The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
Originally published by Editorial Anagrama (Spain) in 1998; translated by Natasha Wimmer and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (USA) in 2007.
Reviewed by Susan Scutti
The non-ecclesiastical definition of the word “catholic” means universal, inclusive, and by that definition “The Savage Detectives” is the most catholic of novels, it is a book that contains multitudes. Housing more-than-you-can-count characters and personalities, it is all about perception and voice, in particular it is about Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, founders of the visceral realism poetry movement in 1970′s Mexico City, from the perspective of pretty much anyone who ever encountered them. Essentially, that is all “The Savage Detectives” is about… with one slight twist. Although these two poets named their movement without reference to the past, they soon discover a woman, Cesarea Tinajero, who happened to have used the very same name to describe her own poetic movement active in the 20s and possibly the 30s, the period of subsequent relapses into violence just after the Mexican Revolution. The Visceral Realists in the time of Belano and Lima, then, “walked backwards,” according to Lima, “straight toward the unknown” and so this novel also describes the journey taken to re-discover Cesarea Tinajero, about whom Belano and Lima know nothing other than that her cold trail disappeared somewhere in the Sonora Desert.
“The Savage Detectives” is not only the title of the novel, which is organized into three separate sections, but also the title of the middle and largest section, where many different voices speak of the moment and ways their lives intersected with the movement of visceral realism. The first and final sections, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico” and “The Sonora Desert,” respectively, are slimmer and ostensibly written by a seventeen-year old University student and poet, Juan Garcia Madero. The first section consists of Madero’s journal entries focusing on his own life as a young poet inspired by visceral realism; the final section, also composed of his journal entries, focuses on his trip with Belano and Lima to the Sonora Desert in search of the elusive poet, Cesarea Tinajero.
Who are the many savage detectives investigating the lives and times of Lima and Belano? They are the followers and friends (and friends of friends) of the visceral realism movement, among them: Angelika Font, winner of the Laura Damian prize for poetry and her promiscuous sister, Maria Font; Amadeo Salvatierra, who first tells Lima and Belano about Tinajero while they drink Los Suicidas mezcal, the favored brand of the visceral realists; Edith Oster, a capitalist’s daughter who after breaking Belano’s heart, becomes anorexic and lives for a time in California; the father of the Font sister, Joaquin “Quim” Font, who speaks from the men’s ward in a mental health clinic; Lupe, a prostitute running from her pimp; Felipe Muller, who repeats a story of lovers and clones told to him by Belano; Jacoba Urenda, a photographer who meets Belano in Africa; and Inaki Echevarne, the critic who opposes Belano in a duel on a beach. The recounted episodes span twenty years between 1976 and 1996 and take place in Mexico City, Chile, California, Tel Aviv, Angola, Liberia, Paris, Barcelona, and a smattering of smaller cities in Europe. The sequence of the narrative washes back and forth like tides, the setting of the narrative skips from continent to continent round the globe.
Bolano chooses as an epigraph for his novel a passage from Malcolm Lowry, the author of Under the Volcano, a novel which takes place in a small Mexican town on the Day of the Dead.
“Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king?”
Bolano’s deliberate reference to Christ calls to mind the New Testament, another text constructed in an unusual manner. Why include four separate versions of the exact same story of Christ’s earthly life told from only slightly different perspectives? A conclusion one may draw is that Christ is all about the act of testimony and authentication by others — He only exists through as well as because of others. Similarly, Lima and Belano and by extension visceral realism exist through and because of others. Although Belano and Lima are endlessly discussed within this book, not one of the endless first person accounts is their own. And, in a book that is all about the visceral realism poetry movement, not one of their poems is contained within its pages.
What, then, is the visceral realism movement? Obviously, it is only the book itself. Roberto Bolano’s “The Savage Detectives” occupies a sacred space between Modernism and Social Realism, between the “I” of high culture and the “we” of lived circumstance, between Virginia Woolf and Hubert Selby. Although a reader never learns which character is the ostensible “author” recording this exhaustive account of a lost literary movement, this fact is ultimately unimportant. What matters is that visceral realism as well as its founding poets continue to live both in memory and in myth.