Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Savage Detectives

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There are two friends, Arturo Bolano and Ulises Lima, who are the leaders of an obscure mid-70s Mexican school of poetry called the "visceral realists." The name isn't entirely original--they took it from an avant garde poet from the 20s, Cesaria Tinajero. They are "detectives" in the sense that they are trying to find anything they can about Tinajero, who seems to have disappeared at some point. Why? Because all poetic cliques end. Either the practitioners become the establishment (like Octavio Paz, who is one of the few people erudite enough to remember Tinajero) or disappear. This is the story of an artistic moment and its subsequent dissipation.

It starts and ends with diary entries by the youngest visceral realist, Juan Garcia Madero. This is a 17-year-old boy who has a transformational encounter with Bolano and Lima in a poetry workshop, and is instantly converted to visceral realism (without knowing exactly what it is). In between is a kind of oral history of visceral realism and its two absent leaders, Bolano and Lima. (Many of the voices belong to real people, like Carlos Monsivais.) When the book starts, the "movement" has peaked. Their shocking literary magazine (with the amusing title "Lee Harvey Oswald") is already a thing of the past. As we read, we learn that Lima and Bolano have left Mexico (for a reason not explained until the end), and their disappearance sucks the momentum out of the movement. Some of the poets continue to write, whether for publication or not. Some new members even "join" the dying movement. But time passes, some die, some stop writing, or change their focus. It dissipates.

This is obviously an autobiographical novel in a way. The real movement was called "Infrarealism", and apparently many of the fictional characters were based on real people. This is perhaps the best, most moving picture of what happens to a group of artists who come together for just a moment. It's sad and feels very true. I am reminded a little of some of the alternative comics and cartoonists I knew and loved. It describes a kind of art history not recorded, where a scene develops and being part of it makes you an artist, but without the scene there, you head off in another direction. The history of all arts is littered with this kind of thing. It helps explain why a particular artist can be so great for a few years, and suck thereafter. Because in those few years, he or she was caught up into this thing--this movement or school or scene--that provided context and impetus for the work to shine. Bolano and Lima fuck up, leave the country, and that kills the movement. Poets like Maria Font stop writing, and ones like Luscious Skin [sic] sink into obscurity and die. And all that's left are traces, which maybe future researchers (like the university professor who proclaims himself the world's only expert on visceral realism) will pore over (un-savage detectives, as it were).

If I hadn't read A Soldier of the Great War this year, this would be easily the best novel I've read this year. They are both sprawling masterpieces, monuments to things lost.

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