Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives) - Roberto Bolaño
Roberto Bolano is a Chilean writer who has attracted a great deal of interest recently from the western world, and has proved to be the most widely-read contemporary Latin-American writer. I've been meaning to read his book, The Savage Detectives, for a couple of years but only just got around to start it in November 2009 and finished it in January 2010. As I'm bilingual, I chose to read the book in its original language: Spanish.
The Savage Detectives is a novel which has been acclaimed as one of the greatest Latin-American books of all time to be put beside Cortázar's Hopscotch and countless others. The '60s and '70s saw a massive boom of literary fertility, with new innovative novels proposing new methods of approaching form and sturcture. Many see Bolano's book as a return to an emergence of fresh, original and innovatory ideas from South America. Bolano was a writer who, even when accepted into the literary establishment, railed against the mainstream's preference for magical realism.
Bolano's work is strongly semi-autobiographical. The literary movement 'visceral realism' strongly mirrors the movement he was part of: Infarrealism. The two main protagonists from the book, and the main leaders of 'visceral realism', are in fact based on Bolano himself (his name is modified as 'Arturo Belano' in the book) Mario Santiago, who is Ulises Lima in the novel. Bolano's and Lima's peregrinations across the world are often based on their real experiences, and the narratives related by an extremely wide range of characters are often based on people Bolano knew about or on the folklore that circulated around his literary clique.
From what I've read, the strongest parallel I can find to this novel is Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec. Perec's novel revolves around a wide range of characters in an apartment block in a very cyclical fashion. Characters may appear and reappear, and what you get from reading them is a strong impression of their life. Bolano employs the same method in the most second and most substantial section of the novel: a myriad of characters narrate their lives, and they reappear and disappear. Another book which is cited more frequently as a parallel is Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch in its portrayal of young, bohemian artists narrated in a non-linear way. Bolano's writing style, however, doesn't have the same ethereal style and blend of the absurd and fantastical that Cortázar has.
The novel commences with a 17-year-old Mexican's diary entries which narrate his encounters with the visceral realists, and the adventures he pursues across Mexico city. This part of the novel is very, very entertaining and contains a lot of wanking and fucking. Juan García Madero truants from his law studies, and loses his virginity with another poet his age. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of poetic rules and forms, and often uses these to embarrass Lima and Belano with their lack of knowledge. This section climaxes with Belano and Lima taking Madero with them on a stolen car, and the novel doesn't return to Madero's narration for some 400-odd pages.
The second section is the most extensive, and the centrepiece of the novel. Many characters talk about their attempts at poetry, their travels or their contact with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. There are so many characters that sometimes you forget them when they reappear. To begin with, Lima appears to be the predominating character where he travels to Israel and Germany among many other places, and eventually gets lost in Nicaragua but resurfaces in the novel later on and meets his world-renown nemesis Octavio Paz. Towards the end of this section, the narrative focuses more on Belano, who is Bolano's alter ego. Belano travels around relentlessly, and encounters a few female narrators who talk about their sexual encounters with him which are just as racy as those appearing in the first section of the novel. All this eventually spans twenty years - from 1976 to 1996 - and is situated in Mexico, Nicaragua, USA, France, Spain, Austria, Israel and Africa. The impressions one gets from these narratives are quite ambiguous; we are not quite sure if Lima and Belano are either to be esteemed or vilified - it all simply depends on who's talking. But both characters remain illusive and somewhat enigmatic.
Lima and Belano are obsessed with Cesarea Tinajero. In the novel, she is a poet who wrote in the 1920s and - we are told - a precursor to the visceral realist movement. This second section always retraces its steps by returning to the narration of a character talking in 1976, a friend of Tinajero's. He tells them her tumultuous history and her traits, and this prompts Belano and Lima on a excursion to find her in the Sonoran desert.
Poetry is not an intellectual interest for Bolano. Throughout the countless accounts narrated by the wide array of characters, we never see an example of the poets' work (we do in one notable example). Bolano is more interested in the romantic notion of the messy, disorganised life of poets and their encounters and adventures.
The novel is strongly allusive, and while it may seem like an easy read on one level the subtext is deeply indebted to South American literature and history. I am one of many who read this novel without picking up on much of the intertextuality, and the novel works splendidly on this level.
Around page 400 I became somewhat impatient and disillusioned, and the text does seem to drag on with little sense of direction. There seems to be a lot of repetition (a character will frequently end their section by saying "And I never saw him again"). But perseverance does pay off, and the novel eventually turns out to be a rewarding read.
When the section reaches 1996 and comes to an end, visceral realism appears to have disintegrated. All of its poets and members are listed, and they all move. This end is apt and microcosmically mirrors the rest of this section, and leaves itself open-ended. The third section returns to teh 17-year-old's diary, where him, Lima, Belano and a prostitute set out across the Sonoran desert in search of the poet Cesárea Tinajero. This section has the aura of a crime thriller, and can be quite exhilarating to read. This section forms a strange sort of resolution, and brings the mammoth novel to a close.