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3.4 out of 5 stars32
3.4 out of 5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 22 December 2012
Having seen the mixed reviews I went for the audio version. It is expensive but handy and someone else takes the strain. Also very good for those holiday luggage restictions.

It is pointless going over old ground but suffice to say there are three very distinct sections. Everyone, me included, seems to stay with the first section which has a 'Diary' narrative structure following the lives and loves of the Visceral Realists in 1970's Mexico City. We get to know the lead characters of this avant-garde, student world where they all do the usual things that students do the world over.

The real killer with this book is the seemingly enless second section. A total change of style. Countless witness testimonies of the lives of Ulysses Lima and Arturo Bollano over a twenty year span into the 1990's given by totally new characters. Is this autobiographical? One 'witness' recalls 'Everything to do with Arturo bored me to tears'. Well, you're not going to get an argument from me!

For the few brave souls who survive and make it to the shortish final section, there is disappointment. This section is quite simply poor. I only kept going due to my miserly Yorksire roots which demanded I get my money's worth from the very good audio narrator.

There are parts of this book which are very well written (two stars, not one) but wow did this need editing! It is not acceptable to simply list page after page of names of poets and artists nor to list them all again followed by a sexual insult. The author indulges himself and the end result is a dog's breakfast.
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on 30 September 2013
I am sure this book is very clever...and perhaps I am just not clever enough to appreciate it, but it just goes on, and on, and on, and on...and does not seem to get anywhere. I must confess that I only made it to page 250 before I lost the will to live. Another more appreciative reviewer says that it is all about the love of books, and books are certainly mentioned a lot, but there is nothing much about what is in them. It just recounts the squalid but rather mundane doings of a set of literary low-lifes, who don't actually do very much. It reminded me a bit of Kerouac's 'On the Road' but it is longer and has even less narrative flow. They say Bolano was a great writer and it is certainly well-written, but if you prefer something with a story then my advice is to steer clear.
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on 27 November 2008
That this novel has received almost universal praise from critics is no great surprise. It is a novel all about writing, about books, and it is filled with an ardour for its subject which is infectious. Some characters are compelled to steal them, or to produce them, to take great pleasure in looking at or touching them. There is often a rhythm to the prose which leads you around its pages like a man leading his dance partner around the room, and Bolaño is a man who knows the dance, who knows how to lead. The first section of the book comes in the form of a diary written by seventeen year old Juan Garcia Madero, a budding poet who guides us through the last two months of 1975 in Mexico City. It is a short period of time but an eventful one for our orphan narrator who joins the visceral realist poetic movement, is virtually adopted by a family, has lots of sex and ends up speeding out of the city in a white Ford Impala pursued by a pimp and his heavies. And that's just the first 120 pages.

It is a riotous start that introduces us to a huge cast list of characters. Important amongst them are Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the leaders of the visceral realist movement. Belano functions as an an alter-ego of the author, whilst his compadre has a name which on its own conjures up the work of James Joyce and that original Greek odyssey. That love of books I mentioned earlier is shown here firstly by the theft these young poets indulge in from local bookstores, an act which is not so much motivated by their politics as by their poverty, and also in the production of their own magazine, Lee Harvey Oswald, a name at once political and yet ridiculous. The group is riven by infighting, with expulsions occurring like mini-revolutions and its members manage to pull off the feat of sounding simultaneously educated and stupid. For those with a better understanding of the surrealist poetical movements of Latin America in the 1970's it may be even funnier, but there's plenty enough there for me thank you very much. There is wicked sense of humour running through almost every exchange and if we're not laughing with them we can often laugh at them.

Madero's sexual initiation comes courtesy of his contact with the Font family. At its head is Quim Font, an architect whose mind is slowly falling to pieces, who had designed the only two issues of Lee Harvey Oswald. His two daughters are the focal point for the attentions of many of the local males. Bolaño creates a feeling close to siege by having them live in a small house within the courtyard of the Font compound and this feeling will turn into an actual siege situation when Quim provides refuge to Lupe, a prostitute in hiding from her pimp. It is this situation which enforces the flight of Belano, Lima and Madero into the desert and it isn't until the final section of the book that we will find out, from the continuation of Madero's diary, where that takes them.

The majority of the book comes in the middle section entitled The Savage Detectives. It comes in the form of interview-like monologues, an oral history spanning 20 years, where people recount their experiences of Belano and Lima but also of course the parts they themselves have played in history. The range of personalities Bolaño creates is simply staggering, it reminded me of the cacophany of character which features in William Gaddis' gargantuan The Recognitions which drew a similarly riotous picture of the American art scene. From the wistful mezcal-soaked reminiscence of Amadeo Salvatierra, to the increasingly insane ramblings of the now incarcerated Quim Font, Bolaño knows how to make contrast work.

Some pieces extend to several pages almost like short stories within the text, like Auxilio Lacouture, the 'mother of Mexican poetry' who tells the story of her siege at the university during the campus violence of 1968. Or Norman Bolzman, a Mexican Jew, who comes close to summing up the style of this middle section when he says

'I'm just trying to tell a story. Maybe I'm also trying to to understand its hidden workings, workings I wasn't aware of at the time but that weigh on me now. Still, my story won't be as coherent as I'd like. And my role in it will flicker like a speck of dust between the light and the dark, between laughter and tears, exactly like a Mexican soap opera or a Yiddish melodrama.'

When we do finally get back to the diary of Madero we join the fugitives as they search for Cesárea Tinajero, the original founder of visceral realism, whose body of work has been reduced to a few scraps and who may not even still be alive. With the look we have been given at the future of some of these characters there is a very different feel to this final section, the vibrancy and feelings of invincibility have diminished; which doesn't necessarily make for a muted close, if I ran out of steam anywhere it was towards the end of the middle section, but there is a sadness that wasn't there before. The fact that Madero doesn't appear once in the oral history leads us to wonder why it is our 'hero' should disappear.

I'm really struggling to do the book justice here but I can only say that to go on a ride with Bolaño is a drink, drug and sex-fuelled escapade that leaves you invigorated, your head tingling like you've been for a drive with the top down. It's certainly unlike anything I've read before and that change in tone towards the end of the novel points towards the publication next year of his final work, the apocalyptically titled '2666'. I'm ready and willing for the journey.
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on 26 May 2011
Roberto Bolano pretty much lived the life he writes about in this book, a multi-style account of what happens to a young, radical group of poets as they age. It starts with a 17 year old who knows poetry techniques but little about life and for a hundred pages or so we follow a diary narrative of his first two months as a member of the visceral realists. That's the radical group of poets, if you're wondering. Then, after his narrative ends, there's a jump into a load of multi-ethnic, first person recollections of the visceral realist's two leaders, mostly from peripheral characters, and even some we've never met before.

It's a bit of a lurch, actually, and for the next hundred or so pages you might find it disappointing. I fact, I was skipping ahead to see if it'd switch back to the 17 year old kid again, as we leave him on a real cliffhanger. But the thing is, Bolano gradually pulls you into the new style and the gift he has for writing as different people with different voices is incredible...really, he writes all sorts, and most of them are all associated with poetry or the arts in some way, so you're getting variety out of a group of people that is usually portrayed as either pretentious or odd.

The best thing to say about this book though, is that it makes you want to be like the two poet leaders, Ulysses Cruz and Arturo Belano (who is obviously the author). They travel without money and without plans and one of them even ends up sleeping in a cave somewhere on the coast of France. Only certain personalities can do this of course, but don't you wish you had the balls to be one of them?
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VINE VOICEon 22 October 2007
Somebody had to break the strangle-hold that Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz and their imitators such as the dreary Isabelle Allende had on South American literature. Bolano succeeds brilliantly in a rough, bleak, funny and sexy picaresque tale of two poets, Ulisses Lima and Arturo Belano, and their lives in Mexico City in the 1970s and subsequent travels in Europe and Africa. The structure of the book is interesting: it begins with an account by a 17-year-old wannabe poet and his encounter with the rest of the gang. They end up fleeing Mexico City on New Year's Eve 1975 in a borrowed car. The main section consists of a series of interviews with people who encountered the two poets between then and 1996. The final part is an account of what happened on that road trip as they try to find Cesarea, a female poet, whose only known work is one short poem.
The bad news is that Bolano died in Blanes a couple of years ago, aged only 50. The good news is that there is quite a lot of his other stories, either translated or in translation.
Death to Magical Realism! We're all Visceral Realists now!
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on 28 July 2009
You never quite know where you are with Bolano. Perspectives tumble, safety in character knowledge is shallow. Don't expect a quick read as each narrator adds conflicting information to our gradual understanding.

Reviews of the book state the depth of internal comedy/parody latent within the novel. I disagree. I consider Bolano to be that rare talent that shakes one's complacency, forcing a reappraisal of what constitutes an intelligent read. What you get is a snapshot of a grunting, breathing, vital Mexico, peopled with flawed characters, whose interactions with others are chaotic, touching and memorable.

If you want a challenging read, with beautiful prose, then read this and Bolano's other works. Excellent stuff.
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on 27 October 2008
This was my first encounter with Bolano. He's one of those writers who make you want to go straight out and buy everything he wrote. It's an extraordinarily brave, original, funny, sad and honest book that happens to be about poets but could be about anyone. Hugely recommended.
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on 10 April 2008
This is a fantastic novel, and a warning: almost all of the many characters in this novel are poets; almost all are failures. Bolano, who started as a poet before turning to novel writing, observes his characters with an almsot disturbingly clinical detachment. The two main characters are only ever seen indirectly, through the eyes of many minor characters who are given the role of witnesses, as, over the years, ambition fades, the two charcters perhaps find some other truth that is not poetry (and we never see the poetry. I am glad Bolano turned to writing novels, but this is the novel of a poet who has turned a dispassionate eye on what it means to be a poet. Four stars not five because the novel goes on just a little too long; some of these louche Mexico City poets end up being a little samey. But perhaps this is part of the point?
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on 11 October 2010
As much as I like sprawling narratives, this book would have seriously benefited from an editor's scalpel.
It's just a little too self-indulgent, with endless catalogues and baggy asides, and I also found the humour rather sophomoric.
It may sound like sacrilege, and I have yet to read 2666, but Roberto Bolaño is one overhyped writer.
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on 18 February 2014
Beginning in Mexico City and then extending around the globe, we follow the literary quest of two underground poets. Told in multiple narratives with time constantly flowing back and forth, this is at times a bewildering read, but in such masterful hands it is crafted into a highly rewarding novel.
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