I'm going to tell you something about the honour of poets.
Having recently finished reading Roberto Bolano's masterpiece, I had no choice but to sit down and start typing. The novel is engrossing, the storytelling brilliant, the panorama of people, places and times magnificently grand, and the whole so bitter-sweet, filled with wry humour and ultimately so poignant, that The Savage Detectives is an obvious modern classic, and has instantly become one of my own top ten best-loved books of all time.
he told me that writing poetry was the most beautiful thing anyone could do on this godforsaken earth
This novel is not just about the usual human concerns of death and crime, madness and sanity, deep-rooted internecine intrigues, love lost and found, or duelling with a critic with swords on a beach - though it is in part about all these things - but at its heart it is about poetry, the love of poetry, the world of poetry, the fascination with poetry, the passion for poetry. Its serried ranks of characters are filled to bursting with poets of every description, avant-garde, experimental, lyrical, political, traditional, poets exultant, dazzling and triumphant, and poets embittered, tragic, mean and lame.
The books says that poetry is crucial to life: that there is no form of writing more profound, more dangerous, more liberated, and liberating, than poetry.
I thought: despite my cleverness and all my sacrifices, I'm lost. I thought, what a poetic act to destroy my writings. I thought: I should have swallowed them instead, because now I'm lost. I thought: the vanity of writing, the vanity of destruction.
Immersing the reader in the avant-garde poetry movement of Mexico City in the 1970s, the novel charts a subterranean world in which poetry is all, and all else in human daily existence a pale shadow barely worth the time. With the poetry world come the alliances, the love and sexual adventures, and the rivalries with opposing groups. In this pocket universe, nothing is more central, crucial to life than writing and reading poetry, devouring it great chunks on public buses and savouring its syllabic morsels in cafes and bars, memorising it by lamplight and fighting over it on the streets. Being published in an edition of a little poetry magazine takes on a life-threatening importance, even if, to the uncomprehending outside world, the magazines pay little or nothing and are read by a tiny number, in the hundreds or at best a few thousand. As the late Carol Novack put it so well, "no-one cares about poets, except other poets, and their mothers god bless them".
The story of Arturo Belano (sic) and Ulises Lima and their little band of "Visceral Realists" - poets who believe that poetry must be lived rather than just written on a page - is a poetic quest to go ever more deeply into poetry and the poetic, to have it interpenetrate one's own daily, even minute-by-minute existence.
Literature isn't innocent.
Bolano, who inevitably tells much of his own life story through Belano, embarks with Lima, as well as a 17 year old poet named Juan Garcia Madero, and a teenage prostitute named Lupe, on a peripatetic, quixotic car journey to the Sonora desert in northern Mexico, to seek out traces of a founding figure of the Mexican avant-garde from the 1920s, a woman named Cesarea Tinajero. There comes then an intermezzo of some 350 pages, in which, via a massed choir of first person narrators, we learn the fate of almost everyone in the Visceral Realist group over the following two decades, including Belano, until the quest for Tinajero resumes in the last hundred or so pages, and we learn just why these young poetry detectives are called savage.
One thing more: reading, I was struck by a curious thing. Like Bolano, I myself had written a novel about a young poet - the author again, thinly disguised - who embarks on a quest to a distant place in the mid 1970s to meet a great poet who made their mark in decades previous. In my case, the quest was to meet Robert Graves, in my book The Maze of the Muse.
While in no way possible way comparable to the achievement that is Bolano's, certain parallels became more interesting as I looked at them. Both books use Barcelona of the 1970s as a major setting. Bolano and I even frequented the same parts of the old port city at around the same time, and our paths might well have crossed, or our eyes met, lifting momentarily from a book in a cafe. In The Savage Detectives, the dramatic climax occurs when a pimp comes after the poets who have taken his girl, Lupe. Something very similar occurs in The Maze of the Muse. Yet both books were written entirely independently, on far sides of the world, but published in the same year, 1998, by two writers who never met - yet both of whom considered poetry the highest form of literary expression, and yet, for whatever reason, had to express that in prose.