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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
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 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.