Willing Outcast

Reviewed by Ilan Stavans
Sunday, May 6, 2007


By Roberto Bolaño

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Farrar Straus Giroux. 577 pp. $27


By Roberto Bolaño

Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews

New Directions. 184 pp. $21.95

Not since Gabriel García Márquez, whose masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, turns 40 this year, has a Latin American redrawn the map of world literature so emphatically as Roberto Bolaño does with The Savage Detectives. The Chilean-born Bolaño moved with his parents to Mexico in 1968, returned to Chile in 1973 only to be caught up in the Pinochet coup d'etat, and settled eventually in Catalonia, Spain. Much of the time before his untimely death in 2003, at the age of 50, he was obsessed with being an outcast. His turn has come to be an icon.

Bolaño not only wrote exactly what and how he pleased; he also viciously attacked figures such as Isabel Allende and Octavio Paz, accusing them of being conformists, more interested in fame than in art. In poems, stories (some of them included in his Last Evenings on Earth), novellas (such as Distant Star and By Night in Chile), two mammoth narratives (one under review here and 2666, scheduled for publication next year in English translation), and an essay collection (called, in Spanish, Entre paréntesis), he cultivated such a flamboyant, stylistically distinctive, counter-establishment voice that it's no exaggeration to call him a genius.

The Savage Detectives alone should grant him immortality. It's an outstanding meditation on art, truth and the search for roots and the self, a kind of road novel set in 1970s Mexico that springs from the same roots as Alfonso Cuarón's film "Y tu mamá también." Its protagonists are Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, fringe poets professing an aesthetics they describe as "visceral realism." Their hunt for a precursor by the name of Cesárea Tinajero takes them to the Sonora Desert, portrayed by Bolaño as a land of amnesia.

As the title suggests, the material has the shape of a detective story, yet one that stretches the genre to its limits. The narration is polyphonic: The first part is told by Juan García Madero, a transient member of the visceral realists. The second is a maze of testimonials by a plethora of people, real and fictional, about the Mexican literary world from 1976 to '96. And the third part returns to 1976 and García Madero, who delivers a denouement as eccentric as it is graphic. The reader reaches the end recognizing that everything is a joke and that words are insufficient to chronicle metaphysical searches such as the one undertaken by this pair of good-for-nothings, who call to mind Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

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