Savage Detection

June 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: The Savage Detectives.

Reading now: The Empire of Ice Cream, by Jeffrey Ford.

Reading next: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Okay, then: after an extraordinarily busy month (without going into too many details, we now have a dachshund and a fence, and I’ve now presented my first paper publicly among special-collections-library-folk), it is high time to catch up on my reading.  (One of the great frustrations of busy times is not having enough time to concentrate on reading; there’s such relief in finding an hour to just read at night.)

A couple of weeks after finishing it, I am amazed at my reaction to The Savage Detectives.  It was a book I was often bored or exasperated with, and yet almost instantly after finishing it and skimming through it to capture my thoughts about it, I felt affectionate towards it, and kept finding sections I did enjoy, until now, when I find myself very glad to have read it, still interested in it, and wanting to read 2666 and Amulet, maybe as soon as next year.

I think this is partly an effect of the sandwich structure of the book, with its short, punchy, “diary” sections acting as the bread around a huge, sloppy, Dagwood-style filling of 20 years’ worth of interview, oral history, monologue, and, presumably, savage detection.  The immediacy and directness of the sandwich-sections pull you in and validate the effort of sifting the mass of detail and story and history in the filling.

But enough sandwich metaphors.  Perhaps this is only interesting to me, but I think another aspect of my reaction is that it’s very similar to my reaction to pretty much anything I write myself: everything is tedious and trite and horrible as I’m writing, but once I get a chance to reflect and revise I find it’s not nearly so bad, and actually seems that it was quite a bit of fun to write.  What is it about this book that makes you feel like you’re part of its creation — that it’s writing itself as you read it?

Anyway, that’s how I’m feeling about the book now.  Here’s one of the mysteries I’ve been entertaining myself with: who are the “savage detectives” of the title?  Bolaño is, apparently, often quite cryptic with his titles: I’m told there’s nothing about the number or year “2666” in 2666 (although I think it must have some connection to Cesárea’s prophecy  about events “sometime around the year 2600.  Two thousand six hundred and something”, very near the end of this book).

Nevertheless, it’s such a fantastic, multivalent title (Los Detectives Salvajes in the original) that I’m inclined to explore its meaning.  Here are the savage detectives I see in the book — how they’re detectives, and how they’re savage:

  • The visceral realists.  In the first section, the group seems to be the title’s obvious referent: I think you can see “visceral realist” as a rephrasing of the title, since “visceral” can mean “not intellectual” or “dealing with crude or elemental emotions” (M-W Collegiate, 11th ed.), and both detectives and realists think of themselves as seeking “the truth,” the real state of affairs.  And, indeed, there’s a real sense of exploring the world, and living as a form of detection in (from the US perspective, and ironically/satirically from the Latin American perspective) “savage”/”primitive” Mexico.  But we see them doing little actual “detection” of any but an experiental/metaphysical sort, though they are savage/visceral enough, except for:
  • Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, with the help of Juan García Madero, who go in search, from Mexico City to the Sonora Desert, of Cesárea Tinajero and the 1930s visceral realists of Mexico.  This is certainly a more straightforward kind of detection, as they ask questions, follow leads, investigate libraries and archives, stumble across leads.  There’s also an element of “savagery” in their lack of any social niceties, funds, or apparent clue about what they’re doing.
  • The nameless interlocutor(s) of the middle section.  The section borrows the form of a detective’s notes or audiotapes, each “chapter” beginning with the name, place, and date of the speaker.  You would be tempted to say that this is merely a fictional convenience, a way for the author to get out of the way of the many voices he’s presenting — except that there are times when someone has clearly asked a question to which the speaker is responding, pulling us out of the narrative to wonder what the circumstances are under which the speaker is telling their story.  I wondered, throughout the second section, why the stories were being told: are we to see it as the real-life Bolaño (or fictional Belano) interrogating his fictional creations?  As some obscure academic trying to write the history of the “visceral realists”?  Is it an actual detective or group of detectives, trying to figure out what’s happened to Lima, Belano, Madero, or solve some related mystery?  (The third section does lend some credence to this theory, although it’s impossible to think the thread would be followed for 20 years by a professional.)  At any rate, there’s some savage detection going on in this second section, but it’s impossible to say by whom.
  • Us, the readers.  Reading and writing are forms of savage detection: we work through the narrative, trying to piece together the story, the style, the meaning, the purpose, the theory of the book.  We do so in a kind of primitive state (I felt especially savage in this book, knowing so little about Mexican and Latin American poetry; surely this was unintentional, but it worked), working from incomplete knowledge about the book, its author, its relation to reality.  Somehow, at the end of our investigation, we tell ourselves a story about what happened, and what it meant.
  • Everyone, and especially everyone in this book.  There’s so much travel, so much coupling and recoupling, so much about struggling to find a way to live, a place to live, a way to be in the world: everyone begins to seem a savage detective, steps away from disaster, toeing that hard-boiled line between chaos and order.

So it’s a brilliant title: it works at all the levels of the book’s meaning, and it really resonates long after you’ve read it.

Dogs and Souths

July 1, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Dog of the South.

There is, in fact, something named The Dog of the South in the book: it’s a bus, owned by Dr. Reo Symes, who was using it as both vehicle and home until it broke down. But it plays no large part, only showing up for a few pages before Reo and Ray leave it behind and head farther south. So why that title? What else could it mean? I think, at least in part, that it’s just a provocative, mellifluous title, but there may be something more, too.

There is a dog: Guy Dupree’s chow, whose fur Guy cuts with scissors to spare him the Belizean heat. Again, not a major concern of the book, although he’s good for a few laughs.

Of course, by “dog” we could also mean hangdog, or underdog, or dirty dog (see title of post before last). So it might be a reference to Dupree, who is something of a dog: he steals his friend’s wife, car, and credit cards, and seems more or less a horrible human being. I love this description of him by Ray: “…he would always say — boast, the way people do — that he had no head for figures and couldn’t do things with his hands, slyly suggesting the presence of finer qualities.” But Dupree has no finer qualities, unless his revolutionary scheme is somehow unexpectedly brilliant.

Or there’s Ray: you couldn’t call him an underdog, since he’s a rich man’s son, but he does seem to match that phrase “beaten like a dog,” he follows the trail of Guy and Norma like a bloodhound (not a terribly skillful one, but nevertheless), and at the end he shows a dog’s persistence and loyalty, forgetting his car and nursing Norma back to health.

The “South” seems more straightforward, but there’s some complexity here, as well. The book starts in one South — the American — and ends in another — the Southern hemisphere, as well as what’s come to be known as the “global South.”

But do we ever really leave the American South? It pervades the book in interesting ways. Ray, we learn, “studied the Western campaigns of the Civil War under Dr. Buddy Casey” at Ole Miss. This, and the tapes of Casey’s lectures that Ray liked to listen to, become something of a running gag. The South’s Christianity follows Ray down to Belize: he himself is disinterested, it would seem, but Mrs. Symes insists on evangelizing to him, pestering him about the metaphysical questions he otherwise steadfastly avoids, preferring discussions of his rickety car. And then there are the natives in Belize, the blacks and Indians Ray meets.

The movie house in Belize shows a film of a Muhammad Ali fight, and the next day Ray finds his young aide-de-camp, Webster Spooner, “dancing around the tomato plant and jabbing the air with his tiny fists”:

“I’m one bad-ass nigger,” he said to me.

“No, you’re not.”

“I’m one bad-ass nigger.”

“No, you’re not.”

He was laughing and laying about with his fists. Biff Spooner! Scipio Africanus! I had to wait until his comic frenzy was spent.

When Ray finally finds Dupree, he says, “This is not much of a place…. I was expecting a big plantation. Where are the people who do the work?” (The people who do the work, it turns out, have absconded, shooting the cows on their way out.)

It’s subtle, but it seems to be there, in this and other places: this is a much more Southern book than it first seems, a thoroughly Southern comedy. And I think Portis sees some interesting connections between the South and the south below the South.

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