The first time I read Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives I was 22 years old. I lived in Lima on a miserable salary and the only thing I was doing with my life, other than getting drunk to the point of senselessness, was reading and writing, imitating and attempting, as well as throwing myself against the door each time my literary style proved to be nothing more than a pale and clumsy echo of the voices of writers who’d influenced me: a kind of polyphonic collage of Vargas Llosa with Ribeyro, Onetti with Puig.
Anagrama’s gray edition cost exactly 78 soles. I remember this clearly as it was the period in which I’d go to Quilca Avenue in Downtown Lima and literally submerge myself in a pile of Populibros and Comida Peruana manuals to salvage books by classical authors that cost no more than 8 soles. Thanks to Oveja Negra and Seix Barral, an underpaid and curious young man such as myself could, in Lima, read Céline and Faulkner and Carson McCullers and García Márquez for 40 soles.
So the mere idea of spending 78 soles on this anonymous Chilean’s fat novel not only seemed idiotic and insane, but also, in terms of physical health, would deprive me for a week of the inexpensive fare at the restaurant where I regularly ate. On the other hand, there were two powerful factors that complicated my decision. The first was the absolute devotion that The Savage Detectives had generated in a friend of mine, the only person in the world who introduced me to books and authors that seemed essential to my future as a writer. The second, without a doubt, was the fantastic title, so appealing and precise, so Welles and so Godard, which I immediately associated with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, translated into Spanish as La pandilla salvaje, which uses cowboys to speak of solidarity and codes of honor and friendship among delinquent friends.
In summary: I decided to buy it and devoured those 78 soles in a single day, and that didn’t matter one bit: I read it again and again, and talked about it and recommended it to others. I wrote a masters thesis about the novel and, in addition, went to Mexico in search of the diffuse shadow of a promiscuous female poet who resembled María Font.
What did I like about Bolaño’s novel?
In formal terms, it was clear to me that his prose, while apparently simple, has a restrained and suggestive lyricism and a powerful musicality that are very different than what the authors of the “Boom” produced. Reading Bolaño generated an instant addiction in me: whether due to the lucid and demystifying spirit with which he adopts diverse genres or to his eagerness to involve us as active readers, to offer us fragmented works so we might fill them in with our imaginations. We become accomplices who search for truth through narrative devices that blend reality with fiction, facts with conjectures, apocryphal characters with historical ones. As the critic José Miguel Oviedo has said, “Bolaño always ends up turning his readers into detectives.”
On an emotional level, there is something in Bolaño that I had never found in any other writer, something akin to a brotherhood or silent complicity through which he, who had suffered everything, spoke to me as a young, lost, anxious writer. This became clear to me after reading the following paragraph from his story “Meeting with Enrique Lihn”:
This happens to all young writers. There is a moment in which you have nothing to lean on, no friends, and much less teachers, nor is there anyone to reach out their hand, the publications, the prizes, the scholarships are for others, for those who have said ‘yes sir’ many times, or for those who have praised the high officials of literature, an endless horde whose only virtue is their policed sensibility of life, nothing escapes them, they forgive nothing.
I never met Bolaño, although I certainly tried. In 2003 I went to France to write and live the way I imagined Latin American authors had written and lived in Paris in the 1960s. It was an utterly stupid idea, of course, but back then, when I wandered through life like an orphan, it seemed quite real and significant to me. By chance, I met Robert Amutio, Bolaño’s French translator, and with his help I sent a handwritten letter to Bolaño, emulating a letter that Bolaño himself had written to Enrique Lihn when he was an adolescent poet.
The response came electronically, through Amutio. Bolaño commented with irony that it seemed I had no email. Here I transcribe the brief epistolary electronic exchange we had a few days later:
Dear Mr. Bolaño.
I received a message from Robert Amutio. You can write to me whenever you wish, I would very much like to receive your response. I sent you a letter by mail because you did it that way with Enrique Lihn and, well, I thought it would be better that way. It was an error not to include my email address, I am sorry. I will be in Barcelona in October (although I believe you already know this).
With cordial regards,
When I wrote to Lihn the Internet did not exist, nor did email, or whatever we call this electromagnetic postal system, nor did I have any money to buy the necessary machine, had it existed. In any case, I want to thank you for your essay on The Savage Detectives, which is very generous, and which I read as if it were not about me. By the way, I think you correctly identified the Peruvian poet. What are you doing in Too loose?
A strong embrace,
I don’t live in Toulouse although, yes, I frequently feel Too loose. I came to Bordeaux to write (that may sound naive, but it’s true). I finished my masters degree and decided to postpone the doctorate for a year to dedicate myself entirely to my novel. You have no need to thank me for the essay, on the contrary, it’s I who thank you for the novel.
I recently read Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a strange and marvelous novel that you’ve probably read. The notion of the reader as detective is clear in it. The act of leaping through the pages in pursuit of a fictitious editor, and the shreds of information or distortions he offers along the way have given me valuable ideas for my own novel. I’d like to tell you about it. I haven’t told anyone about it because I’m one of those people overcome by shyness. Not that I want to write you ten pages on the subject. I know how busy you are and Robert has told me a little about the new book of stories you are working on.
Well, Roberto, thank you so much for your response, it has been very moving. An embrace.
How I envy your youth, your tremendous energy, ready to conquer all the possibilities of the world or die in the attempt. Tell me about your novel, but above all write it. Without fear. But in addition, and this may matter, with a humility worthy of San Francisco or at least Giacopone da Todi. With every day that passes, I am more convinced that the act of writing is a conscious act of humility. Well, I await your reply. In the meantime, receive a strong embrace.
I wrote one last letter to Bolaño but never received a response. In it, I asked for a few minutes of his time to meet him in Blanes. On July 15, 2003, I learned of Bolaño’s death through a succinct and heartfelt letter from Roberto Amutio.
The act of writing is a conscious act of humility.
Never, in my thirty-one years of life, have I received better advice from anyone.
I never went to Blanes.