What would young Mexicans in the 1970s who cared about literature more than anything else be like? Roberto Bolaño gives at least one version in The Savage Detectives. The book is anything but a careful study. Over the course of its 577 pages, Bolaño pulls out nearly all of the stops (the book he truly pulled out all the stops for is 2666, which is more than twice as long as The Savage Detectives and still memorable a decade after I read it) as he portrays a would-be avant-garde literary movement, the visceral realists, and some of its members as they wrestle with writing, poetry, Mexico, each other, Europe, themselves, mental illness, growing older, and much more.
Bolaño divides the novel into three parts. The first (“Mexicans Lost in Mexico”) and third (“The Sonora Desert”) are diaries written by Juan García Madero, a poet and new university student who is seventeen when the story begins in 1975. The second and far longer part (“The Savage Detectives” takes the middle 400 pages of the book) is a series of first-person statements by a very large cast of characters who had contact of one sort or another with the visceral realists from 1976 to 1996. Some of the characters recur, but many do not.
Amadeo Salvatierra opens several of the chapters. He’s from an older generation of litterateurs; by 1976 he’s earning his living as a scribe for the illiterate people of Mexico City. He likes his mezcal and his tequila very much, and the two visceral realists, the leaders of the movement, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, are not above encouraging these habits as they ask try to glean information from him about a nearly lost Mexican poet of the 1920s, Cesárea Tinajero.
The novel swirls around Belano’s and Lima’s search for Cesárea, and the other characters’ encounters with, reactions to, and searches for Belano and Lima. Those two never narrate their own sections. Readers only ever encounter them as other characters perceive them, but they are the poles of the book’s revolutions. Both claim to want to revolutionize Latin American literature, but it’s not entirely clear whether Lima ever writes anything at all. Belano writes some poems, recites many more, and works on a novel, but he, too, is much more concerned with para-literary activities than with parking his butt in a chair and arranging words into something approaching order.
What the characters have in abundance, what Bolaño shows his readers, is life. They feud, they fight, they frolic, they fornicate, some flounder while others flounce, a few forgive. Stories that other authors would turn into entire novels Bolaño gives a single witness account and then moves on. A secretary in the literature department unwittingly becomes the only person to stay in a university building when the military moves against student unrest. When she emerges after more than a week, she becomes an unlikely heroine, a legend among rebellious students no matter how much she would like to downplay the incident. Late in the book, another secretary tells of how she worked for Octavio Paz, Mexico’s only Nobel laureate in literature, and how she observed the great man meeting clandestinely with that visceral realist, Ulises Lima. The Font sisters, Maria and Angelica, fall in an out of love, in and out of literature, in and out of their family home. Their father’s madness grows until several of his sections are narrated from an asylum, and then it recedes and he tries to rebuild a career while still maintaining his passion for poetry.
The encounter in Paris between a French writer and Ulises Lima captures much of the matter and style of The Savage Detectives:
I asked him how long he’d been in Paris. A long time, he said. His French was terrible. I sugested that we speak in English and he agreed. We walked along the Rue de Miromesnil to the Foubourg St. Honoré. Our strides were long and rapid, as if we were late for an important meeting. I’m not the kind of person who likes to walk. And yet that night we walked nonstop, at top speed along the Faubourg St. Honoré to the Rue Boissy d’Anglas and on to the Champs-Élyseés, where we turned right again, continuing on to the Avenue Churchill and turning left, the vague shadow of the Grand Palais behind us, making straight for the Pont Alexandre III, our pace never slackening while in occasionally unintelligible English the Mexican reeled off a story that I had trouble following, a story of lost poets and lost magazines and works no one had ever heard of, in the middle of a landscape that might have been California or Arizona or some Mexican region bordering those states, a real or imaginary place, bleached by the sun and lost in the past, forgotten, or at least no longer of the slightest importance here, in Paris, in the 1970s. A story from the edge of civilization, I said. And he said yes, yes, I guess so, yes. (p. 221)
The characters care passionately about things that nobody else does, and Bolaño shows their commitment and vitality so clearly that I couldn’t help but be pulled along and care about them too. For most of the cast, too much is never enough. Toward the end of the middle section, the characters are becoming more settled in their lives, and I think I could have done with a little less of it. There is a section in Africa that I thought extraneous, along with some of the sections in Spain. But The Savage Detectives is not a book about restraint or careful whittling away to show just the core of what Bolaño wants to convey. As some of the epic lists within the book, or the extended quiz about literary terms that characters indulge in in the third part of the book, anything that Bolaño considers worth doing is worth overdoing.
It’s brilliant, it’s immersive, and it isn’t quite like anything else.