The Savage Detectives — Roberto Bolaño

by Edwin Turner

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I give up. I don’t know how to review The Savage Detectives.

Everyone told me I was supposed to love this book, but I didn’t. There, that’s a review. Not a good review, but there. I can’t remember a book ever taking me so long to finish or a book that I put down so often. When I truly love a book, I am moved. Often physically. Sometimes I have to stand up to read a book, I’m so moved. That’s a good book. (I never had to stand up during The Savage Detectives, although I often had to force myself to read thoroughly and not just skim). When I truly love a book, I’m a little sad and deflated when it’s over. I know a book is great if I’m compelled to go back and immediately reread sections. (Again, with Detectives, this didn’t happen). But it looks like I’m trashing the book. I shouldn’t. It has a lot going for it.

I read the first 140 pages, the journal entries of young Garcia Madero, in a blur. Funny and passionate, Madero’s voice explodes with the immediacy and intensity of youth. He joins up with the visceral realists, a group of anti-establishment poets (who no one cares about). Led by two enigmatic outsiders, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the visceral realists gripe about the state of Mexican and Latin American literature, screw around, and argue with each other (no one else will listen to them). Madero paints Mexico City in the mid-1970s as vibrant, a place full of poetry and art. He becomes a biblioklept, God bless him (yet he ethically agrees not to steal from a poor old blind bookseller). He writes poems. He has sex. He runs away from home, sort of. There’s a breathless energy to Madero’s narrative that makes the book hard to put down, and the first section of The Savage Detectives, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico” culminates in one of the book’s most exciting events. Madero, Lima, and Belano help a young girl named Lupe escape from her belligerent pimp. Then, that portion of the story unresolved, the narrative shifts dramatically.

In the second section, “The Savage Detectives,” we are treated to, or subjected to, or made to endure, or made to navigate–pick your verb, please–over 450 pages of (one-sided) interviews spanning 20 years. Some of the interviewees appear consistently throughout this section, like Amadeo Salvatierra, who helps Lima and Belano in their quest to find the lost original visceral realist, Cesárea Tinajero. Other voices only pop up once to tell a weird story about Lima or Belano–or more accurately, a weird story about themselves with Lima or Belano playing bit parts. Some of these stories, like Lima’s strange time in a Tel Aviv prison, or Belano’s tenure as a national park guard in France are great; other times they are painfully tedious or repetitive (you know, like real life).

Technically, The Savage Detectives is quite an achievement. The myriad stories in the book’s main section represent the fragmented narratives that might compose a person’s life–a series of perspectives that others have about us, views that can never add up to a unified truth. The bulk of these stories are very much about poetry, art, and travel. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Detectives is a peripatetic novel, full of specific locations and very, very explicit directions (Joyce famously claimed that were Dublin destroyed in a catastrophe, it could be rebuilt based on his novel; the same seems true for Bolaño’s Mexico City). Also like Ulysses, Detectives is an epic about the banal, ordinary things that fill our lives: jobs and eating and getting to places and having one’s friendships sour and being disappointed and so on. Lots and lots of “and so on.” This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of heroism and adventure–saving kids from satanic caves, stow-away sea voyages, and dodging bullets from Liberian rebels make for interesting narrative peaks. However, most of the novel remains rooted in a realism that is often dreadfully visceral in its painstaking replication of just how depressing a life could be. As the seventies and eighties turn into the nineties, things get more bleak and more depressing for Lima and Belano. And it all adds up to an incomplete picture (literally; check out the last page of the book if you don’t believe me).

o_roberto-bolano

By the time we return to Madero’s journals in the third and final part of the novel, “The Sonora Desert,” the sadness and deflation of the previous section infects and tints every aspect of the narrative. Lima and Belano, with Madero and Lupe in tow, search desperately for the forgotten poet Cesárea Tinajero. Their search works as a pitiful parallel to “The Savage Detectives” section, a comment on the elusive nature of identity, and the strange disappointments that punctuate our expectations. Even the novel’s climactic ending seems understated after the monolithic middle section. And while this deflationary technique is undoubtedly a carefully considered conceit on Bolaño’s part, the payoff for the reader–this reader anyway–did not merit the effort and concentration that the book required. Or, to put it another way, after hours of time invested, I was unmoved.

As rave reviews of the English translation of his last novel 2666 begin seeping out of the critical woodwork (this month’s Harper’s has devoted a full four pages to the book), it seems that Bolaño will top most critics’ lists again this year. At over 900 pages and reportedly full of grim, bleak violence, it’s hard to imagine 2666 will be any easier to get through, and as FS&G summarily ignored our requests for a review copy, there’s no pressing obligation, I suppose. The critical praise heaped on 2666 this year will surely lead interested readers to The Savage Detectives. I think Mark Twain’s infamous note at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would provide the best warning to these potential readers: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” While no serious critic could dismiss Bolaño’s lyrical skill and complex control of the many voices that populate Detectives, I think a number of readers–serious readers–would not be wrong for considering the tome a bit overrated.

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14 Responses to “The Savage Detectives — Roberto Bolaño”

  1. I agree with you on every word! I read the book in Spanish and I think it needs savage editing. In my humble opinion, there are at least 200 pages that should not be in the book, they are tedious, gratitious and some of them even blatantly boring and ill written. I really enjoy reading Distant Star and I dare to follow up with the Savage Detectives (even if some people advice me not to loose my time with it) and I had the same feelling that you have, of a being in face of a contradictory novel that if was not for all those long hours of boredom would have been great. I think I’m going to let time pass before considering reading 2666, the size of it scares me

  2. I agree completely. I sincerely don’t understand why so many love this book so much.

  3. I went from the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth to The Savage Detectives. The stories are very good, but did not prepare me for the experience of reading Savage Detectives. I did not find the novel boring, overlong or in need of any kind of editing at all. In my opinion it deserves the accolades and is not at all overrated. And, for me, the middle section is the best part.

  4. I should probably clarify in the comments section:
    I think Bolaño is a genius. I loved, loved, loved *2666*. Here is my fawning review of that book:

    http://biblioklept.org/2009/01/22/2666-roberto-bolano/

    Still. I stick by what I wrote above. *The Savage Detectives* is overlong, overrated, and often boring. Parts of it are, however, fantastic.

  5. Rather than debate the merits (or lack thereof) of “The Savage Detectives,” I’ll just offer my experience reading it, which was, in short, like being ushered into a world of completely new possibilities for fiction. Some people love asparagus, some people won’t eat it for the way it makes their pee smell. “Boring,” “overrated,” “overlong.” That’s some stinky pee. “Eccentrically uplifting,” “quirkily energizing,” “captivating,” that’s the gourmet offering, the lemony melted butter glory of fiction. I ate it all and wanted more. I could have eaten another hundred pages and still went away hungry.

  6. ordering this book used on ebay, actually.

    just finishing up the short story collection, Last Evenings on Earth, most of which is pretty phenomenal. One story whose title I forget about a father and son is as good as anything I’ve read in a long time, including other Bolano.

  7. I wish the novel could have been even longer. Somewhere Bolano says that really long novels are a journey into the unkown to see how far you can get and what you can find.

    Beginners should start with Bolano’s novellas or short stories. Only then will you care enough about Bolano to care enough about the hundreds of pages in Savage Detectives where people talk about Bolano as the character Belano and his other friend who, if I remember correctly, is Mario Santiago, a friend from Bolano’s youth who was obviously also a visceral realist writer.

    • One of Bolaño’s characters brings up this idea in 2666, either in the Amalfitano or Fate section, i can’t quite recall now. I think that Last Evenings on Earth is a great starting point, but I also think 2666 is equally good. I’ve revisited parts of The Savage Detectives and enjoy it more now, but I still think it’s a bit indulgent and less rewarding than the other books I’ve read by Bolaño.

  8. Terrible book. Too many words and characters and not enough wit and invention to carry whatever the hell Bolano was trying to convey. If he wanted to parody the indiscriminate excess, the navel-gazing narcissism, the mock-heroic anomie of modern literary culture, he succeeded almost too well. 2666 was a lot better but only in parts. Both books could usefully lose a few hundred pages. I heard his US editor on some podcast and listening to him I understood why the book was so flabby. He seemed to have neither the acuity or the balls to challenge an author as pigheaded as Bolano apparently was. Just another acolyte, like the vast majority of reviewers I’ve read, happy to swoon along in unison, gawping at the vague symbolism and ever-so-daring refusal to make sense chapter after boring chapter and marinating in the self-important reveries of people you would not cross the street to meet. I guess you could say ‘well, life itself is full of nasty people and boring ideas’ but in life you try to avoid them, no?

    I look for more in the culture I ingest than a simple mirror of the ennui around me; great art filters out the noise so you can hear the signals, and it satisfyingly ties these signals together in new ways which can move your own thought forward. For me Bolano’s work does none of this. Reading him is the literary equivalent of being stuck next to the pub bore chuntering on about some game of football you never saw and couldn’t give a shit about.

    There were a couple of brilliant set pieces in SD and even more in 2666, and I mean sit-up-and-read-again brilliant, but I don’t think I could be bothered trying to find them again for another read – it would be like searching for a few diamonds in a trailer-load of horse-huckey.

  9. This is one of my favorite books.
    I think all of you who are saying that this is terrible and boring should read it again.
    I mean the way he makes up all this characters, is amaizing.
    All the places que knows, all the references that he can write about, I love it!.
    I`m a mexican, and I honestly just loved the way he talks about mexico, and about all the other places.
    Right know I’m reading 2666 and I’m thrilled.
    Bolaño is one of my favorite writers.
    Honestly guys, what’s wrong with you!?

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