The late Roberto Bolaño (raised in Chile, he died in Spain aged 50 in 2003) is a very literary writer in that his main characters are often poets, as he had been. However, his interest in poets is not intellectual: his writers are in the mess of life. In Distant Stars, the main character is a sadistic fascist poet. In Monsieur Pain, Bolaño explores César Vallejo's illness in Paris. Nearly all the stories of Last Evenings on Earth deal with poets and seem like kinder for his big novel The Savage Detectives, the winner of prizes in Spain, Venezuela and Mexico.
Bolaño's angle on poets is oblique. The novel's title subverts the notion of poet to that of detective, a Borgesian trope for a close reader. The "savage" hints at those "noble savages" that Europeans once characterised exotic Latin Americans as. But it also refers to poets who refuse the literary life to become vagabonds searching, in this case, for the reason a forgotten Mexican avant-garde poet of the 1920s went silent and vanished in the deserts of Sonora. The example of Arthur Rimbaud haunts these pages.
The poets Arturo Belano, a Chilean, and his Mexican friend Ulises Lima, call themselves visceral realists. Their enemy is the grand Octavio Paz, a character in a bizarre scene about walking in circles in a park. These neo-surrealists meet in bars, steal books, sell drugs, have lovers, run a magazine, excommunicate members and feud with Mexican poets. Bolaño is funny and cruel about this in-fighting, which stretches to Barcelona and Paris.
Among all these nonentities, Belano and Lima stand out. The novel pieces together their lives on the run. As they hunt the vanished Cesárea Tinajero, we try to make sense of their obscure motivations. Bolaño amusingly mixes up real names and literary movements, like the estridentistas, with invented ones. A reader unaware of these minor poets may miss the deadly humour about literary self-satisfaction and oblivion.
We do not read Belano's or Lima's poems. Instead, we have reports on their activities, their readings, and lovers' accounts of them in bed and on the road. The Savage Detectives is an oral novel, broken up into a brilliant opening diary about sexual and poetic initiation, and then accounts by fellow travellers who bump into the pair. Bolaño has a perfect ear for the Mexicans, Argentines, French and Spaniards who tell us about their brief encounters with the two poets. It's as if he has tape-recorded them. The translator heroically follows. We do not enter their minds; all is hearsay.
Like Rimbaud, Belano renounces art to become an adventurer and criminal, and self-destructs. The minimal plot, fragmented through the witnesses, leads him to Europe, then Portuguese Africa and finally into the mad civil war in Liberia where he disappears upriver in Conrad country, just as Rimbaud had done in North Africa and Aden. The final section reverts to the Sonora desert and the fate of the woman avant-gardist as the two poets, a whore and her lover flee a pimp and drive in circles in the labyrinth of dusty villages until the gruesome conclusion.
This novel is an elegy for a generation of Latin American would-be poets fed on extremists like Rimbaud and Marx (a couple make love with Sade as a manual). But they did not take these mentors to the conclusions Belano and Lima do, by giving up art for something never defined that seems to be willed failure and uprootedness. Bolaño can be savagely comic as he mocks his generation, yet equally tender in his piecing together of broken lives.
Jason Wilson is professor of Latin American literature at UCL
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