Towards Global Recognition

Among the Spanish-speaking world, Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño has established a lofty reputation as a writer. His oeuvre covers poetry, short stories, and novels. He started with poetry before eventually expanding into prose in the early 1990s. This shift to fiction proved a seminal juncture in his literary career. However, to the rest of the world, he was relatively unknown, until the posthumous publication of 2666. Referred to as Bolaño’s last novel, he worked on it from 1999 to 2003 before it was published in 2004. In 2008, it was published in English, to immediate and resounding success. It was hailed by many literary journals as one of the best books of 2008 and also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. The success of 2666 paved the way for the translation of his works previously published in Spanish.

While 2666 introduced him to the rest of the world, it was with another work that gave him his first breakthrough. Los Detectives Salvajes was published in 1998. It was the first book that made him famous, establishing his reputation as one of the foremost Latin American novelists of his generation. The novel won him the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, touted as the Spanish-language equivalent of the Booker Prize. In 2007, four years after the death of the Bolaño, the English translation of Los Detectives Salvajes was finally released. The Savage Detectives, wonderfully and capably translated by Natasha Wimmer, earned praises the world over and has consolidated Bolaño’s status as a literary star.

The Savage Detectives is a behemoth of a novel and is divided into three sections. The first section, Mexicans Lost in Mexico, was set in Mexico City. It was narrated by seventeen-year-old orphan Juan García Madero through a series of diary entries from November to December 1975. He recently enrolled at a law school. It was his fervent desire to study literature but he eventually gave in to his uncle’s wishes. Despite this, he eventually registered for a poetry workshop hosted by Julio César Álamo. It was through this workshop that Garcia met different groups of poets, but one group stood out: the visceral realists or viscerealists. “I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted of course. There was no initiation ceremony,” his section of the novel opened.

“I’m an educated man: the prisons I know are subtle ones. And of course, poetry and prison have always been neighbors. And yet it’s melancholia that’s the source of my attraction. Am I in the seventh dream or have I truly heard the cocks crow at the other end of the feria? It might be one thing or it might be another. But cocks crow at dawn, and it’s noon now, according to my watch. I wander through the feria and greet my colleagues who are wandering as dreamily as I am. Dreamily× dreamily = a prison in literary heaven. Wandering.”

~ Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives

In one of these poetry workshops, García Madero met Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the leaders of the visceral realist movement. García Madero, driven by his love for writing and his encyclopedic knowledge of poetry, eventually dropped out of school and participated fully in the group and its activities. His diary entries detailed his forays into and interactions with the group of wild poets. It was an introduction to the world of visceral realists and of poetry in general. The visceral realism movement traces its origins to the early 1920s. It was a term coined by Cesárea Tinajero. She was one of the original founders of the movement. However, much of her work has been lost but Belano and Lima, including García Madero, have been scouring every nook and cranny of Mexico City to find them.

It was also through García Madero’s diary entries that the readers were given an intimate peek of García Madero’s growth and development as an individual and as a writer. There was no initiation ceremony but García Madero entered a world he never imagined. In the span of two months, he learned a lot about himself. As he sheds the layers of innocence wrapped around him, García Madero was learning more about the world around him. For the first time, he fell in love only to have his heart be broken. He lost his virginity. He lost friends. In exchange for his innocence, he learned. But most importantly, he started realizing what his true calling is. He sharpened his writing skills and broadened his perspective and understanding of the world. The first section ended in tenterhook as Lima, Belano, and Madero, accompanied by a prostitute named Lupe, fled Mexico City for the Sonoran Desert in haste.

A palpable shift in narrative voice and literary structure took place as the story transitioned to the second section. The eponymous section was the book’s heftiest, occupying nearly two-thirds of the entire text. While the first section was comprised of diary entries, the second section was woven through a series of interviews, and testimonies from more than 50 characters. The diversity of the cast of characters is reminiscent of a Dickensian novel. There was only one thread that tied them together: they, at least once, have met, encountered, and gotten acquainted with Lima and Belano. Some of these characters are parents, friends, strangers, and distant relatives. Former girlfriends and boyfriends, poets, and book dealers have also shared their experiences. Some provided them temporary shelter. Some they stole from.

These testimonies detailed the whereabouts and movements of the founders of the visceral realist movement from 1976 to 1996. From Mexico, the readers are transported to different parts of North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Lima and Belano’s bohemian years were brimming with incidents, from sexual interludes to even a time in jail. It was through these incidents that they were able to establish connections, albeit brief, with different individuals, some they just chanced upon. Despite the brevity of these moments, Lima and Belano managed to leave lasting impressions. This was one of the novel’s vivid messages. It depicted the beauty of chance and brief encounters. We make connections with the people around us, whether we are aware or not. There are ephemeral connections but there are also those that last long, enough to create a personal account of this experience.

“If we didn’t have to read, too, our work would be a point suspended in nothigness, a mandala pared down to a minumum of meaning, our silence, our certainty of standing with one foot dangling on the far side of death. Fantasies. Fantasies. In some lost fold of the past, we wanted to be lions and we’re no more than castrated cats. Castrated cats wedded to cats with slit throats. Everything that begins as comedy ends as a cryptographic exercise.”

~ Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives

While the testimonies built their profiles by providing insights into their characters, Lima and Belano remain out of the reader’s reach. They remained a mystery throughout the story. In fact, many elements of the novel were shrouded. We never get to learn who gathered the testimonies that made up the novel’s second section. Was it a journalist? Was it a documentarist? It never became clear. The same holds true as the novel transitioned to its last section, The Sonora Desert. A shift in pace, narrative voice, and structure again took place. The original narrator resumed his role as the story’s main voice. His diary entries brought the story back to 1976, thus, connecting it with the first section.

We read of the quartet’s adventures and misadventures. With Lupe’s pimp, and accomplice, running after them, the group of four traveled all the way to northwestern Mexico, to the Sonoran Desert. Apart from evading their pursuers, there was one other reason why Lima and Belano drove their Impala to the Desert. They were hoping to find Cesárea Tinajero, the elusive poet, the so-called “mother of Visceral Realism”. It was believed that Tinajero disappeared in the Sonoran Desert. Bolaño never shone a light on the character’s motivations, neither the pimp’s pursuance of Lupe nor Lima and Belano’s search for Tinajero.

The novel takes a deep dive into the world of young and aspiring poets, including its wild and dark sides. Discourses on poetry abounded the story but, interestingly, for a book about poetry, it was bereft of any poetic works. Like most of the novel’s elements, the definition of the visceral realist movement never became clear. However, one thing was clear, the visceral realists reject other forms of poetry. The visceral realists have a particular distaste of Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize in Literature winner and one of the pillars of contemporary Mexican poetry. The novel, however, was less on the intellect but more on the lives that the poets lived. We get to read about their extensive sexual escapades, both homosexual and straight. They smoked and sold pot. Permanent employment was a rarity. It was a life of self-indulgence. They kept making a mess of their lives.

Amidst the maelstrom of their bohemian lifestyle, the story starts to settle. The lack of details on several seemingly seminal facets of the novel was made to underline one of its messages: the beauty and glory of youth. The visceral realists’ youth and their relative lack of experience in the realities of life made them fight for their convictions, willfully challenging norms. Youth emboldens. It is their fervent conviction that in order for them to make an impact on the literary scene, they have to dismantle the old institutions and establish new ones. At times, they think that they are on the verge of fame. It was also their youth that supplied them with the energy to live a vagabond existence across Europe. But with the passage of time, they grow and soon they realize how their ideals don’t apply in the general scheme of things. One’s youth quickly passes by and, in its stead, reality hits.

“Of all the islands he’d visited, two stood out. The island of the past, he said, where the only time was past time and the inhabitants were bored and more or less happy, but where the weight of illusion was so great that the island sank a little deeper into the river every day. And the island of the future, where the only time was the future, and the inhabitants were planners and strivers, such strivers, that they were likely to end up devouring one another.”

~ Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives was a roman à clef, based on actual people who Roberto Bolaño has encountered. It covered his youth in Mexico City, shortly after dropping out of high school to pursue his writings and his activist activities. In the novel, Arturo Belano was his alter ego. Ulises Lima, on the other hand, was based on Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, a Mexican poet. Papasquiaro and Bolaño, along with other young poets, have founded the infrarrealista (infrarealism) poetry movement in 1975. The characters in the novel were also based on some of the co-founders of the movement. The novel’s concern, however, was never about the movement.

Despite its vast landscape, the novel’s different elements were carefully woven together by Bolaño’s riveting and immersive storytelling. There was a poetic element to his prose, a reflection of his original occupation. There was a beauty to his language that made the story dance. Don’t be deceived by the title. There is very little mystery that enveloped the story, except perhaps for the interiors of the main protagonists. There were, however, parts where the story sagged. The long paragraphs that characterized the second section, bereft of the conversational style common in literature, can be tedious. Patience is required to sift through the verbose paragraphs.

Parts-coming-of-age, parts-historical, parts-literary, The Savage Detectives painted a vast landscape. The breathtaking, albeit vast novel exhibited the fine qualities of Bolaño’s storytelling. It also demonstrated his elan, managing to vividly paint a portrait of the lives of the visceral realists. However, it never reduced itself into a book about poets or poetry or even mystery. There were elements that remained out of the casual reader’s grasp. The book’s vigor, through the three main characters, nonetheless propelled it.

The Savage Detectives gave Bolaño his long-awaited breakthrough, rightly so. The novel was certainly ambitious and bold, qualities which can only be attributed to the writer’s vast imagination and the power of his writing. It was peripatetic but at the same time poetic. Beyond the mysteries, the intellectual discourses, and the glorious days of youth, the book resonated with hope and perseverance. Out there exists a world that is up to us to mold, to shape. At its heart, The Savage Detectives was a book about life. There are, however, no superlatives that can fully capture its magnificence.

“The three of us were quiet, as if we’d been struck dumb, but our bodies moved to a beat, as if something was propelling us through that strange land and making us dance, a silent, syncopated kind of walking, if I can call it that, and then I had a vision, not the first that day, as it happened, or the last: the park we were walking through opened up into a kind of lake and the lake opened up into a kind of waterfall and the waterfall became a river that flowed through a kind of cemetery, and all of it, lake, waterfall, river, cemetery, was deep green and silent.”

~ Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives
Ratings

91%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 
27%
Writing (25%) – 
22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
14%

It was through must-read lists that I have first encountered Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. His name and works were fixtures in these lists. Without a doubt, he and his works have piqued my interest but unfortunately, it took time before I was finally able to obtain one of his works. I have long been curious about The Savage Detectives. There was an aura of mystery that shrouded the book. Without more ado, I included it in my 2021 Top 21 Reading List and was the first book I read in my first ever South American Literature Month. How do I say this? The book left me awestruck. It was not a book I would usually encounter, which perhaps made me appreciate it even more. In fact, writing a review on the book was nearly impossible. How can one capture the magnificence it has? Upon reading more about the book, I was even more in awe. I guess I have a thing for unusual books. But if there was something that really made me sad, it was learning that Roberto Bolaño passed away at a young age and was never able to witness how his works influence the rest of the world. I am definitely looking forward to reading more of his works. 2666, however, really does intimidate me.

Book Specs

Author: Roberto Bolaño
Translator (from Spanish): Natasha Wimmer
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publishing Date: 2007
Number of Pages: 575
Genre: Literary

Synopsis

New Year’s Eve, 1975: Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, poets and leaders of a movement they call visceral realism, leave Mexico City in a borrowed white Impala. Their mission: to track down the poet Cesarea Tinajero, who disappeared into the Sonoran Desert (and obscurity) decades before. But the detectives are themselves hunted men, and their search for the past will end in violence, flight, and permanent exile.

In this dazzling novel, the book that established Roberto Bolaño’s international reputation, he tells the story of two modern-day Quixotes – the last survivors of an underground literary movement, perhaps of literature itself – on a tragicomic quest through a darkening, entropic universe: our own. The Savage Detectives, is, in the words of El Pais, “the kind of novel Borges would have written… An original and magnificent book: funny, moving, important.

About the Author

Roberto Bolaño Ávalos was born on April 28, 1953, in Santiago, Chile. His father was a truck driver who doubles as a boxer while his mother was a teacher. He spent most of his childhood in Los Ángeles, Bio Bio before the family moved to Mexico City in 1968. Shortly after moving, he dropped out of high school to work as a journalist and focus on his poetry and leftist political causes.

Bolaño’s first work was a poetry collection, Reinventar el amor, published in 1976 before he left Mexico. He eventually settled down in Spain where he got married. To support his family, he worked a series of low-paying jobs while pursuing poetry. In 1990, he started working on his prose, believing that fiction earns more money than poetry. He started with short stories before publishing his first novel, La pista de hielo (The Skating Rink), in 1993. He followed it up with two novels published in 1996, La Literatura Nazi en América (Nazi Literature in the Americas), and Estrella Distante (Distant Star). However, it was with his 1998 novel, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives), that he made his biggest breakthrough. The book was key in making him a household name in Latin America, earning him the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize, known as the Spanish-language equivalent of the Booker Prize.

In 1992, Bolaño was diagnosed with a chronic liver ailment. The news of impending news, coupled with the success of Los detectives salvajes, have motivated Bolaño to write more. He published at least one new book a year, including Amuleto (Amulet, 1999), Nocturno de Chile (By Night in Chile, 2000), and Una Novelita Lumpen (A Little Lumpen Novelita, 2002). While Bolaño’s works were critically-acclaimed in the Spanish-speaking world, the rest of the world know very little of his oeuvre until the posthumous publication of 2666 (2004). Following the global success of what many called his magnum opus, nearly all of Bolaño’s earlier Spanish works were translated into English. A score of his works was also published posthumously, including El secreto del mal (The Secret of Evil, 2007), La universidad desconocida (The Unknown University, 2007), and El tercer reich (The Third Reich 2010).

Bolaño passed away on July 15, 2003, in Barcelona, Spain while awaiting a liver transplant.