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There’s only one question more agonizing than “You go to Harvard?”, and that’s the inevitable follow-up: “What are you studying?” Say English or Hist and Lit and watch admiration turn to disappointment as eyebrows furrow to let you know that, at best, you’re wasting your abilities, and at worst, you’re wasting your life. Literature, we’re told, is a nice, even necessary diversion, but it’s not real life.
Roberto Bolaño begs to differ. As a young man, Bolaño gave up everything to pursue a life in poetry, believing that one should take poetry as seriously as he takes life, that if the author lived what he wrote, the reader would live it, too. This absurd, desperate, noble idea is at the heart of “The Savage Detectives,” a book so good that it is not only its own justification, but a justification for literature itself.
Due in large part to this novel—the 1998 winner of the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos prize, now available in an English translation by Natasha Wimmer—Bolaño, who died in 2003, became known as the most important and influential novelist in the Spanish-speaking world, a writer mentioned in the same breath as Borges and García Márquez.
Unlike the other demigods of the literary canon, though, Bolaño seems like a guy you could meet on the street, not a monument cast in bronze. This is the lifelong iconoclast who dropped out of school at 15, stole the books he read, attended poetry readings only to shout down those he disdained, and led an outlaw band of avant-garde poets. This is the life he idealizes in “The Savage Detectives.”
The semi-autobiographical novel begins with a series of journal entries by Juan García Madero, a 17-year-old law school dropout who falls in with a group of poets calling themselves the “visceral realists” (the fictional counterparts to Bolaño’s “infrarealists”). García Madero becomes deeply involved in their bohemian lifestyle but is eventually forced to flee Mexico City with the group’s leaders, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima (fictional stand-ins for Bolaño and his friend Mario Santiago), as they seek to escape the violence that haunts them and to find a ghost from the past.
García Madero’s narrative gives way to the novel’s sprawling central section, a fragmented collection of testimonies in which Bolaño effortlessly ventriloquizes scores of characters whose stories ostensibly concern Belano and Lima, but really create a stunning portrait of an aging generation burdened by lost love, crushed ideals, and the specter of violence.
From the beginning, it’s clear that narrative is both inescapable and necessary, that language, in the words of one character, offers “a vicarious way of preserving our identity for an uncertain length of time.” “None of that exists anymore,” another says of his past: “the words are more real than the actuality.”
Bolaño literalizes his metaphors throughout: masturbatory writing means masturbating with one hand while writing with the other; a duel between Belano and a literary critic requires sabers; a dangerous pimp’s abnormally large penis is paralleled by his abnormally large knife. When García Madero has his first sexual experience with the beautiful María Font, his heartrending description—a distinctly youthful mix of exuberance and confusion—combines action with perception, physical anatomy with clichéd poetry: “Then everything turned into a succession of concrete acts and proper nouns and verbs, or pages from an anatomy manual scattered like flower petals, chaotically linked.”
In another particularly moving scene, “the mother of Mexican poetry” recalls seeing soldiers and tanks herding captive students and professors into a van “like something from a World War II movie.” Determined not to “let them write [her] into their script,” she locks herself in a bathroom stall with only a book of poetry to read and a roll of toilet paper to write on. Her actions, absurdly juxtaposed with her basic need for survival, are both pointless and profound—but then again, so are those she sees outside.
“I thought: the vanity of writing, the vanity of destruction,” she says. “I thought: because I wrote, I stood my ground...I thought: the two acts are related, writing and destruction, hiding and being found. Then I sat on the toilet and closed my eyes. Then I fell asleep. Then I woke up.”
But “The Savage Detectives” is much more than a novel about poets. Bolaño is an extraordinarily generous writer, and he allows each character to tell his own story in his own voice. (When reading certain blowhard characters, it must be said, one can’t help but wish that Bolaño would be a little less generous.) When the novel is at its best, it seems like a brilliant and beautiful short story begins every five or ten pages. The countless particular narratives weave together to create a wonderful tapestry that transcends its many gorgeous parts. Perhaps this is why Spain’s El País called this “the kind of novel Borges would have written.”
The novel ambles along, and each character’s story slowly unfolds as though time were no object. But, as in real life, you look at the date and without you even noticing it, 20 years have passed. It’s a somber realization that casts its shadow over the entire book, as the visceral realists and their companions wander the globe, searching for something they’ll never find, slowly losing both their collective identity and their health.
Appropriately, Bolaño ends by returning to García Madero’s journal. For the last 50 pages, time turns back and we’re allowed to briefly recapture the youthful hope and passion that’s dissipated over the course of the novel. His friends’ desperate search ends in violence, as Belano and Lima are forced to kill both the past they’re trying to escape and the past they’re seeking. Lost, García Madero disappears into the desert with his lover, left with only their brief lives and the stories they create to fill them in.
But when their stories are this good, is that really such a bad thing?
—Reviewer Patrick R. Chesnut can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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