Friday, May 25, 2007

Roberto Bolaño - The Savage Detectives

Andrew Riemer reviews Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives.
I spent a good bit of time googling the names of some of the hundreds of Latin American poets who snake their way through this preposterous but strangely appealing novel. Setting aside one or two world-famous figures like Octavio Paz, the results were almost always zilch - or links to various sites concerning Bolano's book.

I began to suspect, nevertheless, that things may not be quite as simple as that. One of the two focal characters is a poet called Arturo Belano. Like Roberto Bolano, he was born in Chile in 1953. Like Bolano, he fled from Pinochet's regime in 1973, spent some time in Mexico, then in France and Spain, eventually settling on the outskirts of Barcelona. It is possible, therefore, that the names of real poets are encrypted in these fictional names, just as Bolano's seems to be in Belano. But you can't tell of course, unless you are an expert on Latin American avant-garde poetry of the last quarter of the 20th century.

My other problem had to do with the title. By the end, at the culmination of a hectic search in the backblocks of Mexico, I had a glimmering of what it might refer to, but I wasn't at all confident I had cracked the code. I began wondering whether here, too, the cognoscenti would cotton on to something that had bypassed me almost entirely.

None of this is intended to disparage this ample novel that has something of the imaginative boldness and sense of fantasy that distinguished the work of an earlier generation of Latin American writers such as Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa. Nevertheless, I am certain that The Savage Detectives is a roman a clef for which I - and, I suspect, most Anglo-phone readers - do not possess the key. And just in case I'm suspected of philistinism, I'd better say straight away that that is our loss. Read More

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