Heh... it's been a long time since a book has taken me as long to finish as "The Savage Detectives" has. I forget when I started it, but I was definitely reading it as early as last December, and only now finishing it. And it isn't one of those cases where I set aside a book for a few months or a few years before finally finishing it, like my multiple attempts at Gravity's Rainbow. No, I've been reading it pretty steadily, but my ongoing devotion to Star Wars: The Old Republic has definitely slowed me down, as has the structure of the book. Like Roberto Bolano's other masterpiece, 2666, this book is powerful and gripping, but its structure is also inherently episodic, deliberately broken down into fairly independent sections, which may run from a few sentences to a dozen pages in length. That's been absolutely perfect for picking away at the book a little each day, and has also kept me from getting sucked into an epic reading jag, as I do so often with authors like Neal Stephenson or Haruki Murakami, who write stories that demand your unceasing participation.
I knew nothing about "The Savage Detectives" going into it, so I'll try and preserve that same surprise for people who plan to read it. It's a wonderfully written book. I'd had an impression that 2666 was the masterpiece and this was a simpler book, but that's not the case; 2666 may be longer (though, at 650 pages, The Savage Detectives is no slouch), but there's just as much interesting technique on display here. The two stories intertwine in fascinating ways as well; even though The Savage Detectives was published first, I kind of appreciated having read it after 2666, since so much of the dread of the other novel accentuates the more suspenseful elements of this book.
It's impossible to assign a genre to The Savage Detectives. One of my biggest mistakes was thinking that it was a detective story. It isn't; there is a kind of investigation that drives a deal of the plot, but not at all the sort of investigation that you'd think of. I find myself most often thinking about elements of the book that are sinister or unsettling, but that's really a minority of what's on display here. There's just as much that's funny, or whimsical, or nostalgic, or exuberant. The book covers multiple lifespans, a variety of people and ages, and does a great job at portraying the highs and lows of the human experience. (That sounded WAY more pretentious than I had intended, or than Bolano would tolerate.)
So, a fun fact about Bolano (there really should be a tilde over that "n" in his name, but I'm too lazy to insert it): he was primarily a poet. He'd spent most of his life writing poetry and building relationships with other poets and promoting good poems. Late in his life, he essentially went, "Eh, I'd better write some novels to pay the bills," so he wrote prose that happens to be some of the most amazing, significant prose that anyone has written in decades. It's pretty amazing, and also really humbling... it's a little like Michael Jordan saying, "Eh, I should play baseball," and becoming the league MVP.
From the little I know of Bolano's life, this book is at least somewhat a fictionalized autobiography. Roberto Bolano's doppelganger is Arturo Belano; like Bolano, he's a Chilean who flees his country in the wake of a military takeover and settles into the Mexico City poetry scene. His close counterpart in this book is Ulises Lima - which, incidentally, is an amazing name - and who's also based on a real-life close friend of Belano. In real life, Bolano co-founded the "Infrarealism" movement; in The Savage Detectives, Belano co-founds the "Visceral Realism" movement.
Belano and Lima form the core of The Savage Detectives, and they're the nexus of a truly astonishing range of characters. I haven't kept count, but I would guess several dozen at least. Most of them are other members of the Visceral Realist movement: similarly minded avant-garde young urban Mexican poets. It also includes fellow-travelers: the architect father of two female Visceral Realist poets who helps design their magazines and provides generous, if erratic, funding; a prostitute who's a dancer and a close friend of one of the poetesses; the various lovers and family members of the poets; the critics who ignore and ridicule them; the publishers who are oblivious to the movement; and on and on. What's really cool, though, is that Belano and Lima are the two characters whose heads we can never enter. They're the most constant element through the book, with practically every one of the sections either including them in the action or having characters talk about them, yet we never get to see anything exactly from their point of view. The overall effect is really kaleidoscopic: we build up a really good picture of who these people are, but that picture is always shifting, and we constantly need to adjust our impressions of them based on the perspective from which we're seeing them.
The book is divided into three parts. The first, a bit over 100 pages long, is written as a series of diary entries by Diego Garcia, an incredibly precocious and opinionated young poet. I think he's in his mid teens, but he's currently attending law school, even though his main love is literature and poetry. A chance encounter brings him into contact with Belano and Lima, and he's delighted to be taken seriously by them; he proudly joins their Visceral Realist movement, stops going to school, and gradually grows more and more deeply engrained into their social circle, while never really becoming close to the two of them.
This part of the book feels a bit like a bildungsroman: along with poetry, Diego Garcia also gets really interested in girls, and over the course of a year he transforms from a slightly annoying kid into a bit of a man. He doesn't have a job, but he gets a steady girlfriend (arguably multiple, but that somewhat undercuts the sense of "steady"), creates a social routine for himself, becomes acquainted with a variety of people and lifestyles. This section ends on a relatively action-packed note, as guns and money and sex drive a fairly climactic exit from Mexico City.
The vast bulk of the book is contained in the second part, which abruptly switches away from Garcia's point of view. We are now treated to what seems to be a series of interviews with a variety of people, many of them characters we'd encountered in the first part. The "interviews" are actually more like monologues, told in the first person, but you get the sense that they're being prompted by an off-screen investigator. We learn about a truly staggering array of subjects, but once again Belano and Lima enter into virtually every remembrance, even if only obliquely.
Chronologically, this section starts where the first part left off (1976) and continues through the 1990s, or essentially up until when Bolano was writing this novel. We never hear exactly what happened to Belano and Lima after they left Mexico City; they eventually return, but their lives and the lives of everyone else seem permanently changed. They go their separate ways, Visceral Realism sputters and then dies out. Many of the former practitioners abandon their art and turn to business, while others continue to follow their muse. The scope of this part is really staggering, though, and includes lengthy sojourns in Europe, including scenes like an insane Austrian hunting for Jews in Israel; a lengthy accounting of a caravan of poor young adults on their way to pick grapes in Spain; a really chilling recounting from a talentless lawyer about when Belano braved the devil to rescue a lost boy from a crevasse; Lima's disappearance from a South American literary conference; a touching account of a beloved university woman who stayed on campus grounds during a coup. Over time, the interviews return to certain themes and voices repeatedly, and an almost mystical sense of foreboding begins to arise. The element that most sticks out for me is the interviews with Amadeo Salvatierra. This is actually kind of a nested interview, since what he's recalling (in snippets scattered through five hundred pages of other text) is his own interview, long ago, from Belano and Lima. The two bright young poets came to his home and spent hours, possibly more than a day, in his company; respectfully listening to his stories, learning more about his own history with poetry, and eagerly devouring any fragments he could provide of old journals, poetry magazines, or other evidence of an almost-vanished poetry scene.
Through this fragment, we get another fragment: glimpses of Cesarea Tinajero. I still get goosebumps when I write her name, even though (or perhaps because) we learn virtually nothing about her. She seems to have completely vanished from the face of the planet, and is recalled only by a single poem she published in one of Amadeo's ancient magazines. That poem is really remarkable, and I can't and won't attempt to reproduce it here. There is an aching void around her, though; Amadeo is practically the only person alive who even remembers her at all, and even he confesses that he never understood her one poem. Belano and Lima, though, are fascinated by her and determined to find her. We never learn exactly why, but I presume that they want to see if she ever wrote anything else, or perhaps they're simply hoping to speak with her and gain a greater understanding of her work.
And that, ultimately, finally, is where the "Detective" part of The Savage Detectives comes in. Belano and Lima don't at all look the part of detectives: they're young, poor, carefree, artistic drug-dealers. Yet, once they seize on this quest, they become determined to follow it. And so they do... for a month. The events of that month are never revealed in the second part of the book, but what we see is the way it changed their lives.
We finally get to peek into that lost month at the very end of the book, in the very short Part 3. This rapidly unwinds our chronological stack: we shoot from the 1990s all the way back to January of 1976, erasing twenty years of history and picking up the narrative diary of Juan Garcia, long after I had forgotten the sound of his voice. By now, we finally have a relatively clear view of what Belano and Lima are up to. They're chasing the ghost of a woman, someone who barely seems to have existed.
Honestly, I think a lot of the intensity I got out of the third part of the story was inherited by my time spent in 2666. Once again, Roberto Bolano is writing in the Sonora desert, on the verge of Santa Teresa (his fictionalized version of the mysteriously ultra-violent Ciudad Juarez). We don't have a cavalcade of murders this time, but there's still an ominous and omnipresent threat, in the form of the homicidal Alberto the pimp; this combines with the ongoing mysteries surrounding Cesarea Tinajero (a long poem vanishing from a gravestone, radical body morphism, shifting names and memories) to create a lingering yet undefinable unease that would be perfectly at home in the horrifying middle sections of 2666.
There's a nominal plot in this book, which is resolved in a surprisingly straightforward and somewhat satisfying way, but of course the book wasn't mostly about that plot. It's about writing, about lives, about webs of relationships and the search for understanding and the malleability of meaning.
I have no idea at all if this was intended, but when I think of "Cesarea", I think of "Caesura", which is a deliberate gap or pause in a story or poem. I'm a little surprised that this wasn't included in Diego Garcia's hyperactive vocabulary lesson. Anyways, Caesura/Cesarea is a perfect name for her, since her absence proves to be much more important than her presence.
Here are a few passages I particularly loved. Here's one from Barbara Patterson, an American who marries the poet Rafael. She's very high-strung during a potentially important with a Cuban literary personage, which leads into this amazing sentence:
... and then the Cuban looked at me even more seriously, his eyes seeming to say sweetheart, what does it matter, madness is madness is madness, and sadness too, and at the end of the day the three of us are Americans, children of Caliban, lost in the great American wilderness, and I think that touched me, to see a spark of understanding, a spark of tolerance in the eyes of that powerful man, as if he were saying don't take it to heart, Barbara, I know how these things are, and then, like an idiot, I smiled, and Rafael took out his poems, some fifty loose-leaf pages, and said here are my poems, friend, and the Cuban took his poems and thanked him, and then right away he and Rafael got up, as if in slow motion, like a flash of lightning, or two flashes, or a flash and its shadow, but in slow motion, and in that fraction of a second I thought: everything is all right, I hope everything will be all right, and I saw myself swimming on a Havana beach and I saw Rafael by my side, a little distance away, talking to some American journalists, people from New York, from San Francisco, talking about LITERATURE, talking about POLITICS, at the gates of paradise.
And here's another great one, from Joaquin Font's long time in the mental hospital:
When I opened them [his eyes - Chris] the circle of madmen who roved the courtyards of La Fortaleza had closed around me. Anyone else would have shouted in terror, begun wailing prayers, torn off all his clothes, and started to run like an American football player gone mad, withering under the gaze of the myriad eyes spinning like unmoored planets. But not me. The madmen circled around me and I kept as quiet as Rodin's thinker and watched them, and then I looked at the ground and I saw red ants and black ants locked in combat and I didn't say or do anything. The sky was very blue. The earth was light brown, with little stones and clumps of dirt. The clouds were white and drifting westward. Then I looked at the madmen who were stumbling here and there like pawns of an even madder fate, and I closed my eyes again.
Oh, and here's one of the most intriguing parts near the end of the book, gesturing towards the ideas in 2666 while making it very clear that the source of the dread in both books actually lies outside and beyond them:
And then the teacher had to sit down on the edge of the bed, although she didn't want to, and close her eyes and listen to what Cesarea was saying. And even though she was feeling worse and worse, she had the courage to ask Cesarea why she had drawn the plan. And Cesarea said something about days to come, although the teacher imagined that if Cesarea had spent time on that senseless plan it was simply because she lived such a lonely life. But Cesarea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesarea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn't help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesarea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.
When I first started The Savage Detectives, I was under the impression that this was one of only two books that Roberto Bolano ever wrote before his early, untimely death. Since then, I'd been glad to learn that he actually does have a larger corpus; those were the first two books of his translated into English, but since then most of his works have been translated or have been slated to do so. These last two books have been exhausting, both for their length and their psychological impact, but I'd still love to try more, and from what I can tell the others are closer to