Mr. Bolaño has given his novel an odd tripartite structure. The first part, narrated by a young would-be poet, tells of his initiation into Belano’s Visceral Realist movement (a hit off the magic realism of García Márquez and others) and some graphically visceralist sex. It ends with his departure from Mexico City by car with Belaño, another writer, and Lupe, a prostitute fleeing her pimp. Belano is seeking traces of Cesárea Tinajera, a poet who long ago belonged to a similar movement and went off to the Sonora desert in the 1920s.
Skipping to the third part: the party searches through a dozens of desolate Sonora hamlets. Belano’s (and Bolaño’s) visceral realism means evoking the obscure and humble — the children of darkness — while pillorying the children of light who flourish in the precincts of art, power and wealth.
Eventually the searchers come upon Cesárea, who dropped her writer’s scrim to join the viscerally real world, harsh and extravagant by turns. Successively she had taken up with a bullfighter, taught school, sold herbs at country fairs and now, grown enormously fat, works as a village washerwoman. We read of a vengeful pursuit by Lupe’s pimp, and a bloody showdown where Belano becomes a knife fighter.
Bulking between these two moving parts — one an amiable but distracted ramble; the other a tense, implacable advance — is a 400-page middle section, more than twice as long as the others put together.
Narrative stops. Or rather, giving way to many dozens of mini-narratives, it replaces forward motion with a kind of tour, the kind Dante took of the Inferno. In this instance it is a tour of characters and attitudes in a Mexican literary scene that is a fools’ carnival of futility; one that Bolaño uses to suggest a more general futility of such scenes in Latin America and beyond.
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