The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano

Read August 2015

Despite being massive and difficult in its totality, where it is often hard to know what exactly is going on – The Savage Detectives is hard to put down, is full of evocative phrases and fascinating characters, it constantly surprises with new people and perspectives, each section is immensely readable, sometimes seeming like a series of interlocking short stories, and, when you reach the last pages it all makes sense, though you then want to go back in to hone in on different parts to get the most out of all the characters and views.

The plot is fairly straightforward. In 1970s Mexico three young poets – who call themselves ‘visceral realists’ – set off on a quest to find a poet from the 1920s who has disappeared, but they are in pursuit by two thugs who want to stop them. They find the poet but it all goes wrong and subsequently two of the poets go their separate ways and travel around the world, with Bolano revealing different parts and episodes of their lives.

The structure is a standard diary (by Juan Garcia Madero, a young new comer to the scene) for the first 150 pages. The second section is 400 pages of first person accounts from various people in different times and places who have known the two poets (Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima) since the road trip, giving subjective and partial accounts of different periods of their unsettled and difficult lives. The third section, about 100 pages, takes us back to what happened when they were searching for the lost poet and led, in part, to the rest of their lives being as they were.

I’ve heard it said that Bolano has a longing for the vigour and reckless abandon of youth, a longing apparent throughout the Savage Detectives. But part of what he does in this book is make poetry and literature an elemental force of youth – a force more potent than sex or drugs, both of which are present throughout the book, but without the strength of poetry.

The book also seems to be a parody of literary circles, with Lima and Belano aggressively attacking establishment poets (Octavia Paz is the main target) whilst their visceral realist is a circle, but one where very little poetry is spoken or cited and there is some question as to whether many of them really write poetry at all.

More than just being about literature, though, the book’s runaway success is to evoke up the atmosphere and a visceral sense (I guess something intentional given the name of the poetry school which the novel circles around) of what it was like be young and heavily steeped in literary and student life in 1970s Mexico. It’s a bit like reading Jack Kerouac for an immersion in 1950s beat-era America.
I know nothing of this time but came away with the kind of feeling I have when visiting a city and, rather than learning the history, just walk and walk. I leave knowing few facts about the place, but have a sense of its streets, its daily culture and its atmosphere.

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