I was excited to finally get around to picking up The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. The novel has been getting great press all year long, and it is on just about everyone’s year-end best of/favorites list. I even bought the book at one of my favorite independent book stores, Faulkner House Books in New Orleans, which is usually an auspicious beginning to any novel. To say that this book disappointed me is a bit of an understatement. Frankly, I was a pissed off, if not relieved, when I finally reached the end of its 592 pages.
The Savage Detectives is supposed to be an “important” novel. It says so on the dust jacket. Maybe that should have been a warning that this book and I were not going to get along. It is told in three parts. Let me break it down:
Act 1: Mexicans Lost in Mexico
In part one, Juan García Madero tells us that he has joined an exciting new poetry movement, the Visceral Realists. He’s not sure who they are or what they are all about, but they seem cool. The Visceral Realists stage political actions like interupting other poetry readings and removing themselves from the academy and the establishment. What this means in practice is that they hang around a lot, have sex of a “frank” nature, smoke pot, and talk with no real purpose.
The Visceral Realists’ ringleaders are Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Lima and Belano are the charismatic, yet mysterious, leaders of the poetry movement who also seem to be involved in the drug business. We know little about their backgrounds nor their ultimate aims for the movement. Whatever, dude.
There’s a lot in this section about madness, literature, poetry, Latin American politics, and even a killer pimp. When the curtain closes on Act I, Lima, Belano, Madero, and a girl named Lupe are fleeing Mexico City under duress.
While reading this part, I thought that the purposeful intellectual distancing of the Visceral Realists from the rest of Mexican society in a vaguely intellectual way was sort of like the pointless rambling in the movie Y Tu Mamá También. I thought that this was a very clever observation on my part. Then I saw that the Amazon review said basically the same thing. Dang. Anyway, there is no way that the writers of the movie haven’t read this book is all I’m saying.
Act 2: The Savage Detectives
The second part of the novel, the lengthiest, is responsible for most of my antagonism towards the novel. In Part I, Madero told most of the story in a diary format and in a relatively straightforward way. Part 2 keeps the diary-ish format, but it is told from many, many viewpoints.
It is almost as though a Latin Ken Burns went out in the field and recorded oral histories from many people who encountered Lima and Belano in the years after the Visceral Realists disbanded. Then, rather than edit the narratives in any kind of meaningful way, Latin Ken Burns simply laid them all out one after another for you to make of them what you will. Sure, there may be many hours of footage that is irrelevant, misleading, or pointless, but Latin Ken Burns doesn’t want to contaminate the narrative with his presence, man!
Contrary to the title, there is very little detective work done in this section. It is certainly not in any way “savage.” Lima and Belano are sad, pathetic, hopeless, and incredibly unsympathetic as main characters. Almost no one who talks about them portrays them in a positive light. There are lost souls, and no one really cares.
In this part, it felt like the pointless youth of Y Tu Mamá También was intended to have given way to the romantic idealism of The Motorcycle Diaries. It didn’t work for me. In fact, if this entire 300+ page part of the novel was excised whole, very little would be lost.
Act 3: The Sonora Desert
OK, now we’re back to the single narrative diary of Juan García Madero. We resume with his flight from Mexico City in a borrowed car with Lima, Belano, and Lupe. Their wandering is not as pointless as it once was, there is a goal. The goal of their exploration of the Sonoran Desert emerged from various threads in Part 2, which could have been summarized in about five pages.
Things happen that presumably explain why Lima and Belano became the men they did are portrayed in Part 2. Really it’s too late in the novel to really care anymore, but I was too close to the finish line to put the book down. I’m sure that there was some sort of payoff there at the end, but I was too excited about being done to dwell on it.
The New York Times (and just about everyone else) included Savage Detectives as one of their Top 10 Books of 2007. It gives me no joy to be the Russian Judge. I’m not one of those people who derives pleasure from being a contrarian. However, with this book, I am perfectly willing to be branded a philistine, or worse. I just didn’t like it.
The NYT review by Richard Eder (presumably not the one that vaulted the novel to the Top 10 List) says:
Some of the book’s best passages are here [ed: in Part 2!]; but the formlessness, the cascading miscellany, the pile of jigsaw pieces with some missing, the guiding box-picture (fictional as against intellectual) purposefully withheld: these can make the book, or at least the reader, founder. Many gleaming lights are displayed, but foundering nonetheless.
I was left foundering. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Because the book made so many “best of” lists, it was actually back ordered for a time on Amazon. I was able to unload my used copy for more than I paid for it as a result. Score!
The WikiPedia entry for the novel is pathetic, and does not meet WikiPedia’s quality standards. A woman’s name, Cesárea, was originally written as “Cesarean.” I was so annoyed that I had to correct it myself. The rest includes snappy copy such as, “She is fat and gets shot by the prostitute’s pimp.” If you enjoyed the novel, you might want to help spruce that up a bit.