The Savage Detectives
by Roberto Bolaño

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

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. A few
months ago, 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 – not yet translated into
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
is apparently about poetry – the school of
“visceral realists” led by Belano and Lima – not a single 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.

This review originally appeared in