The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


I can't remember where it was, but recently someone--was it in Slate or Salon? one of those things I constantly read--made a snarky but pretty accurate comment about how there's really only room in the U.S. for one Latin American writer at a time, but that that writer will be universally recognized as a genius, everyone will start reading him/her, and all other Latin American writers will be forgotten for the duration of that one's reign. This began with Garcia Marquez and then moved on to Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Isabel Allende, and so on. Now, of course, the ruling Latino is the late Roberto Bolaño, a cosmopolitan Chilean. Bolaño was relatively unknown during his life; he started what is by most accounts a very minor movement called "infrarealismo" in Mexico City in the 1960s, spent a good deal of time in Spain, and ended up dying young, at 50, a few years back. THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES came out in the US about two years ago and it's been a big hit. I think that one reason so many readers like him is that he's a different kind of Latin American writer, one who not only rejects the dominant practices (mysticism, magical realism, and a fascination with the country and the rural world) of the "Boom" but explicitly attacks, through his characters, the way that the Boom's writers came to dominate the literary world back home.

I read, over break, THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES and although it was a slog at times, relatively plotless, overall I thought it was very strong. It's a kind of oral history of a Mexico City literary movement, "visceral realism," led by two students, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. Beginning with a month's worth of diary entries of a young man who is joining the movement, the book consists largely of putative oral histories, taking the story from the time of the diary to the present, of various other people's encounters with Lima and Belano as the two poets wander from Mexico City to Managua to Tel Aviv to Barcelona. Bookending the novel is the final section, further diary entries from the young man, taking up the story precisely where he left off. In the end, the visceral realists go north, to the small desert towns of Sonora and Baja California, looking for a poet from the 1920s who was the initial inspiration for visceral realism. Because I get tired of realism, I really enjoyed the intricate narrative structure of the book. At times in the middle of the endless oral history section I found my attention drifting, but I suppose this is part of the point: Belano and Lima are rootless, and the job of the reader is to pick up, from the voices of the people whom they meet, what is motivating them so we can proleptically understand the significance of their quest to find Cesarea Tinajero, the desert poet.



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