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Detective Analysis

Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives (trans Natasha Wimmer): The daily diary of the youngest acolyte during the key phase of the visceral realist revival, bracketing a montage of dated testimonies moving through two decades, anchored by the raveling of an episode at its beginning catalyzing a quest through the desert for Cesárea Tinajero, the mother of visceral realism, the only one whose poetry appears, the complete works, in only three lines, explicated at one remove:

"... although I did catch some phrases, some stray words, the predictable ones, I suppose: Quetzacoatl's ship, the nighttime fever of some boy or girl, Captain Ahab's encephalogram or the whale's, the surface of the sea that for sharks is the enormous mouth of hell, the ship without a sail that might also be a coffin, the paradox of the rectangle, the rectangle of consciousness, Einstein's impossible rectangle (in a universe where rectangles are unthinkable), a page by Alfonso Reyes, the desolation of poetry."

This rectangle reappears at the conclusion. (Ship arriving too late ...)

There has been little dissent among the litblogs (nor reviewers) of this novel's worthiness, or its author's, which does little to augment any argument of its merits; a little ambivalence helps, so my own first impressions are embedded like ham on wry over at Waggish:

... there are certain transpositions (e.g., the Manet-Duranty duel), obscured sourcings (ultraismo), but I lack enough familiarity to place much of it (the abyss is somehow familiar). Eliot’s Four Quartets also seems relevant. (The Auxilio chapter is Amulet in miniature. The other episode you mention [African intranecine conflict] smacks of Conrad. And the labyrinth you don’t, of both Paz and Borges.) The set-up and denouement may be necessary not just as frame (or as orientation) but as coming-of-age contrast to the arrested developments in mid-sandwich (which are consequences not costs), and not just of characters but of movement (lot of that though, Central America-Europe-Middle East-Africa …) and movements of a more literary character … but I have to let this settle a bit before I feel as if I have it.

Not that I feel as if, but I can unpack some of this. The Manet-Duranty duel was, like that of the novel, a swordfight between artist and critic (neither swordsmen; knives are another matter) in which the former brings his point home, if only briefly, on the latter's breast, but which ends without resolution. I stumbled upon the comparison because PBS aired "The Impressionists", emphasizing how the mass-impressionist movement was viewed as immoral in its time. That Manet later suffered locomotor ataxia (a disorder of movement -- not straight is the gait) may also pertain. The vignette also embeds "Nude Descending a Staircase" (which one character misattributes to Picasso), Cubism being another such movement, and, in this instance, one frozen in time. Beyond apparent motion, and apparent motive, this may provide a clue to the structure (or, better, pattern) of the novel.

Unfamiliar reference: The abyss is "The Chasm" by Pío Baroja, one of the stories embedded in the narrative (curiously, he also wrote Caesar or Nothing). The Sturgeon story of cloning lovers ("When You Care, When You Love", the first part of an unfinished novel, described by the second-youngest, Chilean, acolyte, who provides the only other continuous thread through the testimonies [a third thread, by the patriarch who provided transport, ends half way through with his return to sanity]) rang a bell, but some 30 or so years distant for me; it also introduces recursion more explicitly. But I'm lost as far as Mexican literary culture goes, beyond Paz, Rulfo, and a few odd bits here and there; similarly with Latin American poets and Spanish writers, excepting the headliners. So part of the value of The Savage Detectives is lost on me (and on Anglos), though it helps to open a window on a blank space on the map.


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