A scintillating star in the galaxy of this new generation undoubtedly is Roberto Bolaño, who died at the age of 50 four years ago. Principally a poet, he increasingly has been recognized as an important contemporary novelist. Starting with By Night, in Chile to the most recently translated work The Savage Detectives, and the much awaited translation of his longest work 2066, his voice is very unique, and imploring to be heard. When The Savage Detectives was published nine years ago in its original Spanish version, it was hailed by some as the greatest thing to happen in the Spanish speaking world since Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Bolaño was born in Chile,but lived most of his life in Mexico, briefly going back to Chile when Salvadore Allende came to power, and returning after the infamous September 11 coup.
The novel is unduly long, 575 pages filled in a most unusual way, violating some of the most fundamental “rules” of writing, and especially novel writing. Except for complaining about the length of the novel- about 400 pages would have been ideal and the first part that is filled with excruciating, even nauseating details of the sexual proclivities of the “visceral realists”, there is little to complain about the novel, and much to deliberate over.
Divided into three parts, the bulky middle one- titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico”- is sandwiched between two rather thin ones. Part one introduces us to some of the central characters in the novel- Arturo Belano (an alter ego of the author) and Ulises Lima, both founder poets of the visceral realist movement that set itself the task of transforming the poetry landscape not only in Mexico, but the entire Latin America.
In a way, the novel is autobiographical, not in one, but two ways. It traces the story of Artur Belano, except that instead of him writing his autobiography, it is people that know him who write about him. Each one of the 55 people either write their personal journals at various times between 1975 and 1997, or sometimes converse directly with the reader. The long middle section novel consists of little more these entries, some short, but some rather long so that like Don Quixote, there are stories within stories, between them charting a landscape both fascinating and unexpected in its meanderings.
The other novel that comes to mind is Hopscotch by the Argentinian Julio Cortazar, a novel about a group of Bohemian Latinos in Europe. In the case of the characters in The Savage Detectives, the word Bohemian is an understatement!
There is no plot in the four hundred or so pages in the middle section. In the first section, narrated by a character- with no particular literary qualities, the two protagonists (the “savage detectives”) go out in search of an unknown predecessor, Cesárea Tinajero, who after initiating a now forgotten school of poetry in the 1920s has disappeared in the northern borders of the Sonora desert. The novel returns to the theme only in the last part, when the meanderings of the middle part- the umpteen journal entries, become clearer, and the title of the novel begins to make sense.
What emerges, is the story of the “lost” generation of Latin American writers that grew up in the shadow of giants like Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Octavio Paz. While the previous generation protested against the existing political and social order they invariably also became part of that system, with those like Garcia Marquez becoming friends with political leaders like Fidel Castro, Vargas Llosa himself running for the Peruvian presidential candidacy (though as a candidate of the Right) and Octavio Paz serving the PRI government in Mexico as a diplomat.
At the end, the novel leaves one with images floating across turbulent waters, a mosaic of paintings flitting past speedily. Fifty- five characters speak in their own voices- for the uniqueness of each Bolaño has to be commended. The word that occurs most frequently in the novel is “I”, the breakneck speed of the narrative- not so much action as speed, and the concurrent narrative from multiple geographic places and from various dates on the calendar- in a word, the novel is very much that belongs to our age dominated as it is by accelerated communications around the globe.
Is the novel then a reflection of the senseless chaos that seems to prevail around us? Is it the post modern dystopia- all narrative and no plots, no certainties? At one level, Bolaño’s novel would seem to indicate so. At another level, it pulls the rug from under the feet of such a world.
Related Posts on Roberto Bolaño at this blog
There have been a plethora of reviews in the last two months of The Savage Detectives, many are available at this excellent site on Spanish literature.
The novel has a site of it’s own. Check out the biographical essay (pdf) in the “About the Author” section.