‘The Savage Detectives’ by Roberto Bolaño (Review)

The latest in my series of library-sourced Spanish-language books is one by probably the biggest name in Latin-American literature at the moment, Roberto Bolaño (writing being one occupation where death is no obstacle to fame).  Today’s review is of a big book, one with big ambitions, which takes us to the US, Europe and Africa – but it all starts and ends in Mexico…

The Savage Detectives (translated by Natasha Wimmer) is the book which made Bolaño’s name in the English-speaking world, and with good reason.  It’s a 577-page roller-coaster of a novel, a bizarre, chopped-up account of the lives of two poets, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.  From the story’s beginning in Mexico City in late 1975, we roam around the world, following the poets on their travels in search of contentment – and running away from something else entirely.

The story is written in three unequal parts. In the first, Juan Gárcia Madero, a university drop-out, describes his first encounter with the two poets, the founders (or resurrectors) of the ‘visceral realist’ school of poetry.  Juan plunges headlong into a world very different from the one he’d experienced up to then, but he has few regrets about leaving respectability behind:

“Also, without intending to, I ended up thinking about my aunt and uncle, about my life so far.  My old life seemed pleasant and empty, and I knew it would never be that way again.  That made me deeply glad.”
p.41 (Picador, 2007)

This section of the book is written in the form of Gárcia Madero’s diary, and the sex- and poetry-filled entries lead up to the moment when the three poets speed off into 1976 (and the Mexican desert) with a prostitute called Lupe.  They’re hoping to escape from the wrath of Lupe’s pimp, but soon the trip to save the damsel in distress will turn into another kind of quest – a hunt for a missing poet, the elusive Cesárea Tinajero…

Part Two takes up almost 400 pages, consisting of first person accounts from a vast cast of narrators.  Together, the many voices tell us what Lima and Belano did between 1976 and 1996, describing the Quixotic travels of the two poets over four continents.  We frequently return to one strand, however; a drunken night spent with a poet in January 1976, where Lima and Belano find out more about the mysterious Cesárea.  The third part of the novel then returns us to García Madero’s diary, where we find out exactly what happened in the desert.  I’m certainly not going to spill the beans here, but rest assured, the events of the following twenty years all stem from what happened in Mexico’s north in early 1976…

The Savage Detectives is a mindblowing novel, one which is virtually impossible to really summarise or analyse in one review post.  In some regards, it’s a highly enjoyable romp, but one which demands intense focus and concentration.  With a vast array of characters, both real and made up (this is a book which could really do with a War and Peace-type character list at the front), it will take you until the very end to work out exactly what’s going on.  Even then, many questions remain unanswered.

What’s it all about?  You tell me…  It’s a story of the excesses of youth and the eccentricities of poets – when you talk about being mad, bad and dangerous to know, Lima and Belano fit the bill nicely.  The two appear to be carrying a curse (Belano, in particular, seems to bring bad luck wherever he goes), and many of the narrators felt uneasy in his presence:

“…and then I remember too that I looked at Arturo Belano and that he didn’t get up from his seat when the Ecuadorean came in, and not only did he not get up, he didn’t even pay attention to us, didn’t even look at us, would you believe, and I saw the hairy back of his neck and for a second I thought that what I was seeing wasn’t a person, not a living, breathing human being with blood in his veins like you or me, but a scarecrow, a bundle of ragged clothes on a body of straw and plastic, something like that.” (p.191)

They were right to.  Many of the people the two poets encounter end up falling ill, losing their jobs or perishing in car crashes; it’s not stretching things to see them as angels of death.

It’s also a novel about Mexico and Latin America, and I’m certain that the book would mean even more to people who know the area and the eras described.  The novel is full of hints of desperation, world weariness in countries which long for change.  The Mexico City of The Savage Detectives is described as a vibrant, violent city – but also as a small town of 14 million people.  I’m sure there’s a message in there somewhere…

At times, Belaño makes you nostalgic about your lost youth, and you wish you were a seventeen-year-old wannabe poet, sleeping with waitresses and neurotic students.  Part one, in particular, had Haruki Murakami undertones, with García Madero taking on the role of the naive, Haruki-esque protagonist wandering through the big city.  Of course, the reality of this city is much closer to that envisaged by Ryu Murakami, with its seedy side and ever-present threat of violence.  And while we’re throwing in random literary references, why not Kerouac’s On the Road too?  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see shades of Sal Paradise in García Madero, and Lima and Belano as a two-headed Dean Moriarty 😉

What helps Belaño sustain reader interest in such a long and complicated story is a great cast of characters.  Through our initial introduction to Juan, we are allowed to move through the city and meet the writer’s other creations: seductive sisters María and Angélica Font (and their mad dad Quim); the flamboyant, bisexual, gorgeous wanderer Luscious Skin; old poet Amadeo Salvatierra; Lupe and her pimp, Alberto (a man with impressive attributes); and, of course, the enigmatic Cesárea Tinajero.  It’s a lot to get your head around, and you might need to take a few notes now and then to help you get your bearings (I certainly did…).

Surprisingly though, the main men are the ones we know the least.  They are always seen through the eyes of others, and this has the effect of turning them into mythical creatures, ghosts of the night.  Instead of well-rounded, visible creations, Lima and Belano are the nothing at the centre of the structure, a gap where characters should be – one which the reader spends 577 pages attempting to fill.

Since finishing The Savage Detectives, it has been in my mind constantly.  It’s an amazing book, one which will have its readers and its critics (in the best possible sense) for a long time to come:

“Iñaki Echevarne , Bar Giardinetto, Calle Granada del penedés, Barcelona, July, 1994.
For a while, Criticism travels side by side with the Work, then Criticism vanishes and it’s the Readers who keep pace.  The journey may be long or short.  Then the Readers die one by one and the Work continues on alone, although a new Criticism and new Readers gradually fall into step with it along its path.  Then Criticism dies again and the Readers die again and the Work passes over a trail of bones on its journey towards solitude.  To come near the work, to sail in her wake, is a sign of certain death, but new Criticism and new Readers approach her tirelessly and relentlessly and are devoured by time and speed.  Finally the Work journeys irremediably alone in the Great Vastness,  And one day the Work dies, as all things must die and come to an end: the Sun and the Earth and the Solar System and the Galaxy and the farthest reaches of man’s memory.  Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy.” (p.456)

This short paragraph from near the end of the novel is an apt comment on the book, but also on Lima and Belano (who, apparently, is Bolaño’s alter-ego…).  The people around the two poets accompany them on their way, but soon or later they end up walking alone…

After enjoying this one so much, I have more Bolaño on the way from the library.  Distant Star is an earlier work, one apparently narrated by Belano, and it sounds like a good one to continue my discovery of the Chilean writer’s work (I think I’ll leave 2666 for another time…).  All in all, it’s another great library discovery, and time to chalk up another success in my self-education efforts 🙂


14 thoughts on “‘The Savage Detectives’ by Roberto Bolaño (Review)

  1. The big readalong of this novel last February was mucho funno, I can tell you that. The book encouraged some fine detective work, some first-rate clawing around in the text.

    I have not read Distant Star, but I should. It sounds like a good choice for a followup – it covers some related aesthetic ground. I know it from the shorter version in Nazi Literature, a sly and crazy book. By Night in Chile is impressive and more novel-like. Amulet is an expansion of the “mother of the Mexican poets” episode of SD – I should try that one some time.


  2. I was traumatised by 2666 and have been a skeptic of Bolano since. I have this book on my shelf so hopefully I'll pick up the courage and read Bolano again. Glad you enjoy it.


  3. I read this before 2666 ,I felt this the better book ,better plotted ,paced and isn't it just stunning writing what would he have done is what I always think looking back on it ,all the best stu


  4. Tom – Trevor (Mookse) pointed out the 'Nazi Literature' connection, so maybe I should be trying that first… I've heard that some of his shorter stuff doesn't really live up to 'The Savage Detectives'; I suppose I'll just have to try it for myself 😉


  5. Don't be afraid of his shorter works. As well there are many naysyaers who complain about his early works that surfaced after his death but I quite like The Skating Rink and The Third Reich, both of which come from his time of living in poverty in Spain after he left South America and was unknown. His short works are nice because they can be simpy digested while still giving you plenty to chew upon.


  6. Hey guys, don't forget that 2666 was not finished by Bolano before he died and thus should be considered as what it is, a fragment (in an advanced state).


  7. I have been attempting to read this novel for over 2 years. I have put it down, abandoned it, come back, only to abandon it again…and then pick it up once more. At once, it's both compelling and repulsive. In the periods between the picking up of this book and the putting down, I have read dozens of other books, grown older. They should put a caveat on the cover: Abandon hope all who enter here. I love it. I hate it. It is hilarious, horrifying, noir and delightful all at once. It's a Siren calling to me from the nightstand by my bed. It's a rabbit hole into which you fall and become lost, and then are found again. Balano's style is maddening and liberating at the same time.


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