The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño, Translated from the Spanish by Natasha WimmerReviewed by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 2007, 577 pages $27
Critics from The New Yorker, Bookforum, The Washinton Post, etc. proclaim Bolaño an exciting, pivotal voice in Latin American literature, and gush isn’t-it-great the book has finally been translated into English? The literati just looove The Savage Detectives. I hope I’m not admitting any intellectual defect here, but....I do not. I have the same problem with Kerouac’s On the Road, with which Detectives has a lot in common: I feel, given the hype, that I should enjoy the experience, but I don’t. Both novels are hyper-masculine and jazzy with protagonists that are all grit and swagger. Both feature a road-trip though the seedy, absurd, and occasionally glorious aspects of their prospective territories. Nothing in Kerouac or Bolaño’s work is ever overwritten. And, of course, both Keroac and Bolaño had a hand in changing the face of their native literature–I get that. Bolaño’s work stands in drastic contrast to the writing that previously dominated Latin American letters (namely, the “magic realism” of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the sensuous poetry of Octavio Paz.) Bolaño’s pared-down, experimental style is credited with helping to usher in the era of Latin American stars like Julio Cortazar and Jorge Louis Borges. Bolaño’s exciting life and abrasive personality frequently overshadow his work, and The Savage Detectives is largely autobiographical. Born in Mexico, Roberto Bolaño was a dyslexic, high-school drop-out who left home for Chile to participate in a coup, then helped found a little-known poetry movement self-dubbed “infrarealism” in the 1970's. The infrarealists felt themselves akin to the doomed French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who threw himself into the life of a poet-vagabond with abandon. Mainly, the infrarealists were known for doing things like ruining the poetry readings of non-infrarealists by shouting out their own poems from the audience. Bolaño spent much of his adult life impoverished and addicted to heroin, until his fiction began to attract acclaim in the 1990's. He died in 2003, while in his 50's, from liver disease. In the first, smaller part of Detectives, seventeen-year-old drop-out Juan García Madero writes in his diary about hooking up with a group of self-proclaimed poets that call themselves “the visceral realists.” Usually, the young man wanders around Mexico City looking for the visceral realists in their regular haunts. Sometimes he gets laid, or finds his friends or some drugs, or writes poems or reads. Too often, not much really happens–until it finally does, and he runs away to the desert with two visceral realists-- Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano ( Bolaño’s barely concealed alter-ego) –in a stolen car with a prostitute, chased by her pissed-off pimp. The larger portion of the book is told as a series of monologues by over fifty recurring narrators, all of whom encountered Lima and Belano in the years that followed their flight from Mexico City. The men were on an epic quest to find the writings of an obscure poetess, Ceasára Tinaja, whose work they believed was the forerunner of visceral realism. In the end, all they ever find by her hand are several lines drawn on paper, ranging from wavy to jagged, each with a little box seeming to bob on top. My problem here is a purely subjective one. In Detectives, the visceral realists (or in real life, the infrarealists) put themselves in a different “camp” from writers like Mr. Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende, and Octavio Paz. In fact, Bolaño and his crew (and in the book, Belano and his buddies) publicly despised the better-known writers. I argue that writers like Marquez, Allende, and Paz are popular among the masses for a reason–their writing is beautiful, while writers in Bolaño’s camp eschew beauty for beauty’s sake. Their relationship to the world is one of animal physicality rather than feather-light Eros. There is also the matter of accessibility: anyone literate can enjoy Garcia Marquez or Mario Vargas Llosa. You don’t need to guess at where they’re going: just relax and enjoy the journey. In Bolaño’s world, nothing is handed to you; meanings are purposefully obfuscated. Bolaño’s idol, Borges, gives me a headache with all his clever symbols and riddles, and Bolaño both makes fun of such pretentiousness and indulges in it. I mean, wavy lines with a box on top!? Clearly, I am simply in the wrong “camp” to enjoy this book’s particular aesthetic. Still, I can figure out a few reasons for the literati’s effusive embracing of The Savage Detectives. Many of us remember living much like the hopped-up twenty-somethings in Detectives, all youth and vibrancy, skipping class to drink cheap wine and argue about literature, staying up all night reading poets that are new to us. We’re sure no one has ever felt so passionately. We’re convinced that our poetry can change the world–and of course, make us famous someday. Through Detectives, we can look back on our younger, more rebellious selves and smile–or blush. As a writer, Bolaño clearly has chops. He’s able to create and sustain fifty-something absolutely distinct voices, male and female, of different ages, nationalities, and social classes, within a single novel. He has a subtle, self-deprecating wit; he is aware that his unwashed, arrogant poets (who actually do very little writing) are obnoxious. However, many readers (like me) may find themselves unengaged by the fact that there is no real interaction with the main characters. Lima and Belano rarely speak for themselves, and are only viewed through the eyes of others. They are glimpsed rather than examined, and ultimately leave no lasting impression (and indeed, this may be Bolaño’s point–both men and poetry movements fade away.) Plot is at a minimum in this novel. Most of the time, nothing of significance occurs. Young Juan’s diary entries as well as the many monologues are anecdotal at best. There is no momentum to the events, very little character development. Some of the monologues can be quite interesting as stand-alone stories–for example, one compelling passage features a college professor who locked herself in a bathroom stall and read poetry for fifteen days straight during an army raid. But most of the time, it’s like listening to a dull acquaintance at a dinner party ramble on about people you don’t know and don’t care about. I doubt that average readers–meaning those who read for entertainment, not for a living-- will embrace The Savage Detectives. Oprah will certainly pay him no mind. Bolaño will likely remain a writer’s writer, offering something cerebral and offbeat for those who “get” it.