The Savage Detectives follows two poets, Arturo Belano (Roberto Bolaño’s alter-ego) and Ulises Lima (based on Bolaño’s good friend Mario Santiago), as they try to track down a missing poet named Cesárea Tinajero, as well as their subsequent wanderings through Europe as they grow into adulthood.
Written by Roberto Bolaño – the enfant terrible of post-‘Boom’ Latin American literature – it is structured in three, non-linear sections. The first (entitled ‘Mexicans Lost in Mexico —1975’) and third (‘The Sonora Desert — 1976’) are both narrated in a first-person diary format by an aspiring poet named Juan García Madero. Madero has joined a group of poets lead by Belano and Lima that is known as the ‘Visceral Realists’ in the bohemian Mexico City of 1975-6. The Savage Detectives is quite autobiographical: Bolaño himself started a movement in 1976 in Mexico called the ‘infra-realists’. When Belano and Lima go travelling to Europe, we are travelling in the footsteps of Bolaño himself who lived in Barcelona, and settled in a small Spanish town on the Costa Brava after marrying. But who are the visceral realists really? For all the posturing about getting published, Lima and Belano never seem to have had anything of theirs put in print. Will they ever amount to anything? And what becomes of their search for Tinajero (and related attempt to outrun a pimp and corrupt cop who are chasing after them)?
The middle section is by far the longest at some 400 pages. It’s entitled ‘The Savage Detectives’ and comprises small to long ‘snapshots’, narrated in first-person interviews by some 52 separate characters, all of whom came into contact with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, whether from their time in Mexico or in Europe. Many of these narrators are fellow writers, some are lovers, friends, enemies. The anecdotes span twenty years, from 1976 to 1996, and provide us with an impression of who these two drifter poets were and what became of them. But it is only ever an impression, for both Lima and Belano are like ghosts. They came in and out of focus, literally disappearing and reappearing, while many of the narrators can only give oblique impressions or hazy recollections of their interactions with the men, be they short-lived or more meaningful.
As for the visceral realists, one of poet narrators, Laura Jauregui, who was one of Belano’s lovers, believes she worked out what the whole movement was about: (p134-5): “…it occurred to me that is was all a message for me. It was a way of saying don’t leave me, see what I’m capable of, stay with me. … The whole visceral realism thing was a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless. But that wasn’t what I meant to say.”
Indeed! Are we getting the right picture here, or the deluded imaginings of a jilted lover? Later, another friend writes that “they weren’t revolutionaries. They weren’t writers. Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don’t think they were poets either. They sold drugs.”
The change in structure and narration is quite a jolt and for the first 50 pages or so I was wondering what was going on. As we progress in a more or less chronological fashion (with short time hops here and there), the effect becomes clear and there is a gradual darkening in the stories being told. There is a real menace to the final pages, with characters we met in Mexico City dying or being killed or just disappearing. In the afterword, Natasha Wimmer talks about how Bolaño thought of The Savage Detectives as his ‘own answer to Huckleberry Finn.’ Both novels are about friendship and the loss of innocence. But where we follow Huck Finn on his journey first hand, here everything is cloaked through the lens of all these other narrators, something which adds to the sense of unease.
As soon as p136 we get a glimpse when a publisher talks about Belano and Lima thus: “I noticed something strange about them, it was as if they were there but at the same time they weren’t there.”
This sense of absence reflects one of Bolaño’s motifs. Bolaño was a Chilean in exile, but as Wimmer points out, he was never comfortable with Chile or Chileans in general. He is quoted as saying his home was the Spanish language.
Other narrators tell of hopes being dashed, of ‘doing what we could, but nothing worked out’, of smells of death on the blankets of Lima. One is a backpacker camping at a site where Belano is the night watchman and writes that “I was sure something bad was going to happen.” Another talks about how they were losing things without knowing it. Often in these versions of history, Lima goes missing and Belano sets off to find him. Later, when they arrive back from Europe, Lima goes off to a fictitious Latin American country and disappears for two years! The publisher of Belano’s book says that Belano was a ‘phantom author’. Joaquin Font, who takes Madero under his wing in the first section of the novel in Mexico City, narrates tales from a mental asylum and when he was told a friend of his committed suicide in 1980, he writes, (p281), “…that’s when I knew beyond a doubt that everything was about to go from bad to worse.” Another: “We didn’t realize, but in those days everything was sliding inexorably toward the edge of a cliff.”
The sense of increasing despair is also reflected in the poetry of the missing Tinajero. Like the poet, much of her work has been lost. The one poem they find is actually three pictures. In each picture there is a square placed on a line. The first line is flat, like a becalmed sea. In the second picture the line is wavy, and in the third the line is like a jagged mountain range. It looks like a little boat without its sails tossed on stormy seas. That, it seems, is life’s progression: from calm through unease to outright storms.
One of the earlier ‘stories’ in the middle section is narrated by Auxilio Lacouture and forms the basis of Bolaño’s novella Amulet (see my review) which was published two years after Detectives. This is another feature of Bolaño’s oeuvre: the way characters from one work pitch up in another (like David Mitchell), and also the way stories themselves overlap. Auxilio tells the story of how the military overran the University of Mexico in 1968: a metaphor for the real-life massacre of Tlatelolco.
When accepting the Premio Romulo Gallegos award in 1999 for The Savage Detectives, Bolaño said: “All of Latin America is sown with the bones of its forgotten youths.” As Wimmer points out, in The Savage Detectives he “brings those youths back to life.”
The hallucinatory nature of the middle section is also true of the book-ends narrated by Madero as he describes how he is sucked into Belano and Lima’s strange quest to find Tinajero alongside a prostitute named Lupe, and chased by Lupe’s pimp and a corrupt Mexican cop. We get arm-length views of Belano and Lima, and though we get close at times, we then find ourselves shunted away again.
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are some very funny sections and stories. There is a very humorous scene in which Belano challenges a literary critic to a duel after he becomes convinced the man is about to publish a bad review of one of his novels. And duel they do, with sabres no less, on a Spanish beach watched by their ‘seconds’, who look on with a mixture of bemusement, astonishment, and jocularity. (Pity the poor reviewer! For a moment I wondered whether, had he still been alive, I would have found a use for the fencing lessons I enjoyed in my youth! Alas, we’ll never know, for I’m not writing a bad review and, more to the point, Bolaño is no longer with us, though, having read stories of his very forthright personality it wouldn’t surprise me if a challenge was forthcoming from beyond the grave were I to do so.) During the duel, the narrator realises that “this scene was the logical outcome of our ridiculous lives. It wasn’t a punishment but a new wrinkle. It gave us a glimpse of ourselves in our common humanity. It wasn’t proof of our idle guilt but a sign of our miraculous and pointless innocence.”
There is also a very funny anecdote from a lawyer who intersperses his testimonial with Latin proverbs and who witnesses Belano make love to his daughter. And there is the nice post-modern pay-off of the Belano-Bolaño relationship when the only scholar interested in the visceral realists, (who comes across as very strange), says, (p520): “Ulises Lima still lives in Mexico City. … About Arturo Belano I know nothing.”
Of course, about Bolaño we know an awful lot. A combative personality, he eschewed the great and celebrated Latin American ‘Boom’ authors, many of which are seen differently at home than in the English-speaking world. Take for instance Garcia Marquez’s very close relationship with Fidel Castro. Bolaño dismissed Marquez as “a man thrilled to have known so many presidents and archbishops; Mario Vargas Llosa: same thing, but more polished.”(!) Bolaño’s views are coloured by his personal experience: he got caught up in the Pinochet overthrow of the Allende government in Chile on a return visit, and was briefly jailed. The revolutionary Mexican PRI party was responsible for the Tlatelolco massacre. Bolaño and his infra-realist buddies went to the readings of other Mexican poets to disrupt them because they took money from the PRI. One of his authorial predecessors he had time for was Borges, which is hardly a surprise, for Bolaño’s writing is in many ways as mysterious as Borges’ Labyrinths. Bolaño is not of the Boom, but he gives us all another way to view the same madnesses that plagued Latin America in the 20th Century and still do so today albeit to a lesser extent. But he extends the rage to include more modern illnesses, such as the all-powerful drug cartels that seem to run most of Mexico. He recasts what it means to be a Latin American writer.
The Savage Detectives is one of two of Bolaño’s on the ‘1,001 Books to Read Before You Die’ list, (along with 2666), though many including James Wood and Natasha Wimmer point to his other novel By Night in Chile to be even better. I for one am looking forward to reading it.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
577 pages (plus an insightful afterword by Natasha Wimmer)
Source: the bookshelf rainbow