Cutting out and clipping together The Savage Detectives

Since I spent a lot of time thinking about exactly how the second section of The Savage Detectives worked—and who was reporting it, as discussed, for example, here, I decided to actually analyze the darn thing and try to figure some stuff out about it.

First, one possibly interesting observation that struck me as surprising but doesn’t seem super meaningful: other than the recurring presence of January 1976–vintage Amadeo Salvatierra, the interviews pretty much go in chronological order; there is exactly one non-Amadeo interview that is out of order (Joaquín Font, March 1977, page 222 in my Picador edition).

Back to the “substance” of this post. Something surprised me over the past few days, reading over others’ entries and comments for the group read—remarks here and there about a multiplicity of interviers, writers, listeners, whatever, in “The Savage Detectives” section. The thought had simply not occurred to me when I read it. Knowing me and knowing Bolaño, there’s probably a nicely hidden reason why the same person cannot have conducted all the interviews, but I decided, for this post, to go under my initial assumption: that one person (or perhaps one very small group of people, say, a duo) went to all the places and talked to all the people him- or herself. I believe that if you make what Nero Wolfe might call a few reasonable assumptions about this interviewer an interesting picture begins to emerge, so let’s suspend our disbelief and do it for a bit of fun.

Here is the story of the interviews, broadly and in chronological order: a long, in-depth interview is conducted in January 1976 with Amadeo Salvatierra in Mexico City. Further shorter interviews were conducted with a variety of visceral realist–types in Mexico City from March 1976 through May 1977, interrupted only by an entry made in early 1977 from a university in the American Midwest.

Starting in May 1977, the interviews take place in Europe: First in Barcelona, then in Paris, then back to Barcelona before finally hitting London (and, somewhat anticlimactically, Port-Vendres, France). By March 1979 we are back in Mexico City, which becomes like a home base from which isolated trips are made to various places where visceral realist–types live or have lived: to Tel Aviv in October 1979, to Vienna in May 1980, to San Diego in March 1981 (where two people who live together are interviewed during the same month, separately—by a friend, perhaps, who has come to visit?), again to San Diego in fall 1982 (with Rafael and Barbara each interviewed separately again). Things settle down and by now the interviews, all in Mexico City, are coming in at two per year, slow compared with the several-per-quarter rate of the late 1970s. Is the interviewer losing interest? Is it harder to get people to talk about the boys? Are the visceral realists harder to find? Does he just have too much else to do now—a real job, like Xóchitl, or a family?

Things are quiet, and the late 80s and early 90s are told in a few of the longer entries from characters we will never hear from again, like Andrés Ramírez, Edith Oster, and Daniel Grossman. Then there’s a trip back to Spain: starting with Mallorca in June 1994, and hitting Barcelona and Catalonia that same month, and later a book fair in Madrid that’s a whirlwind of tragicomedy. Then there’s nothing for over a year, followed by five months with an usual amount of travel: from Barcelona to Mexico City back to Spain then to Paris and finally back to Mexico, back to the graduate student in Pachuca who has never heard of Juan García Madero.

Note the fury of work in the early years. Mexico City is home, and the gang is almost all still here, with fresh memories. It’s easy to get hold of people who will talk for a few minutes about Belano and Lima, and the interviewer wants to talk about them pretty frequently.

The interviewer slows down around the same time as the rest of the gang, growing up, getting jobs, maybe selling out, or simply no longer caring about visceral realism. Barbara Patterson might get nostalgic, wish her life had turned out differently, and talk to the narrator about the romance she still feels for the 70s, but by 1982 she can only really focus on how much she despises Rafael Barrios. People have moved on.

In many cases, then, it simply seems like the interviewer is one of the group, or a hanger-on—perhaps a younger fan of theirs. But these jaunts here and there suggest purposely seeking of information about the boys—or do they? They are typically to universities or to cities with plenty of universities. Perhaps the interviewer has simply sold out by going into academia; the July 1994 Madrid Book Fair scene certainly helps suggest the possibility of a writer–academic. So perhaps he just makes the most of his opportunities at conferences to find the right people to ask about Belano and Lima—but that seems awfully convenient, doesn’t it?

When I look at the section like this, I see a pattern so similar to the one Belano and Lima followed: a wild youth in Mexico City followed by a move to Europe, all around Europe, because that’s what wild youths do. Then of course you eventually ended up home, became somewhat stable. For Belano, that happened in Spain, and for Lima, perhaps in Mexico City (but perhaps nowhere). But the interviewer doesn’t stop seeking—in fact he finds more and more disparate people to talk to.

Why would someone do such a thing? From the August 1976 interview with Manuel Maples Arce in Mexico City:

Do you think anyone is interested in stridentism these days? I asked Arturo Belano. Of course, Maestro, he answered, or words to that effect. My opinion is that stridentism is history now and as such it can only be interesting to literary historians, I said. It interests me and I’m not a historian, he said. Well, then.

Well, then, indeed. I find it interesting that the last interview, after the interviewer has really managed to nail down as much as could possibly be expected of Belano’s life (with María Teresa and Jacobo Urenda; Lima’s life, as always, has been harder to nail down but he does what he can with Clara Cabeza), is with student of the Mexico City–visceral realists García Grajales. That is, with the literary historian (or is he?) who is the only person in the world interested in exactly what the interviewer has spent his life interested in in his own way (as a friend? hanger-on? low-grade participant? bad poet? childhood friend?).

And here I think García Grajales’s denial of García Madero becomes a bit interesting, too. The interviewer somehow knows something about García Madero (like Belano and Lima somehow knew something about Cesárea Tinajero when they met with Amadeo Salvatierra). And García Grajales, who can have all “their magazines, their pamphlets, documents you can’t find anyplace” that he wants, hasn’t actually been there, known about any of it—he’s too young; it’s 1996, and he’s calling the interviewer “sir.” Why should García Grajales know anything at all about what happened in 1975–76?

This post’s title references, as I lazily did here, a line from Charles Kinbote’s foreword to the poem “Pale Fire,” advising the reader on how best to make use of his footnotes: “I find it wise in such cases as this to eliminate the bother of back-and forth leafings by either cutting out and clipping together the pages with the text of the thing, or, even more simply, purchasing two copies of the same work which can then be placed in adjacent positions on a comfortable table….”

5 comments to Cutting out and clipping together The Savage Detectives

  • One complication or actually a simplification for this outstanding schematic is that some of the interviews could plausibly be over the phone. Not many, though. Surprisingly few.

    Part of the fun here, though, is to watch B. mess with us using the tiniest details. Look how much weight you are putting – you have to put – on the word “sir” in that last interview. Then there follows the odd discussion that reveals the relative youth of the professor. Hmmm. The author seems to be a step ahead of us. Is he laying a trail to somewhere we want to go?

  • What a savagely good and entertaining bit of sleuthing.

    By the way, have you seen this new edition of Pale Fire that comes pre-cut-up for you?

  • Tom—Yes, I thought that was funny too. I skimmed through many of the interviews again while I took down all this info, and thought it all seemed much tighter than I had realized.

    Scott—Thank you! And I had heard of that edition, a while before it came out, but had completely forgotten it. It’s pretty…

  • Justin

    On the question of the identity of the interviewer: on p. 205 of the paperback edition, Auxilio Lacouture says, near the end of her interview, “And that’s all, my young friends.” This gave me the impression that perhaps there were multiple interviewers (which nicely parallels the interviews that we know were done by Belano and Lima in their own, earlier search). Who precisely the multiple interviewers might be is beyond me (and probably isn’t terribly important), but I wanted to throw that idea out there.

  • nick

    i always assumed the interviewer was the young man at the start…. its been a long time since i read this book though maybe there is something that makes this impossible- is he interviewed himself?