The Savage Detectives


A few days ago I finally finished reading The Savage Detectives, a novel written by Roberto Bolano. I've become a fan of Bolano after reading several of his shorter works, namely Distant Star and By Night In Chile.  For those who are not familiar with Roberto Bolano, he is a famous Latin American writer originally from Santiago, Chile.  Known for his poetry and novels, Bolano won many literary and poetry awards during his career and some posthumously.  His most famous works are The Savage Detectives and 2666 for which he was awarded the Romulo Gallegos Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award respectively.

I had read reviews of the book by critics and other readers online and had even spoken to a few friends about it.  Almost everyone mentioned its unusual narrative and plot turns, but I was not deterred. As soon as I purchased my copy of The Savage Detectives from The Strand, I began reading it almost immediately.  Still, it took me a little longer to finish this pretty thick novel than I had originally expected.  By no means, is this novel a quick read.  It is truly a literary detective novel with a long, winding and laborious approach, but I took my time reading it and truly enjoyed every minute of it.  What was also interesting to me is that the novel was based on Roberto Bolano himself (Arturo Belano is his alter ego) and his friends, a group of bohemian writers from Latin America.

The Savage Detectives is an untraditional detective novel that is divided into three acts.  Act One, called Mexicans Lost In Mexico, is narrated by Juan Garcia Madero, a young college student who befriends a group of poets who call themselves the Visceral Realists.  This group of poets live in and around Mexico City and are followers of a movement started by a poet, Cesarea Tinajero, who disappeared from the city in the late 1970s.  The poets consist of Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima, Felipe Muller, The Font Sisters (Maria and Angelica), Pancho Rodriguez, Luscious Skin, and eventually Juan Garcia Madero as well as many others.

Juan Garcia Madero drops out of school to be a member of the Visceral Realists and recounts his exploits around Mexico City with them.  He becomes involved with one of the Font Sisters and also a prostitute named Lupe.  Things take a dangerous turn when Lupe tries to leave her pimp, Alberto.  The act ends with Lupe, Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima and Juan diving off into the night, with unknown assailants after them.

Act Two, called the Savage Detectives, is where The Savage Detectives takes an interesting  turn.  The reader learns about the exploits of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano over the course of 20 years through a series of interviews of people who knew them at specific times and in particular places during this time.  This section is not linear or chronological at all and these interviews are conducted in cities and towns and villages all over the world including Mexico, California, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.  These interviews act as little vignettes creating a circular puzzle of stories, events and places that the reader is forced to put together.

Act Two lost a lot of people, but for myself I enjoyed reading the vignettes and appreciated that each subject (character) being interviewed had a unique voice and POV.  It was also interesting to learn about the exploits of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima.  Of all the subjects, I found the voices of Maria Font, Joaquin "Quim" Font (Maria's father) and Luis Sebastian Rosado, most intriguing.

Act Three, called The Deserts of Sonora, returns to the POV of Juan Garcia Madero and we discover what took place after the group drove off in the middle of the night leading to an explosive climax and satisfying ending.  I don't want to give too much away but let's just say that they discover what happened to Cesarea Tinajero...

What I liked about The Savage Detectives is that it is as much a detective novel as it is a novel about coming of age and the search for one's individuality, artistry and place in the world.  I also liked that the characters had such interesting experiences in different parts of the world.  This was my first time reading one of Bolano's longer works, and it was very different from his shorter works which are intensely brief.  I recommend it for those who love detective novels and literary works, as it is the perfect combination of the two.  I would caution readers to embrace Act Two and go along for the ride.