The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano

The Savage Detectives

Finally, I have finished this book, which at 608 pages is long but even so it took me ages to get through it. I didn’t do it any justice by putting it to one side for weeks at a time before picking it up again and complaining to myself that there wasn’t much of a plot. There is a plot, it just took a bit of finding.

I can imagine this book having a cult following and being made into a Quentin Tarantino movie, minus the excessive violence, it certainly has it’s moments that aren’t for the faint hearted but the main theme of the book isn’t overly violent. It has the necessary fly by the seat of your pants, quirky, road trip type feel about it though, with the introduction of plenty of random characters throughout.

The story starts off in Mexico city in the late 1970’s and it is Mexico that is the heart and soul of the story. Juan García Madero is 17 years old, studying law to please his family but really just wanting to write poetry. He secretly enrols in a poetry club. Here he meets a group of would be poets, the Visceral Realists, lead by the Chilean Arturo Belano, and his sidekick, the Mexican Ulises Lima. Madero is invited to join the group and is soon spending his days sitting in café’s drinking coffee, writing for hours on end and his nights sitting in café’s drinking alcohol and discussing poetry for hours on end. A lot of time is spent in the house of the Fonts, and the two sisters Maria and Angelica are involved with most of the male characters at some time or the same time. Anything goes, the group being bound together by their idealism around South American literature and poetry. Belano and Lima are on the hunt for the mother of Mexican poetry and Visceral Realism who hasn’t been seen for years. It is this hunt that sees them leave Mexico city at the end of the first part of the book, with Madero in toe along with a prostitute named Lupe and her gangster pimp Alberto hot on their heels.

The first part of the book is crazy and funny and Roberto Bolano does an excellent job of recreating how it would have been to be part of the group at this time in Mexico. The pages ooze with atmosphere and it is this spirit of passion and freedom that is the highlight of the book in my opinion. It is the sort of book that opens your eyes to new possibilities and makes you want to throw a few things in a backpack and just take off for South America.

The second part of the book and by far the longest at over 400 pages was where I came unstuck. It is titled “The Savage Detectives” and refers to Belano and Lima and their search for this elusive Mother of Mexican Poetry Cesárea Tinajero. It took me quite a while to figure this out and even who the book’s central characters were. It would have been helpful to have a list of characters at the front but that wouldn’t have been in keeping with the spirit of the book at all! This second section consists of recollections by many different characters in different parts of the world over a 20 year time span not in any real order. Each recalls their experiences with one or both of the central characters and could be read as little short stories on their own. They are really quite cool, very candid and unique but I felt this section was far too long. It could easily have been halved and would have greatly enhanced my reading enjoyment!

This story is unlike anything I’ve read before and I’m really pleased to have read it. I’m sure it didn’t need to be the struggle I made it. It’s a bit crazy and full of possibilities but also has a feeling of hopelessness that seeped in as I got further into it. The fact that the character of Arturo Belano has so many similarities with Bolano’s own life makes it all the more interesting and encourages me to read more about and by Bolano. I’m not going to tackle 2666 for a while though. I know some bloggers are reading this in parts – one a month I think – if it is anything like the Savage Detectives then I think this is a very good idea!

Published: 2007
Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
Pages: 608
Challenges: Lost in translation, Guardian 1000 novels, Support your local library, Orbis Terrarum


8 responses to “The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano

  1. Great book for the Lost in Translation challenge. Wish I had time to read it. Sounds like a good challenge.

  2. Thanks Book Bird Dog – it was an achievement to finish it! I’m really enjoying the Lost in Translation challenge – and am very tempted with the China challenge as well… haven’t signed up just yet 0:)

  3. I tried real hard to read this book after hearing how wonderful Bolano was, but I quit after 143 pages. It was just so repetitious, these young guys hanging out, didn’t enjoy it at all. Since then, I have read “Nazi Literature in the Americas” which I liked more, but Bolano is still not on my list of keepers.

  4. Tony – I can totally relate! I really did have to force myself to go back to it and finish it 0:)

  5. Pingback: Classics Challenge « A Book Sanctuary

  6. Tracey, The Savage Detectives was my first introduction to Bolaño and one of my favorite novels ever actually! I agree that the spirit and passion of the first part of the book is a highlight, but I also loved the longer middle section where all those different voices came alive in a very believable way. I thought the diary/interviews/diary format was pretty amazing all in all. Anyway, thanks for the review–love what I’ve seen of your blog!

  7. Richard – thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I can understand why this book would be a favourite. I think if it really spoke to you it would be amazing – I just couldn’t quite get there with that middle bit (lot!)unfortunately..

  8. Pingback: Orbis Terrarum Challenge – Completed! « A Book Sanctuary

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