Though he is considered one of the most important Latin-American writers of his generation, most Americans are unfamiliar with Chilean-born writer Roberto Bola–o because his major works have not been available in English. The arrival of The Savage Detectives, in an impressive translation by Natasha Wimmer, should do much to broaden his readership in the English-reading world. The book that helped gain Bola–o an international reputation, The Savage Detectives is a kaleidoscopic, not to say rambling, narrative about a group of young literary desperados who all but stake their lives on the imperative of poetry. Such literary obsessions may stretch the boundaries of realism for the average Joe who hasn't read a poem since high school, but Bola–o's characters are indisputably believable the kind of eager, if na•ve, bohemians that have long populated a certain type of literature.
The plot of The Savage Detectives, much as there is one, pivots around two central characters, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. Poets of the visceral realist school, these two dreamers hope to learn what became of Ces‡rea Tinajero, a talented young female poet who stopped writing and disappeared from the radar in the 1930s (the novel begins in the mid-1970s). The quest to find Tinajero takes them from Mexico City to the small towns of the Sonora Desert. A Kerouac-esque road trip, replete with sex, booze and, ultimately, violence, it is chronicled by 17-year-old aspiring poet Juan Garc’a Madero who, along with a street prostitute named Lupe, ends up accompanying them on the journey.
Garc’a Madero's guileless, sex-drenched narrative bookends the real meat of the book: 400 pages of testimony, spanning 1976 to 1996. Like the talking heads in a mockumentary film, a wide and diverse group of witnesses recalls encounters with either Belano or Lima, or both, during the 20 years since their search for Ces‡rea Tinajero. Many of these recollections are funny, some are poignant, some are downright absurd. It proves a challenging and daring narrative device, one that not only supplies a slow-brewing portrait of the two poets, but says as much more, even about the tellers of the tales. Bola–o is exploring the essential reliability of testimony and what it can tell us about both the observer and the observed. It is left to us, the readers, to decide where the truth lies or even if the truth matters.
It has been suggested that Arturo Belano is a stand-in for Bola–o, and given the similarities in their names and their backstories, that seems a fair assumption. Like his fictional alter-ego, Bola–o was born in Chile but spent much of his youth in Mexico. He returned to Chile in 1972 to take part in Salvador Allende's liberal revolution and was arrested after Pinochet's military coup. Like Belano, Bola–o was a literary itinerant, ultimately moving to Europe where he died in Spain from liver disease at the relatively young age of 50. The Savage Detectives was published in its original Spanish in 1998, five years before his death.
This big, ambitious book is filled with literary references that will be lost on all but the most well-versed in Latin-American letters, but that doesn't detract from its readability. In pacing and sensibility, The Savage Detectives is undeniably a very Latin book, and giving oneself over to its pleasures is akin to treating oneself to a slow-paced holiday south of the border. There is no urgency in its story despite the poetic anxiety of its youthful characters but rather a sense of casual inevitability, which unfolds with a meandering grace. Though each entry in the book bears a specific date, there is nevertheless a timelessness to the narrative, suggesting that what transpires hinges less on external events and more on the need for every generation to exert its own idealism. For these literary pilgrims, that idealism takes the form of the word. That this idealism ultimately dissipates, the elusive prize remaining forever out of reach, in the end bestows this masterful book with an underlying sense of melancholy. Can literature survive the brutality and indifference that surrounds it? Robert Weibezahl, author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead, is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.