By Jasmine Liu
Lists pervade Roberto Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives.” Upon finishing the 648th and final page of the tripartite saga, I found myself flipping through the novel from beginning to end, drawing up a list of the locations visited by the expansive cast of narrators of the novel. I could have just as easily catalogued the names of the visceral realists (the literary group that forms the center of gravity of “Savage Detectives”), their favorite writers and enemies or their various lovers. Lists — which in Bolaño’s literary landscape, can continue for over a page — recur to evoke the exuberant surplus of life, a surplus that for obvious reasons cannot be rendered unadulterated in something as trifling as a book. Within Mexico City, the list of locations I noted down included Café Quito, Calle Colima, a garden party, Chapultepec Park, the Palacio de la Inquisición and a mental health clinic on the outskirts of Mexico City. Beyond Mexico City, the list of locations spanned the American Midwest, a bar in Barcelona, the boulevards of Paris, Oxford, Tel Aviv, Vienna, Catalonia and Liberia. The footpaths these characters take in these various geographies, the conversations they spontaneously engage and the romances they entertain — they all feel as surreal to me today as the fact that I spent much of 2019 abroad.
But whereas I spent two months carefully plotting a 14-day trip from Athens to Madrid, Bolaño’s protagonists Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano move fluidly from city to city to desert to port town to city and so forth. The unraveling spool of personalities, accounts and places in the second part of the novel, which traverses two decades (1976-1996), is bookended in the first and third parts by Juan García Madero’s diaristic entries over a compact three-month period at the turn of 1976. The fledgling Madero is cocksure and filled with literary and sexual bravado, and the visceral realists, seasoned outlaws with a spry approach to literature, are a perfect match for him. In the opening pages of the novel, Madero encounters the visceral realists for the first time at a poetry workshop, and as a rivalry begins to take form, a characteristically absurd scene ensues. I was unnaturally entertained by Madero’s dutiful reporting of the event:
“… I accused Álamo of having no idea what a ripsetto was; nobly, the visceral realists admitted that they didn’t know either but my observation struck them as pertinent, and they said so; one of them asked how old I was, and I said I was seventeen and tried all over again to explain what a ripsetto was; Álamo was red with rage; the membership of the workshop said I was being pedantic (one of them called me an academicist); the visceral realists defended me; suddenly unstoppable, I asked Álamo and the workshop in general whether they at least remembered what a nicharchean or a tetrastich was. And no one could answer.” (If, by the way, words like syncope, glyconic, hemiepes, phonosymbolism, pythiambic, homeoteleuton, mimiambic, paragoge, hapax, Saturnian, chiasmus and zéjel get you excited, meet your match in Madero.)
Madero is a juvenile know-it-all, and his series of exploits in the first part of “Savage Detectives” compelled me to snort and roll my eyes on several occasions. He is obsessed with his own encyclopedic knowledge and his newfound fraternity with the visceral realists, oftentimes moronically so. But his self-absorption and sheer thrill at being alive are so overwhelming that I quickly dispensed with the project of deciding whether I liked him or not, an anyway overrated exercise in the literary enterprise. His exhilarating youthfulness and all that entails for him — inexhaustible reading, writing, walking and sex — stands on its own. Bolaño effortlessly achieves the task of offering Madero, and indeed all of his characters, at the right Archimedean point where they can be both earnestly and ironically viewed. I so often find in my mundane conflicts with friends or parents that all it takes to deescalate is to take a figurative step back to a vantage point where the whole episode can be appreciated as trivial. Throughout the novel, Bolaño persistently provides readers the choice to do so. And Bolaño does not exempt himself from the same treatment of simultaneous idealization and ironic self-deprecation which Madero receives. Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s fictional double, is lambasted by more than a few narrators in the novel: An ex-lover dismisses him as a “stupid, conceited peacock”; a disillusioned visceral realist calls him a “creepy and seductive Dennis Hopper (referencing the countercultural classic “Easy Rider”); and an editor of his embarks on a mission to “crush [him] like a cockroach.” Bolaño accomplishes this disinterested perspective without obliterating his alter ego for sport, leaving it up to readers to do what they’d like with the discordant accounts of him. The effect, in my case, was to loosen my hold on the activity of moralizing — a moralizing which so much of literature has didactically sought to cultivate in me.
In this and many other ways, Bolaño subverts the reader’s well-worn habits of reading. Gone are extensive passages belaboring the accoutrements of the bourgeois home that often serve as backdrop to plot development in novels. Gone is the security of a reliable narrator, or an unreliable one with reliable patterns, or even an unreliable one with unreliable patterns. Gone even is a stable milieu in which a reader can be sure that most characters are familiar. All of this is extirpated in favor of restless and unrelenting movement, movement which has no end goal in mind and still remains immersed in its surroundings.
The characters in “Savage Detectives” move rhythmically, continuously, easily, movement of the type that multinational corporations tried to reproduce in television ads pioneered in the early 2000s to signal the dawn of a new era. These ads are still so prevalent and cliché that it’s no hard task to conjure one up on the spot — stock shots of light trails in an urban metropolis juxtaposed with stock shots of ambiguous natural phenomena. Meanwhile, the texture of these characters’ lives is anything but stock. As “cosmopolitan” becomes an acridly derisive label for elites who cycle between New York, London and Hong Kong today, Bolaño presents a way of life which is neither cosmopolitan nor provincial, a dichotomy I have too often caught myself resorting to in my thinking. If Bolaño’s figures neither pledge allegiance to a local or global ideal, then what describes their mode of living in and moving through the world?
I turned to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s treatise “Nomadology: The War Machine,” which first appeared in their philosophical anthology “A Thousand Plateaus,” published in 1980. Deleuze and Guattari refer to nomadism not to invoke literal nomads but rather to draw the contours of a way of thinking which they believe is alien to the academy. In ancient times, Plato defined the Greek word nomos as a form of reasoning by which implicit norms could be uncovered. A nomadic politics implies a sociality in which rules are implicitly agreed upon by a community, but never handed down by a leader or ruler from above. In “Nomadology,” Deleuze and Guattari are enraptured by “packs, bands, and groups” of the “rhizomatic type” that meanderingly and variably pursue the singularities of life, who remain uncaptured by the state because of their fundamental difference from it. The visceral realists of “Savage Detectives” fit this bill: Dealing in marijuana and thieving from bookstores, they are casually indifferent to the law. It is an underplayed revelation when Madero mentions near the end of the book that Belano had been in Mexico illegally all along — an insignificant and, in retrospect, obvious fact that underscores the overall ambivalence to legality that is rarely spelt out but permeates their lives. Bolaño’s “Savage Detectives” presents the possibility of nomadism — a nomadism which, as I read “Savage Detectives,” admittedly already felt bygone. Bygone, right now, because coronavirus threatens to permanently alter how we circulate through the world. Bygone, more importantly, because increasingly uncompromising national borders and forbidding housing and job markets no longer guarantee the viability of unconstrained movement. Bygone, finally, because Bolaño’s fragmentary accounts were perhaps always an unrealistic romanticization of the impoverished itinerant artist’s lifestyle. For me, it was neither the disappearances of Madero and Belano at various points in the second part of the novel nor the murder of a cult hero that struck as tragic. What was far more tragic was the sense I had that the countercultural form of life represented by Bolaño’s characters had evaporated when the old millennium did too.
For the nomad, Deleuze and Guattari write that “every point is a relay and exists only as a relay.” In other words, the nomad seeks no end destination; each event only exists to transport the nomad to the next. Even in what I found to be the most painstakingly-rendered romantic relationship of the novel between Belano and lover Edith Oster, Bolaño does not for a moment dangle the enticements of domestic partnership or financial stability. Instead, their relationship is besieged by medical problems and their romantic discontents. For the visceral realists and their acquaintances, even a strong attachment like love can only be a “relay” — tragically, tragicomically, comically, cryptically, horrifically, triumphantly, mysteriously and funereally so. For Deleuze and Guattari, this is all a consequence of a life inhabited on a smooth space which promises no horizon. There are no leaders, no stated goals, no utopic ambitions among the visceral realists. Indeed, it is only when their group fractures that its members can live nomadically, truly and fully. Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano’s profuse encounters from wandering the four corners of the earth temporally and spatially collapse in the last part of the novel as the story backtracks to 1976 and finds them practically driving in circles in the Sonora Desert. In this paradigmatic smooth space, it is disclosed that what initially exiled them to their two decade-long spree across Europe, Latin America and North Africa was their failure to rescue messianic poetic hero Cesárea Tinajero from obscurity. Their actual mission in the third part of the novel is another absurdist red herring. But its role as the event which precipitates Lima and Belano’s perpetual drift emphasizes that letting go of both their founding myth and clear objectives frees them to live without pretensions.
Deleuze and Guattari delineate two directions in which societies develop outside the purview of the state: Nomadic groups like the visceral realists constitute one, but “worldwide machines” which relish in relative impunity from the law constitute the other. I don’t think it is far-fetched to claim that nomadic life is increasingly being edged out by the creep of these “worldwide machines.” There are many statistics and arguments that confirm the increasing accumulation of wealth which has paralleled neoliberalization (broadly defined as a series of processes by which private corporations have employed the rhetoric of individual liberties to devour the commons and public life at large). But I’ll limit myself to what I have observed in my own life. The desperation for stability, which I’ve felt acutely against the generational backdrop of prevalent financial insecurity, has compelled me to cling to my accreditation from Stanford and has trained me to be risk-averse. As traditional mainstays of a decent life like livable wages and social safety nets are being pulled out from underneath us, rejecting stability feels foolish. Yet even as America becomes more and more unlivable for millennials, I recognize that I have internalized a narrow imagination and struggle to foresee a life lived outside of America. Years of American exceptionalism, ingrained in me by my high school history curriculum, literature consumption and media diet, have subtly reinforced to me that the only places in which I can relevantly live are big American cities. Too often, movement, on the other hand, no longer promises difference but rehashes the same. Whether it takes the form of a grand tour of European cities, business travel or an academic conference, movement frequently repackages the same people and same experiences with superficial cultural flair. From this point of view, it’s no great surprise that we are despotically and despicably turning inwards. Connection of the transnational type does not fulfill us anymore; it exploits us. Reading Bolaño in 2020 resurrects a kind of fluid motion that had become unrecognizable to me except in the form of stock television ads produced by BP, Mazda, Verizon and every other vague multinational corporation which continues to robotically extoll the virtues of a connected world way past its prime.
This realization struck me forcefully recently. A friend disclosed to me that after spending a summer in Eastern Europe, she had set her heart on returning permanently post-graduation. I was shocked. What about her lifelong aspiration of getting into a top American medical school? And what about her childhood dream to lead a bustling social life in New York in her twenties? Somehow, I had felt as if she was relinquishing a hardly earned, limited edition item — which, I will not deny, is what the privilege of an American citizenship and elite education is — for no good reason. She sensibly responded that she looked forward to leaving behind the constant anxiety over money and the particularly American brand of ambition. In hindsight now, I see the wisdom of her decision and the small-mindedness of my reaction. In my case, somewhat ironically, the particular fusion of American exceptionalism and financial precarity has cemented my inability to conceptualize nomadic possibilities.
Is the pipe dream of the vital, energetic, nomadic life, of the kind that Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano lead in “Savage Detectives,” just that — a pipe dream? Given that the book is pieced together from fragmentary accounts collected from a multitude of characters, I found it easy to read “Savage Detectives” the way I journal: on some days feverishly, but on others not at all. Its choice of format, which conveys surreal and ecstatic accounts of life lived at its limits, implores readers to never substitute reading for real experience. In small ways, Bolaño has succeeded in unfastening my sturdy attachments to America and a home, and one day my readings of his work may translate to action. Especially now, as we are confined in ways previously unimaginable, I yearn for the restoration of the political and personal dream of nomadism.
Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.