Hauling the fizzing, poisonous, carbonic dream of becoming a poet through cafes, beds, bars, bookstores, crappy jobs and the urban and rural landscapes of Mexico and Spain, the excitable protagonists of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (1998) make, in the end, more skid marks than poems. Searching from barrio to barrio for an obscure poet associated with a literary movement called Stridentism, dragging a girlfriend in tow and chased by a homicidal pimp, the novel’s two main characters, Ulises Lima, modeled on Bolaño’s close friend Mario Santiago, and Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s alter ego, eventually cross oceans and deserts. Through fragmented testimonies divulged to an unidentified detective by Lima and Belano’s former friends, the would-be poets come clear as tragic antiheroes. Meanwhile, right down to its yellow eyeteeth, Mexico City is rendered as vividly as Balzac’s Paris. This chronicle of frustrated youth, with ambition burning up its resources of afflatus and dream, found a wide readership when it appeared in translation in America in 2007, a year that also saw the fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Eliciting rave reviews (New York magazine hailed Bolaño as “literature’s new patron saint”), The Savage Detectives sucked American readers into the wake of its Rimbaldian adventure.
Now, in the bright light of Bolaño’s American fame, his biographical note looks like a set piece. He’s born in Chile in 1953. Reads omnivorously. Moves with his family to Mexico as an adolescent when his father senses the darkening political climate. Returns to Chile in 1973 to help promote Allende’s socialism, but arrives too late. Is arrested after Pinochet’s coup against Allende, then released when a guard, by sheerest coincidence, recognizes him from school. Returns to Mexico, launches an improbable, confrontational literary movement called Infrarealism in 1976 and then, after a year of traveling, moves to Spain. Although he believes poetry is the one literary activity that “puts into play one’s own life,” he starts writing fiction to support himself. His fifth novel, The Savage Detectives, brings him wide international acclaim, and for five years he pumps out stories, poetry, novels, reviews and essays as if possessed. Finally, he succumbs to liver disease in 2003 at 50.
Is The Savage Detectives Bolaño’s best book? The contenders would have to include By Night in Chile, a much more gemlike and austere novel narrated by Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a seminarian and initiate into Opus Dei who writes poetry, becomes a literary critic and keeps mum about tortures he witnessed during Pinochet’s reign. Distant Star, another gripping novel, concerns a fascist poet-pilot in Pinochet’s air force who skywrites his poems over Santiago and murders his former friends. The short novel Amulet is narrated by the “mother of Mexican poetry,” a Uruguayan poet who also appears in The Savage Detectives, where she is trapped in a toilet stall in the deserted Mexico City university after riot police storm the campus during the 1968 student protests.
These four novels (and many of Bolaño’s stories) share two notable qualities. First, each alludes to a harrowing, ironic way to political violence, although the violence itself is rarely depicted. A story will end the moment before a fight breaks out. The door to a torture room will be quickly shut. A collaborator will let secret police into the house of people he is betraying, but we’ll read only that “the bodies will never be found.” In Bolaño’s oeuvre, violence redeems no one, no one kicks clear of it, and even those who condemn it, particularly writers and intellectuals, are complicit. In fact, Bolaño insistently exposes the hypocritical marriage of literary ambition and political opportunism. His heroes, meanwhile, are locked in toilet stalls, lost in exile and forgotten in tiny desert pueblos.
Second, most of Bolaño’s prose is inhabited by poets obsessed with poetry, which was Bolaño’s first and greatest love despite the fact that, as he noted, “There are so few readers of poetry that to publish it is almost a gratuitous or futile act.” For Spanish-reading critics, Bolaño’s posthumous novel, 2666 (to be published in English by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this fall), is considered his greatest achievement. But Bolaño considered Tres (Three), a book of poems published in 2000, to be “one of my two best books.”