The Savage Detectives

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

In one of the great road stories of the twentieth century, Chilean-born writer Roberto Bolaño traces the steps of his alter ego Arturo Belano and his friend Ulises Lima as they search for the founder of the visceral realist school of poetry in the Sonoran Desert, where she disappeared some fifty years earlier. The Savage Detectives is not an easily read novel, but it rewards the persistent reader with its wit, its playfulness, and, paradoxically, with its gravity. Bolaño’s brilliance is evident in the range of voices and breadth of character he creates.

Bolaño’s life offers much of the raw material from which the novel is crafted. Born in Chile in 1953, he moved with his parents to Mexico in 1968. With the election of leftist Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, Bolaño returned to Chile, hoping to participate in a revolution. Shortly after his arrival, however, Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Allende government, and Bolaño found himself in prison for several days. He returned to Mexico City and began writing poetry, founding along with Mario Santiago a radical literary movement called infrarealism. These poets attempted to fully merge life with literature and to work against the current literary establishment. They would often show up at readings by other poets (including the great enemy of the fictional visceral realists, Octavio Paz) and disrupt the events, often by shouting or reading their own poems. Bolaño ultimately left Mexico, traveling around Europe and Africa before finally settling in Catalonia, near Barcelona. He married and had a son. After years of writing poetry, he understood that he could not support himself this way.

Thus, in the 1990’s Bolaño began to write fiction. Critical and popular acclaim was immediate on the publication of his work, and in the ten years before his death while awaiting a liver transplant in 2003 he produced ten novels and three collections of short stories. It was with the publication of Los detectives salvajes in 1998, however, that he received the respect and fame reserved for writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. The year of this novel’s publication, Bolaño won two major Spanish language literary awards, the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in Venezuela and the Herralde Prize in Spain. Natasha Wimmer’s exceptionally well-received 2007 translation of The Savage Detectives made the novel widely accessible to English-speaking audiences around the world.

The Savage Detectives has a three-part structure. As narrator of the first section, Juan García Madero, a seventeen-year-old would-be poet and law school dropout, chronicles his introduction to the poetic group known as the visceral realists through a series of diary entries, beginning on November 2, 1975. García Madero’s voice is charmingly naïve in its affected worldliness. Readers witness his initiation into both sex and drugs and discover that García Madero knows every word for every rhetorical and poetic device ever devised.

García Madero also offers readers their first glimpses of the peripatetic heroes of the story, poets Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. These young men are the founders of the infrarealist movement and are thinly veiled stand-ins for Bolaño and his friend Mario Santiago. In a very funny scene, García Madero describes his poetry workshop, led by Professor Álamo, on the day that Belano and Lima crash it. In response to an attack on his critical system by the visceral realists, Álamo accuses them of being “cut-rate surrealists and fake Marxists.” García Madero, along with a “skinny kid who always carried around a book by Lewis Carroll and never spoke,” sides withBelano and Lima: “I decided to put in my two cents, and I accused Álamo of having no idea what a rispetto was; nobly, the visceral realists admitted that they didn’t know either but my observation struck them as pertinent, and they said so; one of them asked how old I was, and I said I was seventeen and tried all over again to explain what a rispetto was.”

By the end of the first section, García Madero not only has become a visceral realist but also has lost his virginity, hooked up with a prostitute called Lupe, and jumped in a car...

(The entire section is 1736 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, nos. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2007): 47.

Globe and Mail, June 9, 2007, p. D10.

Harper’s Magazine 314 (April, 2007): 99-106.

Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2007, p. R5.

The New Republic 236, no. 15 (May 7, 2007): 53-55.

The New York Times 156 (April 12, 2007): E6.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (April 15, 2007): 1-11.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 17, 2007, p. H5.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 49 (December 11, 2007): 42.

The Washington Post, April 8, 2007, p. D1.