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Astonishing tales of la vie boheme

You have no idea how much it helps reading this book to have once encountered the great Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz in life.

With his leonine hair, thick eyebrows and expensive, elegantly tailored clothes (his shirt alone undoubtedly cost more than most men's suits), he looked the way a future Nobel laureate should look -- like an ambassador, that is, from Mexico, Latin America and, indeed the royal court of literature itself.

He was an entirely distinctive-looking man, unmistakable for anyone else. I recognized him immediately from many book jacket and publicity photographs when, by chance 30 years ago, I had lunch 15 feet away from him in the Oyster Bar of the Plaza Hotel. We overheard nothing -- no morsel of wisdom or nugget of gossip or outrageous bilingual opinion. All we got was a great man's aura in the eternal theater of self-presentation and that we got in abundance.

Octavio Paz was one of the towering grandees of "El Boom," that astonishing literary moment from the early '60s to late '70s, when the Western World discovered to its shock and delight that so much of its greatest literature was coming out of Latin America. No longer did Western literature come from the same global meridians.

Its greatest figure by far -- Jorge Luis Borges -- never won a Nobel Prize. The greatest who did were Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- still with us at 80 -- and Octavio Paz, who died in 1998 at the age of 84 (though some, no doubt, would adamantly substitute 1971 winner Pablo Neruda for Paz).

To have witnessed accidentally the worldly grandeur of Octavio Paz, Crown Prince of Letters, is to understand, in a flash, why he spends hundreds of pages as the bete noire of the ragtag fictional Mexico City poets and fellow travelers in Roberto Bolano's semiautobiographical "The Savage Detectives," perhaps the most astonishing novel to come out of Latin America in the post-Boom era. Here, a few decades later, is a novel whose advent in English translation, could almost -- almost -- rival that of Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch" and Marquez's "Autumn of the Patriarch," and "Love in the Time of Cholera" (nothing, of course, will ever rival the advent of Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," one of the century's great and pivotal books.)

The paperback edition of "Last Evenings on Earth," a book of Bolano stories first published in Spanish in 1997 and 2001, is appearing at almost the same time. A huge Bolano novel called "2666" is coming in English translation next year.

Bolano was a Chilean born in 1953. He died in Barcelona at 50 of liver failure, a statistical likelihood for a life spent in and around drugs. His two poet heroes in "The Savage Detectives" -- Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima -- spend many pages always mysteriously having enough money while so many of those around them are suffering the pecuniary hardships of la vie boheme.

He spent his early years in Mexico City -- which he calls in "The Savage Detectives" a "small town" of 14 million people -- returning to Chile only after Allende's election but leaving again for Mexico after he was arrested in the Pinochet coup of 1973.

He is, like so many of the great writers of any century, a writer of diaspora -- exile or self-exile, take your pick.

But that's not why you read "The Savage Detectives," a neo-pulp title that is both ironic and not-so-ironic. You read it for the humor, the swells of erudition, the menace, the narrative velocity (amazing for a novel of its length) and some of the damndest portraits you'll ever come across of the more indiscreet charms of the literary life.

For a book so concerned with other books, literary palaver and politics, "The Savage Detectives" also spends vast amounts of time among whores, their promiscuous friends, larger than life pimps with larger than life knives, and other denizens of a demimonde that keeps finding new ways to sink lower.

Bolano, in youth, was a founder of something called "Infrarealism." His two poets, dealers, wanderers and seekers in "The Savage Detectives" comprise the ruling junta of something called "Visceral Realism." Belano -- the fictional alter ego of Bolano -- self-consciously models his brusquely authoritarian rule by fiat and defamation on the still-unfathomable way Andre Breton subjugated a large number of vastly greater and more talented surrealists, including Dali, Magritte, Eluard and Tanguy. To come across a figure who aspires to be his literary movement's Andre Breton tells you a lot of the erudite literary wit that sometimes turns encyclopedic in "The Savage Detectives."

There are, for instance, the activities that occupy the "Visceral Realists" after their leaders abandon them to drive off into the desert with a hooker named Lupe in search of their literary forebear and their movement's mother, a surrealist named Caesarea Tinajero: "automatic writing, exquisite corpses, solo performances with no spectators . . . two-handed writing, three-handed writing, masturbatory writing . . . madrigals, poem-novels, sonnets always ending with the same word. . . We did what we could . . . but nothing turned out right."

But then sex and talk are as much a part of most avant gardes as whatever it is they tell themselves they're doing. And there's a lot of that in "The Savage Detectives."

It gets worse for the heroes, too, right up to the point where decades later, the very real Octavio Paz in old age -- who evaded a planned "Visceral Realist" kidnapping -- can't even seem to remember who they were, for all their passion.

The entire story is told in the first person, a swelling chorus of voices of "Visceral Realists," (including one named Luscious Skin, no kidding), friends, enemies, acquaintances and those who knew nothing of their work or cared.

It's great literature about the literature that is lost -- or, for that matter, was never fated to be -- which, in essence, pretty much encompasses everything else in life -- except this book, whose appearance in English is a major literary occasion.

Jeff Simon is the News' arts and books editor.

***

The Savage Detectives

By Roberto Bolano

Translated by Natasha Wimmer

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 577 pages, $27

*

Last Evenings on Earth

By Roberto Bolano

Translated by Chris Andrews

New Directions

219 pages, $13.95, paper

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