Thursday, May 17, 2007

Tom Nissley reviews Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives.

Like the best big books, The Savage Detectives feels like it could be even bigger. Not by forging past its ending, which comes to a final, if inconclusive, silence, but by broadening its wide middle, into which, like one of Bolaño's more digressive sentences, yet one more anecdote or qualification could always be inserted. Despite the novel's clear and ingenious structure, it doesn't feel so much constructed as observed: watchful and insatiably curious. The searches for lost poets it's built around seem just lures to bring you into the lives of those you meet along the way. I could happily be led astray like that forever. (No such luck, though. Bolaño died of liver failure at the age of 50 in 2003, just after finishing his other giant masterpiece, 2666, which is due out in English next year.)

If Bolaño, as is often said, is the next García Márquez, it's in stature, not style. There's no magic to the realism in The Savage Detectives, but rather a restless, expansive attention to detail as his bohemian saints are blown through the Hispanic diaspora by politics, poverty, and possibility. American readers might hear echoes of the beats here, and it's true his characters are always on the road. But the beats thought they had found something new, authentic, and immediate (often in Mexico, in fact). For Bolaño and his characters, not only have the beats already happened, everything has already happened. There's no promise of immediacy (except perhaps for the naive García Madero). Every tale is recounted at one—at least one—remove. It's as if you were reading On the Road told by a writer who had heard about the adventure second- or thirdhand. (A better road to compare to is the one in that sad and sexy movie Y Tu Mamá También.)

In his short novel Distant Star—another search for an elusive poet—Bolaño writes of "the melancholy folklore of exile—made up of stories that, often as not, are fabrications or pale copies of what really happened." Bolaño was himself an exile: Driven from Chile after his arrest under Pinochet, he followed a path across continents much like that of his character Belano (the confusion of names is no coincidence). Not all exile is physical, though—the first section of The Savage Detectives is called "Mexicans Lost in Mexico." And as much as the novel is constructed around a search for Lima and Belano (and around their own search for the poet Cesárea Tinajero), the poet I found myself missing most in the story was the one who, at times, is the most present. García Madero is an immensely charming companion, fresh and open to experience, untutored but able to learn, and I spent much of the middle section of the book wishing he were there (as I think I was supposed to). The saddest lines are the ones spoken, 20 years after the events in the diary, by the world's only scholar of visceral realism: "Juan García Madero?" he says. "No, the name doesn't ring a bell. He never belonged to the group." The saddest story, but also the most tantalizing, in this book where to be a poet is to disappear. Read More

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