Roberto Bolaño — The Savage Detectives

This is certainly a doozy of a book, that’s really the only way to describe it–I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it would take a while for me to get through it.

This giant is a semi-autobiographical work and centers around two poets, Arturo Belano (the obvious Bolaño stand-in) and Ulises Lima (Santiago), and their poetry movement, visceral realism. The first part of the book is narrated by García Madero, a young convert to the visceral realist movement and the events of 1976 leading up to the visceral realists running away to Sonora; the second is narrated by a cacophony of voices, many of whom are poets themselves (the characters often represent cameos by real poets; apparently it was a bit of an honor to be given such an appearance by Bolaño), during a 20 year time frame from ’75 to ’95; the third is narrated, again by García Madero as the poets travel through the desert on a Quixotic quest in search of a long-lost poet, the mother of the visceral realist movement.

To say that this book is quite an achievement is to make a gigantic understatement. It’s exhausting to read, the sheer amount of voices that Bolaño unleashes is incredible. So many people, so many different ideas about poetry, life, loss, madness. It’s vulgar, raunchy, and also very funny. Some of the humor is obvious; some of it more subtle. Some of it is so wry that it’s easy to miss it: all of García Madero’s first journal entries are cringe-worthy in their earnestness, as he discovers writing poetry and also sex, meticulously cataloging how many orgasms that his partner has during sex, then calculating the rate of orgasms per hour and wondering, “Are we in a rut already?” Similarly, he catalogs his poetry, and you end up wondering whether he’s ever really going to figure it out. Some of the other moments just draw a laugh-aloud:

You can woo a girl with a poem, but you can’t hold onto her with a poem. Not even with a poetry movement.

Oh, that ridiculous humor– when Belano and Lima begin conducting “purges” of the visceral realist movement, where many of those purged have no idea they’ve even been expelled from the group, I had to pause to laugh again. So absurd in their pronouncements that one can’t help but giggle.

Woven throughout various’ characters’ searches, quests, and relationships (broken or otherwise–nothing ever lasts long in the tumultuous world that Bolaño’s characters inhabit) are Bolaño’s musings on literature and poetry especially. One character, in an insane asylum, muses:

There are books for when you’re bored. Plenty of them. There are books for when you’re calm. The best kind, in my opinion. There are also books for when you’re sad. And there are books for when you’re happy. There are books for when you’re thirsty for knowledge. And there are books for when you’re desperate…

Also as a last note before closing, I wish I had more knowledge of the Mexican poetry scene in the ’70s; you can get by on without any knowledge of it, of course, but the fun of being able to pick out the in-jokes must have been pretty awesome for those in the know.

So, The Savage Detectives comes highly recommended. I’m sure that other reviewers have thought about this book far more eloquently than I. It may be a bit of a time investment, because although it’s only around 700 pages, there is a LOT shoved into that amount, but it’s totally, totally worth it. This is one of those books that switches homes with me wherever I go.


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