I hardly ever buy novels, but I broke down and bought a used copy of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives because of converging recommendations. Not long after I read in one place a paean to its literary greatness, I read in another that it is the best novel for helping the reader understand modern Mexico. I found it strange and in places hard to follow but ultimately well worth the effort.
Roberto Bolaño was born in Chile but moved to Mexico as a teenager, in 1968. There he got involved in radical student politics and co-founded a poetry movement called infra-realism. Later he lived for a while in Spain -- Barcelona, a beach town, a remote mountain campground where he was the caretaker. Eventually he got married, had a child, and decided that writing novels was a better way to support his family than poetry. The result was Los detectives salvajes, which appeared in 1998 to thunderous literary acclaim.
The Savage Detectives is about young Mexicans who care passionately about left-wing politics, poetry, and each other. It begins at the university, where two slightly older men interrupt a poetry class to mock the instructor and introduce the students to their own style of poetry, which they call visceral realism. One of them is a Mexican named Ulises Lima. The other is named Roberto Belano, and he is from Chile and eventually goes on to live in Barcelona, a Spanish beach town, and a remote mountain campground where he serves as caretaker. (The slight shift in the name seems to indicate that although Belano is much like Bolaño, they are not exactly the same.) The early part of the story is narrated by one of the young students, who keeps a journal in which he records his progress at a poet, his sexual liaisons, and his growing fascination with Lima, Belano, and the mysterious phantasm of "visceral realism." I say that because a reader of Bolaño's novel never gets any idea what visceral realist poetry is like. It is an idea of poetry that is moving, powerful, honest, radical, and fierce, poetry that is as good as that written by Octavio Paz and other grand old Mexican worthies, as visionary as that by half-mad Catholic saints, but also earthy and politically revolutionary. In other words, it does not exist.
Then Belano and Lima disappear from Mexico, and someone searches for them. We don't know who is searching, we just know that someone is interviewing twenty or so different people about the events that led Belano and Lima to flee. This is the part that was hard to follow. Some of the speakers appear only once for two to ten pages, then disappear. But others appear several times, their interviews chopped into pieces. The point of this is to draw out the mystery and show our heroes from many points of view, and to make this work the truth is unfolded very slowly across 400 pages. I nearly set the book aside in the early stages of this, unable to keep the speakers straight and put off by the slow progress. But eventually many things came clear: who the speakers were, how they knew Belano and Lima, what sort of agenda they might have themselves, and why they all remembered the heroes so well. And also, by the end, the details of the quest on which Belano and Lima had embarked, and how it went so wrong that they had to disappear. The ending is highly satisfying and worth the wait.
So if you're in the mood for something literary, extremely intelligent, and a bit twisted, I highly recommend The Savage Detectives.
As to what it says about Mexico, I am not sure. It takes places in a sort of floating world where hardly anyone has a steady job, preferring to scrounge meals or hit up their parents while they publish literary magazines nobody will read and take meaningless political stands. At one point the young diarist says that the name "visceral realism" is ambiguous: "In one sense, the name of the group is a joke. In another, it's completely in earnest." This seems to be one of those particulars that can be extended very far; in Bolaño's Mexico you never know what to take seriously and what not, either in politics, art, or relationships. Is the toughness of street thugs real, or just theater? Is anyone's story about the past true? Everyone is a dreamer, devoted more to the ideal than the real. As a result, their actual accomplishments are paltry, their lives a mess.
And yet they remain charming. Most of these characters are good people, who want to be on the right side of things and do what they can for each other. They don't ask much from life in material terms, preferring to pursue love, friendship, and art. They are quirky and can be annoying, but real evil has almost no place in their world. Bolaño once called this book "a love letter to my generation," and you can see why.