The Savage Detectives
by Roberto Bolaño
I had a very strange experience whilst reading the early pages of this novel. Waiting in the award winning Madrid airport for a connecting flight I noticed a painting by Jack Vetriano on the front cover of the book being read by a man opposite me. I glanced at the title and was surprised to see 'Los Detectives Salvajes', the very same book I held my own hands. How a painting by a Scottish artist gets on the cover of the Spanish language version of a Chilean novelist's book set for the most part in Mexico I have no idea. But it almost seems appropriate (more so than than the equally unattractive UK version above) for this particular book, which takes the reader on a journey through Latin America and across Europe, with voices from all over the world, a true literary odyssey.
That this novel has received almost universal praise from critics is no great surprise. It is a novel all about writing, about books, and it is filled with an ardour for its subject which is infectious. Some characters are compelled to steal them, or to produce them, to take great pleasure in looking at or touching them. There is often a rhythm to the prose which leads you around its pages like a man leading his dance partner around the room, and Bolaño is a man who knows the dance, who knows how to lead. The first section of the book comes in the form of a diary written by seventeen year old Juan Garcia Madero, a budding poet who guides us through the last two months of 1975 in Mexico City. It is a short period of time but an eventful one for our orphan narrator who joins the visceral realist poetic movement, is virtually adopted by a family, has lots of sex and ends up speeding out of the city in a white Ford Impala pursued by a pimp and his heavies. And that's just the first 120 pages.
It is a riotous start that introduces us to a huge cast list of characters. Important amongst them are Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the leaders of the visceral realist movement. Belano functions as an an alter-ego of the author, whilst his compadre has a name which on its own conjures up the work of James Joyce and that original Greek odyssey. That love of books I mentioned earlier is shown here firstly by the theft these young poets indulge in from local bookstores, an act which is not so much motivated by their politics as by their poverty, and also in the production of their own magazine, Lee Harvey Oswald, a name at once political and yet ridiculous. The group is riven by infighting, with expulsions occurring like mini-revolutions and its members manage to pull off the feat of sounding simultaneously educated and stupid. In one hilarious episode we hear an example of their erudition.
Ernesto San Epifanio had said that all literature could be classified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Novels, in general, were heterosexual, whereas poetry was completely homosexual; I guess short stories were bisexual, although he didn't say so. Within the vast ocean of poetry he identified various currents: faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philienes. But the two major currents were faggots and queers. Walt Whitman, for example, was a faggot poet. Pablo Neruda was a queer. William Blake was definitely a faggot. Octavio Paz was queer. Borges was philene, or in other words he might be a faggot one minute and simply asexual the next. Ruben Dario was a freak, in fact the queen freak, the prototypical freak.
This rant goes on for three pages in which he explains that 'the poetry scene was essentially an (underground) battle, the result of a struggle between faggot poets and queer poets to seize the word'. For those with a better understanding of the surrealist poetical movements of Latin America in the 1970's this is probably even funnier, but there's plenty enough there for me thank you very much. There is wicked sense of humour running through almost every exchange and if we're not laughing with them we can often laugh at them.
Madero's sexual initiation comes courtesy of his contact with the Font family. At its head is Quim Font, an architect whose mind is slowly falling to pieces, who had designed the only two issues of Lee Harvey Oswald. His two daughters are the focal point for the attentions of many of the local males. Bolaño creates a feeling close to siege by having them live in a small house within the courtyard of the Font compound and this feeling will turn into an actual siege situation when Quim provides refuge to Lupe, a prostitute in hiding from her pimp. It is this situation which enforces the flight of Belano, Lima and Madero into the desert and it isn't until the final section of the book that we will find out, from the continuation of Madero's diary, where that takes them.
The majority of the book comes in the middle section entitled The Savage Detectives. It comes in the form of interview-like monologues, an oral history spanning 20 years, where people recount their experiences of Belano and Lima but also of course the parts they themselves have played in history. The range of personalities Bolaño creates is simply staggering, it reminded me of the cacophany of character which features in William Gaddis' gargantuan The Recognitions which drew a similarly riotous picture of the American art scene. From the wistful mezcal-soaked reminiscence of Amadeo Salvatierra, to the increasingly insane ramblings of the now incarcerated Quim Font, Bolaño knows how to make contrast work. One jaw-dropping example comes after we have heard a calm recollection from the old man of stridentism, Manuel Maples Arce on being interviewed by Belano, who finishes up by saying 'All poets, even the most avant-garde, need a father. But these poets were meant to be orphans.' We then meet Barbara Patterson, who had accompanied Belano that day, whose opening gambit is 'Motherfucking hemorrhoid-licking old bastard, I saw the distrust in his pale, bored little monkey eyes right from the start, and I said to myself this asshole will take every chance he gets to spit on me, the motherfucking son of a bitch.' How's that for contrast?
Some pieces extend to several pages almost like short stories within the text, like Auxilio Lacouture, the 'mother of Mexican poetry' who tells the story of her siege at the university during the campus violence of 1968. Or Norman Bolzman, a Mexican Jew, who comes close to summing up the style of this middle section when he says
'I'm just trying to tell a story. Maybe I'm also trying to to understand its hidden workings, workings I wasn't aware of at the time but that weigh on me now. Still, my story won't be as coherent as I'd like. And my role in it will flicker like a speck of dust between the light and the dark, between laughter and tears, exactly like a Mexican soap opera or a Yiddish melodrama.'
When we do finally get back to the diary of Madero we join the fugitives as they search for Cesárea Tinajero, the original founder of visceral realism, whose body of work has been reduced to a few scraps and who may not even still be alive. With the look we have been given at the future of some of these characters there is a very different feel to this final section, the vibrancy and feelings of invincibility have diminished; which doesn't necessarily make for a muted close, if I ran out of steam anywhere it was towards the end of the middle section, but there is a sadness that wasn't there before. The fact that Madero doesn't appear once in the oral history leads us to wonder why it is our 'hero' should disappear.
I'm really struggling to do the book justice here. There are much better reviews to be read here and here and probably elsewhere too but I can only say that to go on a ride with Bolaño is a drink, drug and sex-fuelled escapade that leaves you invigorated, your head tingling like you've been for a drive with the top down. It's certainly unlike anything I've read before and that change in tone towards the end of the novel points towards the publication next year of his final work, the apocalyptically titled '2666'. I'm ready and willing for the journey.