The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano

Those boys. Their brains and their tongues were interconnected. One of them could start to talk, then stop in the middle of what he was saying, and the other one would pick up the sentence or the idea as if he’d begun it himself. And when they spoke Cesarea’s name I raised my eyes and looked at them as if I were seeing them through a curtain of gauze, surgical gauze, to be precise, and I said don’t call me senor, boys, call me Amadeo, which is what my friends call me.

Less a novel as an epic investigation, an anthropological study into life and poetry, or poetry and life, where the character narrating the beginning disappears and finally re-appears about two thirds of the way through, where the main characters don’t have their own voice, but are almost entirely painted by others, in a series of anecdotes stretching over twenty years, The Savage Detectives is an epic story, that doesn’t really seem like a story at all, and it was like reading ice cream on a hot day, as much as you eat, more melts away, and even after you finish, you still want more.

Focusing around two direputable poets, Ulises Lima Arturo Belano, and their wider poetic group, the visceral realists, Bolano’s masterpiece is in a world of it’s own. The plot is almost a bystander, a ruse to get Lima and Belano down on the page, so that their lives can be reflected through those that have orbited these two drifting planets, sandwiched between the diary of one of their friends who records the beginning and end of their search for Cesarea Tinajero, an almost mythical poet.

In my never ending quest to find more Latin American authors I am incredibly late to Bolano, and once again I find an author who has sadly passed on and whose back catalogue I will try to savour, as I have done with Jose Saramago.
I remember thinking it was a daunting book, but the premise intrigued me, and I found the diary entries spread out before me a life of a bohemia, as the collective of poets met at cafe’s and around houses, discussing, retelling, screwing, eating and drinking.  Following an alteracation with a pimp, four of them flee Mexico city at the end of 1975.  Then the book switches to a sprawling collection of recollections by an incredible array of people, some having numerous entries, some only one, as they recall meeting, spending time with Lima and Belano.  The sheer scope of these is on a continental scale and they paint a picture of two vagabond wanderers, who seemingly have little to like about them, but which seems irrelevant, they almost seem more real for their oddball characters drifiting in and out of people’s lives, colouring them before moving out of orbit. They are certainly less than perfect, and the memories of them are both hostile and affectionate.

I submerged into this world, I love the minutiae of everyday life, and love when an author can paint even the mundane in a fascinating way and Bolano does that for me.  Another author who can do this is Murakami, but Bolano is different, there is a definite Latin swagger to his picture, compared to Murakami’s more restrained elegance. It explains why I was absorbed reading about a group of young Mexican poets sitting in a cafe listing off names of poets I had never heard of and their works, poetry discussed by those who write it, live it. It was like I was living this life while reading it, my body may have been stretched out on the sofa, sprawled out in bed or scrunched up on the tube, by my mind was with Belano (less so Lima, he was a little crazy, even for me). Bolano spun out my imagination the same way as Malcolm Lowry did in under the volcano. With Lowry I was an alcoholic, with Bolano, I was a Mexican poet.

For some reason towards the end of the book and after, I thought about the adventures and misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis, not for any similarity in any way whatsoever, but because Maqroll is my favourite novel, and this, this bold, brash juggernaut of a story seeped into me and was trying to muscle in to sit at the top of the pile. Although I think Maqroll still edges it, when I read this again (which I certainly will do) I know there will be so much I missed, that it will be just as fresh and savage as when I read it the first time, and maybe it will top Maqroll then.

Silence. Arturo Belano must have taken the package and looked at it. He must have leafed through the books. Two books published so long ago, their pages (excellent paper) uncut. Silence. He must have looked over the questions. Then I heard him thank the maid and leave. If he comes back to see me, I thought, I’ll be justified … All poets, even the most avant garde, need a father. But these poets were meant to be orphans. He never came back.


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