It is a translation
The bulk of the story is non-linear
Speaks conversationally about Latin American writers you’ve never heard of
More than 50 different voices give varying perspectives
The Savage Detectives is ostensibly about a group of avant-garde poets in Mexico City in the 1970s, calling themselves the Visceral Realists whose followers are generally young, semi-leftist and anti-establishment types. The novel is a gripping depiction of the Latin American diaspora in the last quarter of the twentieth century. TSD is a history lesson and thriller from afar, but it’s really a deeply detailed and wildly imaginative story of reckless abandon that ends with a visual joke.
The story is broken up into three sections, which sets a pace that is both fragmented and nearly flawless in its execution.
Narrated in the form of a diary, the first section is told by a 17-year-old aspiring poet named Juan García Madero. It talks about his entrance into the ranks of the Visceral Realists. It ends on New Year’s Eve in 1975, when afterward, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, founders of the poetry movement, leave Mexico City in an Impala and set out on a quest to find Cesárea Tinajero, the poet considered the mother of Visceral Realism.
The second section (around 400 pages), is full of first-person interviews or descriptions. They seem at times to feel like documentary interviews – with seemingly countless numbers of friends, acquaintances, former lovers and enemies of Lima and Belano. These are people whose lives are intermingled in small or lasting ways with the two writers between the years 1976 and 1996. They speak from parks and apartments, libraries and bars, lunatic asylums and hospitals in which they are dying. No one seems to be able to get the two poets in focus, though. Also, the reader is never told who the detective(s) is or even why the interviews are conducted, but this is irrelevant to the story.
It is difficult in parts to latch on to some of characters. At times it feels like you’re hanging out in a bar or club in a country where you don’t speak the language. You meet some people you like and some you don’t. Some come and go before you get to know them, but it never really matters, because there will always be someone new sitting in the seat next to you. When you stop trying to keep the characters all sorted out and just listen to them instead, they sort themselves out in your mind.
The writers Bolaño describes in the novel are nomadic book-stealing drunk brawlers who read in the shower and walk the cities at night. They are also alter egos of both himself and one of his closest friends, the poet Mario Santiago. Interestingly, Bolaño never shows us what they actually write or think about poetry.
Juan García Madero again narrates the third section, this time in the Sonora Desert with Lima, Belano and a prostitute named Lupe. This section brings the loose ends of the first two sections together in an enjoyable and thrilling way.
Roberto Bolaño, a highly celebrated and sometimes deified Chilean author, called his novel “a love letter to my generation.” Natasha Wimmer’s translation is an impressive feat, considering the monumental task it must have been to capture the different voices from the interviewed narrators, as well as the slang. Bolaño himself writes with a hint of Borges and Pynchon.
NY Times book reviewer James Wood wrote, “one is struck by Bolaño’s ability to nudge on his long, light, ethereal sentence – impossibly, like someone punting a leaf.” So pick up The Savage Detective and grab that leaf if you can.