Since his death in 2003, Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño has undergone a process of sanctification. The Savage Detectives is a novel that teems with poets and literary movements, yet doesn't take literature too seriouslyby Philip Oltermann / August 1, 2007 / Leave a comment
The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer (Picador, £16.99)
The death of Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño in 2003 was not premature in the way rock-star deaths are premature, but for those familiar with his life and work, it was tragic. Born in Santiago in 1953, Bolaño moved to Mexico in 1968 with his parents, and was soon moving in Trotskyite poet-revolutionary circles. Returning to Santiago in the summer of 1973, Bolaño witnessed the military coup led by Augusto Pinochet on 11th September, and ended up in prison. He managed to escape by sheer luck—one of the guards recognised him as a childhood friend—and fled from his homeland, first to Mexico, later to Spain.
From the 1970s to the early 1990s, Bolaño wrote poetry and was extremely poor. In 1993 he published his first novel, La Pista del Hielo (The Ice Rink), and in 1998 his fourth, Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives), which won him the prestigious Herralde and Rómulo Gallegos prizes and has now finally been translated into English. His death, by liver failure in a hospital in Blanes near Barcelona, came at the height of his career, as he was finishing off his 1,100-page magnum opus 2666.
Since his death, Bolaño has undergone a process of sanctification to rival that of WG Sebald. James Wood, John Banville and Susan Sontag have all called him the most influential writer of his generation. Nicole Krauss has compared his novels to “the slow-burning fuse of a bomb.” It’s impressive stuff, but just how significant is Bolaño?
The Savage Detectives is not just a detective novel, but also a literary novel. Not literary in the sense that contemporary English novels are literary—which is to say ponderous and elegiac—but in the sense that it is about people who care about literature. Most of Bolaño’s characters are poets—lawyers moonlighting as poets, bums moonlighting as poets, mothers moonlighting as poets—and they spend their time either writing or reading books: at day and at night, at home and in public, even when masturbating.
The first section of the book, entitled “Mexicans lost in Mexico,” is made up of the diary of 17-year-old law student Juan García Madero, who has “been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.” He accepts, even though at first he is not entirely sure what visceral realism is. Literary movements in Latin America, he learns, are like political…