Poets and Gangsters: Discovering Roberto Bolano The New York publishing world is buzzing about The Savage Detectives, a novel by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolano that was published almost a decade ago.
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Poets and Gangsters: Discovering Roberto Bolano

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Poets and Gangsters: Discovering Roberto Bolano

Poets and Gangsters: Discovering Roberto Bolano

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A Mexican novel that came out a decade ago by a writer who died four years ago is suddenly the talk of the New York publishing world. "The Savage Detectives" by the late Roberto Bolano has been a phenomenon in Latin America for years. Some critics there have called it as groundbreaking as "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

Now the English-speaking world is getting its first peek at "The Savage Detectives." And as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, it's getting the same raves here.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: "The Savage Detectives" tells the story of Mexico City poet from an underground literary movement who set off on a quest.

Mr. LORIN STEIN (Editor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux): With these four beautiful young people - two wild dope-dealing poets, one even more beautiful poet and his fleeing prostitute girlfriend in an impala.

DEL BARCO: Lorin Stein is the editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux who leapt at the chance to publish "The Savage Detective" in English.

Mr. STEIN: It's poets getting mixed up with gangsters and having to run for their lives.

DEL BARCO: It's Roberto Bolano's fictionalized account of his own life as a young writer in Mexico City. The 600-page novel begins in the form of a diary by a teenage poet.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) November 2nd - I've been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way. November 3rd - I'm not really sure what visceral realism is.

DEL BARCO: Visceral realism is based on a real life literary movement that the late Roberto Bolano joined called infrarealism. Mexico City writer Mauricio Montes(ph) says the infrarealists were known for disrupting poetry readings and publicly despising such revered writers as Octavio Paz.

Mr. MAURICIO MONTES (Writer, Mexico City): There was this group of poets and fiction writers interested in literary terrorism. There was this time when one of them shouted some insults, something nasty to Octavio Paz during a reading. And there was this fight that came afterwards.

Ms. CARMEN BOULLOSA (Mexican Poet; Novelist; Playwright): I was terrified by them.

DEL BARCO: Poet Carmen Boullosa lived in Mexico City at that time. She remembers Bolano and the other anti-establishment Efrainites, as they were called, fighting over literary ideas in cafes and CD cantinas, just as they do in his novel.

Ms. BOULLOSA: I fear the Efrainites arrived at one of my readings and throw tomatoes to me.

DEL BARCO: Boullosa says Roberto Bolano was a ringleader of the poet punks. While their movement faded into obscurity, Roberto Bolano became a sensation. When "Los Detectivos Salvajes," "The Savage Detectives," was published nearly 10 years ago, the Chilean-born Bolano was quickly hailed as the most important Latin American writer since Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

He won some of Spanish language literature's top prizes. Bolano also became an underground favorite for a new generation of readers and writers including the once terrified, Carmen Boullosa.

Ms. BOULLOSA: He breaks totally with the idea of Latin American literature as fantastic or as tropical, exotic. This is a description of Latin American for Latin Americans.

DEL BARCO: In breaking with the magical realism of Garcia Marquez, Bolano came up with his own style, says editor Lorin Stein.

Mr. STEIN: The idea the novel can be centrifugal, that all the characters can fly away from an explosion at the beginning and then never come back. I've never seen a novel structured quite like that. And it seemed true to life in a way that's completely its own.

DEL BARCO: Stein says the novel made him nostalgic for his own use when literature mattered. In Bolano's world, people are so passionate about books. Poets break into fistfights and have bitter feuds over who makes it into a Mexican anthology.

Francisco Goldman, a Guatemalan-born novelist, says Bolano is not making up that much.

Mr. FRANCISO GOLDMAN (Guatemalan Novelist): All of a sudden for the first time, here was this novelist writing about characters who were really similar to the people you knew in Mexico City, the kind of people who read books and want to write books and love books.

DEL BARCO: Goldman gave a British translation of one of Bolano's shorter works, a novella called "By Night In Chile" to Barbara Epler.

Ms. BARBARA EPLER (Editor, New Directions, New York): It just really - this is how (unintelligible) a head off. I had never read a book like it.

DEL BARCO: She's the editor of New Directions, a small New York house that's published works by Henry Miller, Jorge Luis Borges and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others. Epler decided to publish Bolano in this country. So far, she's put out the English translations of three novellas and a collection of short stories.

Ms. EPLER: There's just nobody else like him. I mean, he's the most exciting new writer that, I think, has been found in America in the last decade. All you have to do is read "By Night in Chile," and you realize this man is a genius, like God's gift to readers.

DEL BARCO: Roberto Bolano considered himself, first and foremost, a poet. The poets he depicts in his novel are larger than life characters based on his old Mexico City friends. He writes in the voices of more than 50 of them. Their lives span three decades in several countries. And the cast also includes publishers and pimps and poets with names like Amadeo Salvatierra and Luscious Skin.

Carmen Boullosa reads in the voice of poet Laura Jauregui describing one of the visceral realists whose name is an echo of the authors, Arturo Belano.

Ms. BOULLASA: (Reading) Haven't you ever seen those ridiculous birds that practically dance themselves to death to woe the female? That's what Arturo Belano was like, a stupid, conceited peacock. And this old realism was he's exhausting dance of love for me. The thing was I didn't love him anymore. You can woe a girl with a poem but you can't call down to her with a poem, not even with a poetry movement.

DEL BARCO: Roberto Bolano never made a living as a poet. He wandered the world, working odd jobs before settling in Spain. Editor Lorin Stein says when Bolano was diagnosed with a terminal liver ailment, the poet concentrated on prose as a way of providing for his family.

Mr. STEIN: He knew that his life was coming to an end. And you can feel when his characters feel that dread. It feels very palpable to me that it's - we're watching somebody writing his way into the best idea of immortality that he had - a community of saints really.

DEL BARCO: The saints being, of course, writers. Following the birth of his son, Bolano spit out a dozen books of prose including two massive novels. After his death in 2003, Bolano's family approached Farrar, Straus and Giroux about publishing the English translation of "The Savage Detectives."

It might seem risky for a U.S. publisher to take a chance on an author and translation that few people in this country know and to launch a large marketing campaign for the book. But Stein says he was lucky to get "The Savage Detectives."

Mr. STEIN: Are you crazy? If you get a book like this, you make a very big deal of it. I mean, you have no choice. You'd be - it comes around once every gazillion years.

DEL BARCO: Next year, the publishing house plans to release the English translation of what's considered Bolano's masterpiece. "2666" is a complex novel based on the true story of hundreds of women who've been murdered in Mexico's Ciudad Suarez. Bolano finished writing it just a month before he died.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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