How to cut yourself out of your own autobiography, Bolaño-style

I submit to you, my dear reader, a visualization (click to enlarge) of the structure of Roberto Bolaño’s novel, The Savage Detectives. This is an autobiographical novel, framed by a coming-of-age story of sex, poetry and violence. But it is a biography whose subjects–a pair of dadaist poets–are always disappearing.

To explain what is going on in this picture I first need to explain a little about the structure of The Savage Detectives. The first of the novel’s three sections is the journal of a horny seventeen-year-old poet in Mexico City. At a university poetry workshop, he meets Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the founding members of an avant-garde poetry movement called visceral realism. The two are fictionalized versions of Bolaño and his friend Mario Santiago. The young poet joins the visceral realists, dropping out of university and writing more than ever. At the end of this 120-page section, Belano, Lima and the young poet rescue a prostitute from her former pimp, the four of them fleeing Mexico City in a borrowed car, on the eve of 1976.

The second section is 400 pages long, covers twenty years, spanning the globe from Mexico to Europe to South America to Africa. In this section, we hear the voices of dozens of individuals whose lives have intersected with Belano and Lima. They describe the two poets (often negatively) but also tell their own stories. The result amounts to a group biography of the visceral realists and their friends, with many incidental stories as well.

The final 50-page section returns to 1976, picking  where the first section left off. Belano, Lima, the young poet and the prostitute drive around the desert in northern Mexico. They are on the run from the menacing pimp, but are also on their own quest to find a disappeared poet named Cesárea Tinajero–one of an earlier generation of visceral realists whose poetry has been lost to time.

I found it interesting to think of the first and last sections as a kind of frame story. It provides both the jumping off point and also a satisfying conclusion for a novel that scatters in all directions. And so in my image, the orange frame depicts elements from that narrative–the cars, the shot glass, sex and a naked ass, a joint, a table with sheets of poetry, a gun, a shirtless man with a large knife, a prostitute, an eye framed by hair, matches, a map, a cactus, a cigarette butt, an emblem signifying Mexicans keeping vigil over a body, a desert sun–all crudely sketched in a juvenile style, which while a convenient one for me, given my rudimentary drawing skills, is also justified by the youth of the narrator, and his somewhat garish exploits.

But of course, this sort of complete and engaging narrative is not what we usually think of as a frame story. At 170 pages this story is long enough to stand alone as a novel, but these sections do frame the central story. Conventionally, a narrative springs from the frame story, and I contend that that is still the case here. The point at which this sexy, gritty, and tense, coming-of-age story, departs and becomes an expansive collection of fragmentary stories across space and time, is exactly the moment that the characters literally depart–an act that is repeated again and again in the novel as witnesses around the world recount their glimpses of Lima and Belano.

This literal departure–poets fleeing with a prostitute from Mexico City with her pimp in hot pursuit–can be read symbolically, with the prostitute representing poetry. Bolaño’s writing often shows the relationship between writing and power, the tension between allegiance to art, and complicity or silence in the face of crimes. His books, Nazi Literature in the Americas and By Night in Chile, both centre on writers with questionable politics. Poetry itself does not pay allegiance to any particular politics or sense of justice. One reviewer has said that for Bolaño, literary culture is a whore. In this reading, Belano the poet is her protector.

One of the things that makes Belano heroic is that over the twenty-year span of the novel, as characters seem to scatter entropically away from each other and away from the intense passions of their youth, he never gives up writing, never sells out his art, never domesticates himself to the prevalent culture. He keeps moving, keeps reading and writing. His devotion to poetry sends him on a quest which leads him into the Mexican desert and later to Europe and Africa, in search of true poetry and the poetic life. In the desert he searches for Cesárea Tinajero’s; in the rest of the world he searches for his own.

The text in my image is a sort of Venn diagram of the “witnesses” descriptions of the two poets. The left column comprises the various descriptions of Lima, the right column is Belano, and the centre column is the two of them collectively. The text frames an outline of images of Mario Santiago and Roberto Bolaño as the young, long-haired men they were in the seventies.

The two men are absent from the picture, as they are often absent from the book. They often appear tangentially to what the witnesses recount, or they are described by strangers whose descriptions of them are vague and uncertain. As a result the narrative never brings them into sharp focus. Belano and Lima become what the reader chases. By reading the testimonies of the people who have seen them, we are cast into the position of the seeker, following the traces left by the writers, just as they followed the traces of Cesárea Tinajero into the Sonoran desert. But the novel ultimately frustrates our desire to get close to them. We never read their poetry–for that we’ll have to read the real poets, Bolaño and Santiago–but we do have in our hands one of their masterpieces.

Your assignment, dear reader, is to create an image that conveys structure of a book. As always, for an alternative assignment, feel free to contribute anything on this book in particular.

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