The Savage Detectives

by Joshua Potter

Nonlinear storytelling, rotating narrators, endless literary and cultural references, humor, darkness, globetrotting, and great prose; needless to say, this book lives up well to its staggering reputation.

Roberto Bolaño / Chilean / 1998 / 648 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer 

The Savages Detectives was only translated into English in 2007 and Bolaño’s followup 2666 was translated a year later, but these two books have already amassed such bizarrely consistent and effusive receptions from critics that I dropped both of them into my queue as soon as they popped up on my radar. Given my penchant for consensus avoidance, I must admit that it felt a bit weird buying these two huge books at the same time, but on another level I think it was fundamentally unavoidable. Every glowing review of one book always mentions the other book in equally positive tones; the two just seemed to go hand-in-hand and they also seemed to be completely awesome. Working first as a poet and then as a master of the novella form, Bolaño did not take a crack at the extended novel until the later years of his life. Written in rapid succession, Detectives and 2666 were supposedly drafted in non-stop 48-hour typing sprees (it’s not exactly Kerouac with his apocryphal On the Road scroll, but hey). It is utterly mind-blowing to me that someone who begins as a poet ends with two prose works totaling 1,500+ pages; the fact that I’m seriously considering rolling up my sleeves and delving immediately into 2666 after having just finished a preliminary 650 pages should serve as some indication of Detective‘s high calibre. The critics earned their keep with this one and, while I hesitate to throw my hat into the ring, the opportunity to confirm the hype is too tempting.

The barebones of the plot are fairly straightforward. Two young poets living in 1970s Mexico City decide to start a new poetry movement (which they call visceral realism) that will purportedly revitalize Mexican literature and stand in direct opposition to the more mainstream writings of Mexico’s most famous poet and first Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz. Although visceral realism successfully recruits more poets and appears to be endlessly funded through the sale of drugs, it never really gets off the ground and it is not long before the two young founders are no longer taken seriously by the established literary elite. In a last ditch effort to define the parameters of the movement and solidify its base, the founders strike out on a quest to find a little-known and long-lost poet who begot some of the stylistic principles that visceral realism is attempting to embody. In their quest to locate the poet, however, something will go horribly wrong. The Savage Detectives both builds up to this quest and also explores the international fallout after its completion; the techniques Bolaño employs in these depictions, however, constitute the true crux of the novel.

Detectives opens with diary entries composed by Juan García Madero, a teenage poet sensation who has recently been inducted into the ranks of visceral realism. It is through Madero’s eyes that we first encounter the mysterious founders of the movement, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, and learn about their far-flung social relations and activities in the drug trade. Situating the narration in the hands of the youngest and newest member of the group sounds off all the standard alarms: can we, as readers, trust his appraisal of situations and people? Will his youth hamstring his analysis? Are Lima and Belano up to things that pass beyond the scope of what Madero is seeing? (The answers to these questions are, respectively and predictably: no, yes, and yes.) Indeed, it seems that Madero has stumbled into a movement in decline, where endless problems — both artistic in nature and otherwise — threaten to collapse the group entirely. Bolaño marches a cavalcade of prostitutes, pimps, psychotics, and other seedy characters across the pages of Madero’s narration and after a few hundred pages, the world of the visceral realists has been whipped into a frenzy. The diary entries break off abruptly, jarringly, like a music box crashing to the floor.

The year was 1975 and the action was confined completely to Mexico City and its environs. What follows in the next 400 pages, however, is so stylistically, temporally, and geographically different that it feels almost as if Bolaño had grafted on a completely different novel. Gone are Madero’s diary entries (indeed, gone is Madero entirely). This second section of the novel covers the years from 1976 to 1996 and is written in the form of testimonials that might have been given to a police investigator or recorded by a court stenographer. Each testimonial begins with a name, date, and location of the “interview” and, while every account in some way deals either with Lima or Belano, neither of the protagonists ever gets to speak for himself. Rather, a cast of about four dozen characters explain the nature of their relationships with one or the other of these two men. Thus we hear from the Mexican professor of literature who knew Belano in his youth, a French friend of Lima’s who houses him in Paris for a few months, an ex-girlfriend of Belano’s who encounters him on a camping trip, the secretary for Octavio Paz who oversees a meeting between her boss and Lima, and on and on. Sometimes these narrators are given several sections of the novel to explain themselves; at other times, Bolaño only transcribes one account. Whether we encounter them once or many times, however, each character has a distinct voice and a unique story to tell in his own right (let alone whatever it is they have to say about Lima or Belano). Part of the fun of reading Detectives is leafing through all of these more-or-less self-contained short stories. Their settings range from Paris and Madrid to North Africa, California, and Jerusalem.

But the narration is rarely rosy. These characters are oftentimes struggling artists, writers, and dreamers who subsist for long periods of time without jobs, food, or domiciles. Apparently some rift has taken place between the two old friends because Lima and Belano never appear together in the accounts of any of their acquaintances. Although different people appraise the characters in different capacities, some consistent trends emerge: the two founders of the visceral realist movement are weird, broken men who are geographically and socially untethered. While many people we hear from were never a part of the visceral realist movement, a handful of the accounts emerge from Lima and Belano’s older Mexican friends from the late 1970s. It is unclear what exactly transpired that caused the ruination of the two men, but many of the people who knew them in 1976 speculate that something went horribly awry when the two drove off into the Northern Mexican countryside looking for a long-lost poet named Cesárea Tinajero. Whatever happened there corroded their friendship, forced them out of Mexico, and brought the visceral realist movement to a halt.

One of the more bizarre and infrequently-commented-upon aspects of the novel is Madero’s total disappearance from the 1976-1996 accounts. Indeed, this hints at a broader theme of the novel: the things that are left unspoken are the true forces that drive Detectives. The third, much shorter section of the novel returns to the very end of 1975, where Madero’s diary entries seamlessly resume where they broke off some 400 pages prior. He accompanies Lima and Belano into the countryside on their quest for Tinajero and, as the trip plays out, his account becomes increasingly frenzied and terse. The sense of dread that Bolaño has worked so diligently and subtly to create through the investigative accounts in the second section crystallize in striking fashion in the third and these last 60 or so pages fly by in an instant. Very few of the loose ends are tied off completely, but the intimations are fascinating.

Bolaño employs a number of interesting conceits. First, for a novel ostensibly about poetry, I think there are only about a dozen lines of actual verse that appear in the text. In this sense, despite endless discussions between characters about poetry, its composition, and its history, the focus of the book is more specifically centered on the events themselves. Secondly, we are never given much insight into who was responsible for collecting the interview transcripts in the middle section of the novel (although it’s certainly possible to craft some informed guesses). There is clearly some third, invisible party that possesses the motivation and means to travel around the world seeking information about Lima and Belano. Whether that entity be academic, legal, or personal in nature is unknown. Finally, many of the characters in the novel are reflections (however direct) of actual people that Bolaño knew in real life (indeed, Bolaño = Belano if you haven’t guessed as much). I imagine that part of the reason that all the short stories in the middle portion of the novel are so convincing is that Bolaño himself actually lived out many of these escapades. I also imagine that someone who was a bit better steeped in the world of Latin American literature would have caught many more of the references than I did (though I was pleased to see many favorable mentions of Hopscotch thrown in there). Wikipedia actually has a great chart on the page for Detectives that breaks down which of the characters were intended to represent actual figures in the Mexican poetry scene. At any rate, this character list is helpful just for navigation purposes in the course of reading the novel; there are so many that, at times, you’ll find yourself getting a bit confused.

For its inventiveness and pitch-perfect execution, The Savage Detectives should be required reading for those interested in Latin American literature. I place it just a bit below Hopscotch, which, if you’ve perused my review of that book, is saying quite a lot.

Rating: 10 / 10

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