Roberto Bolaño has received a lot of hype lately. Well, at least at my local book store, Green Apple Books, he is adored with a reader recommendation card on every one of his novels and the jacket cover to The Savage Detectives is full of praise about how Bolaño is “his generation’s premier Latin American writer,” and that he is the “brightest hope for the future of South American literature. Having read only one of his novels I’m not convinced that Bolaño deserves the accolades of these profound claims but I’ll concede that the The Savage Detectives is a decent and original work of fiction.
The novel is divided into three parts: parts 1 and 3 are pages from the 1975 and 1976 diaries of 17 year old student and aspiring poet Juan García Madero. Madero is part of group of Mexican poets dubbed the Visceral Realists, a 1970’s movement centered around the poets Arturo Belano (a mirror for the author Roberto Bolaño) and Ulises Lima. In the 1975 diary pages we witness Madero and the other Visceral Realists spend their time having sex, discussing poetry, smoking pot and going from one odd job to another. In half an effort to protect a prostitute and half an effort to seek out Cesárea Tinajero the founder of Visceral Realism, Belano, Lima, Madero, Lupe (the prostitute) and Quim (another poet) drive off in Quim’s car on New Year’s Eve to the Sonora desert. And with that – part 1 is left in the dust of the tires heading off to the desert and Part 2 takes a completely different spin with over 400 pages of short story narration told from multiple perspectives of people who have either known or bumped into Belano or Lima over a 20 year period spanning 1976 to 1996. In Part 2 there is little mention of the adventure into the Sonora desert but Part 3 picks up exactly where Part 1 left off on January 1st of 1976.
My hesitation to praise Bolaño for The Savage Detectives is that I found the first part of The Savage Detectives utterly boring without much inspiration. In this section elapsing 124 pages there was a lot of talk about reading, writing, and reciting poetry but there were few examples of the poetry that all these characters were invested in writing. Furthermore, Visceral Realism never received an adequate description about what makes a poem specific to the Visceral Realism movement. This results in a lot of empty talk with little substance that did not provide this reader with any reason to identify with the characters and their excitement about Visceral Realism. Perhaps Bolaño’s intent was to paint a picture of a generation of students and artists filled with vacant hope. If that is the case, I’d hardly call that genius. So after finishing Part 1 The Savage Detectives sat on my shelf for 2 years. However, as I have returned to Green Apple time and time again I have been affronted with placards praising Bolaño’s genius so I recently decided to pick up the challenge and return to this novel.
With the ever changing first person narratives covering a mysterious cornucopia of travels and real life experiences in Mexico, Paris, Barcelona, Tel Aviv, Nicaragua, San Diego, and Liberia Part 2 is definitely more interesting than Part 1. Each story is unique in itself and the only theme connecting the stories told by over 2 dozen narrators is that at one point in time the narrator either knew, was intimate with, or merely bumped into Arturo Belano or Ulises Lima. To that affect, Part 2 takes on the “detective” theme as the reader is challenged to figure out what happened to Belano and Lima after they disappeared into the Sonora desert. These two poets who were once the center of a movement slowly declining into obscurity as one or the other are arrested for different violations, spend periods hawking drugs, get married, get divorced, struggle for work, suffer hunger and disease, and even disappear unknown for long periods of time. In a sense the decline of Belano and Lima is a metaphor for the decline of Mexico.
Part 2 is still writhe with literary name dropping and empty talk about talking about writers and writing. The novel could have benefited from editing maybe 200 pages out of the 570 page goliath with 50 taken from Part 1 and 150 taken from Part 2. I wouldn’t touch Part 3 though. The action that takes place after Belano, Lima and company discover the original Visceral Realist Cesárea Tinajero has a poetic effect that ties together the vision of the The Savage Detectives.
Would I recommend this book to another? No. However, I am intrigued by Bolaño and I will make an effort to read one of his shorter novels to give him credit for the effort put into The Savage Detectives.