05 June, 2015

The savage detectives by Roberto Bolano

The Savage Detectives is the novel that sent Bolaño hurtling above the radar and up into literary fame. It is a book of contradictions in many ways.

It is an award-winning, widely acclaimed novel with a cult audience. The characters are compelling even though we are kept at a distance from them. Indeed, none are more elusive than the main characters, two “visceral realist” poets by the names of Arturo Belano (the resemblance to the authors name is no coincidence) and Ulises Lima.

Though they are self-appointed revolutionary poets, we never see nor hear of them writing poetry. They are more likely to be getting embroiled in drug transactions and altercations between pimps and prostitutes, or loitering at bars.

There is a rambling bohemian tone to much of the writing that calls to mind Jack Kerouac's On the Road. The end goal of this rambling, the journey that comes closest to embodying the Odyssean namesake of Ulises Lima, is their long and ultimately ill-fated search through 1970’s Mexico for the founding mother of Mexican poetry, Cesarea Tinajero.

The novel is a homage to Bolaño’s early literary days as something of a Rimbaudian enfant terrible, and also to many of his favourite writers. There is a pulp fiction flavour to much of The Savage Detectives (Bolaño was as much of a James Ellroy fan as a James Joyce fan) and each small chapter tends to detail its events in a simple linear fashion. Yet the sheer number of different narrators, and the Joycean shifts in tone from character to character make the overall reading experience anything but simple or linear.

My lasting impression was of the ultimate disconnection between so many of the characters and their disparate motives for their actions, and of a skepticism from the author for not only the literary establishment he himself liked to rail against, but also many of the pretenses towards railing against it, and the futile methods chosen for doing so. I don’t mean it as a slight when I say the characters won’t stay with you after you finish the book. It is their shadows that stay with you.

Title: The savage detectives
Author: Roberto Bolaño

Recommended by Simon C, Central City Library

Simon C works in Readers Services for Auckland Libraries. His special reading interests include 19th-century French poetry and 20th-century modernist fiction. He likes to take psychogeographical walks in his spare time, sometimes not even leaving his desk to do so.

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