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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Literary Afterlives of the 20th Century

Reading Roberto Bolaño in New York City.

By Maya Lerman


“Drink up, boys, drink up and don’t worry, if we finish this bottle we’ll go down and buy another one. Of course, it won’t be the same as the one we’ve got now, but it’ll still be better than nothing. Ah, what a shame they don’t make Los Suicidas mezcal anymore, what a shame that time passes, don’t you think? what a shame that we die, and get old, and everything good goes galloping away from us.” — The Savage Detectives


Reading for fun as a full-time student is hard. Books are displaced by the constant stream of barely legible academic PDFs, gargantuan library tomes, and that nagging feeling that you’re never doing quite enough with your time. Living in New York City has forced me to be picky with my reading choices—to favor the short, the punchy, and the relevant. The Savage Detectives was my exception: Written in the 1990s and set in the ’70s, Roberto Bolaño’s 650-page novel was not the easiest sell, but after a lively pitch from a bookseller on Broadway, I was convinced.


The Savage Detectives is a novel in three parts. Part one is told from the perspective of Juan Garcia Madero, a teenage poet who falls in with the bohemian “Visceral Realists” led by Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, a vibrant duo of literary rebels. Garcia Madero’s experience with Visceral Realism is alive with passion; he finds himself instantly intoxicated by the air of possibility and youthfulness that Belano and Lima introduce to his life. This idyllic period is ultimately ephemeral, as the looming threat of violence from corrupt police and possessive pimps forces the group to disband. 


Many have speculated about the autofictional elements of Bolaño’s work. The enigmatic figure of Belano, who is central to The Savage Detectives, appears in multiple other stories and is widely considered to be an authorial insert. Like his characters, Bolaño founded an obscure poetic movement of his own, which launched his lifelong interest in writers and their legacies. 


With each section I read between classes or on subway commutes, The Savage Detectives became my escape. Through the endless potential of Bolaño’s autofictional youths, I lived vicariously, my infatuation building as I became increasingly immersed in their incessantly exciting lives. It was one of those rare works that made me want to put pen to paper—not because I was inspired by Bolaño’s technical talent alone, but because I was utterly enchanted by the undying convictions of the Visceral Realists. They fully embodied their literary ambitions, sustained only by their sheer dedication to poetry.


It was fitting, then, when I learned of Bolaño’s obsession with another, real-life literary group that got their start here at Columbia: the famous Beat Generation. Throughout his life, and particularly during the decade that he wrote The Savage Detectives, Bolaño commented on the work of William S. Burroughs and even translated Jack Kerouac into Spanish—two figures who spent their young adult lives in Morningside Heights developing their poetic talent. Given Bolaño’s tendency towards thinly veiled autofiction, I cannot help but wonder if he may have modeled his Visceral Realists after the Beatniks, drawing inspiration from their countercultural ambitions and contagious camaraderie. I am also reminded of Bolaño’s preoccupation with place, which itself makes for compelling parallels: a quintessentially Latin American author whose work captures the unique revolutionary spirit of his homeland, perhaps drawing inspiration from the Beat authors, who are quintessentially American and quintessentially New York. 


The legacy of the Beats looms over Columbia, their personal letters displayed in Butler and their names boasted on lists of famous alumni. Understandably, the story of one of their closest friends committing a murder in Riverside Park is less widely celebrated. Lucien Carr—a close friend of Kerouac, Burroughs, and others—killed his much older acquaintance, David Kammerer, after the latter made a romantic advance. Carr then dumped Kammerer’s body into the Hudson, turning himself in to the police shortly after. What followed was a sensationalized investigation involving Carr’s group of friends, an event that many consider to be formative in launching the nonconformist and innovative Beat Generation as we know it today. 


While there’s no evidence Bolaño knew of Kammerer’s murder, I have no doubt it would have fascinated him. Bolaño was an author obsessed with the complex relationship between writing and violence that exists on the border between the fictional and, if I may borrow from Belano and Lima, the viscerally real. This materializes fully in part three of The Savage Detectives, entitled “The Deserts of Sonora,” which takes place immediately after part one and sees Garcia Madero return as the narrator. In the novel’s final moments, Garcia Madero recounts the ultimate confrontation between the Visceral Realists and their pursuers—one which culminates in an accidental murder that forces Lima and Belano into exile. 


The resemblance to Carr’s story is striking. While that fateful night in Riverside Park ultimately launched the Beats into literary stardom, Carr—after serving a short prison sentence—faded into relative obscurity. So too did Belano and Lima: The novel’s second portion takes place years after the demise of Visceral Realism and their subsequent disappearance from public consciousness. This section is told from the fragmented perspectives of people across the world who recall their brief yet powerful encounters with Belano and Lima during their time in the shadows.   



Illustration by Selin Ho


As though his writing was prophetic, Bolaño’s legacy also faces the threat of invisibility that befell his alter ego: Twenty years removed from his death, pages and pages of his work remain hidden, kept private by his widow, Carolina López, who finds it too painful to return to her late husband’s writings. As long as the archive is kept closed, the chances of a biography are slim. 


There is an implication of agency assumed by the phrase “literary movement,” as if those who launch them are somehow “literary movers.” Contrary to this perceived agency, what Bolaño seemed most interested in when writing The Savage Detectives, and what struck me most about the novel, was the utter lack of control his young writers have over their work, their lives, and their afterlives. In Bolaño’s writing and in the lives of the characters he designs, the material forces of time and tragedy wear away the legacy of the written word. As the writers behind these words erode too, I cannot help but wonder what fate we younger writers face. Where will our entanglements with the city and its ideas leave us? How long will our invented words hold relevance? Visceral Realism fades, Bolaño doesn’t get a biography, the world moves on. Are these losses to be mourned? 


These musings accompany living and reading in New York City, a place haunted by the presence of literary ghosts. I feel nostalgic for a life I’ve never experienced reading letters from the Beats. I sense the presence of Carr and Kammerer while on walks in Riverside Park, a site tainted by the legacy of a Columbia student’s generation-defining decision. Like the tapestry of characters in part two of The Savage Detectives, I am constantly brushing up against the remnants of complex legacies, existing adjacent to movements of the past, present, and even future, with only a glimpse of my place in the overarching narrative. It’s a perspective that may seem bleak, perhaps even fatalistic. But, if I’ve learned anything from Bolaño, the Beats, and the ceaseless tide of New York intellectual life, it’s to cherish my time in this place—this moment of exhilarating uncertainty and fleeting youth—without dwelling on perpetuity. 


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Lamb Herman
Lamb Herman
6 days ago

This idyllic period is ultimately ephemeral, as the looming threat of violence from corrupt police and possessive pimps forces the group to disband.  geometry dash subzero


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