There’s only one question more agonizing than “You go to Harvard?”, and that’s the inevitable follow-up: “What are you studying?” Say English or Hist and Lit and watch admiration turn to disappointment as eyebrows furrow to let you know that, at best, you’re wasting your abilities, and at worst, you’re wasting your life. Literature, we’re told, is a nice, even necessary diversion, but it’s not real life.
Roberto Bolaño begs to differ. As a young man, Bolaño gave up everything to pursue a life in poetry, believing that one should take poetry as seriously as he takes life, that if the author lived what he wrote, the reader would live it, too. This absurd, desperate, noble idea is at the heart of “The Savage Detectives,” a book so good that it is not only its own justification, but a justification for literature itself.
Due in large part to this novel—the 1998 winner of the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos prize, now available in an English translation by Natasha Wimmer—Bolaño, who died in 2003, became known as the most important and influential novelist in the Spanish-speaking world, a writer mentioned in the same breath as Borges and García Márquez.
Unlike the other demigods of the literary canon, though, Bolaño seems like a guy you could meet on the street, not a monument cast in bronze. This is the lifelong iconoclast who dropped out of school at 15, stole the books he read, attended poetry readings only to shout down those he disdained, and led an outlaw band of avant-garde poets. This is the life he idealizes in “The Savage Detectives.”
The semi-autobiographical novel begins with a series of journal entries by Juan García Madero, a 17-year-old law school dropout who falls in with a group of poets calling themselves the “visceral realists” (the fictional counterparts to Bolaño’s “infrarealists”). García Madero becomes deeply involved in their bohemian lifestyle but is eventually forced to flee Mexico City with the group’s leaders, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima (fictional stand-ins for Bolaño and his friend Mario Santiago), as they seek to escape the violence that haunts them and to find a ghost from the past.
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