I picked up a copy of The Savage Detectives, first published in Spain in 1998, having read raving reviews of the recently published English translation of 2666 and vaguely remembering having read some of Bolaño’s poetry when I was at university, specializing in Spanish-American poetry. But that was a long time ago. I still intend to one day brush up my Spanish, but keeping up my French and German is already enough of a challenge.
Having read The Savage Detectives I am eager to read Bolaño's other novels. The Savage Detectives is quite simply a magnificent novel and the reason why I read literature. Like all great novels it deals with a highly unlikely subject, poetry, and its heroes are all poets. But like all great novels it really is about life and what it means to live.
The Savage Detectives consists of three sections. The first 100 or so pages are a coming of age novel in the form of a series of diary entries by the 17 year old student and aspiring poet Juan García Madero, spanning the period from early November until the end of December 1975. He is introduced to a group of poets, led by two young poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, who call themselves "visceral realists", a term coined by Cesárea Tinajero a woman poet some decades earlier, whose work appears to have been lost and which Lima and Belano search for all over Mexico City. The term is never really defined, but from Belano and Lima's rejection of other poets it appears to be a form of poetry that is true to life.
For the most part the aspiring poets spend their time having sex, discussing poetry, smoking pot and going from one odd job to another. Madero falls in love with Maria Font, who is some kind of a muse to the visceral realists, and whose father, the Spanish architect Quim Font who also designs two issues of the journal published by the visceral realists, occasionally hands him some money to look after his daughter. One day Quim Font offers his house as shelter to Lupe, a prostitute and friend of Maria, who is being harassed by her pimp. He soon finds out where she’s hiding and together with his accomplices quietly waits outside the Fonts’ house for her to come out. At a New Year’s party at the Fonts’ household at which various visceral realist poets are present it is decided that Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano will drive off in Quim Font’s car, taking Lupe with them. In the scramble that follows Madero gets into the car as well just before it races off.
At this point the diary entries suddenly break off. The second section, some 400 pages long consists entirely of testimonies covering a period of 20 years by people who used to know Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. We don’t get to know how these testimonies were collected or who is collecting them and why. And although we learn a lot about Lima and Belano, we don’t get to know them either and we never read a single line of poetry that either has written. But then as one narrator says, they weren’t much of a poet, but drug dealers who dabbled in poetry. The novel jumps back and forth through time and from one narrator to another. All of this may sound like a typical postmodern ploy, but nowhere does it feel contrived. Bolaño doesn’t always succeed in giving each narrator a voice of his or her own, but then, not everyone has one.
The novel’s third section resumes where the first section left off, a diary entry on 1 January 1976, with Lima, Belano, Madero and Lupe fleeing Mexico City in search of traces of Cesárea Tinajero.
Every novel contains at least one element that is left unexplained but is essential for the unfolding of the plot. When Lima, Belano, Madero and Lupe flee Mexico City they are pursued all the way into the Sonora desert by Lupe’s pimp and an accomplice. Stranger things happen in reality, but why go through all this trouble to get back a prostitute? This double pursuit also serves as a metaphor. Lima and Belano are in pursuit of a poet who sought to unify life and art in her poetry and would give up poetry for life, while they are themselves pursued by two gangsters, representative of the most visceral reality. In other words, but put rather awkwardly, they pursue a poet who pursued life while being pursued by "life".
More than halfway into the novel the one published poem by Cesárea Tinajero is revealed when Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima visit Amadeo Salvatierra, a writer who used to know her and owns a copy of the first and last issue of Caborca, the magazine edited by Cesárea Tinajero and "the official organ, as they say, of visceral realism" (249). It consists of a straight horizontal line, followed by a wavy line and a jagged line. "And I asked the boys, I said, boys, what do you make of this poem? I said, boys, I’ve been looking at it for more than forty years and I’ve never understood a goddamn thing. Really. I might as well tell you the truth. And they said: it’s a joke, Amadeo, the poem is a joke covering up something more serious" (354). Belano and Lima explain the poem to Amadeo Salvatierra, but only why it is a joke, not the serious meaning that it hides.
Of course the poem by Cesárea Tinajero, if it is a poem, - and why not? -, is a metaphor for life and its true meaning is revealed by the middle section as a whole.
The Savage Detectives can be read on various levels. One theme that runs throughout the novel is the relationship between art and life. It is one of the preoccupations of visceral realism. When they are driving through the Sonora desert to kill time Juan Garcia Madero entertains his fellow passengers by quizing them about their knowledge of poetic style figures. He knows them all, from a Saturnian to a glyconic and from epanorthosis to a molossus. "You know a lot" Lupe comments at one point. But when she starts quizing him with street slang he has to pass at every question. He knows a lot about poetics, but little about life, and his poems disappear into oblivion. Many years later a scholar of literature and expert on the visceral realists will omit him from a book he is planning because he has never heard of him.
A few days later, to make the trip go faster, Juan Garcia Madero starts to draw picture puzzles of Mexicans seen from above. This time Lupe knows almost all of them. In the final pages The Savage Detectives accomplishes as a novel what the viscereal realists tried to achieve in their poetry: the coincidence of life and art. The progression of three drawings with which the novel ends could be a puzzle as well as a visceral realist poem. In the final question the answer is missing. But perhaps the drawing is the answer.
I know of few novels which achieve a similar form of closure, where form and content come together, and everything falls into place (Life. A User’s Manual by Georges Perec comes to mind). The Savage Detectives is, in short, a masterpiece.
(Unfortunately I don't have time for a longer essay that does the novel justice).