The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño, is a remarkable novel about two poets, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, told from everyone’s perspective but their own. The story of their lives and of the poetic movement they founded (“visceral realism”) is narrated in short passages by the two men’s friends, former lovers, and even passing acquaintances. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this treatment is that the various narrators have widely different opinions of Ulises and Arturo: some think highly of the pair, some hate them, and some barely notice them at all, referring to them only indirectly as minor players in other stories. They are protagonists almost by default, but they are not given any special treatment because of this role. Bolaño forces them to live as we all do, feeling like we’re main characters but surrounded by people who feel the same way about themselves. The result is a sobering and sometimes dismal picture – both of the wide reach our actions have on the world, and of a person’s ultimate loneliness.
A particularly poignant example appears in a section narrated by María Font about halfway through the book. Ulises has just returned to Mexico from Europe. During his travels, he’s been alternately lost, broke, jailed, loved, and abandoned. Once home, he goes to see some old friends. María used to be involved with Ulises’ group of poets, but she’s moved on.
One afternoon, as I was reading, I heard Xóchitl calling me, banging on her ceiling with a broomstick. I leaned out the window. Ulises is here, said Xóchitl, do you want to come down? I went downstairs. There was Ulises. I wasn’t especially thrilled to see him. Everything he and Belano had meant to me was too remote now. He talked about his travels. I thought there was too much literature in his telling of them. As he was talking I started to play with little Franz. […] Before I left, Ulises asked me about Angélica. She’s home, I said, call her. I can’t say why, but my attitude was generally hostile.
This is actually just a small moment in another story María is telling. The real story has little at all to do with Ulises – she’s too preoccupied with her own problems to be much interested in him or his adventures. But the situation is made even more heartbreaking by the fact that her dramas are small, almost banal, and yet still more significant to her than anything that’s happened to him.
I recently came home from a few years abroad, and I quickly learned (as most people do in that situation) that what seemed like an important and grand adventure to me is not necessarily of interest to those who were here the whole time. Life went on without me, some people have changed, and some connections have faded. Good friends are still good friends, of course, but I’ve had to make an effort to become part of people’s lives again.
Ulises has a strange and, due to the format of the book, often unclear character; we never hear him say that he’s depressed or disappointed by María’s lack of excitement to see him. They were never even very close. But there’s something tragic in imagining Ulises feeling alone and suddenly separate from people he’d once called friends.
Bolaño could have written the scene much more easily: Ulises arrives, tries to tell his old friends about Europe, and is stung by their apparent lack of interest. It takes guts to try and convince the reader to care about characters who don’t have a voice, especially when those we do hear from often shrug them off. But in telling the story this way, Bolaño creates a more honest and affecting novel. The Savage Detectives reminds us that, no matter how well we may know ourselves, our true impact on the people we encounter is much more complex, more nuanced, and, ultimately, impossible to gauge from our own limited perspectives.
Two days later, Xóchitl goes to another meeting of the visceral realists, which Ulises has been trying to resurrect.
The next day Xóchitl told me how the meeting had gone. Like a zombie movie. In her opinion, visceral realism was finished, which was too bad because the poems she was writing now, she said, were really visceral realist poems. I listened to her without saying anything. Then I asked about Ulises. He’s the boss, said Xóchitl, but he’s on his own. After that, there were no visceral realist meetings, and Xóchitl didn’t ask me to watch her son at night again.