“God bless them, they were so young, with their hair down to their shoulders and carrying all those books.” This wistful observation comes from an aging, drunken, failed poet in The Savage Detectives, the grand novel that made Roberto Bolaño famous in Latin America when it was published in 1998. The tension between vitality and its erosion—between youth’s gorgeous recklessness and its inevitable decay—fuels this remarkable book and fills it with an aching sadness.
When Bolaño, a peripatetic Chilean who also lived in Mexico and Spain, died of liver failure in 2003, at the age of 50, he left behind 10 novels and three short-story collections, all written in the last decade of his life. His major works are The Savage Detectives and 2666, a massive posthumous novel which will be published in English for the first time next year.
An epic omnibus of earlier characters and thematic obsessions (irreverent itinerant poets, exile, political unrest), spanning many countries and more than two decades, The Savage Detectives begins on Nov. 2, 1975, as the journal of Juan Garcia Madero, a 17-year-old law student in Mexico City with a hunger for poetry. Two rugged aesthetes—self-described “visceral realist” poets—confrontationally crash Juan’s dreary poetry workshop and read aloud what Juan describes as “the best poem I’d ever heard.” Seduced, he follows them to a bar to talk about poetry for hours. The two poets, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (a lanky Chilean, and Bolaño’s main alter ego), both in their early 20’s, invite Juan to join their anti-establishment (i.e., anti–Octavio Paz) “gang.” “I said yes, of course. It was all very simple …. [T]ogether we would change Latin American poetry.”
The first part of the book consists of Juan’s breathless journal entries over the next two months, as he acquires the postures of an avant-garde poet. With the self-consciousness of youth, he skips classes, steals books, scribbles away for hours at bars and cafés, and nurses the proud wound of virginity freshly lost. He leaves home and moves in with a barmaid, “in a tenement straight out of a 1940’s movie.” Everything is feverish and new, and Lima and Belano are the giants of this world.
This section ends dramatically on the eve of the New Year, with Lima and Belano peeling out of Mexico City in a borrowed Impala. They are shepherding a woman away from her belligerent pimp, with Juan giddy in the back seat (“I realized that I’d always wanted to leave”). They are bound for the Sonora Desert, where Lima and Belano hope to find a woman named Cesárea Tinajero, a poet from the 1920’s who helped originate Mexico’s first band of visceral realists. Her shadow seems cast over everything that Lima and Belano do.
The tone shifts suddenly, and for the next 400 pages the book becomes a series of accounts from scores of people who have something to say about Lima, Belano or visceral realism. (Juan disappears.) These scraps of oral history, collected over 20 years, seem like responses to questions, but we never know the interviewer. They vary dramatically, revealing Bolaño’s remarkable ear for voices. But they all feel delicately tragic, perhaps the way anyone sounds when grasping for a distant brightness in some vaguely remembered past. (“[B]ack then we thought we were going to be writers and would have given anything to belong to that essentially pathetic group, the visceral realists,” says one guy. “Youth is a scam.”)
This extended chorus gives shape to the two poets by filling in much of the negative space. The various accounts also chip away at our first impression of Lima and Belano. We learn of their hapless travels, odd jobs, failed relationships and unwritten poems. There’s romance in some of these stories—many inspire wanderlust—but also the bitterness of promises unfulfilled, of people duped. “Belano and Lima weren’t revolutionaries,” someone vents. “They weren’t writers. Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don’t think they were poets, either. They sold drugs.”
Something ominous pervades the wanderings and frayed friendship of Lima and Belano, implying a story untold, perhaps from their road trip. We do finally rejoin them on this trip and re-experience their vibrancy for the book’s last 50 pages. It’s a refreshing return, but also stained by what we know of their future. A character’s earlier lamentation sticks: “[W]hat a shame that time passes, don’t you think? What a shame that we die, and get old, and everything good goes galloping away and leaves us behind.”
Emily Bobrow is an editor at Economist.com.