Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolaño

This reading of The Savage Detectives was for a group read hosted by Rise and Richard. This was my second time reading The Savage Detectives and it has been an interesting ride, finishing on Friday Night/Saturday Morning at 4.30 after reading the final 250 pages. I'm only managing to get to this post up now as it was even more incoherent last night than it is now. I hope it will contribute something to the discussion of the book.
(This also needs a SPOILER alert - I ramble all through the book in this post and may give away more than some people who have not read the book would wish to know,. )

When I last read it it was my first experience of Bolaño but now, having read a few, it was interesting to see how it interacted with his other books. In fact it started at times to feel like you could see the writer's mixing the elements in his alchemical lab, trying to get the formula right.

Poets, Geometry, Nazis, Students, Germans, Mexico, Barcelona, Giants, Books, Murder &c ...

The book is in its way, as much a duel with the novel as a novel. Shattering the narrative into splinters the book consists of bookends from the p.o.v. of young student and aspiring poet Juan García Madero but the far longer middle section consists of pieces of various length from the viewpoint of many characters. Some reappear regularly, both their voice as narrators and their narrated presence in many fragments. Others make very fleeting appearances.

At the centre of the book is the story of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the leaders of the Visceral Realists, a poetry 'movement' consisting of  a dozen or so young poets. Their stance is more about what they aren't than what they are. They take poetry very seriously and they may even include some talented poets. Indeed, Belano being a thinly disguised version of Bolaño we know that group who formed the basis for the Visceral Realists, the Infrarealists, did include at least one supremely talented writer.

Here is a taste of how they enter the book, in the voice of Juan García Madero, who is attending a poetry workshop at the university. "But poetry (real poetry) is like that: you can sense it, you can feel it in the air, the way certain highly attuned animals (snakes, worms, rats, and some birds) can detect an earthquake. What happened next was a blur, but at the risk of sounding corny, I'd say there was something miraculous about it. Two visceral realist poets walked in..." "I'm not sure why they were there. It was clearly a hostile visit, hostile but somehow propagandist and proselytizing too." Madero leaves with them and "they asked me to join the gang. They didn't say "group" or "movement", they said "gang"'.  Later on the film The Wild Angels is referenced (in conjunction with Easy Rider) without being named. The tagline for this film featuring a gang of Hell's Angels was "Their credo is violence! Their God is Hate!"

They are named after an earlier "movement" of Visceral Realists headed by poet Cesárea Tinajero. Lost in the mists of time Cesárea is terminally obscure and none of her work is known. She was linked to a group called the Stridentalists who existed in the 1920's/1930's period.  Their belief in a future is reminiscent of many European movements from the time of the First World War - Marinetti's Futurists or Wyndham Lewis's Vorticists for example. (Others who were assosciated with the Vorticists are also named in The Savage Detectives - T.S. Eliot; Ezra Pound). Belano and Lima's search for Cesárea is the major narrative strand in the book, that and what Belano and Lima do afterwards, when they become the searched for rather than the searchers.

I started to see some interesting parallels between Wyndham Lewis' Tarr and Bolaño's last two books. The bohemian setting, the emphasis on nationality, particularly German, and similarities such as farcical duels occurring in both Tarr and The Savage Detectives. Indeed the shattered narrative, elements of autobiography, sexual frankness, bohemian setting and reflections on writing and writers is very much in the high modernist tradition. This is not surprising in a book where books, writers and writing play such a huge part. At one point, in one of the sections narrated by Amadeo Salvatierra, one of the original Visceral Realists who has possibly the only copy of the original Visceral Realists magazine, Lima goes out to get Mezcal and Belano "got up from his seat and started to examine my library." Amadeo tells us "the Chilean boy moved silently around my library and all I heard was the sound of his index finger or his little finger, such a need that boy had to touch everything, skimming like lightning along the spines of my massive tomes, his finger a buzz of flesh and leather, of skin and pasteboard, a sound pleasing to the ear and sleep inducing.." Books are magical, sexual objects in this world, bringers of salvation and destruction.

Indeed there is something of the fantasy about The Savage Detectives. The central quests; the way objects have power over the protagonists, and names; the way Cesarea's poem is a riddle to be solved. I found myself caught up in asides about authors I had never heard of, their names touchstones from another world. One of the characters, Lupe, is rescued from the underworld in a twisted myth. In another bow to Orpheus, Belano's character braves the devil and enters the mouth of hell, a chasm into which a young child has fallen. References to Pedro Paramo and The Waste Land ("the month of April, not so much cruel as disastrous") further emphasize these themes. (I am sure that there are a huge number of these type of references flying blithely over my head, as the real and fictional names of many of the authors who appear in this book are equally meaningless to me. However this in no way impinges on my ability to enjoy the book. It manages the difficult art of being referential yet making sense without those references.

I found this following passage an interesting possible description of The Savage Detectives. It is from the point of view of Heimito Künst, an Austrian of apparently limited understanding who meets Ulises Lima in an Israeli prison. "The walls were white. There were inscriptions on them, I saw. Drawings on the wall to my left and writing on the wall to my right. The Koran? Messages? News of the underground factory? In the back wall there was a window. On the other side of the window there was a yard. On the other side of the yard was the desert."

There are elements of many genres and styles in The Savage Detectives including lots of satire. Bolaño doesn't directly address political or social or economic issues but they are clearly there. Many of the voices are clearly in false registers, full of smugness or pomposity - the very things which seem to have been targets of the Visceral Realists. But they themselves are satirized too, their earnest sense of self importance so clearly fatuous, yet also charming. The importance of social status and being published seem to be more important that anything else to many of the literary 'sets' but the quest for truth, and understanding, a way to live and a way to write it down also inhabit these pages. There is a sense that a writer needs to plumb the depths of reality to bring back even an echo of the truth.

There is a clear relationship with the more direct satire of Nazi Literature in the Americas. Many of the poets and writers who inhabit the book are such in no more than their desires. Nazi's are also present in the gang who attack Ulises Lima in a park in Vienna, in the pages of Nietzsche ("We talked about Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, how every time Norman reread it he found (to his dismay) more and more points in common between the philosopher and the Nazis who would soon take over Germany.") and, of course, the neo-nazi regime that toppled Salvator Allende in Chile in 1973. Belano leaves Mexico to help Allende and spends time in prison. "And when Arturo returned, in 1974, he was a different person."

 Ulises  disappears on a trip to Nicaragua. When he turns up again  "He told me he'd traveled along a river that connects Mexico and Central America. As far as I know there is no such river. But he told me he'd traveled along this river and that now he could say he knew its twists and tributaries. A river of trees or a river of sand or a river of trees that in certain stretches became a river of sand. A constant flow of people without work, of the poor and starving, drugs and suffering. A river of clouds he'd sailed on for twelve months, where he's found countless islands and outposts, although not all the islands were settled, and sometimes he thought he'd stay and live on one of them forever or that he'd die there.
Of all the islands that he'd visited, two stood out. The island of the past, he said, where the only time was past time and the inhabitants were bored and more or less happy, but where the weight of illusion was so great that the island sank a little deeper into the river every day. And the island of the future, where the only time was the future, and the inhabitants were planners and strivers, such strivers, said Ulises, that they were likely to end up devouring one another." When Belano had gone from Mexico to Chile it was described as "a long journey, extremely long, plagued with dangers, the journey of initiation of all poor Latin American boys, crossing this absurd continent.." Both passages express a continental sorrow. The sense of a rite of passage is here, the moment from which you explicitly join the community of your peers. Like the journey into 'hell' this journey may also be necessary for the seeker of truth.

The book is also drenched in the sweat of lovemaking, sex and spurned passion. Belano's ex girlfriend thinks "The whole visceral realism thing was a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless." There is a wonderful scene where the 'respectable' poet goes out to a club with company which includes the bisexual visceral realist called Luscious Skin and falls for him. Luscious is part Genet, part Warhol 'superstar'. His problem with revealing the details seem more to do with the fact that Luscious Skin is part of the Visceral Realists than that he is 'trade'. The literati seem as tuned into social niceties as the cast of À la Recherche du temps Perdu. But sex can take these barriers down, briefly at least. (But it can also erect them).

Indeed the arc of Juan García Madero's story is far more to do with his sexual awakening than his poetry and writing. From fumbling in the backroom of a restaurant to his flight across the desert with rescued  whore, Lupe. An innocent who knows little other than the word describing every different type of poetic structure, rhythm and method under the sun. Quim Font and his daughters Maria and Angelica are the architects of Juan's connection with Lupe and indeed, his relationship with Maria and stories of her other relationships is his initiation into the adult world.

Bolaño has said that his family is his only country. This book describes the stateless, the unsettled, the unanchored. It explores destructive yet creative forces in people. Despite this, it is an understanding book, full of warmth and humour. Everyone's voice is acknowledged. And for all the importance of literature and writing in the book it ends by telling us to look outside.

Into the real world.

"I saw our struggles and dreams all tangled up in the same failure, and that failure was called joy."

* Query - I read the Natasha Wimmer translation (Picador, 2008) and on page 308 in a piece headed Alfonso Perez Camarga, Calle Toledo, Mexico City DF, June 1981 there is a passage where there seems to be an error.
"they drank our liquor and ate our food, but - how to put it? - in an absent way, maybe, or a cold way, as if they were there but not there, or as if we were insects or cows that they bled each night and that it made sense to keep comfortably alive..."
This would make more sense to me if the underlined piece said "they were insects and we were cows..." I don't think bleeding insects is a pleasant or profitable occupation?

**Was Bolaño using Quim Font in knowledge of the vulgar English word Quim? This might make Font the true mother of Mexican poetry.

Other Responses from the Readalong include:

Rise @ in lieu of a field guide
Richard @ Caravana de Recuerdos
Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza
Bettina @ Liburuak
Caroline @ Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat
Nicole @ bibliographing
Sarah @ what we have here is a failure to communicate
Amateur Reader (Tom) @ Wuthering Expectations
Gavin @ Page247


  1. Excellent, thought-provoking post, Séamus! I particularly liked your line about The Savage Detectives being "as much a duel with the novel as a novel" and your points about the class-consciousness of the characters being similar to Proust's characters in some way (that was a point I either missed or didn't remember from the first time I read the work several years ago, but I agree that it's a theme that's very present throughout the novel). I'm also glad you mentioned that moment where Belano fingers the books in Amadeo's library--such a lovely scene. As for your "footnotes," I'll have to look up your Wimmer query to see how Bolaño worded the passage in question; Quim, however, is a standard Catalan name (short for Joaquín), and I believe he or his family originated in Barcelona before moving to Mexico if I remember correctly. The "vulgar" tie-in would be just a coincidence, I think. Anyway, thanks for rereading this with us all--it's been fun!

  2. Thanks Richard. I realised that Quim is a Catalan name - (it's outlined in the book, I think) but given the broad humour evident in calling the graphic designer Font I was wondering if Bolaño was doing a Joyce and using multilingual jokes. I know so little about Bolaño I have no idea what his linguistic skills were.

  3. Agree with you that not knowing all the references is not a hindrance at all to enjoying the book. But you’ve covered some references here that feed the reading--cinema, The Waste Land, Orpheus, Nazis, etc. The intertextual layers with other books (includinghis own) certainly enrich the reading experience.

  4. They certainly do, Rise, and I look forward to filling in some of the gaps in my knowledge and rereading with even greater enjoyment.

  5. For some readers like me the novel was a duel between author and reader and, in my case, the reader lost. After having read your review I regret this even more as I wanted to love the book.
    I really liked your review and agree with Richard it is thought-provoking.

  6. What an interesting post! One of my major grievances with The Savage Detectives is that quite a lot of the intertextuality is lost on me. I feel like I first need to educate myself in the canon of what Belano and Lima (and by extension, Bolaño himself) loved and despised in order to appreciate it to the fullest - even though they're not a prerequisite to enjoying them. You seem to be one of the lucky people who are able to make a lot of the connections I missed out on - thank you for pointing some of them out!

  7. @Caroline - Maybe some other time you will pick up the book and it will click. It has happened to me. I'm glad to have provoked some thought!

    @Bettina - I have no knowledge of Bolaño's tastes other than what he reveals in the book. I am quite ignorant of South American and Spanish literature so am probably missing most of the references. Those mentioned in my post are speculative rather than scholarly. My mind just seems to need to find comparisons between books/films etc

  8. Wonderful post! I especially enjoyed your analysis of the role sex and sexuality in the novel.

    In another bow to Orpheus, Belano's character braves the devil and enters the mouth of hell, a chasm into which a young child has fallen.

    This is an episode I wish I understood better. Why is Belano able to go down into the hole when no one else can (you could say "will," but you might as well say "can")? I mean, this can't be some magical realist setup, right, so I'm not suggesting that there's actually something supernatural in the cave. But what does Belano have that the rest of the spectators don't have? Courage? Recklessness? A sense of responsibility? Irresponsibility?

    I feel Belano is not a character I really understand psychologically, ever. Lima either, come to think of it. We do all this searching for them but all we ever find is their shadow.

  9. Hi

    great post but I'm with Caroline , I tried , I really tried , gacve up and then tried again. In the end I admitted defeat