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Saturday, 24 January 2009

On the back of Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives (published in Spanish in 1998, and in translation in 2007), John Banville, the Irish writer (who also writes detective novels under the name Benjamin Black), says that the novel is "vaguely, pervasively, frightening".

Why? It's because this is a gothic thriller. The gothic form is characterised by (a) mystery and (b) pursuit. The biography of Shelley written in the last ten years or so is subtitled 'The Pursuit' and classic gothic novels of the Romantic period often include pursuits (usually a young woman is being chased by an evil, but powerful, man).

And if Ulises Lima and Alberto Belano are mysterious protagonists, who is Juan Garcia Madero? Is he the interviewer who, after the initial piece of narrative and in advance of the concluding narrative - narratives that document the adventures of Modero and a young prostitute named Lupe - talks to so many people about his enigmatic friends?

The other book this reminded me of, of course, is Le grand Meaulnes, the classic adolescent thriller by Alain-Fournier. And then there's the biographical exempla presented by the French poet Rimbaud, who absolved himself of any complicity with the middle class by simply leaving it, ending up, in the end, running weapons in North Africa.

This is a long novel, over 570 pages in translation, and it includes sections set in Africa. It is not 'about' poetry, so much as it uses poetry to illustrate larger realities. We are confronted by the growing conviction that somehow poetry is a different kind of calling but that, by focusing on two poets (and their movement, 'visceral realism'), it can be universalised to encompass anybody's existence. And, indeed, society itself.

A literary backwater, Mexico, we feel. A small, introverted, and highly bitchy sort of environment to mix in, and make a livelihood in, if you're lucky. Belano and Lima are not lucky. Both Chilean exiles, they end up at the four corners of the earth having strange adventures. But underlying all of these is a ruthless adherence to a set of precepts that, somehow, are already present in their attitudes toward poetry. The label is not important.

Or is it? It turns out that 'visceral realism' is a label that had already been used, by a woman named Cesarea Tinajero, in the 1920s. It was a time of war.

I suspect that the label is unimportant but that it is important to Bolano (who died at a fairly young age in 2003) that comparisons with his own life are avoided because this is a great work of art, and any simplistic formulation on the basis of fact would miss the point.

In its bulk - where we are presented with 'interviews' with actors with often tenuous associations with Belano and Lima - it's like a stream of water we're fishing in. We cast our lines and wait for a bite. Each story provides more and more information. Finally, we are pretty sure what type each of the two men is. But it's a waiting game.

That you can write a novel about two unsuccessful poets whose only claim on our sympathy is their evident decency and courage, is something extraordinary. And while the book often seems to be leading nowhere, Banville's reaction is correct: we're hooked.

Bolano's next novel (his last, in fact), 2666, was published in English recently. Bolano has the kind of blog-fuelled cult following reserved for writers who exhibit extreme anti-establishment characteristics but who are also engaging to read, like William T. Vollmann. I'm not sure when I'll get around to reading the new book but there's a clue in The Savage Detectives that Bolano was aware of its subject matter at the time he was writing the earlier novel.

Like so much about Bolano, a poet who said that he would write prose because it paid better, this is curious.

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