The Savage Detectives
by Roberto Bolaño

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Before his death in 2003, Roberto Bolaño
was little known in the United States.  
Perhaps everything else makes its way
easily across the Mexican border – people,
drugs, manufactured goods, killer bees -
but the border patrol doesn’t require a big
fence to stop literary works at the Rio
Grande. Indifferent publishers and a
shortage of good translations are sufficient
obstacles.  Even Bolaño’s translator Natasha
Wimmer admits that she had not heard
much about the author before encountering
The Savage Detectives.

But the tables have turned for Bolaño, who is enjoying a posthumous
boom of dramatic proportions.   Just six weeks before his death, at age
fifty from a liver disorder, he was hailed as the most influential
novelist of his generation by a group of his peers at a conference in
Seville.  Around the time of the book's publication in the US, the
Colombian magazine Semana ranked
The Savage Detectives third on
its list of the greatest novels in Spanish of the past 25 years.  And
Bolaño’s last work, an 1,100-page novel entitled
2666 – soon to be
published in English – ranked fourth.

Perhaps Bolaño would have been better received during his lifetime,
had he not worked so hard at making enemies.  He despised the
literary establishment, and attacked even Nobel laureates Gabriel
García Márquez and Octavio Paz with vehemence and venom. Isabel
Allende, whom he denounced as a scribbler and guilty of kitsch,
commemorated Bolaño’s passing with a succinct verdict. Recalling
Bolaño as “extremely unpleasant,” she explained that “death does not
make you a nicer person.”

English-speaking readers who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of
Latin American literary politics will miss many of the subtleties of
The
Savage Detectives
.   The novel includes references, either explicit or
thinly disguised, to more than 100 Latin American writers, and some
(such as Paz) figure as characters in the narrative.  The main
protagonist, Arturo Belano, is based on Bolaño himself, and like the
author is a Chilean-born exile from the Pinochet era who settles in
Mexico, but also wanders in Central America and overseas.

Belano, along with his friend Ulisses Lima (based on poet Mario
Santiago) travel farther, and even more aimlessly, than that other
Ulysses of epic fame.   And though they see themselves as poets and
arbiters of literary taste, they publish little and spend their days
selling marijuana, moving listlessly from relationship to relationship,
and getting caught up in a series of violent escapades, ranging
from robbery to dueling — and eventually including murder.

Here is the clever conceit of the novel: although
The Savage
Detectives
is apparently about poetry – the school of “visceral
realists” led by Belano and Lima – hardly a line of verse appears in its
pages. The novel’s opening paragraph starts the ruse with a diary
entry by an aspiring teenage writer. “I’ve been cordially invited to join
the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation
ceremony. It was better that way.” And though, in the ensuing pages,
the visceral realists bicker and banter, disrupt writing workshops,
scrounge for money, drink and hop from bed to bed, the poetry itself
never figures in the story. It is much like what screenplay writers call a
“MacGuffin” in a suspense film, a pretext for action and adventure
that serves as motivation without ever being explained or validated

Through much of the novel, Belano and Lima travel in search of a
missing poet, Cesàrea Tinajero, from the 1920s, who was involved in
an earlier movement also called visceral realism.  The fact that the
“detectives” have never seen a single line of Tinajero’s work merely
adds to the bizarre quality of Bolaño’s novel, where poetry is a posture
rather than a literary endeavor.  When they finally uncover an
example of her poetry, from a forgotten literary magazine, the
protagonists are surprised  — but not the reader, by this point — to see
that it uses no words, just a few childish drawings.

The Savage Detectives is a rich, rambling book that ends up almost
exactly where it begins. Even the chronology is circular – the
narrative starts in the 1970s, advances to the late 1990s, then returns
to the 1970s. But again the analogy with
Ulysses is an apt one.  The
wandering here is more exciting than any final destination.  And
Bolaño, like an experienced travel guide, knows how to keep his
audience captivated by even the wildest detours.
The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews The
Savage Detectives
by Roberto
Bolaño.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

Home Page

Gabriel García Márquez:
Love in the Time of Cholera

David Foster Wallace:
Infinite Jest

Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Toni Morrison:
Beloved

Jonathan Franzen:
The Corrections

Don DeLillo:
Underworld

Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

Roberto Bolaño:
2666

Mark Z. Danielewski:
House of Leaves

Cormac McCarthy:
Blood Meridian

Philip Roth:
American Pastoral

Jonathan Lethem:
The Fortress of S0litude

Haruki Murakami:
Kafka on the Shore

Edward P. Jones:
The Known  World

Ian McEwan:
Atonement

Michael Chabon:
The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay

Philip Roth:
The Human Stain

Mario Vargas Llosa:
The Feast of the Goat

Marilynne Robinson:
Gilead

David Mitchell:
Cloud Atlas

José Saramago:
Blindness

Jennifer Egan:
A Visit from the Good Sqad

W. G. Sebald:
Austerlitz

Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot

Donna Tartt:
The Secret History

Michael Ondaatje:
The English Patient

Saul Bellow:
Ravelstein

A.S. Byatt:
Possession

Umberto Eco:
Foucault's Pendulum

Cormac McCarthy:
The Road

David Foster Wallace:
The Pale King

J.K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone

Arundhati Roy:
The God of Small Things

Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives

Paul Auster:
The New York Trilogy

Per Petterson:
Out Stealing Horses

Ann Patchett:
Bel Canto

Ben Okri:
The Famished Road

Joseph O'Neill:
Netherland

Haruki Murakami:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Marisha Pessl:
Special Topics in Calamity
Physics

Jonathan Franzen:
Freedom

Colm Tóibín:
The Master

Denis Johnson:
Tree of Smoke

Richard Russo:
Empire Falls

Alice Munro:
Runaway

Martin Amis:
London Fields

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time

John Banville:
The Sea

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club

Jeffrey Eugenides:
Middlesex

Junot Diaz:
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

Aravind Adiga:
The White Tiger

Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

Irvine Welsh
Trainspotting

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:
Cloudstreet

David Foster Wallace:
Oblivion

Oscar Hijuelos:
The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come


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