The Savage Detectives

By Roberto Bolaño

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

592 pp. $27

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Reviewed by Scott Esposito


At the time of his death in 2003, Roberto Bolaño was untranslated into English and largely unknown to the English-reading world. In the four years since his death, however, this situation has undergone a stunning transformation, and this year Bolaño might just break into the big time.

In January, New Directions published a translation of the short, lyric and stunning Amulet. Now Farrar, Straus & Giroux has published The Savage Detectives, the first of Bolaño's big books. Upon its original publication in 1998, this sprawling, 600-page ode to Latin America's lost generation of post-boom writers won the Romulo Gallegos Prize and launched Bolaño into the Spanish-language stratosphere.

The novel consists of two main parts. Squat in the middle is a bulky series of monologues. Bookending the monologues are two 100-page segments from the journal of a 17-year-old poet living in 1970s Mexico City. What ties it all together are Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, two poets trying to promote "visceral realist" writing. The book traces their flight from Mexico City to wander the world, desperately clinging to the only things that matter to them: poetry and true, perhaps forlorn, love.

Although Juan García Madero, the 17-year-old whose journal we read, remains a minor character, his writing is an important touchstone. In addition to introducing most of the visceral realist clique, the journal embodies the idealistic enthusiasm and ignorance that is the starting point for all of Bolaño's poets. The tone is set when García Madero begins, "I've been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. . . . I'm not sure what visceral realism is."

In two short months, García Madero transforms from a completely naive youth who speculates whether interrupted fellatio counts as losing his virginity to a dedicated bohemian who drops out of college, moves into his girlfriend's ratty apartment, and writes for hours while sipping tequila at bars. This blessed life, one that all the visceral realists enjoy, is not the focus of The Savage Detectives; it is only the background, as Bolaño is more interested in showing how each of these bright lights slowly dims into darkness, exposing the mechanics that doom this once optimistic group of writers to quiet ignominy and obscurity.

As García Madero's narrative reaches a showdown between a pimp and his prostitute, Bolaño unceremoniously, and rather boldly, jumps into 350 pages of monologues, some as short as a paragraph, some more than 20 pages. Each is headed by a name, place and date. Together they cover the 20 years after García Madero's journal, 1976 to 1996. This section of the novel is resplendent, studded throughout with ideas, phrases, fables and stories that seem bound by their own alluring logic, but also form nuanced extensions of Bolaño's big themes: the pure pursuit of literature, insistent, hopeless love, and the decay of a generation of Latin American writers.

Although many different narratives could be drawn from these monologues, some outlines are clear: After spending time in the deserts of Sonora searching for the "founder" of visceral realism, Ulises and Arturo head to Paris, then Spain. From there, Ulises pursues a long lost love in Israel, is rejected, and wanders aimlessly throughout the world. Arturo settles near Barcelona and writes in obscurity, occasionally publishing. One day he's seized with the notion that an upstart critic will savage his new book. Before the review is published he challenges the critic to a duel: two grown men doing battle over a minor point of literature.

Ulises and Arturo's physical exile is mirrored in the other visceral realists by a spiritual one. They grow apart as each is swallowed up by politics, poverty, drink, or simple bourgeois materialism. "Mexicans lost in Mexico," as Bolana puts it, now they are doubly lost, stripped not only of their country but also of their youthful solidarity around poetry. The power they once found in their mutual alienation is replaced by a vague, unaddressable ache. Their plight is summed up in Bolaño's retelling of an old Galician joke:

"A man goes walking in the forest. Like me, for example, walking in a forest like the Parco di Traiano or the Terme di Traiano, but a hundred times bigger and more unspoiled. And the man goes walking, I go walking, through the forest and I run into five hundred thousand Galicians who're walking and crying. And then I stop . . . and I ask them why they're crying. And one of the Galicians stops and says: because we're all alone and we're lost."

The Savage Detectives embraces pain as something essential and unavoidable, and renewal as pain's logical companion. Ulises and Arturo forge a sense of who they are that props them up and helps them embrace the lives they have chosen. Moreover, though their generation may be lost, there will be others: At one point a character tells a science-fiction story about a rich heiress and a naive tramp who fall deeply into an ideal love. Their perfect bond is cut short by cancer, and the heiress constructs a garden of Eden where a clone of the tramp and herself will be brought up to fall in love. What if the experiment fails? a scientist asks. Another responds: It doesn't matter. The experiment will be endlessly repeated. "Sublime, in a way, but creepy too," opines the teller. "Like all crazy loves, don't you think?"

Scott Esposito is a writer living in Mexico. He hosts the literary blog Conversational Reading (www.conversationalreading.com).