The Savage Detectives (a famed 1999 novel by the late Roberto Bolano, released only this year in the U.S.) is the rare type of novel that is ambitious yet successful, epic yet relatively unpretentious. It is the story of two poets, the dreamer Arturo Belano and the intense Ulises Lima, and their diverging lives from their wild literati youth in the 1970s to their lonely middle-age. In their heyday, Lima and Belano establish a literary movement, “visceral realism,” and recruit a cult of passionate followers, including troublemaking Mexico City twentysomethings, a college dropout, a manic-depressive architect, and his two daughters. The entire crew is united by their opposition to a vaguely defined ‘establishment,’ which includes their “great enemy,” centrist-liberal poet and activist Octavio Paz. Yet for all of their hyper-cool posturing and fervent following, the visceral realists eventually dwindle as Lima and Belano are literally chased out of town and wander the globe, from the Mexican desert to Paris, Israel and Africa.
The novel is narrated by dozens of characters, many of them non-recurring. Bolano sets up each narrator’s story by providing the reader with enough back story and context for a casual reader to get by. Each narrator has a distinctive and conversational voice – these tales could have been told to you during a subway ride or a coffee break. Each tells a short story concerning Lima and/or Belano. Thus, we have plenty of angles to view the main characters: as one labels the two “stupid [and] conceited,” another considers them “extremely nice.” Either way, one falls, unpublished, into obscurity while the other stands “on the edge of the abyss or the edge of collapse, whichever you want to call it.”
While The Savage Detectives does not address the Mexican government, it is not insignificant that the “establishment” the visceral realists opposed included the repressive presidency of Luis Eceverria. Bolano (and his alter ego Belano) were both exiles of Pinoche’s regime. Lost City Radio deals with Latin America’s brutal dictatorships more directly, albeit in a very subtle way. The novel takes place in an unnamed nation similar to author Daniel Alarcon’s native Peru, but not unlike most other Latin American countries. In this nation (like El Salvador, Nicaragua, et. al. through the last half-century) exists a police state determined to wipe out a seemingly invisible – and seemingly invincible – uprising. Yet in this vilely realistic situation lies mystery and doubt: which came first, the police state, or the insurgency? And, as one character asks, “who was right in all of this?”
In Lost City Radio, Norma, a deejay on the eponymous radio show, rallies and unites the grieving relatives of the nation’s Disappeared. Yet, despite two references that immediately come to mind, she is nowhere as fierce as Radio Venceremos or even the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Nicaragua or Brazil, respectively. The program operates under government rules and guidelines, never mentions politics or the war, and is run with the constant fear of shutdown. Even more cowardly is Norma’s inability to discuss her own loss: her husband, Rey.
Before he was disappeared, Rey had been arrested and tortured by police. Yet torture is never described specifically – the tone is altogether one of evasion and deep regret. “She knew by now what his [arrest] meant, but when the war ended, there was euphoria, a sudden and unexpected reason to smile…. She had asked him… where did they take you?” Rey’s response is simply, “The took me to the Moon.” The response is not comic, and, though the Moon is a semi-official name for a real prison, it is slightly surreal. (In fact, the concept of disappearances in a nameless city reminds one of Kevin Brockmeier’s dreamlike The Brief History of the Dead.)
Alarcon – an acclaimed short story writer – excels at description. Norma’s voice is “her greatest asset…. She knew when to let her voice waver, when to linger on a word, what texts to tear through and read as if the words themselves were on fire.” The prose is beautiful, and the regretful tone reminds the reader that this is a story not of action but of acceptance and reconciliation: this time, Rey will not come back, and Norma must tell the city her story.
Both The Savage Detectives and Lost City Radio take the mythology of Central and South America and use them only as broad outlines for original narratives and adventurous storytelling. Bolano’s skillful re-creation of a vibrant urban arts movement is especially relevant for Baltimore scenesters, though it concludes with a cautionary message: time erodes and destroys much literary greatness and plenty of sanity. Neither novel is absolutely perfect – both confuse the reader by laying out a long and character-heavy plot in non-linear chronologies. Jaded readers may reject Bolano’s no-longer-original devices; progressives may resent Alarcon’s apolitical conclusions. And whereas The Savage Detectives told at least one tale too many, I could have read more Lost City Radio. Overall, though, these are two wonderful works of fiction.