The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Since I didn’t wrap up reading The Savage Detectives until last night, I’ve stayed away, so far, from most other participants’ posts. One of the few I did read, because I could tell right away that she had stopped before the point I had already reached, was Dolce Bellezza’s lament that the second part of the novel, “The Savage Detectives,” put her off. In the comments to his own post on The Savage Detectives, Rise suggests that in some sense this middle portion is the novels version of 2666‘s “The Part About the Crimes”:some people will not make it through.

There was never any question of whether I would make it through “The Part About the Crimes,” though it did start to wear me out, and there was little question whether I would continue my race (compared to War & Peace, at least) through to the end of The Savage Detectives, either, but in the present case things seemed to get much easier as they went along. This is because the narrative surreptitiously changes from one, as Bellezza put it, about “the wild antics of teens who know no boundaries and have no goals” to one about a subtly different group of people, ones who have grown up and realized in many cases that “youth is a scam.”

The first part of the novel, which is really solidly about those wild kids and the crazy things they get up to, ends at New Year’s of 1976, when most of the principal characters are in their teens or early twenties (there are a few of an older generation as well, but this is the age of the core group of second-generation “visceral realists”). Then “The Savage Detectives” begins its stream of interviews or anecdotes: dozens of people, some recognizable either by name or by action from the first part of the book, recount their interactions with Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the two visceral realist ringleaders, and their various friends and hangers-on. So, for events that happen pre-1976 we have two sources: Juan García Madero’s first narrative and those of the interviews that cast back to memories that old. For events that happen post-1976 we have one source: the interviews. And for events during that year itself we have again two sources: the last part of the book, another García Madero narrative, and those interviews that recount events of that year.

And for a while, the interviews seem to be concentrated right around the same time that Belano, Lima, García Madero and the prostitute named Lupe run off toward the Sonora Desert, the trip they make on New Year’s Day. Amadeo Salvatierra, 1976; Perla Avilés, 1976; Laura Jáuregui, 1976; Fabio Ernesto Logiacomo, 1976…1976, 1976, 1976, 1976…all different months, and not necessarily in order, unti finally in chapter 5 of this part of the book we get a January 1977. In my Picador paperback edition it takes from page 143 to 209 to go from ’76 to ’77, and until page 314 to reach 1980. The hold of youth is strong, and Bolaño arranges these narratives so that the creep of time is slow and subtle. It changes the gang—some of the original second-generation visceral realists stop writing poetry, stop hanging out, disappear from sight, or die. As they do, visceral realists who had seemed less important before are suddenly among the few remaining. No one cares about quite the same things they did back in 1975, though some might wish they did, and some might like to look back at those times as on fond (or at least bittersweet) memories.

Soon it becomes clear that many of our formerly wild teens have jobs—some even have “real jobs” and almost begin to settle down.

It is when the narrative reaches the 1990s that the aging process is more stark. Arturo Belano has been married and separated or divorced; he has a son; he is ill, probably terminally. Daniel Grossman is long back from Israel and now in a position to evaluate which of the young talents he and his friends worshipped in their teens amounted to much of anything, artistically speaking. Ulises Lima makes peace with Octavio Paz. And the current crop of younger writers is not the same as those born in the 1950s:

I’m not saying they don’t work hard. They work much harder than those earlier writers! But they’re also much more vulgar. And they act like businessmen or gangsters. And they don’t renounce anything, or they renounce what’s easily renounced, and they’re very careful not to make enemies, or to choose their enemies from among the defenseless.

There is one thread that keeps the second section constantly anchored not just to 1976, but to an elusive explanation of what Belano and Lima went searching for when they went to Sonora: Cesárea Tinajero. The interviews with Amadeo Salvatierra*, all taken in January 1976 and probably part of one very long conversation, interspersed throughout the novel, describe the first generation of visceral realists, of which Tinajero could be called the mother. Salvatierra was part of the Mexican avant-garde of the 1920s—a stridentist, it would seem—and he knew Tinajero in Mexico City, long ago. She’s like a ghost: she had exactly one poem published, in a magazine that seems to have only one surviving copy, Salvatierra’s. And Salvatierra is probably the only person left who can tell Belano and Lima about this woman, and show them her poem. He spends an entire night doing so, over mezcal and tequila, and explains a bit of what she was like and how one day she up and left for Sonora. Belano and Lima must find her, and the flight with Lupe makes for an excuse to do so—but no one knows who she is, there is no written record of her, no more poems. The trail is difficult to pick up.

Now, by the 1990s, just as Belano and Lima were interested in researching (and somehow paying homage to) the previous generation’s avant-garde, so is at least one contemporary Mexican interested in the second generation of visceral realists. Ernesto García Grajales, interviewed in 1996 at the Universidad de Pachuca, explains that “[i]n all humbleness, sir, I can say that I’m the only expert on the visceral realists in Mexico, and if pressed, the world. God willing, I plan to publish a book about them.” And he can give us a rundown of so many people who have dropped out of the narrative at one time or another, some of whose fates we know, some whose are less sure: Jacinto Requena, María Font, Ernesto San Epifanio, Xóchitl García, Rafael Barrios, Angélica Font, Luscious Skin, and so on. He’s even met Ulises Lima, who is officially back in Mexico City, although he’s never met Belano, and doesn’t even know what’s happened to him.

The interviewer, whose identity I will leave aside for now (this post is too long already), asks about Juan García Madero, who hasn’t yet come up.

Juan García Madero? No, the name doesn’t ring a bell. He never belonged to the group. Of course I’m sure. Man, if I tell you so as the reigning expert on the subject, it’s because that’s the way it is. They were all so young. I have their magazines, their pamphlets, documents you can’t find anyplace. There was a seventeen-year-old kid, but he wasn’t called García Madero. …The Mexico City visceral realists. Yes, because there had already been another group of visceral realists, in the 1920s. The northern visceral realists. You didn’t know that? Well, they existed. Although talk about undocumented. No, it wasn’t a coincidence. More like an homage. A gesture. A response. Who knows. Anyway, these are labyrinths I prefer not to lose myself in. I limit myself to the material at hand and let readers and scholars draw their own conclusions.

This interview is one of two contained in the last chapter of the second section of the book; the other is the final installment with Amadeo Salvatierra, the first line of which is: “Everyone forgot her, boys, except me, I said. Now that we’re old and past hope maybe a few remember her, but back then everyone forgot her and then they started to forget themselves, which is what happens when you forget your friends.”

I love Bolaño for his games and for his creativity, similar to my reasons for loving Nabokov, but it doesn’t make me any more able to unravel those games. It will surely take at least one more read (someday!) to continue working out the connections between the elusive Cesárea Tinajero and the elusive Juan García Madero, to come up with ideas about who has been doing all this research from 1976 to 1996, even to decide if there’s anything to decide about what Belano and Lima were up to all this time. Not to mention what’s outside the window.

Thanks to Richard and Rise for hosting this group read!

*His name means “God’s love saves the earth,” right? Now how’s that strike you?

7 comments to The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

  • Stupendous post, Nicole, both for your general description/summary and for the wonderful observations about the manner in which many of the poets settle down (or sell out?) as their lives change some twenty years down the road. This collision between the future and the past was one of the many things I thought Bolaño just totally nailed tonally. Also, the information about what Amadeo means was a new and interesting bonus to me (Salvatierra does indeed mean save the earth or close enough), so thanks for that. Would love to hear more about the connections between García Madero and Cesárea Tinajero, a topic I entirely chickened out on myself, so hopefully you or another of the group read gang will post on that sometime soon. Anyway, thanks for weighing in with such a juicy post! Did I just mangle that metaphor or what?

  • Great post. As for what happens to Belano, I addressed the African chapter of TSD in this blog post a few years ago.

  • You have really captured the passage of time in the book, and the passing of a generation, which is one of the many wonderful things about this book.
    I always thought that life was through the window – you just need to take your scissors and cut through to it.

  • Actually, if I cut through the window, I discover:

    here, But there isn’t any w
    (some blank space)
    notebooks when I fo

    Ah ha! Another clue for the savage detective!

    nicole, you seem to be after the same quarry as me. I might write about something else then, and circle back here.

  • Nice. It’s wonderful how you teased out the midsection and made sense of this wild and fractured detective story. It was so indirect at times that it obscured a lot of things. I suspected at least three sets of interviewers but there may be more. Much more.

  • I can’t do much more but agree with the others about what a great job you do of analysing the second part. I myself chickened out on this one because I only re-read parts of it for this group read – I think I may have to give it another shot in its entirety. After having read all these posts, I really want to play with it some more.

  • Richard—Thanks! I’m glad you suggested the idea of “selling out,” BTW—I don’t know if you noticed I mentioned the possibility in my later post but I hadn’t really been thinking in those terms before. I am a settler-down!

    Mark—Thank you! Your post was excellent, and super thought-provoking.

    Seamus—I quite like that idea. Right now I feel like: everything is through the window, and nothing is through the window.

    Tom—I look forward to your, I hope continued, circling. I feel like I’m still missing a lot.

    Rise—Thanks; I’m very pleased people were happy with my analysis of the middle section and the passage of time.

    Bettina—I know exactly what you mean. The more I read, the more I question/remember/wonder/consider…great fun!