You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Dust and Literature

The Savage Detectives

By Roberto Bolano

Translated by Natasha Wimmer

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 577 pp., $27)


By Roberto Bolano

Translated by Chris Andrews

(New Directions, 184 pp., $21.95)

According to the formula commonly used to introduce foreign writers,it would be accurate to call the late Roberto Bolano a Chileanwriter. But since he lived most of his life outside Chile, inMexico and in Spain, the description is not quite accurate. Bolanoobjected to attempts to attach him to a homeland: Chilean writersthought of him as a Mexican writer, Mexican writers thought of himas a Chilean writer, his Spanish colleagues thought of him assomething else entirely. "My only homeland," he said in the lastinterview before his death in 2003 at age fifty, "is my children."

For some time, Latin American writers have bristled at the literarycharacteristics fixed not only to their homelands but also to theentire region of Latin America. For these writers, the legacy ofthe "Boom" generation--the Latin American writers who introducedSpanish-language literature to a mass market in the 1960s and1970s--was both a blessing and a curse. Gabriel Garcia Marquez,Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and others paved the way to anEnglish-speaking audience, but the path was narrow, and largelydependent on the writer's facility with the formulas of magicalrealism.

In 1996, a group of writers led by the Chilean writer Alberto Fuguetpublished a collection of short stories titled McOndo, an irreverentjab at the imaginary region of Macondo, where much of GarciaMarquez's fiction takes place. "McOndo," Fuguet wrote in anintroductory essay titled "I Am Not a Magical Realist!," is a worldcomposed of "McDonald's, Macintoshes and condos," a more accurateportrait of his contemporary Chile than one populated by flyinggrandmothers. Another school with a similar purpose (althoughslightly different constituents), the self-named "crack" generationof Mexican writers, proclaimed defiantly that they would not writeabout revolution, houses of ghosts, or the border. Their namereferred not to crack cocaine, but to the impending collapse of thetired tropes that held the "Boom" together.

Bolano did not assume an explicit position in these sectarian wars,but he was an inspiration to the sects. The novelist and scholarEdmundo Paz Soldan has remarked that Bolano became a legend amonghis contemporaries--younger than the "Boom" authors--even before hedied. Fuguet claims that Bolano's stories are like cathedrals tohim. According to the novelist Francisco Goldman, Bolano hovered"over many young Latin American writers ... the way Garcia Marquezmust have over his generation and the following one." The SavageDetectives, which has just been published in English, and Amulet,the latest of Bolano's short novels to be translated, help toexplain the forces behind his inadvertent ascent to founding-fatherstatus of the post-"Boom" generation.

At first glance, Bolano seems an unlikely candidate for suchleadership. Although he steered clear of magical realism, hisliterature is not dissociated from themes that the new writers wereanxious to avoid: violence, revolution, corruption. By Night inChile (published in English in 2003) is a monologue delivered by apriest who doubles as Pinochet's tutor. Distant Star (2004) tellsthe story of a pilot who profits from Pinochet's coup. But howcould Bolano not incorporate history into his writing? Born inSantiago in 1953, he spent the first fifteen years of his life invarious cities in Chile before leaving for Mexico in 1968. Afterleaving school at seventeen, he returned to Chile to work on behalfof Salvatore Allende. When Allende's government was overthrown,Bolano was imprisoned for eight days and was released only becausehe recognized his jailers as former schoolmates. When he acceptedthe Romolo Gallegos Prize for The Savage Detectives, he spoke ofthe effect of these events on his writing: "All that I have writtenis a love letter ... to my generation, we who were born in the1950s ... and who gave what little we had, all that we had--ouryouth--to a cause that we believed [in]." Such a sentiment makeshim an improbable spokesman for a generation of writers who wantedto shed the burden of writing about revolution. And in strictlyliterary terms, he was too idiosyncratic and original to berepresentative of anybody but himself.

But in other ways his salience makes sense. Bolano was not uniquelyattached to the experience of a single country, within or beyondLatin America. The Savage Detectives is narrated by people of allnationalities. Amulet is told by a Uruguayan woman living inMexico. (Geographic boundaries never held much meaning for Bolano.As a child, he refused to accept that Caracas was the capital ofVenezuela and Bogota the capital of Colombia. It was more logical,according to his poetic sensibility, the other way around: the "v"of "Venezuela" sounding like the "b" in Bogota, while the hard "c"in Caracas chimed with "Colombia." Bolano has suggested that thesemental machinations grew out of his dyslexia, but they seem toforeshadow an easy acceptance of a transnational identity later inlife.)

Bolano was also sharply critical of several "Boom" authors, famouslydeclaring that magical realism stinks. He reserved admiration onlyfor Julio Cortazar, to whom he has been compared. As a young poetin Mexico he started a movement, infrarealismo, to promote analternative to the prevailing literary themes and styles. NeitherThe Savage Detectives nor Amulet shies away from the candiddepiction of gritty reality, which was a central aim ofinfrarealismo (and of later movements). Most importantly, thesenovels show a way of writing about Latin America and Latin Americanhistory that is not constrained by the stylistic stereotypesassociated with the region.

The Savage Detectives, a remarkable and demanding book, presents aLatin America that retains certain distinguishing characteristics(many taken from Bolano's life), but in its emotional landscape itstrikingly resembles the rest of the world. Its juxtaposition ofstories from across the globe makes it clear just how similar thosestories can be. The first of the novel's three sections, "MexicansLost in Mexico," is the most grounded in a specific time and place.Juan Garcia Madero, a young law-school dropout, falls in with agroup of writers, poets, and intellectuals who have formed a newliterary movement dubbed "visceral realism." The leaders of thisgroup, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, are thinly veiled stand-insfor the author and the poet Mario Santiago (a co-founder ofinfrarealismo). Madero, like many of the characters in this novel,is a literary street rat, a kid who would rather spend his last pesoon a book than on a burrito.

The visceral realists introduce Madero to the literary undergroundof Mexico City, and before he understands what either is about heis spitting out references to Khlebnikov and indulging in bouts ofwild sex. At the end of this section, Madero flees the city withBelano, Lima, and a prostitute named Lupe who is being pursued byher disgruntled pimp. Belano and Lima have an additional reason forleaving the city: they are searching for the obscure poet CesareaTinajero, who disappeared years before, having published only onepoem. The combined purposes for the trip--one immediately pressingand one loftily intellectual--parallel the seemingly incongruousforces that motivate much of Bolano's writing.

The second section of the novel, "The Savage Detectives," iscomposed of a series of first-person narratives that dramaticallyexpand the geographic and thematic scope of the book. Madero'sself-centered teenage musings give way to a variety of narratives.The dozens of narrators--an inhabitant of an insane asylum, asingle mother who writes poetry by night, a bar owner who divineswinning lottery numbers, an editor with a penchant for duels--havesome connection to Belano or Lima, but this is the only thing thatunites them. Some return frequently, others appear only once ortwice. Each person narrates at least a page, but no more thanthirty, building a patchwork story that sketches Belano and Lima'strajectories after they leave Mexico City.

The third section, "The Sonora Desert," picks up where the firstsection leaves off. Belano and Lima gather clues about the vanishedpoet as the pimp and his thugs carry on their hunt. Madero'spersonal journey continues as the chase heats up. Like allcoming-of-age stories, Madero's relies on the particularities oftime and place to make the universal experience of adolescencesomehow unique. But the long (almost four-hundred-page) interludeof the second section disrupts the traditional inward-lookingframework of the coming-of-age tale. Rather than emphasizing thesingular importance of Madero's experience in Mexico, this sectionchronicles the aging of his fellow travelers, the way theirlives--begun in a certain time and place--ripple across decades andcontinents.

Expanding the sweep of his novel by multiplying perspectives, Bolanodraws attention to the human experiences that transcend theparticularities of age or location. Here, for example, is a scenethat demonstrates this skill:

He whispered that he loved me, that he would never be able to forgetme. Then he got up (twenty seconds after he'd spoken, at most) andslapped my face. The sound echoed through the house. We were on thefirst floor, but I heard the sound of his hand (when his palm leftmy cheek) rise up the stairs and enter each of the rooms on thesecond floor, dropping down through the climbing vines and rollinglike glass marbles in the yard.

The narrator, a girlfriend of Belano's, responds to the attack bylaunching her own.

Afterward I sat on the floor, still crying. When I looked up Arturowas beside me. His nose was bleeding, I remember, a little threadof blood running down to his upper lip and from there to the cornerof his mouth and down to his chin. You hurt me, he said. Thishurts. I looked at him and blinked several times. This hurts, hesaid, and he sighed. And what do you think you did to me? Isaid.... He asked me whether I'd calmed down. I'll never be calmaround you, I said.

The narrator of this scene is little more than a peripheralcharacter before this episode, and the interaction has nothing todo with Madero, the ostensible "hero" at the start of the novel.Yet its emotional resonance extends beyond these few pages. Itspotency derives from its vivid evocation of an emotion, not a placeor a specific set of characters. The scene could take placeanywhere in the world without losing its force, and that may be whyLatin American writers admire it.

Belano/Bolano also appears in Amulet, which is narrated by a minorcharacter from the second section of The Savage Detectives. Thenarrator, Auxilio Lacoutre, calls herself the "mother of MexicanPoetry" and is part secretary, part nurse, part maid, and partlover to the poets and would-be poets who enter her orbit. "Lifedrew me into other stories," she says, including Belano's. LikeBolano, Belano goes to Chile and returns a changed person; he nowfalls into "the category of those who have seen death at closerange," giving him a certain influence and prestige "in the eyes ofthose desperate Latin American kids." Auxilio stands apart, hauntedby an image of a "multitude of young people, an interminable legionof young people on the march to somewhere ... [whose] destinieswere not oriented by a common idea." But she withholdscondemnation. She emphasizes, in words that echo Bolano's acceptancespeech for the Romolo Gallegos Prize, their selflessness andbravery, and pays them tribute. "[H]ow beautiful they were, suchbeauty, although they were marching deathward, shoulder toshoulder.... The only thing I could do was to stand up, trembling,and listen to their song, go on listening to their song right up tothe last breath, because, although they were swallowed by the abyss,the song remained in the air of the valley, in the mist of thevalley rising toward the mountainsides and the crags as eveningdrew on."

This validation for the mistakes of youth must also contribute tothe reverence for Bolano among young writers. He preserves thesongs produced by ill-formed, angry, or just silly ideologies, andrecognizes the underlying goodness of their intentions. Auxilio andBelano are faced with a draining of purpose from their actions whenthey rescue a sick, weak prostitute and set him up with a job, onlyto encounter him later, strung out from sniffing glue and close todeath. But they concur that it does not matter that the prostitutewas going to die. "Our hidden purpose," Auxilio says, "had been tostop him from being killed." An ultimately futile campaign is notwithout importance, in Bolano's world. A poet may not be able tostop Pinochet, but he can testify to the attempt.

Bolano is not just interested in vindicating the motives behindpolitical or social activity; the motives behind literary activityare as often the object of his inquiry. As Belano and Lima huntdown Cesarea Tinajero in the desert, it becomes increasingly clearthat the importance they have ascribed to their quest is misguided.Her single poem was almost comically insignificant, but still thequesters do not become objects of scorn. No wonder young LatinAmerican writers, eager to start movements of their own and stampthem with clever coinages, appreciate Bolano; he gives thempermission to make their mistakes and provides an eloquent exampleof how to reflect upon their blunders.

If the sprawling Savage Detectives is about anything, it is aboutpeople who love literature and the often admirable forces that movethem. Yet the slope from veneration to ridicule is slippery, andBolano moves between adulation and sarcasm with stealth, even whenreferring to his own creations. "The whole visceral realism thingwas a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in themoonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless," says onecharacter. Visceral realism, says another, "was a perfect match formy inner self and my sense of reality." The condemnation soundsmore convincing than the praise. But if Bolano is harsh at times,the sheer multitude of voices and opinions expressed in The SavageDetectives suggest that he is also a tolerant man, forgiving ofeverybody, and this perhaps limits his impact. With his loveletters and paeans to pure intentions, Bolano seems to shrug off themoral and political consequences of some of the ideas and emotionsthat he depicts. This makes his writing occasionally weightless,all its aspirations to gravity notwithstanding.

Bolano is not an easy writer, and I wonder if he will find manyAmerican readers, who still crave water for chocolate. His flavoris distinctly different: sometimes serious, sometime playful, andnot always clear about which is which. This mild promiscuity ofmanner was reflected in the last interview he gave before his death(published in the Mexican edition of Playboy), in which he wasasked what he thought of critics who pegged him as the LatinAmerican writer with the greatest future. He responded that it mustbe a joke. Perhaps humility, or his sense of his own mortality,prompted him to remark: "I am the Latin American writer with theleast future." When he was asked for his idea of paradise in thesame interview, he answered slyly that it would be like Venice, "aplace you enjoy and you know is not going to last." The bestthings, according to Bolano, never last. As one of his characterssays, "Dust and literature have always gone hand in hand."

By Chloe Schama