Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1953, and died in Barcelona in 2003, leaving behind four story collections, three books of poetry, and ten novels and novellas; his reputation rests on works produced in the last few years of his life, when fatherhood, and a fatal liver disease, caused a certain focusing of his powers. The results sent critics scrambling for comparison—to Borges and Cortázar or, somewhat less congruously, Hemingway and Babel. What Bolaño really has in common with these writers is that he was brave and unique. Tags like "Post-Boom Latin America" or "The Literature of Exile" did him no justice, and the fictions themselves were difficult, at best, to categorize. But Bolaño is wickedly alive, and he has a great deal to tell us.
The fifth of Bolaño's books to appear in English, and the first in a translation by Natasha Wimmer (who is best known for her work on Mario Vargas Llosa), The Savage Detectives was published in Spanish in 1998, under the title Los detectives salvajes. An outsize, autobiographical travelogue—in the course of which Bolaño and his friend Mario Santiago appear as the "visceral realist" poets, pot dealers, drifters, and literary detectives Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, respectively—it was Bolaño's most ambitious work to date. That it works quite well as a mystery is the least of this novel's many surprises.
The Savage Detectives follows Belano and Lima across four continents and twenty-some years; it's framed by the journals of seventeen-year-old Juan García Madero. ("I've been cordially invited to join the visceral realists," García Madero explains, by way of introduction. And the very next day: "I'm not really sure what visceral realism is.") But the bulk of The Savage Detectives is montage: an oral history narrated by male hustlers, female bodybuilders, mad architects, shell-shocked war correspondents, and Octavio Paz's personal secretary. There are fifty-two voices in all—jokers in the pack, Belano and Lima are not given speaking roles, appearing only in the recollections of others—and the stories they tell shade into one another, encompass historical forces and personages, and allude to specifics of the author's own biography. (Among other things, visceral realism is an echo of infrarealism, a movement Bolaño helped launch in Mexico City around 1975, fusing elements of surrealism, shoplifting, and street theater in hopes of urging young Latin Americans to blur whatever lines remained between life and literature.) Even in translation, the effect is cumulative and fuguelike.
The savagery of the title is the savagery of youth—poetry, poverty, fiery idealism, quick fucks, blind drive, the threat of violence, and violence itself. The detection is more adult (less poetry, more poverty, fading idealism, slower fucking, slow drift, and violence itself) and no less savage. Both are hard-earned. Bolaño was a school dropout, a drifter, dyslexic, and a chronic loser of teeth. Ill health, bad luck, and history conspired against him. His background was incongruous. His father was a truck driver and a boxer, his mother a math teacher and statistician. They emigrated to Mexico in 1968, but Bolaño returned to Chile in 1973, when he was twenty. "I wanted to help build socialism," he wrote in the short story "Dance Card." "The first book of poems I bought was Parra's Obra Gruesa (Construction Work)."
That last detail, which tells you everything you need to know about socialism and its discontents, is typical of Bolaño, who makes no distinctions between poetry, politics, and other human activities. The hero of his novel Estrella distante (Distant Star, 1996) is an artist, a skywriter, and a torturer and assassin in Pinochet's Chile (like The Savage Detectives, Distant Star begins in a poetry workshop); in Nocturno de Chile (By Night in Chile, 2000), a literary salon is the front for an interrogation center. This is not magic realism. Bolaño is always matter-of-fact, and much of his fiction is equally well described as criticism, or reportage. "I had less than a month in which to enjoy building socialism," he continues in "Dance Card" (which is closer to autobiography than most memoirs you'll read).
I was arrested during a road check and taken prisoner. . . . I thought they were going to kill me there and then. From the cell I could hear the officer in charge of the patrol, a fresh-faced policeman who looked like an asshole (an asshole wriggling around in a sack of flour) talking with his superiors in Concepción. He was saying he had captured a Mexican terrorist. Then he took it back and said: A foreign terrorist. . . . I was imprisoned in Concepción for a few days and then released. They didn't torture me, as I had feared; they didn't even rob me. But they didn't give me anything to eat either, or any kind of covering for the night, so I had to rely on the goodwill of the other prisoners, who shared their food with me. In the small hours I could hear them torturing others; I couldn't sleep and there was nothing to read except a magazine in English that someone had left behind. The only interesting article in it was about a house that had once belonged to Dylan Thomas.
Bolaño returned to Mexico City after his release, and in 1977, he and Santiago left Latin America. Bolaño landed in Spain, where he supported himself as a dishwasher, fruit picker, dockworker, and campground guard, while Santiago knocked around France and Israel (their alter egos, Belano and Lima, undertake similar journeys). They stayed in close touch until 1998, when Santiago was run over by a truck in Mexico City and killed.
The Savage Detectives can be read as a love letter to the Mexico they knew in the '70s, but much of the book sees Belano and Lima in Europe, and one, climactic chapter takes place in Liberia's killing fields. Like the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Savage Detectives is kaleidoscopic and international—or postnational and antiprovincial—and the world it describes is recognizably our own. But there is an added, internal dimension to its geography: "Basically, we were the typical forty-something Latin American guys who find themselves in an African country on the edge of the abyss or the edge of collapse, whichever you want to call it," Bolaño's war correspondent recounts. "The only difference was that when I finished my work (I'm a photographer for the La Luna Agency) I was going back to Paris, and when poor Belano finished his work he was going to stick around."
Belano and Lima begin their journey in a '75 Impala, tracking down the obscure poet Cesárea Tinajero, who's been missing—lost in the Sonoran Desert—for decades. García Madero and a prostitute named Lupe are along for the ride, and they, in turn, are pursued by Lupe's pimp. The detective genre calls for a fixed, single-point perspective, which Bolaño delivers via the medium of García Madero's journal, and for an inevitable, violent confrontation (surprising, nonetheless, when it arrives). But the novel's middle section turns the form inside out and transforms the reader into the detective, tracking the obscure poet Arturo Belano—and, by extension, the obscure poet Roberto Bolaño—by piecing the first-person monologues into a coherent whole. It's a neat bit of stunt-pilotry on Bolaño's part, investing us in the chase by implicating us in the action, and one of the novel's achievements is that, in gathering momentum, it convinces us to care deeply about poetry and poets (far more than, say, National Poetry Month has managed to).
The payoff is especially rich for those who are willing to follow Bolaño and his characters from one novel to the next. All of Bolaño's books are complete unto themselves, but each one speaks to the others: The Font sisters, who appear in The Savage Detectives, are reflections of the sisters in Distant Star, which is a coda to Bolaño's La literatura nazi en América (Nazi Literature in the Americas, 1996). A literary critic who fights an unlikely duel with Arturo Belano in The Savage Detectives reappears, in even more unlikely circumstances, as the antihero of Bolaño's final work, 2666 (2004); and Amuleto (Amulet, 1999), published in translation in 2006, tells the full story of yet another character introduced in the novel under review.
Bolaño blurs the lines between books and characters without losing focus, and he ends up with an echo chamber—which wouldn't count for much if that chamber weren't rich with fictional possibilities. It is, and Bolaño exploits them all. Each of his characters has a distinct voice, but those voices have more than one story to tell. Each of those stories contains other stories, which contain their own stories, until the accumulated details collapse into epigrams or existential punch lines: "Once upon a time in Chile there was a poor little boy," one such story begins.
I think the boy was called Lorenzo, I'm not sure, and I've forgotten his surname, but some readers may remember it, and he liked to play, and climb trees and high-tension pylons. One day he climbed up a pylon and got such a shock that he lost both his arms. They had to amputate them just below the shoulders. So Lorenzo grew up in Chile without arms, an unfortunate situation for any child, but he also grew up in Pinochet's Chile, which turned unfortunate situations into desperate ones, on top of which he soon discovered that he was homosexual, which made his already desperate situation inconceivable and indescribable.
Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that Lorenzo became an artist.
In The Savage Detectives, the epigrams are worldviews, arrived at in real time by fully realized characters. The stakes are high, and they jostle one another mercilessly: "Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy," one character proposes, and others reply: "What begins as comedy ends as a triumphal march, wouldn't you say?" Or, "Everything that begins as comedy ends as a horror movie." Or, "Everything that begins as comedy ends as a comic monologue, but we aren't laughing anymore."
"In some lost fold of the past, we wanted to be lions and we're no more than castrated cats," someone concludes.
Where do Bolaño's own, existential sympathies lie? The Savage Detectives begins as a road novel: "Have you seen Easy Rider?" a visceral realist named Rafael Barrios asks. "That was basically what we were like back then. But especially Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, before they left for Europe." Early on, a young man describes Belano as if he were a Greek god: "the most beautiful boy I'd ever seen. . . . He had long hair and when he played soccer he took off his shirt and played bare-chested." But just as often, Belano and Lima are remembered as "limp dicks" and "obviously asexual." In time, the wanderlust curdles, and travel for its own sake begins to lose its meaning. And as their adolescent alienation shades into exile, the realists themselves end up scattered and lost. Here is Rafael Barrios again, outlining the group's activities after Lima and Belano's disappearance:
Automatic writing, exquisite corpse, solo performances with no spectators, contraintes, two-handed writing, three-handed writing, masturbatory writing (we wrote with the right hand and masturbated with the left, or vice versa if we were left-handed), madrigals, poem-novels, sonnets always ending with the same word, three-word messages written on walls ("This is It," "Laura, my love," etc.), outrageous diaries, mail-poetry, projective verse, conversational poetry, antipoetry, Brazilian concrete poetry (written in Portuguese cribbed from the dictionary), poems in hard-boiled prose (detective stories told with great economy, the last verse revealing the solution or not), parables, fables, theater of the absurd, pop art, haikus, epigrams (actually imitations of or variations on Catullus, almost all by Moctezuma Rodríguez), desperado poetry (Western ballads), Georgian poetry, poetry of experience, beat poetry, apocryphal poems by bpNichol, John Giorno, John Cage. . . . We even put out a magazine . . . We kept moving . . . We kept moving . . . We did what we could . . . But nothing turned out right.
In life, many things did turn out right. Against all odds, the infrarealists turned out an immensely gifted writer, and while Bolaño was too modest to say so, The Savage Detectives serves as its own, best punch line.
Here's the closest Bolaño gets within the novel: "There are books for when you're bored," the mad architect explains. "Plenty of them. There are books for when you're calm. The best kind, in my opinion. There are also books for when you're sad. And there are books for when you're happy. There are books for when you're thirsty for knowledge. And there are books for when you're desperate. The latter are the kind of books Ulises Lima and Belano wanted to write." Here, too, Bolaño is being modest: In real life, he managed to write the aforementioned books simultaneously.
Incidentally, many of the infrarealists who appear in The Savage Detectives are alive; they even have a website. One night, I drank too much and sent them a somewhat incoherent e-mail. The next afternoon, I received a reply, in slightly stilted English, which read, in part, "Roberto Bolaño and Mario Santiago were founders of the Infrarealism movement. But Roberto emigrated early to Europe and he wasn't here much time. The relation with him was not all good as it must be. But you must know how the artists are when they create art."
The Savage Detectives is good art. When it is dark, it is very dark. At other times, it is very funny, thrilling, tender, and erotic. At its best, it is dark, funny, thrilling, tender, and erotic at one and the same time, in a way few novels before it have been. The visceral realists have lofty aspirations, but Bolaño is too down-to-earth to romanticize them. If anything, he must have taken a great deal of pleasure in poking fun at himself: "Belano and Lima weren't revolutionaries," a character recalls. "They weren't writers. Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don't think they were poets, either. They sold drugs. Marijuana, mostly, although they also had a stock of shrooms in glass jars." One of Bolaño's characters calls herself the mother of Mexican poetry. Another goes by the name Luscious Skin, and a third spends much of the action in a psychiatric hospital in Tlalnepantla. At times, it seems that everyone in the novel is mad, depressed, or maniacal. But as you can see from the passages above, the prose is perfectly pitched throughout.
Natasha Wimmer's translation, too, is lucid—reviewer-speak for "I don't speak the original and am in no position to judge"—in part because Bolaño himself seems to have been incapable of writing a convoluted sentence. Chris Andrews, who has translated four of Bolaño's books for New Directions, is equally fluent; the misfortune of losing a writer this good, this soon after our first chance to discover him, is leavened, a bit, by the promise of translations to come. (New Directions has said it will publish seven more, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux is scheduled to publish 2666, in Wimmer's translation, next year.) But Bolaño, who knew he was writing against the clock, also left his own, best eulogy: "We never stop reading," he wrote in another of his short stories, "although every book comes to an end, just as we never stop living, although death is certain."
For their part, the infrarealists deflected the bulk of my inquiries. "I think we can't help in your questions," my correspondent continued. "We are poets who write poetry." Offered instead was a declaration as spare and dense with implication as any sentence by Bolaño himself: "I personally met Roberto long ago in '70's," the e-mail concluded. "I believe he is a great poet."
Alex Abramovich writes about culture and the arts for the New York Times and other publications. He lives in Astoria, Queens.