Pacific Rim Review of Books

[ Back to Issue Features ]

The Savage Detectives

reviewed by Al MacLachlan

The Savage Detectives. Roberto Bolaño. Vintage, 2007.

By Night in Chile (Nocturno de Chile) is perhaps the finest short novel published anywhere in the last decade. The writing is gorgeous, and its drama slowly evolves like a leisurely river trek in reverse, where entering the last chapters the vaguely anticipated action pounces on the reader like a series of rapids.

Bolaño’s last work before he died in Spain at age fifty, entitled 2666, was not entirely completed and is not as yet available in English. However, it is considered the most important work of his generation by many Spanish speaking critics.

The Savage Detectives (Los Detectives Salvajes) too, has been called a masterpiece. Ignacio Echevarria, a Spanish critic, declared it “the novel that Borges would have written.” Perhaps in style, but Borges would certainly not be writing about the same generation, their desires, dreams, or the literary scene that the adventurer Bolaño is primarily writing about in this strange novel. Nor would Borges have travelled as an itinerant gypsy.

Bolaño’s plot structure in this novel though is maddening. Just when you are totally confused by the number of characters and their intertwining relationships; just as you are about to give up on the work and exchange it for something simpler, like James Joyce’s Ulysses, the story hits you like a ton of bricks (wherever that expression came from it wasn’t the guy that got hit by them).

Nonetheless, it is not an easy novel to follow, and while it is written in beautiful language (“I emerged from the swamp of mi general Diego Carvajal’s death or the boiling soup of his memory, an inedible, mysterious soup that’s poised above our fates, it seems to me, like Damocles’ sword or an advertisement for tequila…”), it breaks rules and boundaries of literature that North Americans are not generally used to seeing broken.

For example, the problems with having over 50 different characters is that some of those voices are not distinct enough from others to be memorable. And if 53 characters from many different countries isn’t enough to lay down a figurative fog, the main story also bounces around in time and place.

As Graham Greene wrote in his autobiography Ways of Escape, “a story hasn’t room for more than a limited number of created characters.” Of course, Bolaño’s characters are not necessarily created, but disguised. The two central characters who everyone talks about are Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. Arturo being the author and Ulises his half-Indian friend, the poet Mario Santiago. And perhaps the way to look at this work is not so much a novel as a work of Cubist art, with generous portions of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist stylistics stirred in. Not that it isn’t a great work of literature too, but the influences are from every art form. And throughout one can detect Bolaño’s love of slang, of local Spanish, British and American idioms in many of the voices, which may endear him to English speakers.

The prelude to Savage Detectives, titled Mexicans Lost in Mexico, is ostensibly a diary written by 17-year-old García Madero who admires the two ‘vagabond poets’ much as we all admire those who are older, more experienced than ourselves when they return from their early exploits emitting whiffs of mystery and revolution.

And this is also one allure of this novel. Bolaño was a rebel, wanderer and sometime brigand who was imprisoned in Chile after Allende’s assassination; who later used guerrila tactics to assault staid poetry readings in Mexico city; and then travelled throughout the Mediterranean (Europe, Africa and the Middle East) taking menial jobs of whatever nature he could find.

Roberto Bolaño reminds me of the ‘archpoet’ of the Goliards—poet/ bandits from twelth century Europe—who as student clerics were protected by the church, and therefore lived outside the kings’ law, roaming from public house to tavern creating innovative poetry and song, while wenching, boozing and thieving.

The first section ends with Belano, Lima, García and the young prostitute, Lupe fleeing Quim Font’s casa chased by her pimp and a crooked cop. The main story—Savage Detectives—is a tangle of journal-style entries or statements from the various characters, most of whom are either talking about Arturo or Ulises or both, from personal experience. Bolaño builds on this, layering it like a Picasso painting until we gradually see the protagonists from multiple angles.

And it is the characters who keep our interest in the straggling plot. Bolaño gets into their heads and their voices as they talk and think about their own lives, but also the lives of the two poets. Ulises (Homer? Joyce?) is a hopeless romantic who can barely survive in Paris or Spain, or even in his own Mexico. His life unravels until he is hanging out in Vienna with a petty gangster named Heimito Künst—the two of them stooping to rolling old men. Künst continually writes, “my good friend Ulises,” as in, “Only then did I see clearly that they wanted to kill my good friend Ulises.”
But Ulises is as good (or perhaps better) with a knife as with a pen, and lives on. Ulises, the unsuccessful poet, appears to be the darker side of the central theme in this portrait of the artist as vagabond. Or is he?

Both Arturo and Ulises had been leading lights in the ‘Visceral Realism’ movement of the 1970s (surely both a taunt at Gabriel Marquez’s Magic Realism, and a clue as to the book’s style), and while Arturo manages to stay afloat in this material world of reality, Ulises doesn’t seem to have learned to swim at all in those waters.

Whether these character voices are based on real people or not, Bolaño portrays them full of life, whether it’s María, the body-building fighter who lets Arturo a room in Catalina; or Jacobo, an Argentine photographer who befriends him in Luanda, Africa; or Mary Watson, who meets him on her hitch-hiking trek through France and Spain. We can see their lives vividly, as we watch Arturo’s life unfold through them.

The third section, The Sonora Desert, continues the diary of García Madero and the car chase back in early 1976. It elaborates what happened to the two poets, their finding of Cesárea Tinajero, the founder of visceral realism, and more.

The Savage Detectives is an important work. It is written from the soul, and it experiments with form, content and style. My advice is that after buying, borrowing or stealing this book, take a week off everything and hide away in a cabin somewhere to read it.

Al MacLachlan is the author of the novel After the Funeral. He lives in North Vancouver, BC.