The search for a missing poet is the nominal subject of the late (1953–2003) expatriate Chilean author’s blazingly original 1998 masterpiece.
This almost aggressively literary novel, which won major Latin American literary prizes and follows into English translation several briefer works (Last Evenings on Earth, 2006, etc.), evolves around the professional friendship of poet intellectuals Arturo Belano (an obvious authorial surrogate) and Ulises Lima. In the course of founding a literary movement they label “visceral realism,” the pair undertake a quixotic journey hoping to find their predecessor, Mexican poet Cesárea Tinajero, known to have disappeared into the Sonoran Desert decades earlier. But before we learn of their progress, Bolaño introduces the ardent figure of 17-year-old hopeful poet Juan García Madero, offering a wonderful account of the fledgling artist’s plunge into Mexico City’s artistic world, energetic discovery of the multitudinous pleasures of sex and hard-won solidarity with the visceral realists, once he has learned (through tireless networking) that unqualified poets are being rigorously purged from the movement. Juan García’s breathless narrative then yields to a 400-page sequence in which various involved observers relate and comment on the shared and separate odysseys endured by Ulises (an adventurer prone to miscalculations and missed travel connections), Arturo (who becomes a war correspondent, as the novel travels to Europe and North Africa) and faithful Juan García. In a brief final sequence set in the desert, Juan García resumes the narration, treating the by-now brain-teased reader to a contest in which the poets display their knowledge of arcane literary trivia. The sad, surprising result of their quest for the elusive Cesárea is also revealed.
One of the most entertaining books about writers and their discontents since Boswell’s Life of Johnson. A brilliant novel, fully deserving of its high international reputation.