From the Golden Fleece to The Two Towers, from the Holy Grail to Heart of Darkness, great works of world’s literature are often stories of quests. So goes for Roberto Bolaño‘s masterpiece, The Savage Detectives, which follows two young poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, in their odyssey in search for the mythical Cesárea Tinajero, great priestess of the “Visceral Realists”.
We follow them, often under the bemused eyes of Juan García Madero, seventeen when he joins the visceral realists (no initiation ceremony), from the streets of Mexico City to the Sonora desert, via Chile, Nicaragua, California, Barcelona, Rome, Angola, Sierra Leone, and other places in history, meeting biblical whores, murderous pimps, corrupt policemen, incorruptible generals, and, of course, lost poets.
This is a story of poets, fugitives, witnesses… perhaps apostles? Its roots are in the horror and miracles of a continent, steeped in literature and death.
“Bolaño,” writes his translator, Natasha Wimmer, “took seriously the idea of literary immortality – never more than when he turned it into a joke. Failed writers are frequent characters in his stories and novels; so are lost writers, whose legacy must be preserved. In ‘Photographs’, the only published story in which Arturo Belano reappears, he comes upon a kind of illustrated encyclopaedia of forgotten French poets from the 1960s and ’70s. As he looks at their pictures and reads their biographies, remote and irrelevant now, he sees a line of birds on the horizon, ‘an electrocardiogram that flutters or spreads its wings in expectation of their death, thinks Belano, and then he shuts his eyes for a long moment, as if he’s thinking of crying with his eye closed.'”
Geography is equally important for Bolaño, who describes meetings, encounters, love affairs and murders with a careful labelling of time and place: “Rafael Barrios, in the bathroom of his house, Jackson Street, San Diego, California, September 1982.”
I went on to read “Distant Star”, and hope to read “2666” soon. An important writer, a genial novel.