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The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

November 30, 2010

Arturo Bolano and Ulises Lima, the protagonists at the center of this crazy novel, are the Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassidy of Latin America, poets based on Roberto Bolaño and his friend Mario Santiago Papasquiaro. Most of the other dozens of characters are also based on real-life acquaintances of Bolaño, and the story seems to be somewhat autobiographical, though it’s hard to tell to what degree. It revolves around Bolano and Lima’s quixotic attempts to create a Latin American poetry revolution with a style they dub “visceral realism.”

The innovative three-part structure of The Savage Detectives is a precursor to Bolaño’s five-part 2666. In the first and third sections, we have a single narrator, Juan García Madero, a university dropout who follows the trail of the visceral realists through Mexico City. At first, he is an outsider who has only heard tales of the visceral realists, but through the course of the first section he begins hanging out with them and learning more about what it means to be part of the self-proclaimed greatest movement in Latin American poetry—mostly a lot of sitting around in coffee shops discussing poetry, stealing books from libraries, dissing the poetry establishment, partaking in a bohemian approach to sex and relationships, and a good amount of drugs and drinking. Madero never quite buys into the hype, but nonetheless finds himself with Lima, Bolano and a prostitute named Lupe as they speed north out of Mexico City at the end of the first section, Lupe’s murderous pimp and a crooked Mexican policeman hot on their trail.

The second section is a convoluted mishmash of snapshots of Bolano and Lima, from various narrators who knew them to varying degrees over a thirty-year span. Some of the people knew the young poets well, some vaguely, but what we get in totality are portraits of two wandering, possibly delusional souls. Their stories wander across Europe, Israel, Africa. They sleep on sofas, on boats, in caves. They are loved, admired, detested, celebrated and despised, depending on who is talking about them. This section is sometimes difficult to plow through, because although it’s divided up into short chapters, each one offers only a small piece of a massive puzzle. It’s an incongruous timeline, and there seems to be little rhyme or reason for the order of the narratives. In a way, though, it’s more realistic than a traditional narrative. What is a person if not a set of disjunctive moments and memories?

The third section picks up where the first left off, flashing back to Lima and Bolano’s desperate escape from Mexico City. Eventually the thread of the prostitute and pimp is resolved, but most of the third section focuses on the visceral realists’ search for whom they consider to be the original visceral realist, an obscure poet named Cesárea Tinajero who lives in the Sonoran Desert.

The Savage Detectives is my second Bolaño. Maybe because of that, I didn’t find it as stunning as 2666, although it shares many of the same elements and themes. Or maybe it’s because the characters are so full of themselves, sometimes admirably but more often annoyingly so. But in the end I found their youthful spirits infectious. There is a scene where Arturo challenges a critic to a duel, and they stand on a beach with swords, awkwardly swinging at one another. It is a silly moment, surreal and poetic and farcical, but we know that at any turn it could become tragic and deadly. For me, that scene is distilled Bolaño. This is a book that has grown on me since I finished it, and I expect it will continue to do so.

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