Posted by: Sally Ingraham | November 30, 2009

OT: The Savage Detectives – Chile

DSC00258by Roberto Bolaño – Translated by Natasha Wimmer

‘November 2
I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.

This is a book about poets, about young writers and artists, about dreams, about so-called failures, about living. It is a book that captures the excitement and boredom of being young and creative and surrounded by people who are on a quest to know, even if they believe they already have the answers. It’s a literary adventure, peppered with real and imagined heroes of prose and poem. It’s a puzzle, a mystery, an examination of the wild trajectory of individual lives. It’s a book about encounters. It’s a book about all that, and more.

It’s kind of hard to pin down exactly what this book is about!

It begins with Juan Garcia Madero, a 17-year old living in Mexico City in the mid-’70s. Through his daily journal entries you learn about his endeavors in the fields of love, poetry, and friendship. You meet Arturo Bolano and Ulises Lima, the founders of visceral realism, mysterious bums, possible poets. Things heat up a bit around town and Madero, Bolano, and Lima drive off into a questionable night.

The following section switches over to a long series of what seem to be transcripts of oral stories, told by several dozen people over nearly 20 years and from places around the world. Each piece is a slice of the speaker’s life, and what ties them together is the common spice of encounters with either Bolano or Lima. The two turn up in Paris, in Barcelona, in Israel, in Africa. They are odd men, and whether it is a friend, a lover, a boss, or a random stranger who is remembering their meeting, each person seems to have been left puzzled, left with a strange taste in their mouth.

The last section returns to the borrowed car and Madero’s journal. On the run from a pimp who wants Lupe – the fourth passenger – back, the group keeps themselves busy by tracking down Cesárea Tinajero, a poet from the 20’s who Bolano and Lima think of as their literary ancestor.

I feel somewhat ambiguous about my reaction to this book. While I was reading it I felt distracted and borderline bored. I wasn’t distracted by things going on around me – I could be reading in an empty, silent room and still feel a general sense of distraction, as if my mind couldn’t focus on what was entering it. I was interested in the story and loved the way it unfolded, especially in the middle section. I could feel my brain actively engaging in the reading of the book, but I felt distanced. I didn’t think I really liked the book until I finished it – then I had an overwhelming feeling of “WOWWWW!! That book was amazing!!” I’m still working on the “but why?” part…

I didn’t feel a great deal of sympathy for or connection with the main protagonists, Bolano and Lima. I didn’t find this to be a bad thing though. Each person who spoke up, telling their own and Bolano or Lima’s story, was so very much the main character of their life that it wasn’t necessary to have a main character in the novel. Bolano and Lima are better described as the glue that holds all the fragments together – and even with so many different impressions of who they are you never get a firm feel for who they really are. That’s pretty true to life though, and it was interesting how in their efforts to tell you something about Bolano or Lima, the speakers generally told you a great deal more about themselves. In the end, even to the extent that we think we don’t understand ourselves, we’re in far better focus than most of the people who surround us.

I like the title of the book, which could refer to Bolano and Lima’s quest for the poet Cesárea Tinajero. I felt as though it could just as easily refer to me, though, or any reader of the book – you’re the detective, sorting through the facts and stories in an effort to figure out what exactly it is about Bolano and Lima, or what it isn’t. Or you could be searching for something else, something profound that has to do with poetry, creation, life. And like Bolano and Lima and their search for their poetess, I’m not really sure what I ended up discovering. That doesn’t bother me. The specific way that the book ends is incredible – I felt as though Bolaño (the author) was telling me that I could make of it whatever I wanted – as much or as little. At the same time he seemed to be inviting me to take the next step, pick up the narrative, tell some more (but certainly not the rest) of the story.

Both darkly funny and terribly sad, both depressing and inspiring, this book moved and confused me. Bolaño definitely gets put at the top of the intriguing list, and I feel compelled to read more of his work, starting with the short ones – no 2666 for me just yet!

Meanwhile, I still feel distracted – but this time it is by whatever thought or idea is just beyond the reach of my mind, some meaning I haven’t been able to sort out, some nagging moment of truth that I haven’t quite stumbled upon… Oh, right – that’s how I always feel.

After all, I’m the detective (savage at times).


  1. Wait, what? You weren’t part of the 2666 readalong? Weird, I could have sworn you were.

    I’m very intrigued by The Savage Detectives; I’ll probably read it sometime next year, once I’ve whittled down the to-be-read pile a bit. I think I’ve only avoided it up to this point because the “plot” reminds me of On the Road, a novel I don’t love. But I’m sure Bolaño will execute it in a way I’ll love.

    I really know what you mean about the distractedness thing. Sometimes brains just…fail to engage.

  2. I keep wanting to read a book by Bolano but I’m intimidated! I find it so fascinating that it both moved and confused you – and of course now I’m even more intimidated!

  3. Hi! I landed on your blog since we both will be participating in Dreadlockgirl’s readathon in the coming weekend. I was just curious who else would be participating and so I thought I’d make a little blog tour!

    I haven’t read this book by Bolano (nor any other books by B) but I recognize your feelings, being distracted and being bored and being moved and confused… sometimes a book can do so much with you and still… you don’t know whether you liked it or not. But…. it did something. And that’s what keeps attracting us after all ;-).

  4. Emily – It’s funny that you mention On the Road, since I definitely thought of it while reading and found similarities. However, I didn’t care for On the Road either, but I really liked The Savage Detectives. 🙂

    Jill – Don’t be intimidated! Try one of his shorter books, like By Night in Chile, or Amulet – both of which I’ll be looking for myself.

    Cessie – Thanks for stopping by! I’ve been meaning to go blog touring myself – can’t wait for the readathon. 🙂

  5. Glad you decided to read this book this year after all, Sarah, as it’s one of my all-time favorites! I too greatly enjoyed the middle section, where that wonderful first-person diary format shifts to the mind-boggling dozens of “narrators” each with their own distinctive voices, and was flat out wowed by the ending that you describe so well in your post. I’ll prob. read Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas next (I’m waiting for a Spanish copy of the work to arrive), but so far I like Distant Star the best out of all his short fiction that I’ve read. The Savage Detectives and 2666 are just majorly impressive, though!

  6. Richard – I’m glad I went for it as well, especially since a busy month and my odd initial reaction almost made me set it aside. It was well worth reading though! In your opinion does Bolano’s work loose much in the translation?

  7. I haven’t read any Bolaño in translation except for brief fragments here and there. What little I’ve seen seems to have done justice to him (Natasha Wimmer’s 2666 translation especially), but it is weird to come across stray paragraphs where words (or even a complete sentence in one case) get left out for no apparent reason. I think that could happen in any translation, though.

  8. Whole sentences missing…?? Sometimes there are questions that I wish I didn’t know the answer to! Oh well, that’s just my lot in life until I learn a second language I guess. Translations…ho hum. Anyway, glad that, as these things go, the Bolaño translations are pretty good. 🙂

  9. I echo Emily: You weren’t part of the 2666 read-along?! I could’ve sworn you were!

    I too thought of On the Road after I finished this but it’s also a totally different book. Bolaño is the superior writer by far.

    I got bored in the middle too but luckily it picked up again. I ended up loving it but you’re right: it’s really hard to pinpoint what exactly this book is about.

  10. […] 9. November The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano – Chile […]

  11. […] first review of the book is still pretty sufficient, and if you’re looking for a description or a rundown […]

  12. […] have read other books by the man, (some more than once) but have edged round this one for several years. Every adventure with Bolaño is intense – […]

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