉग ने मेरे मस्तिक पर गहरी छाप छोड़ी है.. किंग इज ऑलवेज किंग 🔥