A few thoughts on Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives :
It’s hard enough to capture an entire life in a novel. Try capturing an entire generation. I can think of Midnight’s Children as one work that does that. And there’s The Savage Detectives, the novel that turned Bolano famous when it appeared in translation. Maybe the life of the artistic generation in the 70s in Mexico was richer than what this book captures - but what is here feels self-sufficient and deep enough. And that’s what matters.
The book is structured strangely - A young poet, Juan Garcia Madero, is drawn in the group that calls itself the visceral realists, and becomes involved in their adventures. At some point, the two leading lights of the movement - Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima - take off on a journey across Mexico, and our narrator is drawn to join them. They plan to use this trip to also hunt for Cesarea Tinajero, a poetess who they consider the founder of the visceral realist movement (I couldn’t quite place why she’s attributed with this while reading). The journey starts on New Years’ Day, 1976.
Now the story shifts to a series of interviews, starting from 1976, all the way to 1995, with people who meet either Arturo or Ulises in various places, all over Europe and South America. These are almost 25 different people, with different voices and styles, and Bolano captures these voices really well. Along with the stories of the lead pair this section also serves to chart the life courses of different people of the same generation - some become millionaires, some settle into drab routines, hardly anyone continues poetry. This section is the largest of the book.
And finally, the last section begins right where the first ended, and continues with how the search for Cesarea Tinajero went.
One thing that I didn’t quite understand (and maybe I’m too dim to see it) is why Cesarea is attributed all these founding qualities, and why Arturo and Ulises are so keen to find her. I interpreted this quest as a made-up reason for live and strive, for the poets who are drifters and don’t quite any anything to look forward to. Indeed, the second section (chronologically the last), has them going from place to place, not quite sure where they’re going. It seems like the quest for the lost poetess was the highlight of their lives, or that’s what they have made of it. The structure of the book seems to back it up - everything is encapsulated by that search.
IN case you’re planning to read this one, make sure you take out large chunks of time at a stretch. I found myself lost after reading 10-page segments over a week, but when I got to read 50+ pages at a time, I was able to lose myself in the spirit of the writing.
Is it good? Too late to answer that, I suppose - the world has given its answer already. But for what it’s worth, I liked it, it left an unusual taste in my mouth, and I would probably consider reading the logical next step, 2666. In my mind, The Savage Detectives has replaced Under The Volcano as the definitive Mexican novel.