Over the last week or so, I've re-read the opening section of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives—the diary of one Juan García Madero, the seventeen-year-old law student, who joins the visceral realists, stops attending classes, loses his virginity (several times in close succession, with several different women), and squeezes several years worth of reading, writing, fucking, and wandering around Mexico City into the two months between November 2, 1975, and the first few minutes of New Year's Day, 1976. Some observations:
García Madero never capitalizes the name of movement—"the visceral realists"—which he joins.Now this may be simply a linguistic convention (I'm not sure, maybe literary movements are never capitalized in Spanish), but somehow, this orthography lends the group an added status (at least for my English-reading eyes)—for me, if it's not capitalized, it's not a Proper Noun—not a specific entity which has been named by someone, and that, in turn, means that it's a common noun—a generally recognized thing in the world —a fact of our social being. We didn't just call ourselves the Visceral Realists; we just were (and everyone knew we were) the visceral realists.
He's hilarious, in his slightly self-serious way: for example, his wonderfully laconic diary entry from December 23:
Nothing happened today. And if anything did, I'd rather not talk about it, because I didn't understand it.
Juan García Madero is not just another version of Roberto Bolaño, as one reviewer suggested. Now this is something that bothers me a lot, whenever I encounter it—the critical tendency—the lazy critical tendency—to assert that any moderately interesting character, of about the same age and gender as the author, represents the author "writing about" him- or herself. Here are a couple of instances that have stuck in my craw for years: An old teacher of mine who, when I mentioned Nabokov's Pnin, complacently observed that Nabokov was, of course, writing about himself (apparently because both Pnin and Nabokov were exiled Russian intellectuals who taught in American colleges, although Pnin, in radical contrast to Nabokov himself, could barely speak English); Hemingway asserting, through his mouthpiece Nick Adams, that Leopold Bloom was too much like James Joyce to be a really great character (apparently because they were both male and thought about sex-although the differences between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom could hardly be more pronounced.) And yes, I'm assuming that Nick Adams is in fact Hemingway—sometimes a character really is the author, as Arturo Belano is, quite simply, a lightly fictionalized version of Roberto Bolaño.
Anyway, Juan García Madero is really his own person—which really stands out, now that I've read all the other books by Bolaño translated into English so far—there are huge differences between the more-or-less openly autobiographical narrators of, say, Distant Star and the various "B" narrators of some of the short stories—narrators who all share the quiet confidence, indeed arrogance—of Bolaño...