The Savage Detectives

For me, The Savage Detectives marks the rejuvenation of fiction. Lately, I’ve needed a kick to start certain novels. With Bolaño, the urge to read his work had been building for almost two years. I started The Savage Detectives in late 2008 but could not get into it due to time constraints. I had heard great things about both The Savage Detectives and the forthcoming (at the time) 2666, apparently Bolaño’s masterwork. I think what really influenced me was the title, and the history surrounding Bolaño, who died of liver cirrhosis in 2003 and had been an itinerant for most of his life.

I picked up the novel again at the end of January and finished it five days ago. Reading Bolaño, at least in TSD, is like reading an encyclopedia of poetic and philosophical references, mostly to Latin American poets, but also to such varied artists as Duchamp (Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 plays an important role in the second part of the novel), Khlebnikov (there’s a hilarious rejoinder from a certain narrator as to the type of person he was), and everywhere in between. If you want to learn about Latin American poetry, TSD is the novel for you.

In the introduction, Natasha Wimmer (the amazing translator) tells a funny joke about Bolaño and his best friend Mario Santiago, who had a habit of attending readings by better known poets and disrupting them with shouts and insults. Apparently, someone in Mexico City scrawled “Bolaño, go back to Santiago and take Santiago with you” on a wall, referencing both Bolaño’s Chilean roots and his friend Santiago. In the novel, Bolaño plays with this by making Santiago into Lima (the capital of Peru).

The Savage Detectives is broken down into three parts. The first is narrated by 17-year-old Juan García Madero, an aspiring poet and virgin. This is the funniest and most interesting part of the novel until you get to the end, mainly because it contains one very developed narrator. It is a bit over 100 pages long. In this part, we are introduced to the characters of Roberto Belano (based on Bolaño himself), and Ulises Lima (based on Mario Santiago), two poets who found the group known as visceral realists. This part is written in the form of a diary, with pitch perfect tone. García Madero is obsessed with both sex and poetry and has an encyclopedic knowledge of poetic forms and terms. He is invited to join the visceral realists, who are a ragtag group of poets who are also literary thieves, going into bookstores to take books by the poets they love. Ironically, it is implied that some of the visceral realists can’t even read. García Madero has all sorts of sexual adventures (he isn’t a virgin for long) and the rest of the cast of characters is introduced.

Part two is a polyphonic narrative which features more than forty narrators and spans twenty years, from 1976 to 1996. This section is approximately 400 pages long and I think that herein lies Bolaño’s achievement. One narrator, Amadeo Salvatierra, is the constant presence that punctuates a mix of interlinked character interviews. Salvatierra describes the day Belano and Lima come to see him about a woman named Cesárea Tinajero, the original founder of the visceral realists in the 1920s, who has disappeared in the Sonoran desert. Between Salvatierra’s infrequent narrations lies a yearly account of what happens to many different people who have interacted with Belano and Lima, or sometimes have not even met them. Most readers who didn’t finish the novel dropped it here, and I can understand why. One of the Salvatierra sections features a three page list of the names of contributors to a certain literary magazine. Unless you’ve studied Latin American and European literature, you will know almost none of the references, but it doesn’t matter. It is Bolaño’s requisite talent at showing off that is exhibited within most of the novel, and the list is no exception.

Of particular concern, importance, and interest are sections such as: a young man has an affair with another man named Luscious Skin, who is later shot in the face; a particularly aggravating yet hilarious and touching section features a lawyer-turned-poet who tells the story of starting his own literary magazine while he references Latin phrases in every sentence; a man describes how he won millions of pesetas after walking the streets of Barcelona and having hallucinations of numbers; in perhaps the most heartbreaking section, a possibly mentally retarded man named Heimito Kunst describes his exploits with Ulises Lima in Jerusalem and Vienna. Heimito’s narrative is probably my favorite and includes lines like “we followed a man to a park, where I punched him in the neck and the head and Lima took his money.” Another excellent section describes Belano’s absurd decision to challenge a critic who has yet to review his new book to a duel with swords because that critic had given a poor review to another writer.

The novel is full of movement. Belano and Lima travel to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, often turning up in incomprehensible situations. We hear from lovers and friends and enemies and random people who only show up once but tell their stories in great detail. There is a sense of both joy and melancholy in their telling, which inevitably ends the same way: “I never saw him again.” There isn’t really a narrative here, at least not an obvious one. Everything is revealed through gradations of exposition.

Part three returns to García Madero and finishes back in 1976. There’s a wonderful section in which García Madero is quizzing Belano, Lima, and a hooker named Lupe on poetic terms, one of which stands out in importance: “What is an epicede?” he asks. When no one answers, he states, “an elegy recited in the presence of the dead.”

Bolaño’s knowledge of poetry is evident on every page of The Savage Detectives. His talent for creating unique voices I consider inimitable, and the way in which he lays out the narrative is incredible. Yes, the second section becomes difficult because some parts seem irrelevant. Yes, you will get tired of not knowing what Bolaño is talking about. Yes, you will want to go back to García Madero’s exuberant, sex-filled narrative, but stick with it.

One of the contrasts that struck me throughout the novel is the distinction between being a poet or a writer and wanting to be a writer. There are people who call themselves poets but know nothing about poetry, and there are people who know everything about poetry but are not considered poets, and this is the essential conflict in The Savage Detectives. What would you do to define yourself as an artist? How would you live your life in order to attain aesthetic purity?

In the end, we are left with more questions than answers, but The Savage Detectives redefines Latin American literature, taking it away from the influence of Marquez and, in a sense, moving it into the realm of legitimate postmodernism and postnationalism.

I think this is one of the most worthwhile novels I’ve read in the past ten years. I urge you to consider it.