Time and Reading Bolaño Backwards

I am currently halfway through Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and I am thinking a lot about authorial chronology. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I recently finished Bolaño’s 2666. Published in 2004,  six years after The Savage Detectives and in the wake of Bolaño’s death, that book is an achievement so epic and crowning that I was equally excited and terrified to begin another one of his novels. While I had an intense desire to dig deeper into his oeuvre, I was nervous about how having 2666 serve as my Bolaño starting point would affect my approach to what may someday be considered his “minor works” (even though The Savage Detectives, in addition to being Bolaño’s breakout book in the U.S., is in no way a minor accomplishment).  And I was right.

The Savage Detectives is very good, so far. It is sprawling and ambitious and full of twists and careens that take the reader into dark corners of a world that is vaguely familiar but also quite surreal. But. It has not the sprawl nor the ambition nor the careening nor the twisting of 2666–very few modern works of literature do. Generally, as luck would have it, I am able to read an author’s earlier works first, and the effect that has on my overall experience is usually one of parallel growth. I am proud if leaps and bounds have been made since the last outing, and I am amused and overjoyed at the sly nods to the past that has been left behind.

But in going from a work as formidable as 2666 to one slightly less formidable in The Savage Detectives, I am left with a feeling not unlike that of looking at pictures from my teenage years. I am slightly embarrassed by the (relatively few) mistakes, and with my hindsight, I am regretful of the things that could have gone differently, slightly better. I look at certain structural aspects and see a brazen youthfulness that, when compared to 2666, can seem like a sign of impatience and hurriedness. I look at the characters and wish that the mysteries surrounding their lives were just a bit more nuanced.

Yet, more than any of that, I read The Savage Detectives and I get a sometimes overwhelming feeling of nostalgia, for even though Bolaño had a grasp on darkness at the time of that writing, there is a kind of innocence in the dialogue and the way the characters think about each other. Certainly not naivete, but nowhere near the kinds of fatalism we see in 2666. And then I think about Bolaño as a man and I think about aging and I think about the ways that our words and how they change over time are as revealing as holding an old photograph up as you look in a mirror. To read backwards, so to speak, is to be sadly aware of what is to follow, and as in physical life, this awareness is usually wrought with all kinds of sadness.

The things we see in 2666, the things we read and know that Bolaño must have thought about as the years wore down, are not things that are easy to forgot as one goes back into time and visits the words of the man at a younger age. They are things that not only show us how his art progressed. They are things that speak to certain truths that can only have been found after years of hard looking. They are things that, when you see the process it took to find them, force you to wonder how your own current moment will appear when you look at it with the same hindsight.

Some works like 2666, which seem so timeless, may actually represent the moment when the ticking clocks that sounded throughout earlier works have finally come to a stop. And to move forth as a reader from that point when a grand and final stillness has set in, to revisit a time of forward progress and passing years from the opposite direction, can be an experience both invigorating and deeply, deeply melancholy.

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