Even satisfied adults will sometimes hear a train go by and become alert with desire: What would it be like to be in an open boxcar, the wind rushing through, the light shining, hurtling with an unknown purpose toward an unknown destination? It might be something like settling in to read Roberto Bolaño's combustible novel "The Savage Detectives." He remains cagey as to destination and reason, but his characters and their voices make the ride worthwhile.
From the first page it's evident that Bolaño, who was born in Chile and lived in Mexico, El Salvador and Spain before he died at 50 in 2003, is the godfather of the so-called dirty realist movement currently energizing South American literature. In fact, his main characters, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, are themselves the masterminds of an amorphous literary genre called "visceral realism," and they are on a quest for their own poetry icon, a woman who has vanished or been "disappeared" by powerful forces. It's a quest that will take them on a worldwide journey from Mexico, through Europe and into the Congo. Their odyssey is described not so much by them as by the extensive carnival of people they meet, into whose voices Bolaño breathes opinionated, fallible, tragicomic life: visceral realism at work.
This book was published in 1998, late in Bolaño's career and late in his life, cut short by liver disease. His rattlesnake wit, however, keeps hissing.
At a poetry workshop attended by the serious 17-year-old narrator in the first section of the book, students read their poems and the teacher shreds or praises them according to his mood. Sometimes he lets the students critique one another. The narrator observes that "it was the ideal method for ensuring that no one was friends with anyone, or else that our friendships were unhealthy and based on resentment." Anyone who has ever taken a workshop and seen opinion ripple like a breeze through wheat in response to the teacher's comments will respond with a hoarse laugh of recognition -- and this is just the first of many sweet-and-sour surprises.
The narrative of this book stretches across the world and employs a great number of points of view, each with its own startling voice and strange, often tangential, story to tell. It's as vast as Gabriel García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," but without that novel's stateliness. Bolaño could not care less about myth or tradition; what he wants is speed. As the poets chase their phantom across the world, the very real violence and corruption that surround them claw at any kind of meaning. Looking for logic in the midst of current events, says Bolaño, will only drive you mad.
Plot itself disintegrates under the weight of lies and chaos. In Bolaño's world, the only thing that keeps the disparate characters going is an underlying connection to and belief in the power of the written word. It's a small but sharp little weapon against the post-modern worldview, a view Bolaño continually engages in an uneasy dance. Perhaps it all means nothing. But if that is true, why write a 577-page book?
This glittering, tumbling diamond of a book was Bolaño's answer to chaos. With its strident, utterly believable characters and their stories, Bolaño sends a shot over the bow: When you are done with this book, you will believe there is no engine more powerful than the human voice. So don't worry about where the story is going. Listen to Bolaño's voice and marvel at the scope of his craft -- go along for the ride.
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