The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolano
by Robert A. Parker
This 1998 work is a provocative novel, and a perplexing one. Yet it is also fascinating. It is fascinating because it is about writers, poets, and artists, and their lives. In fact, its fine reviews by critics has been, I think, influenced by that factor. For they, as I, can relate to these characters who struggle to survive but who live for their art, especially when it is a literary art. Of course, many also enjoy this work’s challenge to literary convention.
The novel is divided into three parts. The first part is a narrative journal by 17-year old Juan Garcia Madero, who is an ambitious poet and is invited to join an inconsequential poetry movement called visceral realists. He also ingratiates himself with the Font family, where the poetry movement often meets. At the end of this part, during a New Year’s party, he escapes in the Font family Impala with two founders of the poetry movement, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, plus a prostitute, Lupe. (It’s complicated: she’s fleeing her pimp.)
Let’s skip the second part for now. The third part is a continuation of the flight in the Impala by the four characters. They criss-cross northern Mexico, fleeing Lupe’s pimp, yes, but, more importantly, seeking to discover what happened to a woman named Caesarea Tinajero, who was a forerunner of their poetry movement. It is a journey that seemingly has no further purpose than to provide a context for that poetry movement and to flesh out the obstinate pursuit of Lima and Belano. But it also completes the story of Garcia Madero, who has no role in the more significant part two of the novel.
Even the shoot-out at the end of part three fails to convey the tragedy it apparently intends, not least because of Bolano’s matter-of-fact style. And while some critics claim the futility of this out-of-sequence finale foretells the empty future of Lima and Belano that is to be the feature of part two, it leaves me more with a sense of Bolano’s futility in being able to bring a sense of completeness to his story. But Bolano is more interested, I think, in the reader completing his novel and seeing it as a whole. It is a modern view of literature, a rebellious view that helped make him famous, but a view that I find difficult to relate to.
The novel’s title apparently comes from part three’s search for the poet Tinajero. The three men, and Lupe, are the detectives. They are savage, however, only in the author’s eye, but they certainly are persistent, determined to find the missing poet. And some might say they are following clues as they drive back and forth across the Sonoran desert in their search. But I found the search itself to be less interesting than their persistence, and their final discovery of a fat unpoetic woman to be anticlimactic.
Part two of the novel, comprising 400 of the 577 pages, is the most important and most perplexing portion of the novel. It offers a portrait of the literary and art world of Mexico, as told by more than forty characters. And it was impossible, at least for me, to track these forty characters from one monologue to another. What Bolano focuses on through these characters are their encounters with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano after their adventures in parts one and three. Their encounters take place across two decades, and occur not only in Mexico but also in Paris, Israel, Barcelona, and even San Diego. They also portray the many setbacks by these two poets in their search for personal and artistic fulfillment. And while there is no cohesive narrative, we gradually understand that these two poets are the main concern of this novel, not young Garcia Madero. And I suspect that Bolano does not worry if part one has led readers astray. He is a big-picture author, and undoubtedly wants the reader to work to understand his overall tale.
What is fascinating about these monologues is that many of them are complete short stories. And these stories encourage our sticking with such disparate monologues that have no connection with one another, only with their continuing revelations about the lives, often separate, of Lima and Belano. The narrators also differ in their view of the two men, often basing their conclusion on how much the men ask of them—such as money or a place to live— how superior to them the men act, and the final taste the men leave. And like the monologists themselves, we cannot tell if these two poets have become explorers of art or simply drug addicts.
One characteristic I noted in the journal entries of Garcia Madero, as well as in all the monologues, is that these narrators over and over say they do not recall the specifics of certain encounters. Such as the people involved, the sequence of events, etc. It is not one narrator that does this; it is all of them. This seems intended to enhance the elusiveness of the events surrounding both Lima and Belano, giving them a more abstract feel. Which is exacerbated, when we see Lima and Belano themselves only through the other characters and too briefly to establish any interacting relationship. The result gives almost a surreal effect to this elusive world that Bolano has created.
The poet Belano is obviously a nom-de-guerre for author Bolano, but the youthful Madero in Mexico City is also based on Bolano’s youth. For Bolano was himself a rebellious poet when young and led a somewhat dissolute life in Mexico before traveling, like Belano, to France and Spain. In fact, he died in Barcelona of liver disease at age 50. And so it is out of his own experiences that Bolano has created this youthful environment and its fascination with sex, power, literature, rebellion—and dreams of fulfillment abroad. Also appropriate is the colloquial style Bolano, and the translator, have given both Madero and the monologists. For while our heroes are poets, we never read their poetry, nor do the monologists use poetic expressions in their tales of Lima and Belano. Instead, they communicate their own down-to-earth perspectives of these poor but ambitious main characters.
This provocative work leaves me interested in one more Bolano work, his even longer 2666, which has earned even more praise. But I must give myself some space. Bolano’s world is too disparate, too conceptual for me to revisit it anytime soon. (August, 2016)