Roberto Bolaño, the new man/myth/legend born in 1953 and author of "The Savage Detectives", is a Chilean writer who has lived in Mexico City and traveled to quite a few countries in his lifetime, particularly the ones where this novel takes place. He became active in left-wing politics, and at some point was imprisoned in Chile because he was considered a terrorist. Luckily, one of the prison guards was Bolaño's high school friend, and he was released. He, like just about all authors, took on a number of odd and slow jobs, including a dishwasher and garbage collector. He read avidly when he was younger and became a poet, eventually starting his own group of poets called the Infrarrealisimo (the Infrarealists), before moving on to novel writing. He passed away in 2003 from a liver illness, which was either brought on or agitated by his heroin addiction.
The story is displayed through the journal posts of Juan Garcia Madero in the 1st and 3rd sections of the book, and the interviews of probably about 30 or so various people in the heavy 2nd section of the book. It's about the journey of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the founders of the 1970's poet group "Visceral Realists", as they search for the lost Mexican poet Cesarea Tinajero. In the midst, Madero (who joins the VRs) meets a prostitute named Lupe who, as friends get her to leave the street courtesan business behind, is hunted down by the powerful pimp Alberto. The thing is, if not for the rhythmic appearances of the interviews with Amadeo Salvatierra, a poet who was with the original Visceral Realists in the 1920's, the plot would be completely lost on readers through the middle, which barely covers it.
The narrative drifts through the lives of people in Mexico City, California, Barcelona, Paris, Israel, Viennes, Central Africa, and probably some other places I forgot. We go to the introduction of the Visceral Realists in Mexico City, to a British hippie's life working in a grape harvest in Barcelona, to a man who starts to see numbers everywhere which enables him to win the lottery, to Arturo's short stint in Israel robbing people for money with Hermito Kunst, to a man aiding the rescue of a boy stuck down in a well "with the devil", and others before returning to the search for Tinajero.
I didn't really take notes this time around, only for the fact that I was so engrossed in the book that anything that even detracted from reading for a second was a sharp no-no. One thing that did stay in my mental notebook, however, was the names of characters, towns and streets, which Bolaño lists like some sort of Latin encyclopedia. "Super" Latin names like Xochitl, Moctezuma (I may name my child this), Jacinto, Amadeo Salvatierra, Jauregui, Auxilio, Zopilote and place names like the Encrucijada Veracruzana stuck out like a sore thumb to me and brought me into the heart of Mexico City, only because I'm used to plain ole' Lopezes and Rodriguezes and Riveras.
Out of the 648 pages of this award-winning novel that put him in the American mainstream eye, I can definitely say that I enjoyed about 630 of them. It got boring in some parts, particularly in Julio Martinez Morales's excerpt starting on page 514 (softcover), with a page and a half worth of:
"Wandering. Wandering. The honor of poets: the chant we hear as a pallid judgement. I see young faces looking at the books on display and feeling for coins in the depths of pockets as dark as hope. 7x1=8, I say to myself as I glance out of the corner of my eye at the young readers and a formless image is superimposed on their remote little smiling faces as slowly as an iceberg."The passage may strike some interest in itself, but I don't think it disrupts the language of the rest of the prose in the right way.
I'm definitely a person who is more plot-focused than anything (which would probably explain the mystery genre's appeal to me), and it bothers me a little that I have yet to figure out what was so intriguing about Bolaño's language. On a sidenote, ironically, I picked this book up in B&N because the title suggested that it would be a huge mystery novel, which it is nowhere near. Anyway, what I've got so far is that he does not try to force emotions about what's going on in the story down my throat through repetitive, droning writing. The language here is very factual in nature and simplistic in voice, letting me feel things out for myself. Also, every sentence presents new information in some form or fashion and keeps me interested, instead of the story moving one whole page at a time by nitpicking tiny, corny events in bonehead blabber. For instance:
"The work was exhausting and possibly the only good thing about it was that after the working day no one felt like fighting. Still, there were plenty of sources of friction. One afternoon Hugh, Steve, and I told Hans that we needed at least two more workers. He agreed but said that it was impossible. When we asked why, he said it was because he had contracted with Monique's uncle to finish the harvest with eleven workers, and not a single person more." (Mary Watson's narrative, pg. 263)In American melodramatic hands this would probably read: "The work was exhausting and I was very tired. I sat to rest my body a bit because it ached. Possibly the only good thing about it (the work) was that after the working day, no one felt like fighting. I never liked to see people fight because it stressed me out somewhat. i just like to work in peace. I still felt like there were plenty of sources of friction...." or something along these lines. It doesn't move past the worthless crap quick enough.
I'm not even really sure if I could name that many themes past poetry and love that appear in the novel. It's such a sprawling work that it would probably take a reading each year to sit and decontruct what's really being told behind everything. Of course, I would love to do this, and will probably attempt to squeeze it in between reading everything else Bolaño and a million other books (I usually prefer to read a different or new author every book). I think I will go ahead and buy "2666", which is over a thousand pages, as well as "By Night in Chile" and "Distant Star". What I really look forward to is "Monsieur Pain", which I sadly have to wait until next January for.
Ah well, on to "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy............