It is as if Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, vivid portrayers in their different ways of Latin America's violence and visions, had become their own extravagant protagonists. Instead each has written at a certain alleviating distance, and perhaps it is the distance that art requires to achieve itself, just as it takes a few inches of travel for a blow from a fist to hurt.
The Chilean Roberto Bolano, who died three years ago at 50 and is perhaps the outstanding figure of the successor generation, uses no distance or alleviation whatever. He jumps in.
His fiction, which has only recently been appearing in the US, can be stylistically elusive, but in essence it is chokingly direct. In the novella By Night in Chile, for instance, Bolano created a glittering and terrible deathbed confession by a Chilean literary critic who supported the Pinochet dictatorship through acquiescence and the quietest of tiny actions. "One must be very careful with one's silences," he says, since only God judges them. His own, he adds, "are immaculate."
The key to Bolano's work is an insistence that the writer must keep no scrim of art or craft between him and the brute reality of the world he lives in and addresses. If there is a theme that runs through the complex, numbingly chaotic and sinuously memorable Savage Detectives, his first long (very long) novel, it is that the pen is as blood-stained as the sword, and as compromised.
Bolano grew up in Mexico and returned to Chile out of enthusiasm for the Allende government, only to be briefly imprisoned after it was overthrown. He went back to Mexico to write and to goad its several literary establishments and eventually moved to Spain. He has created a protagonist who borrows much of this biography, even much of the name. He is Belano, a writer and the savage detective of the title.
Bolano 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 Garcia Marquez and others) and some graphically visceralist sex. It ends with his departure from Mexico City by car with Belano, another writer, and Lupe, a prostitute fleeing her pimp. Belano is seeking traces of Cesarea Tinajera, a poet who long ago belonged to a similar movement and went off to the Sonora desert in the 1920s.
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