Book review: The Savage Detectives

September 4, 2013. Review of The Savage Detectives (1998), Roberto Bolaño’s ironic love letter to his youth.

Roberto Bolaño occupies an interesting position in the Latin American republic of letters. On the one hand, we have the enfant terrible, the avant-garde poet and Trotskyite who crashed readings and wrote manifestos. On the other, we have the mature, cosmopolitan successor to Márquez and Borges. In The Savage Detectives, the latter reflects with humour and nostalgia on the former.

The book is divided into three parts. “Mexicans Lost in Mexico” (I) and “The Sonora Desert” (III) recount the adventures of Juan García Madero, a young poet trying to break into the ‘visceral realist’ circle and befriend prime movers Arturo Belano (Bolaño’s alter ego) and Ulises Lima. Visceral realism is clearly a roman à clef for the infrarealist movement Bolaño founded as a young man. Madero’s story begins as a gentle parody of visceral realism; by the last section, it has become a katabatic road trip into the desert worthy of McCarthy or Melville. Bolaño’s focus on the desert, and pursuit and transformation within it, foreshadows his magnum opus 2666.

Like the wayfarer on the shutters of Bosch’s Haywain Triptych, Madero’s neat, linear narrative conceals an explosion at the centre of the novel. Part II, “The Savage Detectives”, is a mosaic of first-person vignettes spanning two decades and four continents. These give shifting, ambiguous insights into the fate of visceral realism and its members, especially Lima and Belano. The epistolary format places a barrier between the reader and Lima/Belano which is at once mythical and terribly sad. At times, the section feels like an elegy; perhaps to a lost generation, or a generation who were, and will remain, unknowable.

But it also feels like a celebration of their vitality. Indeed, in his papers, Bolaño indicated that Arturo Belano was the narrator of 2666 and suggested that the novel finish with the postscript

And that’s it, friends. I’ve done it all, I’ve lived it all. If I had the strength, I’d cry. I bid you all goodbye, Arturo Belano.

The Savage Detectives is a melancholy 500-page metafictional footnote to Belano’s farewall.


Written on September 4, 2013