Easily the year's most acclaimed literary sensation, Roberto Bolaño is enjoying a remarkably unprecedented ascendancy in fame. The Chilean novelist and poet, whose exaltation has long been celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, is posthumously sweeping the English-speaking countries (he died in 2003). Semana
, a Colombian weekly magazine, recently published a list of the 100 best Spanish-language novels of the past 25 years, which, not surprisingly, included three works by Bolaño (number 3: The Savage Detectives
; 4: 2666
; and 14: Distant Star
It was also recently announced that Natasha Wimmer (who translated The Savage Detectives) was awarded a $20,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to support the translation of his masterwork 2666. According to the NEA, "Six weeks before he died, his fellow Latin American novelists hailed him as the most important figure of his generation at an international conference he attended in Seville." His work is widely considered to be hailing a significant change of direction for Latin American literature as a whole.
The Savage Detectives, which Bolaño called a "love letter" to his generation, is an accomplished and thorough effort. No amount of praise or critical elucidation could possibly do this epic story (at nearly 600 pages) justice, as it's both astonishingly original and magnificently composed. The highly autobiographical novel tells the tale of a group of "visceral realist" poets (a fictionalization of the "infrarealism" movement Bolaño helped spawn in the 1970s), their days drifting throughout Mexico and western Europe, and their search for the elusive poet Cesárera Tinajero. The main characters, if the book can be said to actually have any, are the founders of the so-called "visceral realist" movement, Arturo Belano (a loose stand-in for Bolaño's own life) and Ulises Lima (Bolaño's poet-friend Mario Santiago). Told mostly in the style of an oral biography spawning 21 years, The Savage Detectives is a must-read for ardent fans of literature and poetry, as the novel chronicles the wanderlust of men and women for whom poetry is something well beyond the cafes and yellowing pages of forgotten verse.
Though he often garners comparisons to Borges, Pynchon, and Cortázar (a claim that, while not entirely erroneous, does little to exemplify his singular style), Bolaño's genius is, in part, his ability to synthesize the elements of literature which his forebears had set as standard, usurp them as his own, and then transcend them in an erudite manner heretofore unseen. Roberto Bolaño's newfound fame is, indeed, well deserved, and The Savage Detectives is one of the finest novels to come along in quite some time.