The great novel of Mexico City.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 10 2007 7:16 AM

Mayhem in Mexico

Roberto Bolaño's great Latin American novel.

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The pathos of The Savage Detectives lies in that single contrast—the pathos of the ardent young poets who cavort like satyrs and nymphs in the sacred wood of high poetry and, then again, have to drag their way around the hardscrabble streets of Mexico City, and sometimes die all too soon, as Rubén Darío did at age 49, and Roberto Bolaño did at age 50, in both cases of liver failure.

But I don't mean to bring my drum-banging on Bolaño's behalf to a gloomy thud of a conclusion. The Savage Detectives sings a love song to the grandeur of Latin American literature and to the passions it inspires, and there is no reason to suppose that, in spite of every prediction, these particular grandeurs and passions have reached their appointed end. Bolaño's friend Carmen Boullosa in The Nation and Francisco Goldman in the New York Review of Books have both insisted lately that Bolaño wrote a further novel, not yet translated into English, that is stronger, or at least more prodigious, even, than The Savage Detectives.

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Even now, three years after his death, posthumous new books by Bolaño continue to come out in Spain—stories, prose fragments, and poems. Chris Andrews has translated into English a number of Bolaño's works in the past and has done a good job of it; and Natasha Wimmer, who has brought The Savage Detectives into English, has likewise done well. In The Savage Detectives, Wimmer has written Nics instead of Nicas (meaning, Nicaraguans), and pro-Somozans instead of Somocistas (meaning, the followers of Nicaragua's Somoza dictatorship). But these are tiny gaffes that could be corrected in a future printing, and they count as nothing when weighed in the balance against Wimmer's ability to come up with an inspired and masterful sentence, redolent of Bolaño's impudent enthusiasm, such as, "He's going to disemfuckingbowell me," which is, from a translating point of view, magisterial.

Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University, is the author of Power and the Idealists and has written for Slateon Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Enrique Krauze, Raúl Rivero, and Che Guevara.