“The Savage Detectives” by Roberto Bolano

savageIf I describe the plot of this book, it will sound incredibly boring. Even a brief summary is boring, unless of course you happen to be interested in the visceral realist poetry movement in Mexico City in the 1970s, apparently a satire of the real life infrarealistas of which Bolano himself was a member.

Fortunately, the book is not really about visceral realism or Mexican poetry. At least, that’s not what I got from it.

The structure of the book is confusing. The first 100 pages or so are narrated by a young poet called Juan Garcia Madero, and then just as you are becoming invested in his character and life, he disappears altogether. The next 500 pages are narrated by about 50 different characters across decades and continents, with the only continuity provided by two other poets, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, who we now realise are the main protagonists. Then at the end, Garcia Madero reappears and begins narrating right where we left him, back on New Years Day 1976, to tell us about the search for a minor poet called Cesarea Tinajero.

OK, it still sounds boring. But it really wasn’t. Viewing the two characters through the eyes of so many different people was fascinating, especially as their views were contradictory and they sometimes even argued with each other across chapters. The only people whose heads we never got inside were Belano and Lima themselves, and this created a strange feeling of knowing the characters well but not as intimately as you’d expect after 700 pages. There was always a distance between the characters and the reader.

In a speech accepting the Romula Gallegos prize for this book, Bolano said:

To a great extent everything that I have ever written is a love letter or a letter of farewell to my own generation, those of us who were born in the ’50s and who chose at a given moment to take up arms (though in this case it would be more correct to say “militancy”) and gave the little that we had, or the greater thing that we had, which was our youth, to a cause that we believed to be the most generous of the world’s causes and that was, in a sense, though in truth it wasn’t.

This made sense to me having read the book. It does feel like a melancholic, nostalgic look at the youth of a particular time and place, the energy and vitality and passion and ultimate failure. The cause he’s talking about here was socialism – Bolano returned to Chile in 1973 to help “build the revolution”, and was lucky to survive when Allende was overthrown by the CIA-sponsored Pinochet coup.

Bolano doesn’t deal with any of this directly in the book, but there is an overwhelming feeling of sadness and futility. The poets themselves are forgotten – when a character in the book compiles a list of all Mexican poets of the last 50 years, Ulises Lima doesn’t even appear. The poet they model their movement on – Cesarea Tinajero – was published only once in the 1920s, and her poem consists only of some strange symbols. Their quest to find her feels futile too. They are chased all the while by an angry pimp and his violent sidekicks and only escape, as Bolano himself did from Pinochet, by pure luck.

I’m not doing a good job of explaining why I liked this book. I think I need to think more about it. I’ll update the review if I can make it more coherent at a later date.

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There are 6 comments

  1. Thanks Claire! Yes, do read it! Might be good to have a pen and paper to hand, though – I spent a good part of the book flicking back through the pages and trying to remember who character #47 was and how he/she related to Ulises Lima or Arturo Belano…

  2. So I recently finished reading Bolaño’s “2666” and it was definitely a visceral experience. I plan to read “the Savage Detectives” next but feel like I need another month or two of pause-time from Bolaño’s view/interpretation/predictions for our world. As with your final sentence in this post, I feel like I can’t do an adequate job of explaining or reviewing “2666”. Like “Infinite Jest” it’s meaty, disturbing and brilliant. But oh so hard to encapsulate. I did read it with some friends and would recommend that, definitely. Having insight and input from others led us down some very interesting discussion paths.

    1. That’s a good idea, Jennifer. It’s always good to read with friends, especially with a book like 2666. My trouble is I’m always so disorganised, and hate planning my reading in advance, so I hardly ever get to do group readalongs. I think with this book it would be great. I haven’t tried Infinite Jest yet, so maybe I’ll try to find someone to read that with.

      1. Heh, i can totally relate, Andrew! I am terrible at planning my reading as I do read very much by mood. But, I was really grateful to have company on 2666. Infinte Jest too. There is a good website, Inifinite Summer, that was a big help when I read that novel. (Though I didn’t read it with them, I appreciated the resources.)

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