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Poets and Gangsters: Discovering Roberto Bolano

Apr 28, 2007 (All Things Considered)

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It's a novel that's been compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Nobel prize-winning work.

But it took the New York publishing world nearly a decade to discover the late Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, a book that was already well-known in Spanish-speaking literary circles.

The Savage Detectives tells the story of Mexico City poets from an underground literary movement who set off on a quest. It's Bolano's fictionalized account of his own life as a young writer and ringleader of the 1970s "infrarealism" movement in Mexico City. The infrarealists were known for disrupting poetry readings and publicly despising revered writers such as Octavio Paz.

While their movement faded into obscurity, Bolano became a sensation. When Los Detectivos Salvajes - The Savage Detectives - was published nearly 10 years ago, Bolano was quickly hailed as the most important Latin American writer since Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Barbara Epler, the editor of New York publishing house New Directions, has published English translations of three of Bolano's novellas and a collection of short stories.

"There's just nobody else like him," she says. "He's the most exciting new writer that I think has been found in America in the last decade."

After his death in 2003, Bolano's family approached Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publishers about releasing the English translation of The Savage Detectives. Though it's always risky to publish an author in translation that few people recognize— and to launch a large marketing campaign for the book - editor Lorin Stein says he was lucky to get The Savage Detectives.

"If you get a book like this, you make a very big deal of it," Stein says. "You have no choice. It comes around once every gazillion years."

Next year, the publishing house plans to release the English translation of 2666, which is considered Bolano's masterpiece. The novel is based on the true story of hundreds of women who've been murdered in Mexico's Cuidad Juarez. Bolano finished writing it a month before he died.

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