Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Savage Detectives (1998)

It's hard not to feel a little intimidated by the formidable reputation this bore on arrival in 2007, when an English translation was finally published. By then the massive 1998 tome was spoken of by some as the greatest Latin American novel since One Hundred Years of Solitude. Knowing little more than that the experience of reading it was at once anticlimactic and exhilarating. On the one hand it is little more than an autobiographical hagiography of an arguably failed poet. On the other it is somehow compulsively readable all the way through and utterly engrossing, even if, as I made my way, I was hard put to explain to myself what was the attraction. Roberto Bolano once compared writing poems and novels to building houses and skyscrapers, and there is indeed a quality to this of an imposing edifice. What's fun is how he shuttles so easily from the penthouse view to the scenes in the bar in the basement, all with an earthy undeniable authority. He makes Mexican poets of the '70s sound like New York punk-rock bands in the same period, or the Beats two decades before that: deeply felt, profoundly committed to art and literature, willing to make all the sacrifices and live according to the terms. Bolano offers himself up in not one but two characters based on himself, the first the 17-year-old Juan Garcia Madero in the first full flower of embracing life and poetry (not necessarily in that order), whose diary entries bookend the much larger middle section that tracks the elusive and mysterious Arturo Belano (Bolano's second surrogate) and his best friend Ulises Lima, based on Bolano's best friend Mario Santiago. The long middle section is a stunning cacophony of transcriptions of characters telling their stories and what they know of Belano and Lima, hundreds of details that slowly fill out the portraits. Their stories are endlessly weird and fascinating, all of them rooted in a world where poetry is the most important thing and poverty just doesn't matter very much.

In case it's not at the library.

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