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Book Review: Boys with Toy Guns

Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives



The risks of the archetypal writer (drinker, addict, chronic miscreant) propelling himself into self-parody can be dangerous, and it nearly finished off Chilean poet and novelist Roberto Bolano before he published a word. Swept up in Mexico City by the global revolution of 1968, Bolano was an intellectual, a Trotskyist, an exile, a global vagabond and, finally, a heroin addict.

Bolano didn't begin writing seriously until he became a father, kicked his drug habit and was diagnosed with a liver ailment that eventually took his life. In the intervening decade, he wrote at least a book a year, won numerous local and international literary prizes, and was recognized as one of the most important writers of the century. Four years after his death, Bolano has finally been discovered by the English-reading world with Natasha Wimmer's sublime translation of his first novel, The Savage Detectives.

In three parts, Bolano writes of a "gang" of poets, led by Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, who invite an impressionable law student named Juan Garcia Madero to join their underground poetry movement, the Visceral Realists. The Visceral Realists aim to rescue poetry from the "peasant" movement and reclaim it with the rhythms of the street and the passions of the revolution. They also seek the aesthetic mother of their movement: the poet, Cesarea Tinajero, who mysteriously disappeared into the Sonora Desert in the 1930s.

What follows for Garcia Madero is making friends and reading the books they recommend, endless conversations in cafes, reading and writing poetry. Yet it still never occurs to him that of all the Visceral Realists, he's the only one actually writing. He's also hurtling toward disaster.

What happens next hums like a good pulp novel. When a cruel and brutal pimp tries to reclaim his whore, Belano, Lima and Garcia Madero save the girl and go speeding off into the Sonora Desert. More than 400 pages later, the four are still being trailed. With no place to go, they decide to locate Cesarea Tinajero, an act that will shed what's left of their innocence while they try to cling to it.

If the first and third parts of The Savage Detectives dazzle like high-brow noir, it's the 400 pages of meat in between that truly give the book its depth.

Told in excerpted and transcribed interviews over the course of 20 years, in cities throughout the world, the Visceral Realists tell their stories by telling Belano's and Lima's.

Soberly paced, Bolano re-introduces numerous subjects, some of them superlatively eccentric, but he does not present them as grotesqueries. Instead he gives each their own distinctive voice. Some may be disillusioned, but they're not disappointed. They just grew up. Bolano didn't create these characters to tenderly praise the grace of human dignity. He created them because he trusted them.

Every so often—though not often enough—a novel comes along that changes the way we think about all of them. This is one of those books.


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