The Savage Detectives
When The Savage Detectives won the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize (the Spanish equivalent of the Booker) in 1998, Roberto Bolaño became acclaimed as a writer throughout Latin America. The English-speaking world caught on to his significance only after his death from liver disease in 2003, but since then Bolaño has become a posthumous literary superstar in North America as well.
To get a sense of the contrasting worlds presented in The Savage Detectives, imagine a copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry splayed face down on the dirty ground in a garbage-strewn alleyway. On the one hand, Bolaño’s novel presents an intense, romantic, literary idealism. It traces the journeys of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the young bohemian founders of an avant-garde poetic movement (visceral realism), as they search for the lost poems of one of their artistic precursors. For Lima, Belano, and their poetic co-conspirators, poetry is their prime mover—or it might be that the chaotic passions that drive them can only find sufficient ground for expression in poetry, or the idea of poetry.
But, on the other hand, if Lima and Belano are poetic angels, they sport the filthiest of halos. Although they are the protagonists of Belano’s novel, we never learn about them directly. Instead, we see them filtered through a screen of interviews, diaries, and stories from dozens of other characters, some more reliable than others. And the collective picture painted isn’t a pretty one—Lima and Belano lurch their way through squalid lives, poor, unmoored, and drug-addled, drifting from Latin America to Europe to Africa, settling nowhere and leaving behind a trail of people sometimes wounded by them and sometimes grudgingly touched by their grubby artistic aura.
The Savage Detectives echoes with a cacophony of voices–some profound, some hilarious, some disturbing–and it’s as fascinating to suss out the various speakers as it is to sift through their impressions of Lima and Belano. In fact, although Bolaño’s novel is all about poetry, we never actually read any of the visceral realists’ poems, save one; our assessment of their status as poets has to be made second hand, from the various narrators’ comments (Hello Seymour Glass!). And there are some who deny that Lima and Belano are poets at all. But what can’t be denied, and what makes Bolaño’s novel such a powerful and compelling read, is Lima and Belano’s vitality–even buried in the world’s muck and smothered by the young men’s own stumbling, errant desires, the spark of poetry in them refuses to go out.
Ultimately, The Savage Detectives presents the reader with an extreme form of binocular vision: one eye is trained on the beauty of art while the other keeps a blurry focus on the smog-stained, factious life of the streets. The challenge for the novel’s characters and readers is to bring those disparate images into a unified vision. Offering a few words of poetry peeking out from the scuffed, crumpled pages of a book in an alley, Bolaño challenges us to journey in and turn the book over to read the rest.