Roberto Bolaño neatly captures the spirit of The Savage Detectives in an establishing scene early in the book. Seventeen-year-old Juan García Madero is the beneficiary of an unexpected sexual favor in the back room of a restaurant. When he is close to experiencing la petite mort, a waitress pokes her head into the room to warn that a manager is on his way. Brígida, the waitress with García Madero, immediately ceases their tryst. She then stands him up and pushes him through a door. García Madero tells us:
Suddenly, I found myself in the toilets of the Encrucijada Veracruzana, a long, gloomy, rectangular room. I stumbled around a little, still dazed by how quickly things had just happened. . . .Then someone called me by name: “Poet García Madero.”
I saw two shadows next to the urinals. They were enveloped in a cloud of smoke. Two queers, I thought. Two queers who know my name?
“Poet García Madero. Come closer, man.”
García Madero approaches the shadowy figures, and they address him.
“Poet García Madero, your thing is hanging out.”
“Hee hee hee.”
“Your penis. . . It’s hanging out.”
The shadows then offer him a joint. Turns out they are Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the leaders of a fringe Mexican literary movement called Visceral Realism, which García Madero had joined just a couple of days before.
The Savage Detectives is an immensely vital book, boisterous, vulgar, and full of tumult. It’s also got a wry sense of humor about itself. Though many of the plotlines come to tragic ends, the book’s tripartite structure gives us a narrative with a comic frame. By the end, we are back at the beginning, and somehow it is possible to experience the buzz of possibility in the final scenes, while also harboring a peculiar ruefulness about the future.
Bolaño’s book is about the Visceral Realists. It is also about Bolaño himself and his friends, as he admitted in a letter to the real-world analogue to Ulises Lima. (Bolaño figures himself as the character Belano.) The first and last third of the book take the form of a diary kept by García Madero, a minor figure among these minor poets. The middle third spans twenty years and takes the form of a series of interviews with dozens of characters who recount the exploits and adventures of Lima, Belano, and their fellow poets.
The interviews at the center of the book create a patchwork chronicle of the years 1976-1996, the decades immediately following the initial action. The range of subjects and stories is enormous. We have the rant of a man imprisoned in psychiatric hospital about the “literature of desperation,” a student’s recounting of days spent hiding in a university bathroom during a revolution, the self-important postulations of a corporate executive who pretends to poetic talent, a bodybuilder’s emotionally stilted journaling of her intense friendship with one of the book’s poet-protagonists, and much else.
The identity of the interviewer is never made clear. How are these interviews being conducted, and why? Perhaps a Greek chorus has been repurposed to accompany our figures and draw out their expository thoughts. What seems likelier is that these are the private musings of characters who presume to foreground their own individual stories in the narrative. By existential default, we presume to be the leading figures in the stories of our lives, and we presume that our lives are meaningful. It’s easy to imagine that daily moments will assume great import in retrospect, when we are rediscovered in all our significance by the biographers who will knock on our doors, seeking access to the treasure vaults of our pasts. Translated into the false interview structure of the middle third of the book, this presumption allows Bolaño to disclose obliquely the lives of the characters at the book's true center, the leaders of the Visceral Realist poets.
They are failed poets. Time and again we hear how they are not anthologized with their compatriots; they do not win awards, and they are largely reviled in the Latin American literary community. Early on we witness Belano and Lima’s struggle to find Cesárea Tinajero, Visceral Realism’s disappeared matriarch—but it becomes clear that this search has been abandoned soon after the interviews begin, for reasons that are disclosed near the end of the book. A dramatic chase scene out of Mexico City marks the transition out of the first section; the moment recedes in the following pages, and we are left to wonder what hasn’t been disclosed. The story moves on. Lima and Belano return to Mexico City without fanfare within the next couple of years, and the dramatic chase fades from memory. The momentum of these lives is constantly being interrupted, redirected, and stopped.
Visceral Realism itself sputters through the two decades of this long middle. In the absence of their leaders, the poets try out exercises to help them to produce poetry, including one in which they write with one hand while masturbating with the other. The onanism is telling. Exercises and rules, pursued for their own sake, do not produce great poetry, but provide “what minor talents are always apt to want, a recipe for being an artist.” That’s Hugh Kenner writing about “the English domestication of Symbolism” in The Pound Era, diagnosing the aspirations of a class of artists in the process.
The Savage Detectives is about this class of artists—people who live and die for art, but who are more concerned with art as a way of life than with the production of great works. They are fired with passion; they fight duels with swords over their reputations; they experience revolutionary violence in countries that are not their own; they scatter across continents in search of something that remains forever out of reach. They are ridiculous, doomed, and grand.
Like our lives, the book does not resolve itself tidily. It wings off in a brilliant flash, characters slipping out of the narrative like comets trailing across the sky. Some come to violent ends, some live to pursue other things. All of them are destined to be forgotten in the universe of the book. But Bolaño renders them here indelibly. Lima, Belano, and García Madero are figures in a literary monument to the life that is singularly devoted to poetry. Would Lima and Belano take the same course if given a second shot at life? I think they would, and in our re-readings they do, embodying the eternal return in all its tragic and comic beauty. The Savage Detectives is a piece of art about the poetic life that is ultimately about life itself.
Martyn Wendell Jones received his B.A. from Wheaton College and his M.A. from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. He writes from the Toronto area.