After re-reading “The Savage Detectives” backwards (starting with the last chapter in Part II and reading all the way to the beginning, then reading Part III, and finally Part I), I was going to write something really epic and intelligent-sounding that would summarize all of Bolaño’s themes. Like MADNESS and LITERATURE and YOUTH and POLITICS and DEATH. Dreams, light, windows, understanding, the lack of meaning, searching, traveling, food, creativity, art… I could go on. Then I decided what I really wanted to do was just post my favorite Bolaño quotes that I underlined while reading.
All quotes are from “The savage detectives” by Roberto Bolaño; translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Starting backwards from Part II:
Like so many Mexicans, I too gave up poetry. Like so many thousands of Mexicans, I too turned my back on poetry.
We’re not doing it for you, Amadeo, we’re doing it for Mexico, for Latin America, for the Third World, for our girlfriends, because we feel like doing it.
And the one who was reading raised his eyes and looked at me as if I were behind a window or he were on the other side of a window, and said: relax, nothing’s wrong. Goddamn psychotic boys! As if speaking in one’s sleep were nothing! As if making promises in one’s sleep were nothing!
I saw them as if through a window, one of them with his eyes open and the other with his eyes shut, but both of them looking, looking out? looking in?
I shuffled over to the switch and turned out the light.
All languages seemed detestable to me just then… To say that know is silly, I know. All those languages, all that whispering, simply a vicarious way of preserving our identity for an uncertain length of time. Ultimately, I don’t know why they seemed detestable, maybe because in an absurd way I was lost somewhere in those two long rooms, lost in a region I didn’t know, a country I didn’t know, a continent I didn’t know, on a strange, elongated planet.
He had lost something and he wanted to die, that was all.
He was telling his own story, a story that made no sense, telling it over and over, with the difference that each time he condensed it a little more, until at last all he was saying was: I wanted to die, but I realized it was better not to.
One of those things that drove me wild, the ability of human beings to adapt to anything, instantly.
I’m basically a fighter. I try to stay positive. Things don’t have to be bad or inevitable.
I’m sociable, a person who likes to be happy, and where do you find happiness if not in people?
It still seems impossible to me that anyone, no matter how much he read, could’ve read every book in the world. There must be so many of them, and I don’t mean every single book, good and bad, just the good ones. There must be stacks of them! Enough so you could spend twenty-four hours a day reading! And that’s not to mention the bad ones, since there must be more bad ones than good ones… That poem is total bullshit. Neither of those things is possible.
I asked him… what a person was supposed to do after reading everything and sleeping with everyone, according to the French poet, of course, and he said travel, go away.
I felt free, that was the main thing, and I also felt loved, embraced, protected, I felt like I was a worthwhile person and that made me happy.
What matters is your son and your health. Worry about your son and worry about your health and stop getting yourself in these messes. It’s hard to believe that such a smart guy could be so dumb.
At that moment I even understood, or thought I understood, all of Arturo’s insanities, the crazy things he’d done and the things he was about to do, and I would’ve liked to go to Africa too that night while we were watching the sea and the lights in the distance, the little trawlers; I felt capable of anything and especially of leaving for somewhere far away.
How could it be a good novel when it was just one sentence repeated over and over again? That shows a lack of respect for the reader. Life is shitty enough without being stuck buying a book where all it says is “All work and no play…” … Your common sense amazes me, Teresa, he said.
I think I talked to him about life’s responsibilities, the things I believed in and clung to in order to keep breathing.
The writers of Spain (and Latin American) were generally from well-to-do families or families of certain social standing. As soon as they took up the pen, they rejected or chafed at that standing: to write was to renounce, to forsake, sometimes even to commit suicide. It meant going against the family… Today… they tend to use writing as a means to move a few rungs up the social ladder.
(500) I felt reasonably happy, I kept busy, I watched things, I watched myself watch things, I read, I lived a peaceful life. I didn’t produce much. That may be important.
(503) Life (the specter of life) is constantly challenging us for acts we’ve never committed, and sometimes for acts we never even thought of committing.
(510) [During the scene in which Belano duels with the critic] In a brief moment of lucidity, I was sure that we’d all gone crazy. But even that moment of lucidity was displaced by a super-second of super-lucidity (if I can put it that way) in which I realized that this scene was the logical outcome of our ridiculous lives. It wasn’t a punishment but a new wrinkle. It gave us a glimpse of ourselves in our common humanity. It wasn’t proof of our idle guilt but a sign of our miraculous and pointless innocence. But that’s not it. That’s not it. We were still and they were in motion.
(480) it has to do with life, with what we can lose without knowing it, and what we can regain. So what can we regain? I said. What we lost, said Norman, we can get it back intact.
(482) and then all of a sudden I understood everything. What was there to understand? I said. Everything, the most important thing of all.
(484) No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get anything clear.. It was all vague and depressing…. Everyone riding on the metro at that time of night seemed sick. She went one way and I went the other.
(488) Where we really want to go… To modernity, Cesarea, I said, to goddamned modernity… The search for a place to live and a place to work was the common fate of all mankind.
(466) You pay poets, it was said, with the money you make from crooked business men, embezzlers, drug traffickers, murderers of women and children, money launderers, corrupt politicians.
(467) Belano, who buried himself in a world where everything stank, where everything stank of shit and urine and rot and poverty and sickness, a world where the stink was suffocating and numbing, and where the only things that didn’t stink was my daughter’s body.
(469) I realized what Arturo Belano had known the moment he saw me. I was a terrible poet.
I sought peace and I didn’t find it.
(474) We’re all alone and we’re lost.
(435) We weren’t writing for publication but to understand ourselves or better or just to see how far we could go. And when we weren’t writing we talked endlessly about his life and my life, although sometimes Arturo told me stories about friends who had died in the guerrilla wars of Latin America.
(436) I never met a Mexican who knew how to rig a phone, maybe because we weren’t ready for the modern world. The rigged telephones were easy to tell by the lines that formed around them, especially at night. The best and worst of Latin America came together in those lines, the old revolutionaries and the rapists, the former political prisoners and the hawkers of junk jewelry.
(438) One night I met the devil. That’s all I remember. I met the devil and I knew I was going to die.
(440) Any little thing made me cry. A house seen from the distance, traffic jams, people trapped inside their cars, the daily news.
(445) I asked her what life was like in Los Angeles and she said that it was different every day, that sometimes it could be very good and sometimes very bad, but if you worked hard you could get ahead.
(446) I was going to ask whether she was alone when she died but then I decided not to ask anything.
(447) I knew immediately that they would buy the house and right there in the yard, without taking off my gloves, standing there like a pillar of salt, I decided that the time had come for me to leave too.
(400-401) When I got home everything had changed… I got depressed and didn’t know what to do… No one knew me and I didn’t know anyone.
(404) [I think this is probably my favorite quote of all… I love his descriptions of food!] Very hungry and very much like crying and very happy. And I rushed into the kitchen and in the kitchen were two men and a woman, who were talking animatedly about someone who had died. And I took a ham sandwich and ate it and then I had two gulps of Coca-Cola to wash it down. The bread was somehow dry. But the sandwich was delicious, so I took another one, this time a cheese sandwich, and I ate it little by little, not all at once, chewing carefully and smiling the way I used to smile so many years ago… I heard what they were saying, they were talking about a corpse and a burial, about a friend of mine, an architect, who had died, and at that moment it seemed appropriate for me to say that I’d known him. That was all. They were talking about a dead man whom I’d known, and then they started to talk about other things, I guess.
(406) In a burst of utter Mexicanness, I knew that we were ruled by fate and that we would all drown in the storm.
(406-407) I set out to dissect what had become of my youth. And I concluded that everything had to change, even if I wasn’t sure just then how to go about it or what path to take.
(408) Life has many wonderful moments, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
(415) We aren’t given much on this earth. We have to pray and work.
(416) There’s nothing like traveling to expand your horizons… When I was done traveling I returned convinced of one thing: we’re nothing.
(417) I was missing a purpose or the purpose. Or what amounts to the same thing, at least from my perspective: I want to understand the phenomenon that had jump-started my fortune, the numbers that hadn’t lit up my head for so long, and accept that reality like a man.
I realized I was probably never going to understand the true nature of my luck, of the money that had rained down on me from the sky. But like a good Chilean I refused to accept this, that there was anything I couldn’t know, and I began to read and read…
(418) I would keep reading, without letting myself rest, as if I were about to die and I didn’t want to die before I’d understood what was going on around me and over my head and under my feet.
(420) The heart of the matter is knowing whether evil (or sin or crime or whatever you want to call it) is random or purposeful. If it’s purposeful, we can fight it… If it’s random on the other hand, we’re fucked, and we’ll just have to hope that God, if he exists, has mercy on us. And that’s what it all comes down to.
(390) Laura asked me, pretending as if she didn’t know, how the young poets of Mexico were faring… I lied, saying: they’re fine, almost everyone is publishing, the earthquake will give them years of material.
(393) I would think about my next article, about the story I was planning to write… and the time would fly… I can only write about things I feel connected to.
(396-397) [Amadeo looking in mirror:] I was still myself. Not the self I’d gotten used to, but myself.. I could separate myself from the confounded quicksilver of the mirror I was leaning against.. my fingerprints lingered like ten tiny faces speaking in unison and so quickly I couldn’t make out their words.
(398) I’ve never understood a goddamn thing… It’s a joke, Amadeo, the poem is a joke covering up something more serious… I fell into a doze as, like Pedro Paramo, they wandered the hell of my house, or the hell of memories my house had become.
(399) There is no mystery, Amadeo.
(374-375) There’s no such thing as purity, boys, don’t fool yourselves, life is shit
(375) I can’t help thinking that the poets and politicians, especially in Mexico, are one and the same… But back then I was young, too young and idealistic, which is to say I was pure.
(376) But then something very simple happened and everything changed.
(377) smoke a cigarette and think about postcoital sadness, that vexing sadness of the flesh, and about all the books he hadn’t read.
(379) I saw our struggles and demons all tangled up in the same failure, and that failure was called joy.
(382) He’d ask me about my life, and I’d ask him about his life, and we might talk until two or three in the morning, about things that had happened to us and the books we’d read.
(384) Why don’t you write anymore, mana? I asked her once and she answered that she just didn’t feel like it, that was all, she just didn’t feel like it.
(386) After death of Luscious Skin: I couldn’t take the day off either, because we’re swamped at the office.
(370) I felt pity too, and I knew I was in love.
[Another great description of food!] Usually they were complicated or sometimes they were simple but they were always tasty.
(373) everyone who leaves Mexico ends up coming back someday… his conclusion was that everyone was slowly but surely going insane.
(350) One of those apocalyptic Mexico City mornings
(352) History in the making, as they say, one endless party.
(355) All poets get lost at some point or another.
(357) Ah, the lives you writers lead.
It was as if he were saying: we revolutionaries smoke strong tobacco, real men smoke strong tobacco, those of us with a stake in objective reality smoke real tobacco.
(359) Do you know what the worst thing about literature is?.. That you end up being friends with writers.
It sounded like Borges, but I didn’t tell him so.
(360) don’t worry, the poet doesn’t die, he loses everything, but he doesn’t die. What thou lovest well remains.
(341) like the shitty revolutionaries who cash a government check every two weeks
(342) madness is madness is madness, and sadness too, and at the end of the day the three of us are Americans, children of Caliban, lost in the great American wilderness, and I think that touched me, to see a spark of understanding, a spark of tolerance in the eyes of that powerful man… in that fraction of a second I thought: everything is all right, I hope everything will be all right.
(343) talking about LITERATURE, talking about POLITICS, at the gates of paradise.
(348) They really seemed like two extraterrestrials… their look seemed modeled on the hackneyed archetype of the young leftist poet… Limp dicks.
(318) I knew everything, but I didn’t know anything.
(325) What were you doing in Israel, Heimito? I told him. Searching, searching.
(334) finally he said that he didn’t understand any of it. What’s to understand? I said. He looked at me as if I’d said something idiotic, as if I were too young to know what he meant, and didn’t answer.
(334-335) the math teacher called them parasites, saying that they were the kind of element that paralyzes society and keeps a country from every making any progress. I said that I was just like them and he replied that it wasn’t true, that I studied and worked whereas they didn’t do anything. They’re poets, I argued… Lazy slobs is what they are, he said. … I felt empty and irresponsible.
(335) Everything he and Belano had meant to me was too remote now. He talked about his travels. I thought there was too much literature in his telling of them.
(152) It occurred to me that it was all a message for me. It was a way of saying don’t leave me, see what I’m capable of, stay with me. .. But that wasn’t what I meant to say.
(154) Literature isn’t innocent. I’ve known that since I was fifteen.
(246) Ulises reading in the shower
(314) Ah, what a relief to come into the light, even when it’s a shadowy half-light, what a relief to come where it’s clear.
The window of Bolaño’s literature helps me see myself more clearly…