Posted by: Sally Ingraham | January 27, 2012

The Savage Detectives

by Roberto Bolaño
trans. Natasha Wimmer

When I read this for the first time in November of 2009, I had a lot in common with Juan Garcia Madero, the journal-keeping 17-year-old narrator of the 1st and 3rd parts of the novel. I was an eager and bright-eyed young reader who had just stumbled across the expansive world of Latin American lit, among many other literary worlds. I was annoying everyone around me by peering over their shoulders and taking notes on the books in their hands, and loudly exclaiming over CORTAZAR! and WOOLF! as though I was the first person in the world to discover them. I had just discovered puzzle novels, and was only beginning to grasp that I loved them. It was a VERY EXCITING TIME. I could relate to Juan Garcia Madero’s emotions as he plunged into the world of visceral realism, and rather wished that I had my own set of weird, poetry-loving bums to run round a city with. Even so, my reaction to the book once I finished it was mixed. I didn’t fully engage with it.

My first review of the book is still pretty sufficient, and if you’re looking for a description or a rundown of plot points please refer to that (yes, I’m going to be exactly that lazy). My main differing reaction upon a second read is that I genuinely liked it. Two years later I’m not that much more mature as a reader, but I do have a few more authors under my belt (some of whom crop up in The Savage Detectives, which at its simplest is kind of a glorified TBR list – like Perec and Queneau for instance) which means I am perhaps a tad more experienced. The way Bolaño told his tale didn’t puzzle me this time but it did amaze me, because he’s so freaking good at it!

So yes, I still have quite a bit in common with the almost endearingly annoying Juan Garcia, but this time I careened through his parts in order to savor and enjoy the middle section. This bit is a dense collection of narratives from over 50 different people, covering several decades, with encounters with either Arturo Belano or Ulises Lima being the glue (as I put it last time) that holds it all together. Bolaño concocts a jigsaw puzzle of epic proportions, one that breaks down into single fascinating stories and combines into a colorful, joyful, sorrowfully strange portrait of a whole generation of writers, artists, people.

From a few steps away the whole picture is impressive, but up close Bolaño’s ability to make every little piece matter is what really got to me this time. The book as a whole is brilliant, but every story within a story within a moment of the story is wonderfully well crafted. I am flooded by images – Ulises reading poetry in the shower because he can’t help himself, Amadeo Salvatierra stumbling into the living room with an armload of snacks, Auxilio Lacouture (the mother of Mexican poetry) hiding from soldiers in a toilet stall, Mary Watson sitting in the front seat of Han’s van as he drives (terribly) through the mountains of Spain, the night watchman at the campground saving the boy who fell down into the crevasse, Ulises crying himself to sleep on a couch in Tel Aviv, and the ultimate moment of tragi-comedy that is Arturo Belano’s duel on a remote beach…

Crazy, insane, beautifully ugly moments – people being mean and small, and people being heroic and caring. Often the same person doing both. And funny moments. I don’t really remember the book being quite so humorous the first time round, but this time I laughed out loud on more than one occasion.

Thinking of all those moments described by so many different people, I am struck once again by narrative – by how much the person telling the story influences the story itself. The first time I read this I wasn’t sure that I liked or even cared about Arturo Bolano and Ulises Lima. Focusing on the individual narrators was more interesting and important to me. This time I found it fascinating how their kaleidoscopic of reactions, opinions, and impressions of these two men constantly shifted my own idea of who they were. I enjoyed chasing the thread of Bolano and Lima’s story through the maze of everyone else’s. I still can’t say that I know who Arturo and Ulises really are, and I’m still not sure that I like these fools of Poetry, but I certainly cared about them a great deal more for some reason. Of course all of these reflections just illuminate the truth behind how much the person reading the story influences the story, made that much more obvious by a reread.

Bolaño combines some interesting commentary on the absurdity of the human experience with vivid imagery and whacky, memerable characters. Two years ago I basically liked this book. Now I can easily say it is a favorite. I will happily thank Rise of in lieu of a field guide and Richard of Caravana de recuerdos for co-hosting the readalong of The Savage Detectives this weekend which inspired my reread. I’m looking forward to the rest of the conversation. If you’re curious, Richard’s post and a growing collection of links to other reviews can be found here.

I suppose before I read this book a third time I really must read 2666…eh?


  1. “Every story within a story within a moment of the story is wonderfully well crafted. I am flooded by images …”

    It was great to be carried along by that flood. The scenes you mentioned are the ones that stick to my mind too! I have reread 2666 first before TSD. It’s great to think about the relationship between the two.

    • Yes, I’m eager to see how the two books tie into each other.

  2. It’s amazing how we can react in such different ways to the same book. I was carried away by the first part, and it was read in a few sittings but part II did not speak to me. The door remained closed.

    • I like that imagery of the door remaining closed – or perhaps open a crack, and you can see that there is a lively party going on in the next room but you can’t or won’t go in. I felt that way last year about Conversations in The Cathedral… That is kind of one of fun things about a readalong though – seeing all the varying reactions to the same book.

  3. You’ve succeeded in making me nostalgic for this book, and I’m slightly disappointed that I didn’t join in for a reread ( but I had to get the two Krasznahorkai novels out of my system). The changing perspectives as we reread books over time is so fascinating. I have reread ‘Nausea’ pretty much every year since I was a teenager, and I could almost write a book ( a very dull one) on how my reading of the book has evolved.

    I plan to read 2666 for the first time this year, maybe we could collaborate.

    • I would enjoy a 2666 readalong. I missed the one that took place a few years ago that a lot of my favorite bloggers participated in. Seems like a good book to attack with a force!

      I almost didn’t reread The Savage Detectives, thinking that it was too soon – but of course we change so much as readers in any given year, and the experience was well worth it.

  4. […] If you want to read a few proper reviews of The Savage Detectives, please make sure to visit the hosts of the readalong Rise and Richard and the other participants. Here is Bellezza’s post and Sarah’s. […]

  5. Sarah, this post reminds me of how exciting it was to discover your blog that year when you were reading one Latin American classic after another each month–how I wish more bloggers would follow your lead! Anyway, love your takes on The Savage Detectives as a kind of “glorifed TBR list” and how the stories in the middle section work as individual entities AND part of a puzzle-like whole. Totally agree. Look forward to your eventual thoughts on 2666 and, hopefully one day, your thoughts on my two favorites among Bolaño’s shorter works, Distant Star and Nazi Literature in the Americas. Until then, thanks so much for making time to reread this with “the gang”!

    • It’s very likely that I will read Nazi Literature in the Americas before 2666, and I hope to read at least one more Bolaño before the end of the year, so you may get your wish! I want to do another Latin American lit heavy year of reading again soon – it was so much fun the first time round, and there are easily 12 more authors that I haven’t even touched. You and your blog are constantly adding titles to my TBR list too!

  6. It’s been a couple years since I read this one but your post makes me want to return to it. It is such an expansive work, encompassing so much and even tying into the monster that was 2666. There’s something cosmic about Bolaño that I can intuit but never quite put my finger on.

    • It IS expansive. That’s what really impressed me this time round – the richness, and (at least to a certain extent) the all-encompassing aspect, how it touched on so many different human emotions and experiences. Pretty neat.

  7. I love how you describe García Madero as “almost endearingly annoying” and how you relate to him – I actually wanted to talk about this in my own post but somehow didn’t get around to it. I had similar feelings about him – I got annoyed at how naive he was at times, but at the same time I felt uncomfortable as I recognised myself as a younger reader and teenager in him, which in turn got me even more annoyed…

    • The duel pleasure/pain of recognizing behavior and both relating to it and being repelled by it… Such fun.

  8. “up close Bolaño’s ability to make every little piece matter is what really got to me this time”
    This nails it for me. It is the conviction behind every passage that makes this book a real page turner for me. I may not be au fait with the literary scene or many of the references in the book but the rogue details and the sense that ‘this matters’ always carries me along.
    I think you’ll really enjoy 2666 as well – at least all bar one of the parts – which is not pleasant reading in anyones book.
    I look forward to revisiting this again sometime in the future when I have filled in more of the gaps in my knowledge about South American literature. Pedro Páramo was about the only reference that was newly clear to me this time as against when I first read this in 2009 but there was also the connections to Bolaño’s other books that I have since read. In a sense they seem to work as one work in a way that isn’t always true of writers.

    • Bolaño definitely manages to make the world of his books thoroughly his world, almost in the same way that a skilled sci-fi writer makes up a world that you believe in, although Bolaño’s world is (at first glance at least) more recognizable. I’m eager to see how his other books fit into this puzzle.

  9. Hey just stumbled across your site when I randomly was searching Bolaño. I love this book and most of his others (my favorite other was his story collection Putas Asasinas), but just wanted to write and say I really like your blog in general and your pics! have a good one in sunny Bend 😀

    • Thanks Dan. 🙂 I have yet to read any of Bolaño’s short stories, but I recently came across one of his books of poetry and I am psyched to check it out!

  10. […] is a personal feel to these poems that digs deeper than what I’ve experienced with The Savage Detectives or The Skating Rink. There’s an autobiographical element to all of Bolaño’s work, but […]

  11. […] 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 […]

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