When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. – 1 Corinthians 13:11
I should have hated this. A book about a bunch of South American hippy-poets and their pretentiously titled Visceral Realism movement seems almost to have been written just to piss me off. It’s been called an On The Road for a new generation, and, well, I despise the Beats; it has also been compared to Cortazar’s Rayuela, and, uh, the twenty or so pages of that I managed to endure made me want to offer my soul to Satan in return for never coming across it again as long as I live. And, yet, I didn’t hate The Savage Detectives at all; in fact, I really quite liked it. This review is my attempt to come to terms with that.
I ought to say something, briefly, about my relationship with Roberto Bolaño, because you’re probably wondering why I picked up the book in the first place, why, if it was anathema to me, I actually wanted to read it. I’d like to point out that I’m certainly not the type to read books in order to hate on them; that just seems too much like punching yourself in the bollocks, to me. I’m not a masochist, I don’t want to have a bad time. So, despite the hype, I had stayed away from The Savage Detectives for years. It wasn’t until Bolaño’s imposing 2666 was released that I began to pay attention, and that was only due to the book being 900-plus pages long. See, I have a thing for big books. I love them. They must secrete some kind of potent literary pheromone, because I can’t resist them. I was, then, always going to buy 2666; and when, with little optimism, I eventually got around to reading it I found that it was a genuinely great book. This shocking revelation forced me to re-think my stance on The Savage Detectives.
The novel is split into three parts, with the greater weight given to two of them: the opening section featuring young proto-poet Garcia Madero and an even longer middle-section mainly focusing on the travels and adventures of Ulyses Lima and Arturo Belano, the originators of the Visceral Realist movement. Despite my pre-reading reservations I really enjoyed the first part of the book, which is presented as Garcia Madero’s diary entries. It’s pretty standard growing-up-pains type stuff – involving the loss of his virginity, drug taking, a bunch of kooky girls, and inappropriate friends – but Madero’s voice is colloquial and engaging. The material may be a little frayed around the edges but, perhaps due to the snappy dialogue, the humour, and the mostly light and breezy tone, it feels fresh.
“Nothing happened today. And if anything did, I’d rather not talk about it, because I didn’t understand it.”
That lightness of touch is why accusations of pretentiousness [from me as much as anyone] are wide of the mark. The characters do spend a lot of their time discussing poetry, are self-absorbed and opinionated, but, crucially, are also as goofy and stupid, as fumbling and awkward, as most teenagers and young adults. In fact, while poetry is clearly important to Bolaño, for me the focus is more on adolescence, and how dumb and fun and silly and sometimes painful it is, and how it is the period of your life that is full of fanciful dreams and ambitions, the time of your life when writing poetry and starting poetic movements and stealing books of poetry seem like heroic things to do. It’s no coincidence that Garcia Madero is 17, an age when one is on the cusp of greater responsibility [a career, a relationship etc]. Indeed, towards the end of the first part of the novel he has moved in with a woman, and it is this kind of adult responsibility, to my mind, that he is running away from when, in this section’s final scene, he climbs into a car with Lima and Belano and takes off.
[A young Roberto Bolaño and friends. Bolaño is on back row, second from the left]
In the second section of the novel the narrative becomes fragmented. It is still written in the first person, but instead of concentrating on the thoughts/experiences of one character it is composed of a [sometimes seemingly endless] series of anecdotes/stories told by numerous people who knew/had heard about/or came into contact with Lima, Belano, and, to a lesser extent, Garcia Madero during their road trip and beyond. Taken in isolation some of the anecdotes are revealing, some exciting, and some are banal or, to be less kind, tedious. However, the accumulative effect is quite moving. While in the opening section of the novel Lima and Belano [amongst others] came across as endearingly enigmatic or eccentric, in a stoned kind of a way, as the story progresses, as the anecdotes mount up, as time passes, the mood darkens, becomes more melancholy, as one comes to realise that the two poets and their friends are a little bit lost [perhaps literally, but certainly emotionally], that their lives are aimless, even tragic.
“Drink up, boys, drink up and don’t worry, if we finish this bottle we’ll go down and buy another one. Of course, it won’t be the same as the one we’ve got now, but it’ll still be better than nothing. Ah, what a shame they don’t make Los Suicidas mezcal anymore, what a shame that time pases, don’t you think? what a shame that we die, and get old, and everything good goes galloping away from us.”
To a certain extent the novel is about heroes, about who you look up to as a kid and why. We’ve all been there, we’ve all been fifteen or sixteen and idolised some older guy who is in a band and takes drugs and drops out of school. As you get older yourself, and maybe move away, grow up and get a job and get married, you may retain a nostalgic affection for that person and that time of your life, and yet you’ll understand, with a more mature perspective, that what you thought was an admirable romantic, exciting lifestyle was, ultimately, something of a waste, maybe even quite sad. It’s a novel, for me, about the sweep of time, and the transition from adolescence to adulthood; it is about how unsustainable adolescent dreams and behaviour are as you age, how eventually life’s hard knocks, its crueller aspects, will catch up with you.
NB: I should point out that I do not dislike poetry, or think it necessarily pretentious to discuss poetry. In fact, I read a lot of poetry, and I write poems myself. My expectations, however, were that the characters in The Savage Detectives, like those in Rayuela, would do excruciating things like reciting poetry while dancing in the rain or in the middle of love-making etc.