Roberto Bolaño's vast and fantastic novel, The Savage Detectives, which Natasha Wimmer has just brought into English, is either the story of one poet, or two, or many. In what first appears to be a single artist's coming-of-age story, dozens of vividly realized characters—poets, former poets, and nonpoets—end up taking the stage. But crowded as the novel gets, it's more than anything an account of absence and exile. The people its stories are about always seem to be somewhere else, if you can find them at all.
The book begins as the diary of one poet, Juan García Madero, a likable teenager of modest ambitions who neglects his law studies in Mexico City in the fall of 1975 for a life of writing, reading, conversation, and sex. Off-handedly, he is accepted into the ranks of the "visceral realists," a poetic movement of unclear aims and uncertain membership led by Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, whom he hardly sees again until two months later when he finds himself headed for the desert in a borrowed Chevrolet Impala with Lima, Belano, and Lupe, a prostitute in distress.
Then, abruptly, the diary and García Madero are gone, replaced by an oral history. Through voice after voice, life after intersected life, two decades of interviews with nearly everyone but the two poets themselves track the elliptical paths of Lima and Belano through Mexico, Chile, Spain, Liberia, Israel, Italy, et cetera. Finally the novel returns, almost at its end, to the diary, as the Impala crosses back and forth over the Sonoran Desert, partly to evade Lupe's pimp and partly to track down a forgotten poet, the last of an original band of visceral realists from the 1920s.
Like the best big books, The Savage Detectives feels like it could be even bigger. Not by forging past its ending, which comes to a final, if inconclusive, silence, but by broadening its wide middle, into which, like one of Bolaño's more digressive sentences, yet one more anecdote or qualification could always be inserted. Despite the novel's clear and ingenious structure, it doesn't feel so much constructed as observed: watchful and insatiably curious. The searches for lost poets it's built around seem just lures to bring you into the lives of those you meet along the way. I could happily be led astray like that forever. (No such luck, though. Bolaño died of liver failure at the age of 50 in 2003, just after finishing his other giant masterpiece, 2666, which is due out in English next year.)
If Bolaño, as is often said, is the next García Márquez, it's in stature, not style. There's no magic to the realism in The Savage Detectives, but rather a restless, expansive attention to detail as his bohemian saints are blown through the Hispanic diaspora by politics, poverty, and possibility. American readers might hear echoes of the beats here, and it's true his characters are always on the road. But the beats thought they had found something new, authentic, and immediate (often in Mexico, in fact). For Bolaño and his characters, not only have the beats already happened, everything has already happened. There's no promise of immediacy (except perhaps for the naive García Madero). Every tale is recounted at one—at least one—remove. It's as if you were reading On the Road told by a writer who had heard about the adventure second- or thirdhand. (A better road to compare to is the one in that sad and sexy movie Y Tu Mamá También.)
In his short novel Distant Star—another search for an elusive poet—Bolaño writes of "the melancholy folklore of exile—made up of stories that, often as not, are fabrications or pale copies of what really happened." Bolaño was himself an exile: Driven from Chile after his arrest under Pinochet, he followed a path across continents much like that of his character Belano (the confusion of names is no coincidence). Not all exile is physical, though—the first section of The Savage Detectives is called "Mexicans Lost in Mexico." And as much as the novel is constructed around a search for Lima and Belano (and around their own search for the poet Cesárea Tinajero), the poet I found myself missing most in the story was the one who, at times, is the most present. García Madero is an immensely charming companion, fresh and open to experience, untutored but able to learn, and I spent much of the middle section of the book wishing he were there (as I think I was supposed to). The saddest lines are the ones spoken, 20 years after the events in the diary, by the world's only scholar of visceral realism: "Juan García Madero?" he says. "No, the name doesn't ring a bell. He never belonged to the group." The saddest story, but also the most tantalizing, in this book where to be a poet is to disappear.