Mike Puma's Reviews > The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
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Aug 05, 12

bookshelves: favorites, 2009, bolaño, chilean-author, lit-fic, 2012, re-read
Recommended for: James Wood
Read in August, 2012

This review, such as it is, might be considered spoilerish, actually, it’s a lotta spoilerish, it’s presented in a rambling, perhaps, incoherent manner, and it is tentatively offered. It also includes a speculative consideration, for your reading enjoyment—one you’re very entitled to disagree with. Take a little theory, take a little text, stir them together, you get speculation. Toward that end I focus on a single aspect of the novel. You’ve been warned.

Ladies and Gentlemen, you want to know what Visceral Realism is? Listen to this, one of the great songs (one of my ‘desert island picks’-- any version). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2rjDB... The guttural (bass) at play with the high-soaring (the stellar Mitchell vocal & lyric). Play it again, follow Jaco Pastorius’ bass line. Play it again. You can feel it; it will own you. JP, gone too soon. RB, gone too soon. Life sux, but they’ve left us their music.

Okay. I wondered how to begin this thing, there it is. It works or it doesn’t, but you can’t fault the song—not without being a dick.

This is the second time I’ve read TSD, and this time I read it differently, for lack of a better term, I read it more slowly, closely if you will, things began to appear to me that hadn’t with the first reading. I started compiling a list of all the proper names, with indications when I knew the names were real, but several chapters into the second section I knew I wouldn’t be able to maintain the list and finish reading the novel any time soon. I started keeping running summaries of the entries in section two (The Savage Detectives), and something interesting became apparent, actually unapparent, that created dissonance—which led me to a single conclusion: this is a book about Legend Making. Creating a legend. How fact (fictive fact) and myth (fictive myth) and creative license combine to create Legend.

Everyone knows Arturo Belano is Bolaño’s alter-ego—his fictive self. With The Savage Detectives, Bolaño creates his mythic self, his self as he wishes to be seen, his self as he knows others have seen him, perhaps even the self he hoped to never be. The life of Bolaño and Belano so closely intertwined, most of us will never know where one varies from the other; a double-helix, the germ cell of a Legend.

For the handful who don’t know what this novel is, I’ll provide the briefest summary I can: Parts I & III are Juan García Madero’s diary entries chronicling how he, Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima and Lupe, the prostitute, met in Mexico City and fled to the Sonoran Desert— to escape Lupe’s pimp (Lupe and García Madero) and to find a lost literary hero of the Visceral Realist movement, Cesárea Tinajero (Belano and Lima); Part II is a series of oral histories/testamonies/interviews (less the questions and the voice of an interviewer) presented in the chronological order in which they were made except for one which seems to have occurred in a single telling but split into sections across chapters—the order of the entries has little or nothing to do with the narrative chronology. My interest is Part II—the troublesome Part II.

Why troublesome? To begin with, the story of Amadeo Salvatierra (dated January 1976): in an extended ‘testimony’ which spans 13 of the section’s 26 chapters, Salvatierra recounts the night and morning spent with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, drinking heavily, discussing Cesárea Tinajero, and analyzing the only poem of her’s Salvatierra has; Lima and Belano explain to Salvatierra that the poem is a joke. Why is this troublesome then? Salvatierra tells his story while Lima and Belano are off in the desert, far, far away from Mexico City. Hold that thought.

Unlike the Salvatierra testimony and others from January ‘76, the entry from Andrés Ramirez (Barcelona, Dec. ’88) is clearly addressed to Belano; while the interviewer’s questions are omitted, the responses are to Belano (“I was destined to be a failure, Belano, take my word for it.” “I know you’ve been in similar situations, Belano, so I won’t go on too long.”) Nor will I, but hold that thought. In the penultimate interview, and it’s clearly an interview addressed to an anonymous ‘sir,’ Ernesto García Grajales (Dec. ’96) summarizes what became of the Visceral Realists premised on the research he’s done for a book: “Yes, you could say I’m the foremost scholar in the field, [visceral realism/visceral realists] the definitive authority, but that’s not saying much. I’m probably the only person who cares.” Yet, he’s unaware of Juan García Madero, introduces a poet called Bustamente, and doesn’t know much about Belano. If the interviewer was, in fact, Belano, I suspect he’d regard this interview as something of a joke, like the poem of Cesárea Tinajero. Hold that thought.

Any and every great Detective story includes one thing—a mystery. Hold that thought.

Now with all those thoughts in mind, the question becomes: Who are the Savage Detectives? Are they Belano and Lima on their search for the illusive Cesárea Tinajero? On their searches for something else? Are they the unnamed interviewers of the various testimonies in section II (which would include Belano)? Or, might they be someone else?

From Wayne C. Booth we learn (perhaps, more than we’d like) about the Implied Author. From Wolfgang Iser we learn (perhaps, more than we’d like) about the Implied Reader. All well and good. Now comes the Implied Editor from this guy. Unless we assume that Bolaño was sloppy with his timeline, we have to believe someone asked Salvatierra to account for his night with Lima and Belano—someone other than Belano, as during January, 1976, Belano was chasing all over the desert and there’s no indication he’d contacted anyone from the road. So the testimonial was solicited by someone else—but who would have cared in January, 1976? It could have been Alberto the pimp or his policeman accomplice, but neither would have pursued further testimonies after early February. At least some of the testimonies were addressed to Belano, although it’s unlikely he would have crossed paths with narrators who only knew Lima in remote locations. Who initiated these leftover, unaccounted for testimonies? Who is the Implied Editor/detective who edited out the questions posed to these characters? Who could this other ‘detective’ be? And what makes him/her ‘savage’? Who is this Implied Editor? The one who’s taken all the various pieces, strands, stories of known origin but unknown behest, and determinedly (savagely?) attempts to make sense of them? Create the Bolaño/Belano Legend? Isn’t it just possible that we have seen the Savage Detectives and they are us?

One of the titles from my Favorites shelf, do I really need to tell you how much I like it? There are scads of great reviews for TSD, covering themes, impressions, and how Bolaño fits into the mindscapes of the various reviewers. Read them all; they’re worth it.

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Reading Progress

07/19/2012 "Even better the 2d time around; taking scores of notes."

Comments (showing 1-50 of 65) (65 new)


message 1: by Tom (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Isn't it incredible?


Mike Puma Yep. It was my intro. to RB, and I'm loving the chance to read it again.


Erial Noreste Más que un libro, un viaje (more than a book, a trip)


Mike Puma Absolutamente


Kris I'll be interested to hear what's jumping out at you as you re-read.


Mike Puma Kris wrote: "I'll be interested to hear what's jumping out at you as you re-read."

I've been diligently writing down each name, the page number of the first appearance in the novel, an indication of whether the names were for real people, and then less diligently adding those names to an excel file to see if he recycles names/people in the same way he did the fictional city of Santa Teresa. Kinda fun, but slows the reading down. I'd also like to check the names of the real writers against what he's written/said in The Last Interview and Other Conversations and Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998-2003


Kris Savage detective-work. :)


message 8: by Tom (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Mike, how did he recycle names in 2666? That's something I didn't pick up on.


Mike Puma The only recycled name I'm aware of in 2666 is the fictional Santa Teresa (Ciudad Juarez)


message 10: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Paganus Mike wrote: "I've been diligently writing down each name, the page number of the first appearance in the novel..."

It's good to see the diligentsia are on the project. I look forward to seeing you(r) excel.


message 11: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Tom wrote: "Mike, how did he recycle names in 2666? That's something I didn't pick up on."

I'm not certain, but an appointment with Archimboldi was just used to fend off Luscious Skin's advances toward Luis. I'll have to check the first names tomorrow.


William Look forward to your review.


message 13: by Rise (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rise The novelist J.M.G. Arcimboldi was a Frenchman here. And I think the surname of a university official was also recycled.


message 14: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Ryan wrote: "The novelist J.M.G. Arcimboldi was a Frenchman here. And I think the surname of a university official was also recycled."

Thanks, Ryan, I had a feeling you'd know.


message 15: by Gabi (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gabi Dopazo Hey Mike, how is it going? Have just bought a copy of this one in Spanish, have never tried him before. How important is for you Roberto? What does he bring to the table?


message 16: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Paganus Gabi wrote: "What does he bring to the table?"

He's a writer, not a waiter ;)


message 17: by Gabi (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gabi Dopazo You are right, and then there is the small fact that the guy is actually dead, so I don't think he brings anything anymore, with all my respects


message 18: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Gabi wrote: "Hey Mike, how is it going? Have just bought a copy of this one in Spanish, have never tried him before. How important is for you Roberto? What does he bring to the table?"

I'm rereading this one and hope to finish and post something soon. I'd say RB has become quite important, in my reading, as I've now reading everything available in English and look forward to new one coming in November.


Stephen M Very thorough review Mike! Great work.


Jenn(ifer) Fantastic review fella!


message 21: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma That second section just kept bugging me. Who's responsible for this?


message 22: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma And thank you.


Jenn(ifer) I kept thinking it was Juan.


Stephen M Mike wrote: "Who's responsible for this?"

Oh, gosh I can't remember. Um.... I think his name starts with a "J" and ends with an "N".


message 25: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris This is wonderful, Mike. I love your stance in the review - the questions you pose to drill into the role of the editor and how you then segue into the role we all play in piecing together fragments, memories, remembrances, hopes, fears, to create a legend. Very thought provoking. I think I'll read it again. :)


message 26: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma I thought Juan just wandered off with Lupe. One might assume had it been him pursuing the interviews, Ernesto García Grajales might have been aware of him; hell, he woulda been responding to him.


message 27: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Chavez Great review, I definitely wanna pick these books up.

Oh and great Jaco Pastorius reference. Great musician, the guy was a legend in the field. Every time I hear a riff of his I just wanna lay back and close my eyes, and travel somewhere peaceful.


message 28: by Mike (last edited Aug 05, 2012 11:12AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Anthony wrote: "Great review, I definitely wanna pick these books up.

Oh and great Jaco Pastorius reference. Great musician, the guy was a legend in the field. Every time I hear a riff of his I just wanna lay ba..."


I saw the Mitchell tour (Shadows & Light) when her back-up band included Pastorius and Pat Metheny. You couldn't do much better than that.


message 29: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Anthony wrote: "Great review, I definitely wanna pick these books up.

Oh and great Jaco Pastorius reference. Great musician, the guy was a legend in the field. Every time I hear a riff of his I just wanna lay ba..."


Agreed - I think Coyote worked really well to open the review, Mike.


message 30: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Helluva song. That period when she was between Folk and Jazz, from Court and Spark through Dog Eat Dog was JM at her finest, IMHO.


message 31: by Anthony (new)

Anthony Chavez And I would agree, I really like the lineup she had and songs she wrote then.


Jason Great review, Mike. Personally, I imagined the imaginary interviewers to be the detectives in the (view spoiler). I don't have the book in front of me anymore, but I think they (view spoiler) at the end of January, so there'd still have been time to conduct interviews with those who last saw Belano/Lima (which in this case was Salvatierra. The other interviews extend all the way until the mid 1990s, but I supposed it was possible for the investigation to resurface every now and then, and for an interview to be conducted with those who were recently in the presence of Belano/Lima while they were still "on the run." The only thing that doesn't make sense to me is that Lima didn't actually behave as though he were on the run. He was in Mexico City for most of the later years, but I suppose it'd have been easy enough a city to hide in.

In the case when some of the interviewees addressed Belano specifically, I still did not assume they were being interviewed by Belano, but that they were speaking sort of hyperbolically. Kind of like if you and I were to be having a conversation about a third party and I addressed the third party directly even though I'm talking to you. I've really done that; I assume others have, too.


message 33: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Paganus If there are plural Savage Detectives and they are the Interviewers, then doesn't that mean that there are plural Interviewers?

Also, they don't need to be the same people consistently over the whole book.

I started to think that Legend is a collective endeavour, and that all of our memories (I mean the memories of all of us) contribute to the Legend, like a collective consciousness.

In a way, the Book might be an exercise in Time itself organising itself, sifting out the gold relating to the Visceral Realists in the pan of collective memory.

The sifting process doesn't care in what order the golden memories were found, it's just finding them and placing them on the table for us to use as the ore of some larger refining process.

The participants and audience are all part of the process of creating and perpetuating the Legend (including us readers).


message 34: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Paganus Many of these same issues arise with respect to the collective fiction, "The Cabbage Detectives'.


message 35: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Jason wrote: "Great review, Mike. Personally, I imagined the imaginary interviewers to be the detectives in the [spoilers removed]. I don't have the book in front of me anymore, but I think they [spoilers remove..."

The entry where the pimp and the detective...um...cease to play is Feb. 1. I'd be surprised if the Sonoran (whatever town has jurisdiction) police would pursue much of an investigation. Salvatierra's comments don't address the departure from Mexico City, only the interest in Cesárea Tinajero. Perla Avilés (Jan. 1976) speaks only to how she met Belano and what he was like in 1970. Laura Jáuregui (Jan. 1976) speaks to visceral realism and her affair with Belano, all of which predates the events related by Juan García Madero. I suspect all the interviews were part of an investigation, just not a criminal investigation.

Since Lima didn't return to Mexico City to live until after his time in Israel, he could have easily decided there was no longer any criminal investigation to avoid.

I think you mean using apostrophe--speaking to someone who isn't really there. Andrés Ramirez, in context, seems more like direct speech. I don't remember, but it seems one of the women spoke directly to Belano. Hafta check my notes.


message 36: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Ian wrote: "If there are plural Savage Detectives and they are the Interviewers, then doesn't that mean that there are plural Interviewers?

Also, they don't need to be the same people consistently over the wh..."


I think there are 'plural' interviewers--initially, someone other than Belano, then in later cases, at least once, it is Belano. I agree with the way(s) legend arise, accrete, grow and change--process.


message 37: by Ian (last edited Aug 05, 2012 02:30PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Paganus Is Time a Savage Detective in that, just as it preserves some evidence, it destroys other evidence? Hence the analogy with Ozymandias.


Jason I knew hyperbolic was a bad word choice. Thanks, Mike!


message 39: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Paganus Perhaps the Savage Detectives of destructive time are what we are fighting against in trying to preserve memories and Legends.


message 40: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Jason wrote: "I knew hyperbolic was a bad word choice. Thanks, Mike!"

Any time (I did have to look it up; 'apostrophe' is never available when I need it) Damn you, apostrophe!

Ozymandias? I remember seeing reference to O, but way, way out of my league and/or available for reference. I will say, I don't see time as causal--ever. I see time as more of a construct imposed on perspective and metaphor.


message 41: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Paganus Ozymandias thought his creations and legends could defeat the passage and ravages of time.


message 42: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Looks like he was mistaken.


message 43: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Paganus Haha. Fortunately easily remedied by googling ozymandias and shelley.


message 44: by Petergiaquinta (last edited Aug 05, 2012 03:24PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Petergiaquinta I like that connection to Pastorius...I could picture Jaco, along with Manolo Badrena and Alex Acuna maybe, hanging out at the Encrucijada Veracruzana or the Cafe Quito making big plans that are going nowhere for some kind of visceral realist fusion project with Belano and Ulises Lima. Garcia Madero would be trying to get in a word, too, but they wouldn't be paying attention to him.

Maybe it'd sound something like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tz-CgF...

And look closely, there's Jaco in the background toweling off!


message 45: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Petergiaquinta wrote: "I like that connection to Pastorius...I could picture Jaco, along with Manolo Badrena and Alex Acuna maybe, hanging out at the Encrucijada Veracruzana or the Cafe Quito making big plans that are go..."

That would have been a great show, and the image of Weather Report partying with Belano/Bolano & Lima could have been legendary. Good eye spotting JP in the background.


message 46: by Rise (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rise Uh-oh. Detective work. Always fun (cf.).

Don't discount Lalo Cura as interviewer.


Steve I had a strong suspicion that you'd be all over this, Mike. You've read so many Latin American greats -- your review was one I was looking forward to for context and insight. You certainly delivered on that.

Paco is a great choice. We saw him in Champaign years ago, and he delivered, too.


message 48: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Ryan wrote: "Uh-oh. Detective work. Always fun (cf.).

Don't discount Lalo Cura as interviewer."


Wow! Thanks for the links. I'd seen the Wuthering Heights essay, but Bolano story is new for me. Much appreciated.


message 49: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Puma Steve wrote: "I had a strong suspicion that you'd be all over this, Mike. You've read so many Latin American greats -- your review was one I was looking forward to for context and insight. You certainly delive..."

Would have been a great show. Friends of mine and I went to the dome to see the Byrds (8 Miles High Tour) along with Head East. Somehow we became ... uh ... very confused and had trouble finding our way outta the auditorium. Ended up in Peoria instead of Springfieldj--don't ask.


s.penkevich Ahh, finally! I've been waiting for your review. The Implied Editor, and general Scholar-Of-All-That-Is-Good I might add. And yes, Jaco, amazing. Creating a Legend, nice. This is just full of good stuff, you hit a high note for sure.

This also proves I need to always listen to your recommended authors.

I love your idea of the Savage Detectives being us, the reader. I've spent a ton of time twisting the issue of that in my head as to who the interviewer is. It HAS to be a collective effort I think (sorry, I have to spew some thoughts, you're good at making sense of stuff). Jacobo says something to the effect of 'you wouldn't understanding having never been to africa' so that rules out Belano for that guy, but yes, some do adress him directly. Maybe Ernesto is one as well, or collected all of them. But who collected Juan's journal? AhhhhH! Maybe Lupe? AHHHH!


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