As my last planned contribution to late January's Los detectives salvajes/The Savage Detectives group read, I have to warn you that I'm all geeked up to talk about a wonderful essay by Oswaldo Zavala I discovered shortly after finishing Bolaño's novel. In the hopes that some of you will find Zavala's interpretation of some key moments in the work just as inspiring as I did, I'd like to present a quickie summary of his study, "La última ronda de la modernidad: Los detectives salvajes y el mezcal 'Los Suicidas'" ["Modernity's Last Round: The Savage Detectives and Los Suicidas Mezcal"], which can be found in the 2010 collection of essays on Bolaño edited by Felipe A. Ríos Baeza and published by Ediciones Eón, Roberto Bolaño: Ruptura y violencia en la literatura finisecular [Roberto Bolaño: Rupture and Violence in the Literature of the End of the Century].
Zavala, Assistant Professor of Latin American literature at CUNY Staten Island, begins his essay with a nod to the importance of mezcal as an agent of altered consciousness in Malcolm Lowry's 1947 Under the Volcano--as you'll recall, a novel that's the source of the epigraph to The Savage Detectives. A short version of the rest of the professor's essay can be broken down as follows. Zavala maintains that the Amadeo Salvatierra interview thread that runs throughout the middle portion of Bolaño's novel can be read as a "reescritura" ["rewriting"] of Plato's Symposium (203), with Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima playing the part of the Los Suicidas mezcal-drinking acolytes who seek to situate Cesárea Tinajero's visual poem "Sión" within a specific context in Mexican avant-gardism and literary history. The two young poets' characterization of the poem as both "una broma" ["a joke"] and as "algo muy serio" ["something very serious"], in combination with the visceral realists' identification with radical predecessors los estridentistas ["the Stridentists"], leads Zavala to claim that Bolaño is presenting a two-pronged critique of Mexican ideas about modernity here: on the one hand, the novelist is affirming the self-marginalizing nature of visceral realism and, by extension, its real-life double Infrarrealism; on the other, he's satirizing Octavio Paz' vision of modernity as mapped out by Paz in many essays contemporaneous with the mid-1970s setting of the novel. A conclusion is then arrived at that "la radicalidad de los dos polos elegidos" ["the radical nature of the two chosen poles"], i.e. the distance between a joke and something very serious, will turn out to be "cruciales en la estructura de la novela y aún para el proyecto literario de Bolaño en general" ["crucial in the structure of the novel and even for Bolaño's literary project in general"] (207). OK, so what does this all mean for the more or less casual reader of the novel? For me, one of the exciting things to take away from Zavala's close reading is the confirmation that there's a lot more going on in The Savage Detectives than meets the eye for those that are interested in a possible reread of it. For example, even a moderately better understanding of the literary turf wars between estridentistas and contemporáneos in 1920s and 1930s Mexico will shed light on how the late-'90s Bolaño regarded himself in relation to a younger generation of post-Boom peers like the mid-'90s "Crack" group in Mexico (I'll have to sidestep a summary of Zavala's explanation of this for now as it's a bit too complex for me to reduce in any reasonable amount of time). Even more importantly, Zavala provides what for me is a fascinating interpretation of the cryptic scene at the end of the Savage Detectives' middle section where Amadeo turns out the lights on his two young visitors--one of whom has been making oracular-like pronouncements while seemingly asleep. To help refresh your memory, right before the end of his testimony, Amadeo asks his visitors about their quest: "Muchachos, ¿vale la pena?, ¿vale la pena?, ¿de verdad, vale la pena?" ["Boys, is it worth it? Is it worth it? Is it really worth it?"]. To which the one who's asleep famously responds: "Simonel" (554). Zavala explains this "simonel" as slang for yes and no, "afirmación y negación" ["affirmation and negation"], presenting it as yet another allusion to the end of the Symposium where Socrates tries to convince the comic playwright Aristophanes and the tragic poet Agathon "de que la comedia y la tragedia deben ser obra del mismo escritor, síntesis de ambos géneros" ["that comedy and tragedy ought to be the work of the same writer, a synthesis of both genres"] (216). He then adds, "En una escena significativa de Los detectives salvajes, uno de los personajes llega a la misma conclusión que Sócrates y afirma: 'Todo lo que empieza como comedia acaba como tragedia'" ["In a significant scene in The Savage Detectives, one of the characters arrives at the same conclusion as Socrates and affirms: 'Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy'"] (Ibid.), before comparing Socrates' exit in the Symposium with Amadeo's in The Savage Detectives. Suffice it to say that this comparison of the putting of the four writers to bed, Zavala's ensuing comment about the "bipolaridad lúdica" ["playful bipolarism"] of Belano and Lima as exegetes (Ibid.), and the way that Bolaño chose to rewrite a text from Plato as a commentary on Mexican modernity wouldn't have occurred to me without outside help. Gracias, profe, gracias.
Zavala, Oswaldo. "La última ronda de la modernidad: Los detectives salvajes y el mezcal 'Los Suicidas'." In Felipe A. Ríos Baeza, ed. Roberto Bolaño: Ruptura y violencia en la literatura finisecular (Mexico City: Ediciones Eón, 2010), 201-218.
No need to warn about being geeked up--I would be too. Thanks for pointing out the article and summarizing it. Fascinating stuff. My first (and only) time through the novel I just let it wash over me, but it deserves a second (or more) look for insights like this.ResponderBorrar
Nice discovery and well summarized. I had an idea that someone who knew their classics would find a lot of parallels in TSD.ResponderBorrar
The whole 'modernist' slant is a fruitful angle on it too. Don't know if 'll ever know enough altough the classics or Mexican literary history to 'get' it all but I'd like to fill in some of the more obvious gaps in my knowledge.
..Where to start?
Every scene in the book is a significant scene.ResponderBorrar
"Where to start?" Given this post, the answer is The Labyrinth of Solitude and The Other Mexico by Paz. I have not read them myself - RB certainly had.
*Dwight: Thanks for the reassurance--while writing the post, I have to admit that I was a little worried that I might not be able to do justice to just how interesting Zavala's essay is! I do think that most people probably read The Savage Detectives the same way you did the first time around, though (I remember being swept away by the storytelling myself); however, some of Bolaño's more inspired/intricate engagements with classical and modernist writers are really amazing to behold. Anyway, it's always nice to encounter novels that reward rereads so handsomely.ResponderBorrar
*Séamus: Thanks--and by the way, I have to say that Zavala's essay and your own post on the "Savage Daughters" have me rethinking how much fertile territory there'd be in looking more closely at how and why Bolaño uses the classical references in his works. As far as Mexican literary history goes, I'd add Carlos Fuentes' The Death of Artemio Cruz or Where the Air Is Clear to Tom's Octavio Paz suggestions if you'd like to understand the officially-sanctioned cultural opposition to the scruffy visceral realist types. Other Mexican writers Bolaño spoke more fondly of over the years include Sergio Pitol, Juan Rulfo (whom I believe you've already read), Juan Villoro, and the 17th century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Bolaño's Between Parentheses probably has lots of good recommendations included as well.
*Tom: I like your Paz suggestions for Séamus for where to start. One of these days I'll read his thick Sor Juana bio that has been collecting dust here for a few years now, and I need to finish The Labyrinth of Solitude which I read partially not too long after Bolaño fled Mexico. Until then, it'd be nice if you could dig up a Mexican version of a Bolaño literature screed like that "Argentinean Literature of Doom" one you wrote about on your blog. That'd make things so much easier for all of us, you know?!?
Another fine detective work, Richard. I was planning to read Under the Volcano before the readalong but was pressed for time.ResponderBorrar
*Rise: It was more an accidental discovery than "fine" detective work on my part, but I'll accept the compliment nonetheless. Thanks! Funny what you say about having wanted to read Under the Volcano in sync with the group read--I'd thought about doing that, too, but it didn't happen. However, the title seems to keep coming up as a reference in writings by/about many Lat Am authors I like (in fact, I think Lowry's novel might be more highly regarded by hispanists than anglophone scholars these days).ResponderBorrar
Oddly, I am actually reading Under the Volcano (about halfway through). I always think of it as an honorary Mexican novel - it does seem, as you say, to have a very high reputation in the Latin-American world; while the English don't even know who Malcolm Lowry is.ResponderBorrar
*Obooki: Like Professor Moriarty, you always seem to be one--or several--step(s) ahead of me! "Honorary Mexican novel" sounds about right, but how is Under the Volcano anyway?ResponderBorrar
First, Richard, great job and thank you for posting this. Fascinating.ResponderBorrar
Second...why do I seem only to want to read books for which I really should read about 10 other books in advance? Octavio Paz (who thought I'd ever read him?)...Under the Volcano...ahhh....
Sorry for the delay in getting back to you, Nicole, but I'm glad you enjoyed the post and many thanks for your kind words. Naturally, I feel your pain about the types of books you're describing--was almost scared off an Aira recently when I heard a large part of the book's charm had to do with its dialoguing with another Argentinean work I haven't read. "Ahhh..." is right!Borrar
Richard - terrific post. Why should it not surprise me that The Symposium figures in The Savage Detectives? (Perhaps we should start enumerating those works that don't figure into it...). I just love the notion of the mezcal sessions being a sort of recreation of Plato's work - a work that should certainly be read aloud in wildly drunken company (er...at least that's how I first read it).ResponderBorrar
Scott, thanks a bunch to you as well and apologies to you for the delay in responding. For some reason, it had never occurred to me to mix mezcal with reading Bolaño or Plato; however, I like the synergy between what Zavala wrote and how you "advanced" his conclusions. Great minds both!Borrar