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Willing Outcast
How a Chilean-born iconoclast became a great Mexican novelist.

Reviewed by Ilan Stavans
Sunday, May 6, 2007

THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES

By Roberto Bolaño

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Farrar Straus Giroux. 577 pp. $27

AMULET

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.

Indeed, Cervantes's masterpiece serves Bolaño as pretext and subtext. The entire book is episodic, alternating between discussions of literature, misadventures and stories within stories. Middle-class angst is ubiquitous. Sex is performed -- and depicted -- prodigally. The scenes of García Madero's initiations into a world of frenzied hedonism are the best of their kind I've read. There's a hilarious episode in which the visceral realists attempt to kidnap Paz, who is accurately portrayed as stiff and formal.

The cumulative effect of these satirical episodes is astonishing. Everyone in them is looking to understand what motivates Belano and Lima, but fails to do so. It's a Rashomon-like quest, in which truth is evasive, ultimately unattainable. That, indeed, is the tone of the entire novel. As Belano and Lima try to find Tinajero, we readers try to understand them as characters. Yet Bolaño doesn't want us to. He fills them with contradictions, including disappointment when they finally find Tinajero.What matters isn't the solution to the puzzle but the effort of assembling its pieces.

One piece comes early in the novel's second part, when a mythical female, Auxilio Lacouture (Bolaño's names are at once trite and magical), makes an appearance. She's a Uruguayan who moved to Mexico in the '60s, became involved in the student uprising of 1968, and who presents herself, irreverently, as the "Mother of Mexican Poetry." This section takes up fewer than a dozen pages, but after The Savage Detectives first came out in Spanish, Bolaño expanded the material into a rather plotless and meandering novella, Amulet, which was first published in 1999 and has now been gorgeously rendered into English by Chris Andrews.

By far the most hallucinatory element in The Savage Detectives (and in 2666) is its bizarre, exquisite prose. Having spent years studying linguistic varieties across the Americas, I've never come across a chameleon talent like Bolaño's. He writes in a Mexican Spanish with an Iberian twist but an impostor's accent. How ironic that the best Mexican novel of the last 50 years should have been written by a Chilean.

Bolaño started writing at the age of 18. He was an unredeemed smoker, ate poorly and slept irregular hours. Literature for him was a mania, if not also a form of martyrdom. His last decade of life was remarkably prolific. Starting in 1993, he published almost a book a year, sometimes more. His early fiction dealt with topics such as the death of the Peruvian poet César Vallejo in Paris and the excesses of fascism in Chile. He rewrote a story by Borges and imagined an encyclopedia of Nazi authors in Latin America. He refused stipends from the literary establishment, submitting his manuscripts to contests in order to get the little money he needed to go on.

In his late teens, he made an irrevocable decision: never to enter a classroom again. After that, everything he learned came via reading. Indeed, I'm convinced that Bolaño worked his deepest revolution as a reader: He chose his own predecessors, rejected bestsellers, enjoyed carving out a career against the wishes of the literary status quo.

Isn't it ironic then that the escritor maldito, the accursed writer, the ultimate pariah, is now being firmly positioned in the spotlight? Of course, it was inevitable. Too many mediocre books are being published, and a courageous voice, angry and heretical, remains rare. What distinguishes a genius isn't intelligence -- there's plenty of that around; nor is it the degrees one receives from distinguished schools. It isn't even the polish of one's style. The classics are often imperfect, and The Savage Detectives, though inexhaustible, is messy and perhaps overly ambitious. Only one thing matters: Bolaño had the courage to look at the world anew. ·

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His new book, "On Love," will be published in the fall.

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