Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Lost Poets Society

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano starts off with a young poet, Juan Garcia Madero, who is trying to become a part of a group of more established poets, the Visceral Realists.  The Visceral Realists want to change the course of Mexican poetry, and are full of idealistic visions.  Saying that the Visceral Realists are "more established" may be giving them more credit than they are due.  Most of them are published, but they are published in a magazine that they put out themselves.  There are other poets in Mexico at the time who are better known, who the Realists are rebelling against. 

The arbiters of the Visceral Realists in the 1970s were Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.  Lima and Belano decided who would be published and who would not; who was allowed to call himself a Visceral Realist, and who was not.  There was an aura of mystery that surrounded Lima and Belano, so that even the other Realists didn't know what they were up to.

On New Years Eve, Lima, Belano, Madero and a prostitute named Lupe, were held hostage in a friend's house by Lupe's pimp.  They take the friend's Impala, make a break for it, and leave Mexico City.  While they are on the run, they try to track down a Visceral Realist from the 1920's who they have heard of but don't know anything about, Cesarea Tinajero. 

This search is what The Savage Detectives is superficially about, with Belano and Lima serving as the savage detectives and Tinajero being the poet they are searching for.   At first, we are reading Madero's journal, and hearing the story only from his point of view.  After the Impala rolls out of Mexico City, we don't hear from Madero again, making him a second missing poet.  From that point forward, the story is all about Belano and Lima, as told in a series of interviews.  It is clear that whoever is conducting these interviews is searching for Belano and Lima (now the third and fourth missing poets), and is serving as another savage detective.

What Bolano conveys so well in The Savage Detectives is the optimism and self importance of people in their early 20s.  The attitude is that surely poetry can change the world, and obviously, the Visceral Realists are the poets who will write it.  As their contemporaries look back on the 20 year old Lima and Belano from their 30s and 40s, they speak not with nostalgia, but with a sort of impatient irritation mixed with a little awe.

When I bought The Savage Detectives back in 2011, I commented on the strange things that I found between the pages.  Specifically, I found a metro ticket from Paris, a peso conversion receipt, and a Chilean currency conversion chart.  At the time, I wondered whether the person who left the things in the book just had sloppy habits and left the items accidentally, if they left the items to brag about where they had been, or if the items had some relevance to the story.  After reading, I would say that they do have some tangential relevance.  The reader never needs to be able to convert pesos to other currencies, but all of the items were from places the characters visit or are from.  Now I also wonder if the items were left by only one reader, or whether several people had read the book, and each left a token.  I like that idea best.  My husband recently went to Spain, so I am going to insert a business card from a restaurant that he liked, and re-donate the book back to my library for its next sale.  If you happen to buy my copy, I hope you'll continue the practice.

At 648 pages, I'm calling The Savage Detectives a Big Fat Book.  I would recommend reading it on Kindle, so that you can search for names as they come up.  Bolano deliberately tries to confuse the reader by giving characters similar names, and I am sure that there are many connections that I missed which I would have found if I could have searched for them more easily.  The Savage Detectives was a NYT Notable Book for 2007.  It is also one that I read for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

Next up:  What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Still Listening to:  The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

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