The Savage Detectives
by Roberto Bolaño
I am always few a years behind in my fiction reading, so next year around this time, I’ll probably be reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This summer I did manage to get around to reading Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, the rambling tale of two poets who forge an avant-garde literary movement in 1970s Mexico. The poets in question, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, might be serious writers or they might be dope dealers. Is their movement, so-called Visceral Realism, a literary front or just a front, period. Besides stirring up trouble, the duo are on a mission to find Ceserea Tinajero, the female poet they consider to be their spiritual founder. It’s a picaresque novel and the poets’ misadventures carry us up and down South America and much of Europe.
Arturo and Ulises are only two in vast cast of characters. The novel starts with Juan Madero, a 17-year-old student, who is asked to join the Visceral Realists after he demonstrates an extensive knowledge of classical forms. Initiated into a beehive bohemian artists, he learns a lot of other forms too. Arturo and Ulises orbit around this circle of literati like to elusive, numinous stars. The novel then shifts radically, jumping around in time, each chapter being a first person reminiscence by a different character before and after the period when the Visceral Realists were lighting things on fire. We meet a cross section of Mexican society: lawyers, architects, publishers, professors, writers, baristas, pushers, pimps and whores. The same sliding scale applies to the sanity of any given character. Through this kaleidoscopic approach we learn more about the Arturo and Ulises than they know about themselves. The final third of the novel flashes back to the glowing center of Visceral Realism. Juan, Arturo, Ulises and whore named Lupe are fleeing from Lupe’s pimp in a stolen American car, and of course, the crew is looking for Ceserea Tinajero.
I’ve used the term diffuse in an effort to describe Bolano’s writing style. Others have described it as centrifugal. The plot begins on the outer edges of binary star system that is Viseral Realism. Then it spirals out across the universe, only to zoom back to the bulls eye of Mexico City. The all over approach perfectly captures bohemian Mexico in the 1970s. Not like I was there, but I feel like I was after reading The Savage Detectives. My favorite chapters take place in a near mystical vineyard in Germany where Arturo shows up in the middle of the night to reunite with one of his lost lovers. Hans the German work boss is eerily similar to Hans the would be killer Bolano’s other sprawling opus 2666. Yes, The Savage Detectives is an opus. What the book really does best is simulate the experience of falling in love with literature, in falling in love period, in falling apart for literature, in falling apart period. What it really does best is simulate the experience of falling.
The best book I read all summer.