Walking Backwards

The Savage Detectives Reread BY David Kurnick. New York: Columbia University Press. 224 pages. $20.
The cover of The Savage Detectives Reread

At some point in moving from The Savage Detectives to 2666, Bolaño sketched a map (or diagram, or dream image) of Santa Teresa, the city on whose outskirts Cesárea Tinajero dies in the earlier book and that would become the center of his final novel. The picture (which you can find in the exhibition catalogue Archivo Bolaño 1977-2003) looks like a classic grid in a process of decomposition: names of landmarks or neighborhoods float in a disjointed space connected by gestural lines indicating streets or thoroughfares. But even in this exploded condition, we recognize how Bolaño’s imagination tends to geographical allegory. A municipal dump in the extreme southeast is ominously called El Chile; a neighborhood at the city’s northern edge is named Colonia México: this invented city shadows forth an image of the Latin America totality. But for American readers, nothing is odder about this map than our absence from it. Ciudad Juárez, Santa Teresa’s original, is steps away from El Paso, Texas. But in moving his fictional avatar of Juárez several hundred miles west, Bolaño erased its American counterpart: Santa Teresa abuts not a fictional version of El Paso but the emptiness of the Arizona desert.

Looking at Bolaño’s drawing “from” the United States is accordingly a bit like staring into a mirror in which your face remains invisible. It’s an eerie, educative cancellation—one that will no doubt operate most forcefully for those (white, anglophone) readers most strongly identified as American but that remains legible to anyone located in any civic or just physical sense in the northern nation that Bolaño simply erases. Getting into relation to this map demands that Americans recognize the representational issues that obsess Bolaño’s characters as our own—demands, for starters, that we question the very contours of “America” (the name for a continent as well as for the neoliberal world order). More strongly: it demands that US readers accept an alternate center of gravity for the continental terrain—that we recognize our national space as a satellite of this center. This reorientation, seismic or gravitational in nature, is one that the critiques of Bolaño’s work as pandering to an anglophone US audience fail utterly to register. To read The Savage Detectives is, for Americans, to be summarily deprived of the ballast of our presumed centrality. The book may be from “elsewhere,” but it asks to be read as a report from a shared reality.

The invitation can of course be refused: it’s possible for Americans to insist on receiving this novel as if it were an exotic import—even if doing so involves a willful refusal of the novel’s content. More subtly, one can accept the invitation but honor it in the form of liberal wish fulfillment: the idea of an evaporating United States has its appeal for any American who harbors the fantasy (reasonable but self-indulgent) of not being one. The gringo visitor to Mexico who carries The Savage Detectives hidden in his mental or real suitcase is playing out his own daydream of passing for invisible. That visitor, to state the obvious, has more than a passing resemblance to myself. The argument that Bolaño’s novel knows about American readers but doesn’t turn toward us—that The Savage Detectives perceives us but ignores us—might be understood as a literary cognate of the consummate touristic fantasy of living “like a local.” In this uncharitable account, the novel’s uncanny way of turning every reader into a kind of eavesdropper makes it the perfect vehicle for the American reader’s narcissistic projection—enabling the dream that one can inhabit an alien reality while taking up no space there.

If it’s pointless to defend oneself against the charge of indulging that fantasy, that’s partly because the fantasy is as unavoidable as it is embarrassing. But it’s also because the dream of dwelling in a world from which you somehow remain absent is a feature not just of American reading but of reading generally. In that sense, the hallucinatory richness of Bolaño’s novel derives from its exacerbation of this condition of novel reading, its intensification of the reader’s status as a receptive but ghostly presence. That experience finds representation inside Bolaño’s fictional world. “His pleasure in telling desperate stories, my pleasure in listening to them”: thus does the literary critic Luis Sebastián Rosado attempt to account for the strange enchantment of his painfully intermittent affair with the hustler Piel Divina. As a model for the relationship the reader maintains with Bolaño’s text, this one works ambiguously—it’s an intense liaison but a deeply unhappy one, in which communication is sporadic and powerless to prevent disaster.

In reading Bolaño, are we too simply transfixed by catastrophe, savoring in silence the spectacle of loss and defeat? This possibility might seem confirmed by a remark of Arturo Belano’s that Juan García Madero confides to his diary early in The Savage Detectives, to the effect that the visceral realists “walked backward . . . gazing at a point in the distance, but moving away from it, walking straight toward the unknown.” For any reader glancingly familiar with academic literary studies of the last forty years, the image inevitably recalls Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, his gaze fixed on a past he perceives as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” as the wind of progress blows him into the future. That reader will also know that this image from Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” once virally popular on the academic left in the United States as in Latin America, is now more likely to be critiqued as the very picture of “left melancholy,” the paralyzed admixture of despair and complacency that has colored so much progressive commentary in the age of neoliberalism. Bolaño’s novel has been arraigned for its supposed courting of just such quietistic melancholy—its failure to depict purposeful activism interpreted as antipolitical, its interest in disappointed characters described as an apology for a stricken and stuck relation to the past.

I’m not sure that politics and the literary object are related in this way—not sure that the absence of a coherent political program from the pages of a book vitiates that book’s political desire or political imagination, or constitutes an argument against political engagement. The faintly mechanistic vision of readerly relations implicit in such judgments can’t account for the demonstrably unpredictable ways people end up feeling about novels— can’t account for the possibility that a reader will be, say, angered by a complacent narrator, or bored by a progressive character, or spurred into radical action by a defeatist plot arc. Fiction sits at an odder angle to the real than is dreamt of in a lot of academic criticism. (The silence to which The Savage Detectives reduces me feels enlivening, a heightened state of alertness to contingency, danger, possibility, changefulness.) But the deeper reason such critiques frustrate may be that the attempt to specify what politics a book “has” relies on a taxonomic clarity that Bolaño’s novel feels engineered to defeat. “To narrate,” Roland Barthes claims in S/Z, is to set spinning a universe “which one delays predicating.” It’s only when we reach the end of narration, he continues, that the predicate arrives—only then, in Barthes’s arresting phrase, that “the world is adjectivized.” Telling a story, in this account, is an effort at staving off that final adjectivization, an attempt to forestall any reader’s confidence in declaring what the world of the narrative is like.

What is The Savage Detectives like? How is it finally adjectivized? Arturo’s backward walking indeed sounds fatalistic, and Luis Sebastián is certainly melancholic. But neither word serves adequately as a descriptor of Bolaño’s novel. Nor do the countervailing terms we might wish to assign in reaction (“hopeful,” “exuberant”) work any better. All of these emotional and political attitudes are contained in the pages of the novel, and all of them are volatilized—set in reaction against one another, constantly morphing into something else (maybe this, maybe that). Arturo’s Benjaminian remark does not encapsulate the truth of The Savage Detectives’s politics. It’s a moment in conversation, a move in an unfolding social game. “What do you mean, backward?” is Juan’s first dubious response to Arturo, followed by the seemingly approving judgment that “this sounded like the perfect way to walk.” But he confesses to his journal that “the truth was I had no idea what he was talking about. If you stop and think about it, it’s no way to walk at all.” Arturo’s image is not utterly discredited here, but its self-dramatizing assurance is comically placed in social space and historical time. The Savage Detectives does not promulgate Arturo’s image so much as set in motion a set of questions around it: What kind of historical experience makes such a vision seem attractive, comforting, inevitable? What kind of a collective takes shape around such a practice, and how durable is that collective, and where can it lead?

The answer to these questions can’t take the form of an adjectival label: it takes the form of the novel’s unwinding, its hundreds of pages of speaking-in-time. I still find the vividness of that speaking almost literally unbelievable, an incredulity that sometimes takes the superstitious form of marveling at the mundanity of the physical book. How is it that this rectangular object, smaller than a breadbox, contains so many people and so many moods, so many projects, so much ongoinginess? I’ve read it many times, but it’s a book about which I am still curious: I want to know what these people are talking about. In the face of that curiosity, in the reading itself, the analytic habit is momentarily suspended. “For a while,” Iñaki Echevarne says in a Barcelona bar in July 1994, “Criticism travels side by side with the Work, then Criticism vanishes and it’s the Readers who keep pace with it. The journey may be long or short.” The Savage Detectives makes the critic—this critic at least—a reader again, trying to keep pace on the journey. I don’t know what The Savage Detectives is like: it’s a book to which I can finally only say, Go on, I’m listening.

Excerpted from The Savage Detectives Reread by David Kurnick. Copyright © 2021 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.