By Adrian Jiménez,
Roberto Bolaño’s first full-length novel, The Savage Detectives, begins with the invitation to join a dying group of Mexican poets. First published in Spanish in 1998, the alluring novel has finally been published in English, translated by Natasha Wimmer. Bolaño, who died in 2003 in Spain at the age of fifty, is only now gaining in the United States the reputation that he has held for more than a decade throughout Latin America and Europe. Susan Sontag dubbed Bolaño, “the most influential and admired novelist of his generation in the Spanish-speaking world.”
The 577-page novel is written in three parts, the first and last being the stark journal entries of a young poet named Juan Garcîa Madero in Mexico, 1976. Madero is a know-it-all student who falls prey to the traps of young women and the admiration of the two main and mysterious characters of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (Bolaño’s alter-ego). Consisting of 400 pages, the second part is the bulk of the novel and uses more than thirty narrators; it is told over twenty years and crosses Mexico, France, Spain, Israel and Liberia. Read More
Back before the Marquess of Queensberry's rules came into effect, boxing was a sport of pure brawn and brutality. The fighters went at it bare-knuckled, and the fight wasn't over until one man couldn't get up. So, in that spirit, picture this novel, The Savage Detectives, in one corner, its oiled biceps gleaming, and you in the other, with your reading glasses slipping down your nose. This one's scheduled for 577 pages aaannd ... there's the bell.
Not to push the boxing metaphor too far (Roberto Bolaño would have, but I've only got 1,000 words), the author of The Savage Detectives was a literary heavyweight in Mexico whose early death guaranteed immortality, although his books would have been enough. The fame of this novel greatly precedes its appearance in English, and it's likely you've already read about it; reviewing it at this stage makes me feel like a lighter swaying in a stadium. It's a massive, sprawling, romantic cauldron of a book: a self-portrait of the artist (refracted through dozens of literary mirrors), a history of his times, a cultural and political manifesto, a mystery novel and a game. Although not necessarily in that order. Half George Perec's Life: A User's Manual, half Don Quixote, half Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, The Savage Detectives is a strange journey. And if you did the math just now, you'll have a sense of the kind of excesses and impossibilities the novel contains. Read More
and Chris Beha
Bolano always considered himself primarily a poet, and he didn't begin the prose writing on which his reputation rests until the last decade of his life, when he knew his health was failing. In other words, if Granta had ever taken it upon itself to produce a Best of Young Peripatetic Chilean-born Novelists issue, Bolano would not have been eligible. The decades before he turned to fiction writing Bolano spent writing poetry, traveling throughout Latin America and Europe, working odd jobs, taking heroin, and losing his teeth. This period in Bolano's life calls to mind some lines from his haunting novella, Amulet:
"Maybe it was madness that impelled me to travel. It could have been madness. I used to say it was culture. Of course culture sometimes is, or involves, a kind of madness. Maybe it was lack of love that impelled me to travel. Or an overwhelming abundance of love. Maybe it was madness."
Those years of travel and madness and culture and love and madness are the subject of The Savage Detectives, the big book, just out in the States, on which Bolano's reputation in the Spanish- speaking world mostly rests. The book's dual center is Bolano's fictional alter ego, Arturo Belano, and his friend, Ulises Lima. At the same time, the novel comprises what the folks at Granta might call a "provisional and partial portrait of who was young and wrote bad poetry in Latin America in the early years of the nineteen-seventies." It's also a study of what the political and social upheavals of the last century wrought on Bolano's generation in Chile and Mexico. Their plight is rendered with none of the sentimentalizing gloss of magical realism; in this way, The Savage Detectives is the kind of book that makes everything that came before it look momentarily shallow by comparison. It's a dirty book in almost every sense of the word -- smutty, and grimy, and occasionally even underhanded. It's funny and sad. Bolano has the ability, unmatched perhaps since Beckett, to bring his readers to the very edge of tedium, only to meet them there with a gesture of transcendent sublimity. Read More
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Latin American Literature