In The Savage Detectives, Bolaño's riotous road-movie of a novel, a small group of writers head off into the deserts of Mexico on the trail of an enigmatic poet who has been missing for years. In the first part of his final work, 2666, we again join the search for a mysterious writer, this time a novelist, that will take us to Mexico once again but also encompassing the Europe that is his homeland and also that of his pursuers. There is something immediately comic about the set-up as we meet our four critics (one female, three male), one each from England (Norton), Italy (Morini), Spain (Espinoza) and France (Pelletier), making it sound like the beginning of a dirty joke. Which isn't as far off the mark as it sounds.
United by their admiration for the improbably named German writer Benno von Archimboldi they meet first at conferences and lectures, becoming a cohesive group when in opposition to a rival faction of 'Archimboldians'. As their meetings increase in frequency so the professional lines begin to blur and Pelletier and Espinoza embark on their own seperate affairs with Norton. These marathon sex sessions seem to provide the only excitement or meaning in their otherwise dry existences. The tedium of conference after conference and the frustrating search for Archimboldi himself (who has only ever been seen by his publisher and a handful of others) is all too effectively conveyed, the sex punctuating the text much like the dots which separate each of the short sections. As only academics could, both men discuss their relations, openly aware of the other's involvement, but both of them powerless to get what they want from the relationship. Another man in Norton's life warns them both away invoking the image of the gorgon Medusa which recurs later. The tension between them actually acts like a glue, keeping them together, with only the invalided Morini excluded (although he too is aware of what is going on). This tension finds a release when the three of them savagely beat a Pakistani taxi driver who insults them, an event as surprising as it is brutal.
When they stopped kicking him they were sunk for a few seconds in the strangest calm of their lives. It was as if they'd finally had the ménage à trois they'd so often dreamed of.
One lead in their search for Archimboldi takes them to Mexico where they are guided by Amalfitano, a professor whom the group first view negatively, trusting him more when they realise his scholarship but remaining baffled by much of that he says. Here we get some of Bolaño's trademark humour, the puncturing of pomposity, as when Amalfitano finishes rambling after two and half paragraph-less pages about 'the relationship of Mexican intellectuals with power'.
"I don't understand a word you've said," said Norton.
"Really I've just been talking nonsense, said Amalfitano.
Away from the grey officialdom of Europe we also get more of the evocative images Bolaño seems to conjure effortlessly ('The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower'), bringing a dark-hued colour to the writing.
It certainly stands on its own as a novella, but I'm sure that if I was reading it as a stand alone work I'd be left feeling a little unsatisfied. The emptiness at the centre of each of the critics, which would presumably be filled by their finding Archimboldi, remains vacant; filled by their unsatisfactory personal relationships which reach a, dare I say it, predictable conclusion.
What isn't predictable with a writer like Bolaño is what will come next.