The release of an English translation of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives went head-to-head with the appearance of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke: A Novel for 2007’s literary news of the year. Lucky for us, Bolaño’s novel turned out to be every bit as great as the hype.
Long known and respected by Latin American readers, Bolaño was a bit of mystery for most English monolinguists who, if hip to his writings at all, had to subsist on a few slim volumes published by New Directions.
With the heavyweight house of Farrar, Straus and Giroux picking up the mantle and feature-length articles in the New Yorker and The New York Review of Books touting the novel’s many charms, Bolaño was the toast of the literary world—four years after his death in Spain of liver failure.
The Savage Detectives begins in the Mexico City of the mid-1970s where a young poet, Juan Garcia Madero, is invited to join a mysterious fraternity of writers calling themselves “visceral realists.” To call the group a movement is a bit of a stretch as no one, Garcia Madero especially, knows (or is willing to say) exactly what visceral realism is. This doesn’t stop the group’s leaders, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (a thin, thinly disguised Bolaño) from conducting purges that would make a Maoist nervous.
The writers prowl the streets and back alleys of Mexico City, constantly writing, having sex, getting drunk, and ultimately running afoul of a killer pimp and his corrupt police buddies. Of course, this encapsulation does rough injustice to Bolaño’s kaleidoscope of richly drawn characters, some of which—like rare desert flowers—bloom once, fade, and are never seen again.
The middle of the book picks up after the poets have returned from the desert where they had been searching for the mysterious poet who started the original visceral realism movement in the ’20s. For the next 400 pages, we see Lima and Belano through the eyes of people who cross paths with them in a 20-year span ending in 1996. This fractured faux-oral biography plays with the notion of identity while giving the disorienting, yet thrilling, feeling of looking at the pair through a many-faceted diamond.
The final third returns to the Sonoran desert to tell the story of what happened to Lima, Belano, Garcia Madero, and wayward prostitute Lupe on their search for the elusive Cesárea Tinajero.
To paraphrase Garcia Madero: When it was all over, I felt like I knew every inch of that fucking country. Even more, I felt I was born there.