The Savage Detectives
by Roberto Bolaño
translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, $27.00
The Savage Detectives is perhaps best described as an inverted mystery novel: the crime is a secret, the detective work is carried out by unseen sleuths asking unheard questions, and the testimonies of a plethora of witnesses paint a rich portrait of the crime scene as an exhilarating collision of reckless youth, poetic abandon, creative drive and tempted fate. The world, quite literally, is the canvas on which author Roberto Bolaño paints this scene. Savage leads the reader by the hand through the seedy Bohemian underside of Mexico City in the mid-1970s and across the Atlantic to France, Spain, Israel, Austria and back, interspersed with stops in Tanzania, Rwanda, Angola and Liberia. During this global trek, Bolaño takes every opportunity to showcase his Pynchon-like erudition and masterful skill as a narrator to convincingly tell his story through the mouths of a small army of characters, all of whom are so compelling and whose personalities are so well etched into the edifice of the plot that many of their own sagas could be stand-alone books.
The crime, it turns out, is the sudden extinguishing of the youthful, creative fire burning in the bellies of one particular group of poets in Mexico City. Solving it takes the reader on a narrative adventure of epic proportions that unfolds across three continents over nearly three decades.
The world of the visceral realists, a shadowy underground group of poets led by the enigmatic duo of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the latter a semi-fictionalized proxy for the author, is one in which poetry is worth fighting for, and fighting over. It is a milieu composed of endless arguments on art and artistry, and myriad Bohemian adventures financed by sales of potent doses of Acapulco Gold to the leading literary and artistic lights of Mexico City. Like the real-life Infrarealists, whom a young Bolaño ran with in Mexico City in the mid-1970s, the visceral realists scribble and share their own work in the scrubby squalor of backstreet bars and terrorize the literary “establishment” with direct confrontations at poetry readings.
Who are the visceral realists? Bolaño cleverly avoids revealing a single line of their poetry, but he does treat us to heaping portions of his characters’ personalities. Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano are the anti-leaders of the group, two romantic vagrants who constantly scheme to publish literary magazines that showcase the work of themselves and their friends (their first ultimately unsuccessful attempt was titled Lee Harvey Oswald) and occasionally order “purges” of the ranks of the visceral realists. Their gang includes the mysterious and much-pursued sisters María and Angélica Font, the fabulously named and beautifully tragic character Luscious Skin (translator Natasha Wimmer’s playful rendering of Piel Divina from the original Spanish), and the founder of the first Homosexual Communist Party of Mexico, Ernesto San Epifanio.
Like any properly avant-garde clique, the visceral realists define themselves politically more on the basis of what they reject than what they endorse. Though not overtly, Bolaño seems to direct his young protagonists’ rage against the suffocating stranglehold that the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), Mexico’s then-dominant political party, had on Mexican politics and society until 2000. The visceral realists have a beef with all “establishment” writers, but have hatred of a special incandescence for the sold-out “peasant poets,” those co-opted by the state and therefore rendered artistically inert, embodied by their great bête noire, Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. Fittingly, given the sub-surface politics of the visceral realists, Bolaño filters the political explosions of the era through a poetic screen. The outrage of the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968 is recounted by the colorful Uruguayan self-proclaimed “mother of Mexican poetry;” Auxilio Lacouture, who was caught in the ladies room when Mexican police and military units seized the university, surviving days of entrapment by endlessly re-reading a single anthology of poetry and scribbling verse from memory onto toilet paper. Augusto Pinochet’s coup had already injected its poison deep into Chile by the time we are introduced to the visceral realists, but rumors about how Arturo Belano “in 1973 decided to return to his homeland to join the revolution” and “presented himself as a volunteer on September 11 [1973, when Pinochet and the Chilean military deposed the elected socialist president Salvador Allende]” and how he had “gone out at night; he had seen things” surface subtly—but often—throughout the text. Returning to Mexico no longer the devoted Trotskyite he was in 1973, Arturo Belano commits himself to organizing the visceral realists and writing poetry we never see.
The reader experiences the first and third sections of the book through the deliciously engaging diary entries of Juan García Madero (that’s Poet García Madero to his friends). A rather precocious, pretentious and self-absorbed 17 year-old, plucked from law school and invited to join the visceral realists by Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, García Madero would be annoying if he was not so disarmingly innocent and wonderfully blatant about being head over heels in love with the idea of running with a fringe artistic movement. He is “not quite sure what visceral realism is,” but cannot help but immerse himself in the clique, gushing in an early entry that “the camaraderie is immediate and incredible!” His new friends have “such evocative names—but what is it they evoke?” he wonders. He is the kind of kid who delights in quizzing his new friends on the definitions of poetic terms such as “tetrastich” and “hapax legomenon.” Endearingly, he graces his diary with such gems as “Nothing happened today. And if anything did, I’d rather not talk about it, because I didn’t understand it,” and “Depressed all day, but writing and reading like a steam engine.”
Through the star-struck eyes of García Madero, the mad romp around Mexico City with the visceral realists is all sex, drugs and Rimbaud. But as book one accelerates to a close, events take several dark turns—a palpable unease begins to dampen the exuberance of the narrative. In a culminating scene occurring on New Years Eve 1975, García Madero and company are held hostage in the Font home by Alberto, an enraged pimp. In a page-turning flurry of action, García Madero, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima bust out of confinement in a borrowed white Impala with Lupe—a run-away prostitute fleeing Alberto and sex work—stashed in the back seat, with the pimp and his lackey in hot pursuit. As the section comes to a Hollywood close with a squeal of tires, the poets and their muse seem to be home-free, pushing 90 miles per hour on the highway in a sprint for the Sonora desert. They are simultaneously egged on by the very real need to beat their pursuers and an intellectual urge to track down Cesárea Tinajera, a chimeric, mythic, avant-garde poet whose cryptic work from the 1920s fascinates the visceral realists. From between these triumphant lines, however, a sinister and foreboding feeling seeps and spreads, and with it an unshakable sense that something other than freedom and artistic illumination awaits them in the sands of the Sonora.
In the second book, the narration takes an abrupt turn. Suddenly, Garcia Madero’s diary has snapped shut. Bolaño instead plops his readers behind the eyes of an unknown interrogator who is traveling the world trying to piece together the story of what happened to Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima after their departure from Mexico City in the first moments of 1976. Responding to unseen prompts, we follow the leaders of the visceral realists through the stories of those who have admired, despised, resented, emulated, and slept with Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima over the years. Here Bolaño’s narrative style positively shimmers. He is uncannily believable depicting a motley cast of characters: the enraged American student Barbara Patterson; the giant Austrian sociopath Heimito Kunst (who befriends Ulises Lima in an Israeli jail); the outrageous, Latin-dropping criminal lawyer and self-styled poet, Xosé Lendoiro, who crosses paths with Arturo Belano in Barcelona; the Catalan body-builder and bartender who rents a room to (and harbors a secret crush on) Arturo Belano in a small seaside town in Spain. Bolaño is so deft at taking off and putting on the disguises of his many characters, it is easy to get swept away in the eddies and currents of their miniature narratives.
Herein lays the detective work: everyone in the Savage Detectives is hot on the trail of something, or, someone. For the unnamed investigators of book two, it is filling in the gap between 1976 and 1997 in the life stories of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima that pushes them on from Barcelona to Vienna, Tel Aviv, Luanda, Kigali, Mexico City, San Diego and back. For García Madero and the visceral realists, it is about tracking down the elusive Cesárea Tinajero among the adobe houses and blowing sands of the Sonora Desert. For the reader, it is an investigation into what exactly casts the dark spell of foreboding that spreads across the pages of The Savage Detectives from book two on, a shadow that grows darker and more sinister with each turn of the page.
Fundamentally, however, Bolaño’s story is about youth and the ways in which its mad delusions inevitably cede territory to the hard realities of life. In book two, the ex-visceral realist Laura Jáuregui confesses that, “The whole visceral realist thing was a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless.” Many undoubtedly can look back on a similar period of youthful, artistic certitude and feel empathetic and bemused by how seriously they once took themselves. “Youth” and the self-assurances and pretensions it fosters, “is a scam,” one of Bolaño’s more bitter characters asserts. For a shining and tragic cast of characters, Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives illuminates, with considerable forensic acumen, howlife strips away the beautiful layers and burning certainties of youth.
Chile, Mexico, Roberto Bolano, South America