28 January 2012

The Savage Detectives

Mexico, 1975. We are reading the diary entries of one Juan García Madero, 17 years old, law student, budding poet, and frequent attendee to poetry workshops. García Madero's narrative is conversational, self-conscious, sympathetic, almost unreliable, and frequently courting the cliché.
What happened next is hazy (although I have a good memory): I remember Álamo laughing along with the four or five other members of the workshop. I think they may have been making fun of me.


What happened next was a blur, but at the risk of sounding corny, I'd say there was something miraculous about it. Two visceral realist poets walked in and Álamo reluctantly introduced them, although he only knew one of them personally; the other one he knew by reputation, or maybe he just knew his name or had heard someone mention him, but he introduced us to him anyway.
The voice is honest, sincere, even if full of assumptions and self-confessed forgetfulness ("what happened next is hazy", "what happened next was a blur", "If I'm remembering right (though I wouldn't stake my life on it)", "Maybe she mentioned it, although I may have just made it up."). In fact, it was not only García Madero who could not be relied on 100% in his reminiscences here. The characters in the novel constantly alluded to their sketchy recollections of the past, their half-remembrances and hazy memories.

Translated by Natasha Wimmer, these diary notes began and closed The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño, which appeared in translation in 2007. In 1998, five years before his death and six years before the posthumous publication of his other masterpiece 2666, Bolaño published Los detectives salvajes to great critical acclaim from Spanish readers. It earned for him the coveted Premio Herralde de Novela and Premio Rómulo Gallegos. The novel was a hit due to its totalizing scope and brave narrative techniques. Its themes were deeply personal and yet communal—life on the run, the passage of time, the reliance on memory, the faultiness of memory, poetry as a way of life, the search for meaning, the lack of meaning, madness, boredom, the uses of boredom, the uses (and misuses) of art, friendship, literature and books, the politics of existence, death.

     We talked about poetry. No one has read any of my poems, and yet they all treat me like one of them. The camaraderie is immediate and incredible. 

The two poets who crashed Álamo's poetry workshop, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, were patterned after the author Bolaño and his best friend Mario Santiago. They herded a group of young poets in Mexico City and formed a poetry movement called visceral realism, which was also based on Bolaño and Santiago's founded poetry movement called the Movimiento Infrarrealista de Poesia. Their group "wreaked havoc" in the '70s by crashing and disrupting poetry readings of established writers like Octavio Paz, exporting fear in the literary elite. They were, of course, not taken seriously by the establishment.

Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima took it upon themselves to track a female poet named Cesárea Tinajero, a predecessor of a similar poetry movement in the 1920s. Somehow, in the middle of the first part of the novel, García Madero and Lima and Belano became involved with Lupe, a young prostitute under the charge of a nasty gangster-pimp. As a result they had to escape the pimp and Mexico City in a white Ford Impala.

There's an inner seduction to the whole ride, the reader made privy to adventure, naiveté, nonsense, emptiness, senselessness, or a combination of these. The memorable events before and after the holiday celebrations of '75-76 acquired a surreal quality. Hysteria and humor mingled together; the high seriousness of the novel punctuated by the low. As begun and imagined by García Madero, neophyte poet and sex initiate, and as extended into various splinters of voices that populate the midsection of the book, the parade of stories resembled a long drawn out joke and yet the feelings engendered were authentic, deployed in spontaneous bouts of drunken speeches.

"The Savage Detectives", the second chapter, interrupted the first part to give way to the testimonies of a horde of writers, poets, and drifters—representatives from Bolaño's "lost" generation of literati and lowlifes. The interviewees were members, ex-members, non-members of visceral realism, speaking to mostly unknown interlocutor or interlocutors. Their stories tried to shed light on Lima and Belano's pathetic and peripatetic lives before and after their escape from Mexico City. Listening to these different streams of voices was like listening to jazz, raw and improvised. What emerged, partly, was a satire of the literary and intellectual life of poets and writers in Mexico, in the tumultuous and earth-shaking decades from 70s to mid-90s.


The structure of the novel invites detective work. The Rashomon-style confessions in the second chapter will strike some as an unsettling and infuriating technique. After the first chapter ended in a sort of cliffhanger of a chase, it was as if a precipice suddenly opened up in front of the reader. An abyss that, by the looks of it, would take a fair amount of time to cross. It was an explosion of voices that took control from and unsettled the calmness and controlled edge of the linear narrative and that dumped the reader into a desert with tiny oasis. These voices are singing nonstop, describing the social, political, public, and private aspects of living in the margins of literature and society.

One of longest digressions devised in fiction, this section would take some time of getting used to. A receptive reader will have to submit and open himself to the artifice of structure that the author has adopted. What happened in between the multiplicities of singing was unclear. But somehow, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, the multitude of voices converged into a modern jazz opera. In the course of their telling, the characters ceased to be individuated voices and became one sustained song, a song singing across times and places, singing of their generation, their dreams, and lost causes.


This being my second reading of the novel, I appreciated the novel's literary abandon that first endeared me to it four years ago. I varied my reading this time, skipping the second chapter and jumping ahead to the third chapter, the continuation of poet García Madero's diary. The intervening years of reading had added to my appreciation of the book, having acquainted myself to the works of Bolaño in translation. In the interim I've also read a couple of books by classic and contemporary writers (Borges, Jarry, Cervantes, Kafka, Rulfo, Marías, etc.) that Bolaño admitted as his influences, the writers he placed in his personal canon. Encountering them in his essays and interviews, several of the writers that were name-dropped like flies in the novel no longer sounded like Greek philosophers to me. Still, references to reclusive writers, like the "French" novelist J.M.G. Arcimboldi, could bring a certain amused reaction. Rereading the novel as a precursor to 2666 and his other books also brought into sharp relief the themes that Bolaño was mining in his writings. In a testimony by one Abel Romero in Café L’Alsatien, Paris, September 1989, Romero recounted a conversation  he had with Belano on September 11, 1983 (the dates in the book tell an interesting story):

Belano, I [Romero] said, the heart of the matter is knowing whether evil (or sin or crime or whatever you want to call it) is random or purposeful. If it's purposeful, we can fight it, it's hard to defeat, but we have a chance, like two boxers in the same weight class, more or less. If it's random, on the other hand, we're fucked, and we'll just have to hope that God, if He exists, has mercy on us.

The echoes and cross-currents with Bolaño's other fiction and nonfiction are worth a look. The Savage Detectives rewards avid readers of his other books with hints of meaningful correspondences. There were mention of the lines, for example, from a French poet that said "the flesh was sad" and that the poet had read all the books and slept with all the women. A female bodybuilder asked Belano what the poet meant by that. An answer was given in the novel but a closer reading of the lines by Mallarmé was found in Bolaño's essay "Literature + Illness = Illness".

Part of the enjoyment of reading The Savage Detectives was derived from its satire and comedy. It skewered the inflated egos of Spanish writers and intellectuals in the academia or otherwise. It also paid homage to actual personalities. The character of Iñaki Echevarne, the critic Belano had a duel with, was a nod to Ignacio Echeverría who was Bolaño's friend and editor and whom he designated as his literary executor. The novel was not above a practical joke. Like Kafka's unfinished novels, it was a joke ("The poem is a joke, they said, it's easy to see, Amadeo, look"). It was also like an elaborate game.

He explained that there were similarities between his last book [The Skating Rink? The Third Reich?] and his new book [The Savage Detectives?] that fell into the realm of games that were impossible to decipher [Antwerp?].... All I could ask was: what kind of similarities? Games, Guillem, he said. Games. The fucking Nude Descending a Staircase, your fucking fake Picabias, games. 

In "About The Savage Detectives", one of the essays in Between Parentheses, also translated by Wimmer, Bolaño wrote that "there are as many ways to read my novel as there are voices in it. It can be read as a deathbed lament. It can also be read as a game." Whether as a joke, as a game, as a deathbed lament (like By Night in Chile), or as a cubist painting, the novel was determined to compose a tilting portrait of moments across the temporal axis. The chosen artistic medium would take care of the message. In an interview, Bolaño expressed his aesthetics of the supremacy of form and structure over the story.

[Plot is] not so important—the form, the structure, always belong to you, and without form or structure there’s no book, or at least in most cases that’s what happens. Let’s say the story and the plot arise by chance, that they belong to the realm of chance, that is, chaos, disorder, or to a realm that’s in constant turmoil (some call it apocalyptic). Form, on the other hand, is a choice made through intelligence, cunning and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death. Form seeks an artifice; the story seeks a precipice. Or to use a metaphor from the Chilean countryside (a bad one, as you’ll see): It’s not that I don’t like precipices, but I prefer to see them from a bridge.

"A realm that's in constant turmoil". "Battle against death". "Precipice". These are the tropes that defined his creativity, his mad lit, his pellucid ravings, his literature of the abyss. But despite this apparent quarrel with plot, the novel was convulsed with the edge and energy of its prose.

     In a brief moment of lucidity, I was sure that we'd all gone crazy. But then that moment of lucidity was displaced by a supersecond of superlucidity (if I can put it that way), in which I realized that this scene was the logical outcome of our ridiculous lives. It wasn't a punishment but a new wrinkle. It gave us a glimpse of ourselves in our common humanity. It wasn't proof of our idle guilt but a sign of our miraculous and pointless innocence. But that's not it. That's not it. We were still and they were in motion and the sand on the beach was moving, not because of the wind but because of what they were doing and what we were doing, which was nothing, which was watching, and all of that together was the wrinkle, the moment of lucidity. Then, nothing. My memory has always been mediocre ...

This passage is awkward, parenthetical, tentative, roughly hewn. And in a matter-of-fact gloss, memory was deemed mediocre; once again the story cheated with its acknowledged unreliability. And yet, despite the wrinkle, the passage is beautiful. It is propelled by a certain mystery, a certain kind of truth, poetry.

As the declamations of voices neared completion, the duration of their singing became longer and longer. The old familiar voices of the members, sponsors of the visceral realists, and other participants slowly gave way to new voices. The old ones were being muted, their owners dying or dead or forgotten. All except for the Amadeo Salvatierra's tenacious tipsy voice was constantly there to remind us of the mission of the visceral realists to find Cesárea Tinajero, constantly calling out from one of the earliest days of 1976.

The flash fiction pieces that bounce against each other in the beginning were now crowded out. The first long dramatic voice given early in the second part, the one by Auxilio Lacouture, the mother of Mexican poetry (probably the most powerful witness in the book), prefigured the cluster of lengthier testimonies. The immediate voices were still refracting each other, folding the novel's space-time continuum, and rounding up this anthology of dreams. Behind the scenes where the voices of the poets languished, a silent murderous protagonist (time) has also given her own deposition.

Les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langue étrangère, said Proust. Beautiful books are written in a kind of foreign language. In translation The Savage Detectives is a work of foreign beauty as its natural rhythms and its defiant otherness were quite distinctive in Wimmer's transposition of it into English. The colloquial, conversational, formal, visceral, and other high-strung and low-strung registers of English that the book exhibited may not totally correspond to the intractable types of Spanish inhabited by the original. But despite the obvious loss of the Spanish idioms and accents, that loss was turned into a beautiful noise. Into the music of a brave and beautiful despair.

With thanks to Richard for inviting me to co-host The Savage Detectives Group Read and to Jenny Volvovski for use of her book design as group read badge.



  1. It's a musical book, composed almost solely of spoken language. I liked that, I thought I heard the poeple talk. But... I'm not so keen on such a lot of name dropping in a novel, not even when I'm fairly familiar with the names. I think you said in a comment that this was a novel that did dvide the readers. It certainly does.

  2. Thanks for co-hosting this group read, Rise, and for being willing to reread The Savage Detectives with me in the first place. A lot of fun, of course, but I'm still two titles short of Godzilla status for the Bolaño challenge, ack! Curious as to what you make of the fact that the middle section's style seems to be such a divisive thing in the eyes of our group readers--the detractors do seem to see it as "an unsettling and infuriating technique" while the supporters see it as liberating and inventive. Do you have an opinion on that? Are novels that are told in a "novel" style really such a bad thing?!? Love your line about the "silent murderous protagonist (time) and your comment on Séamus' blog that Quim Font reminded you of 2666's Professor Amalfitano at times--so true on both counts!

  3. Love this Book, not much else to say, just love this book.

  4. Caroline, name dropping was unavoidable as the characters are voracious readers and talking about writers and their books was, even the most obscure ones, was a main occupation. In other negative reviews I've read in non-blog venues, the same things are always highlighted. They didn't like the novel as they couldn't 'connect' with the two main characters, couldn't care less about them, and that the prose is flat and the all-over-the place plot didn't engage them at all. I could see where they're coming from as I think the readers' expectations were deliberately punctured by the novel's structure. There were many ways it could have been told but Bolano certainly opted for something out of the box.

  5. Richard, I think of the middle part as this book's "part about the crimes". It certainly ruffled some feathers. For me it worked when I visualized it as a theatrical/musical performance, each speaker taking turns at delivering his or her piece. But what's also interesting was what was happening at the back stage. There's another story taking shape there, as everyone made their for the exit and the lights went out from the theater.

    Looking forward to your next B selections and your entry into the realm of Godzillas!

  6. He explained that there were similarities between his last book [The Skating Rink? The Third Reich?] and his new book [The Savage Detectives?] that fell into the realm of games that were impossible to decipher [Antwerp?]....

    It strikes me that "his last book," at least depending on the original language, could also mean 2666, no? That would be interesting.

    But what's also interesting was what was happening at the back stage. There's another story taking shape there, as everyone made their for the exit and the lights went out from the theater.

    This is what made me start to love the second section. I should try to write about it in the morning.

    Thanks for hosting, wonderful post, and excellent discussion of the structure in particular!

  7. Thanks and welcome, nicole. Yes, I think 2666 was part of that realm of games. Its broken structure was also something to reckon with.

    Will await your post on this novel.

  8. The more I think about it, the more possible ways of reading The Savage Detectives I come up with. Although, as I mentioned on my own blog, it's not as carefully configured as Rayuela, because of its rawer nature it offers more flexibility. It seems that many of us who read it for the second time skipped ahead from the first to the third part this time around.
    But of course you can also go and deconstruct the second chapter: you could read it chronologically or you could read it by character, as a lot of them give more than one testimonial. Maybe reading it that way would give these characters greater depth? The first time I read it I found it impossible to keep track of who was who. Maybe ordering the second chapter by witness would make that easier. Any experiences with that?

  9. Wonderful review Rise - captures the shape of the book and contextualises it. My post seems a wee bit chaotic after this.

  10. Rise, I think your The Part about the Crimes parallel is a very interesting and plausible explanation although I also feel that the content from that gruesome 2666 chapter makes it easier for me to understand people getting all bent out of shape out of it. Crikey, the middle part of The Savage Detectives just has to do with narrative presentation! Why settle for one narrator when you can listen to more than 50? I guess I still don't get it (and/or I just refuse to accept it, ha ha), but this is coming from a guy who thought (and still thinks) that The Part about the Crimes features some of Bolaño's best, most adventurous writing...ever!

  11. Bettina, reading it by character was an interesting way to proceed. I haven’t considered that. Made me think how the structure deliberately created anarchy. I feel that a reread is built in to the book for patient readers who want to untangle the tangle any way he wanted to. After all, there was no "table of instructions".

    Séamus, thanks, but your "chaos" was full of insights into the book.

  12. Richard, I agree about what you said about the “crimes” section. Some of the best writing and characters are embedded in that part. Each of the female victims there can be thought of as “narrators” as well, but the difference is that their voices have been suppressed, silenced, and replaced with an impersonal tone. But they also tell their own individual tragic stories. Man, this made want to read 2666 again.

  13. Rise, I'm with you on being ready to reread 2666! Maybe we can convince one of the 2666 first-timers to set up a group read this year...

  14. Rise - In view of your interest in translation I thought you would mention the passage about the Camel and the Eye of the Needle. I just looked it up as I was under the (mistaken) impression that The Eye of the Needle actually referred to a small gate into Jerusalem.
    However I came across this interesting (to me anyway) snippet.
    There are some differences in the transmitted Greek. The needle in Matthew and Mark is a rafic. In Luke it is a belone. But both are synonyms for needles used in sewing, but Luke's is more likely to be used by a surgeon than a seamstress.

  15. Richard, that would be great initiative. I can participate as a half-reader, having read it a 2nd time last year and the story somehow still fresh to me.

    Séamus, thanks for the bit of detective work. I do remember that bit of catachresis.

  16. Do you think belone might be a hidden 'signature'. It's quite a likeness and the meaning of surgeon's needle is apt, I think.

  17. This made me think. Let's compare. Preserving the "error", which Ulises preferred:

    A. It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a surgeon's needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

    B. It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a seamstress's needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

    I want to go for B. - rafic - because of the suggestion of camel hair which can be used by the seamstress to make a carpet. But the eye of the surgeon's needle is smaller than a seamstress's, and there's a verse in Matthew that is related to this:

    "Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads to life, and few there be that find it."

    So yes, belone.

  18. First, Rise, thanks for co-hosting this incredibly rewarding read along. I tried not to read much about the book prior to finishing my own post, so I'm just now turning to yours in earnest. I'm grateful for the biographical material you bring in (I know so little about RB despite having read a handful of his books that I knew nothing of "Infrarrealistas" until I read your and Richard's posts). Also, I quite like this idea of the center section's narrative voices forming a sort of jazz chorus. I'd assumed, from the presence of the tape recorder and microphone in the first section, that they were recordings, and am now imagining them as recordings playing together simultaneously like some collision between "Krapp's Last Tape" and John Cage.

  19. Thanks for actively participating, Scott. It appears though that the interviewer/s were more systematic in their recordings unlike the awkward way Ulises and Arturo handled their interviews of poets. And the tape recorded was mercifully reliable the entire time! The autobiographical aspects and real-life bases of infrarrealistas and other personalities really contributed to a larger perception of the book. Knowing that Auxilio Lacotoure, for ex., had a real counterpart in real life made her harrowing bathroom scene all the more fantastic.