Last term I taught a grad class on Roberto Bolaño and Mexico. The scope of the seminar wasn’t exhaustive—we focused on Los detectives salvajes and read about ten Mexican intertexts alongside it. My copy of the novel is pretty worn out, the spine in a thousand creases and some of its pages falling out, all from having been read a few times over the past decade. It’s always fascinating to me to think about which novels we read multiple times. In my case, probably this one and Pedro Páramo are the novels I’ve most repeated in my adult life. (It feels so different as an adult; when I was a kid it always seemed natural for me to return to the same books.) It’s odd, though, to compare these two novels. The latter is one of my favorites ever, while the other sometimes grates on me, even if it’s objectively a beautiful book. I really prefer Bolaño’s short fiction.
That said, the parts I most like in Los detectives salvajes are the scenes of interpretation. One takes place in January 1976, at the house of aging poet and typist Amadeo Salvatierra, who shows the young Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima the only published poem by Cesárea Tinajero. The text is called “Sión,” and it’s comprised entirely of a series of lines—straight, curving, spiked. Amadeo has never been able to make sense of it, but the savage poets can read it immediately. For them, it’s about images of the sea—placid, wavy, choppy. However, the only way they can get to this interpretation is by adding a little sailboat to the images, a supplement that both makes the poem intelligible and destroys its power of suggestion. They amplify the poem, but they rein it in by restricting is power to signify.
I think the best way to interpret the scene, however, isn’t by reflecting on the role of the reader—the nautical appendices that the poets add to the poem—or on the integrity and round completeness of the literary text. I think rather that we should see the scene as a sort of game.
The two poets suggest this reading. Amadeo asks them what they think the poem means:
I said, boys, what do you make of this poem? I said, boys, I’ve been looking at it for more than forty years and I’ve never understood a goddamn thing. Really. I might as well tell you the truth. And they said: it’s a joke, Amadeo, the poem is a joke covering up something more serious.
That formula—a joke that’s also something more serious—appears constantly throughout the novel. The movement that the poets lead is described in similar terms, so are various encounters between people. In this case, the joke is a pun, or a half pun: Lima and Belano eventually explain to Amadeo that the word “Sión” hides the word “navegación,” and so the poem is really just about sailing the waters of time and space.
Besides this scene, there are other drawings. In the novel’s final section, when Lima and Belano, along with Juan García Madero (the narrator of the diary through which the first and last parts of the novel are narrated) and Lupe, their prostitute friend, are driving through Sonora. They’re running from Lupe’s pimp, just as they’re searching for traces of Cesárea. García Madero draws a series of images, simple circles and lines, engaging the others with a guessing game. What’s this? A Mexican seen from above. What’s this? A Mexican on skis. What’s this? Four Mexicans gathered around a coffin. These sorts of jokes mix childishness with sinister humor (maybe that’s also childish, in as much as kids are better at being innocently sinister).
There are these jokes and there are other games that resemble them, guessing games about poetic forms and street slang. The novel ends with three rectangles—the first one with a triangle peeking out (a star behind a window), the second just a rectangle with nothing else (a window with a sheet over it), and the last one a dotted outline of a rectangle (with no interpretation offered). Why doesn’t the last one, which is the last thing we see in the novel, have a gloss on it like the others do? Probably because Bolaño wants the game to continue. He’s like Cortázar in this regard, in as much as Rayuela ends with a reference back to more pages in the novel. In that case reading never ends, while for Bolaño it’s interpretation that never does.
An idea we worked out in class, in this vein, was that the first rectangle was form and content, a window with something seen through it; the second was just form, a frame and nothing else; the last was the dissolution of form, the dotted line marking the disappearance of the window. This reading seems to work, and I like it because it coheres with the guessing games that Bolaño uses throughout the novel. Not just because it’s elliptical and unresolved, leaving us to keep guessing, but also because guessing games also tend to dissolve form. Sure, they have a right answer from the perspective of the speaker, but we don’t need to fetishize the author so much as to think it’s the only one. Really, when someone asks us to guess what something is, anything goes, as long as it has charm or humor in it. The point is to keep the conversation going, not to close it off.
In this direction, I think that there is some relation between these games and the sorts of anarchist sympathies expressed by so many characters in the novel. That, however, is material for a different discussion.