Larissa's Reviews > The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
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's review
Feb 26, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: unreliable-narrators, 2008, in-translation, read-by-recommendation, spanish-latin-america, spanish-spain
Read in April, 2008 , read count: 1

Poets chasing poets chasing poets seem to be the real momentum behind Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. This sprawling, often opaque novel is book-ended by the journals of seventeen-year-old Juan Garcia Madero, a Mexico City youth who is tempted away from his chaste college existence by the unruly antics of the newly-formed ‘Visceral Realists,’ a poetry collective of unkempt youths who enthusiastically quote French poets, steal books, and plot the overthrow of Octavio Paz--but never actually seem to write anything. Introduced into the drunken, dramatic world of the Visceral Realists by its two ostensible leaders—Ulysses Lima and Arturo Belano—‘Poet Garcia Madero’ drinks and screws and (writes—we don’t get much of his poetry, but he says he’s writing a lot of it) and gets drug into all manner of things Above His Head and Out of His Control before eventually taking off into the Sonoran Desert with Lima, Belano, and a teen prostitute named Lupe in order to (among other things) track down the mysterious Cesárea Tinajero—the woman who they believe founded the precursor poetry movement to their own in the 1920s, but whose work (if there was any in the first place), seems to have gone almost entirely unpublished.

Sounds pretty fantastic, right?

Well, it is. The first journal in The Savage Detectives is one of the best things I’ve read in a really long time. Garcia Madero is a star-struck, romantic, idealistic, naive Observer of Life in the tradition of so many Tag-a-longs before him (Nick Caraway, Sal Paradise, Holly Golightly’s neighbor, the writer…), but is—judging from his journals and what we find out about the other ‘poets’ in the course of the novel—probably the most talented and intelligent one among them. Or he would be, if he’d just stop hanging out with such (wonderful) losers. This section is so snappy and sweet and torrid, that I was sad that it ended, and would suggest that if one wasn’t going to read all of The Savage Detectives, that she at least read the first part. For old time’s sake.

Given the wonder of the first part, however, it’s not surprising that I had a little difficulty transitioning into the second. The majority of the novel is actually spent here, as several unnamed interviewers (only one of whom is ever partially revealed) travels around Mexico, Spain, Israel, and France to talk to anyone and everyone who was ever even tangentially involved with Lima, Belano, or any of the Visceral Realists. It’s shadowy and progressively melancholy stuff: our revolutionary, anti-establishment poets travel the world poor and alone, with no apparent trajectory or motivation (other than some on-again-off-again unrequited love affairs). What they do leave is evidence of lives unraveling, promise squandered, and talent that was never even tapped into. And they never write anything.

Octavio Paz is frequently censured by the poets for being ‘establishment,’ for being high-profile, for having a devoted following both in and outside of Mexico. Their patron saint, Cesárea Tinajero, however, only contributed to one volume of an almost immediately defunct literary magazine—and her contribution? Not even a poem. (I won’t spoil this part—the climactic discoveries in this book are perhaps few and far between, and I’d hate to take this one away.) Then we have someone chasing the poets all over the world, but none of their work is ever uncovered either. (At one point, an interviewee remarks that “They weren't writers. Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don't think they were poets either.”) So, within this paradigm, it seems that the best—if not only—way to be a remembered poet is not to write at all.

Now, of course, this doesn’t hold completely. People throughout the novel remark that they have either never heard of the Visceral Realists or thought that they were an embarrassment and a joke. But the internalized sense of glory and importance that is conferred upon the figureheads of the book—Lima and Belano (who are never interviewed and generally only speak through Garcia Madero’s recorded dialogs) and Cesárea Tinajero—is very real to those who want so badly to be part of a movement, of an intellectual endeavor that will be remembered.

The sad irony is that these people who inspired so much writing and documentation, end up stifling those impulses in their devotees by the end. The Poet Garcia Madero, who starts as the novel’s greatest writer (greatest young hope), in the end, really becomes its greatest casualty. His journals—so engaging and hopeful at the start—become repetitive, heavy, and eventually, non-verbal. Under the influence of his greatest inspirations, his writing seems to deteriorate completely. One almost feels that the oft-quoted, multi-attributed advice that authors must “murder their darlings,” seems particularly (and literally) apropos upon reaching the spiraling trail-off that closes the story.
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