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.

Roberto Bolaño.
Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives came out a few months ago and received all kinds of enthusiastic notices, and now that the parade of reviews has come and gone, I would like to bring up the distant rear by banging one additional note on my own tardy bass drum. The Savage Detectives, as everyone has heard by now, is a novel about the Mexico City arts-and-poetry scene in the years from the 1970s to the 1990s—a story about rowdy young poets and their literary movement called "visceral realism," with dozens of characters, and nearly as many themes, and thousands of acute observations.

But the most striking trait is a forward-hurtling momentum that comes rushing out of the very first words. The narrator of the opening section is a 17-year-old student in a poetry workshop, and he announces, "I've been cordially invited to join the 'visceral realists.' I have accepted, of course." And the novel whooshes onward, and velocity is felicity, and before you know it, 100 pages or so have slipped into the past.

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The reviews have already pointed out that in The Savage Detectives, as in his much shorter novel Amulet, Bolaño has offered up a fictional version of his own experiences—his adventures as a Chilean student who came of age in Mexico City and helped found an avant-garde poetry movement in the mid-1970s, and his movement's pesky habit of mischievously persecuting its literary elders and rivals and generally wreaking mayhem in the brio style of the surrealists of yore, or maybe in the style of the revolutionary student left, post-1968. And The Savage Detectives, in its account of the "visceral realist" leader "Arturo Belano," hints at the real-life Bolaño's poor health and sufferings—the physical decline that led to his early death in 2003. But you might be better off not knowing any of these autobiographical details. A mythology has sprung up about Bolaño, entirely of his own devising, and the mythology could end up eclipsing his actual writings, which would be a shame. Anyway, the forward-rushing momentum of The Savage Detectives owes nothing at all to the real-life Mexico City personalities and misadventures that people in the know are able to identify.

The sentences rush forward because of a peculiar and seductive tone in Bolaño's voice on the page—the tone of someone who believes wholeheartedly in the grand importance of whatever he may happen to be saying, and whose words, in their confident sincerity, seem to be racing onward for no other purpose than to get out the message.

The Savage Detectives makes me wonder if something isn't distinctly Latin American about this kind of momentum. A few years ago, Mario Vargas Llosa published an op-ed newspaper column about how he had given up smoking thanks to some useful tips from Gabriel García Márquez, and I came away thinking that I and 1 million other newspaper readers might very well have gone on following Vargas Llosa's nicotine narrative through another 300 feuilleton installments, if only he had chosen to natter on. It was because of that same confident mix of self-assured relaxation and electric high alert.

In other parts of the world, in regions distant from Latin America—or so my wanton theorizing leads me to supposethe pitiable champions of literature dwell under oppressive clouds of relentless doubt and irony, and are nervously stimulated by a bleak suspicion that anything they write must surely be a lie, and their own work is merely a game, and their avid readers don't really give a damn, and literature's last remaining purpose is to arch an eyebrow. But not in Latin America. The Latin Americans compose their narratives with a cheerful élan akin to that of the Victorian novelists. They do not think that literature is a lie. They are madly in love with their own inexhaustibly lush and wealthy literary tradition, and they feel a duty to push their tradition forward into the experimental future in the name of every decent hope of mankind and of Latin America; and their piety toward the past and zeal for the future fill their voices with the lovely and seductive vibrato of supreme self-confidence. I don't vouch for the universal explanatory power of my own theory, and yet something like this does seem to account for The Savage Detectives.

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