The late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño has been called the García Marquez of his generation, but his novel The Savage Detectives is a lot closer to Y Tu Mamá También than it is to One Hundred Years of Solitude. Hilarious and sexy, meandering and melancholy, full of inside jokes about Latin American literature that you don’t have to understand to enjoy, The Savage Detectives is a complicated road trip through Mexico City, Barcelona, Israel, Liberia, and finally the desert of northern Mexico.
In early 1970s Mexico City, young poets Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima start a small, erratically militant literary movement, the Visceral Realists, named for another, semi mythical group started in the 1920s by the nearly forgotten poet Cesárea Tinajero. The book opens with 17 year-old Juan García Madero’s precocious notebook entries, dated 1975, who is on the make, erotically and poetically, and who has been asked to join the gang of literary guerillas. The visceral realists conduct “purges,” steal books (I particularly liked the scene in the Rebecca Nodier Bookstore, whose owner is conveniently blind), write and read and have sex. The young diarist falls in with a mad family and loses his virginity to one of the daughters, María Font. Meanwhile, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano have become peculiarly with Cesárea Tinajero. Her work is revered by other writers from that period, but is nowhere to be found. She herself seems to have disappeared into the Sonoran Desert. Lima and Belano, accompanied by the young diarist and a prostitute, Lupe, set out on a quixotic hunt for their equivalent of Quixote’s Dulcinea in a chaotic car chase sequence as Lupe’s pimp tries to hunt them down.
We are 120 pages in, and suddenly the book alters its form. The next 400 pages feature first-person interviews with scores of witnesses, friends, lovers, acquaintances and enemies of Lima and Belano. These are all people whose lives intersected, however briefly, with the two visceral realists, from 1976 to 1996. It is as if the novelist has taken a tape recorder and journeyed around the world, from Mexico City to San Diego to Barcelona to Tel Aviv, desperate to find out what became of the young, optimistic, but perhaps now doomed poets. Where did they go after the Sonoran Desert? What jobs did they have? What did they write? What became of all that ambition? Page by page, the novel begins to darken. An editor who met Lima and Belano before they set off for the desert says “it was as if they were there but at the same time they weren’t there,” and the novel precisely mimics this poignant presence and absence. At first, I didn’t understand what the second section of the book was really about, but it generally began to reveal itself. The slow accretion of narratives and themes began to reveal the grand melancholy at the multi-layered heart of this brilliant book. The novel’s third and final section is brief and brutal. I’ll avoid spoilers here, but the book ends the only way it really could, conveying an inevitable and exhausted disillusionment.
It’s an incredibly well-written book, especially considering that the work was translated into English by someone else and he managed to keep the spirit of the book intact. I can’t recommend it enough, especially for those who believe that books can offer more than entertainment.