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.