Roberto Bolaño's 1998 novel The Savage Detectives is a fascinating literary journey. So much so that I cannot readily recall another novel, or indeed another story, that wrangles tragedy and comedy, the high and the low, the literary and the smut, in quite such a fashion. Most impressively is the novel's accessibility; Bolaño's prose maintains a readability that is often elusive to major, more "literary" works. The text is rife with references to poets, writings, collections, and novels, both real and fictional. It is also rife with absurdities, such as a pimp who spends every morning measuring his genitals against a hunting knife. It is a story fascinated with disruption, examining the loss of dreams, relationships, innocence, and purpose.
The novel is split into three sections:
"Part 1: Mexicans Lost in Mexico"
"Part 2: The Savage Detectives"
"Part 3: The Deserts of Sonora"
The first and third sections take place between 1975 and 1976, following Juan García Madero, an aspiring poet who becomes involved with a new poetry movement called visceral realism. The second section, the longest by far, comprises of a series of interviews spread across a twenty year period, from 1976 to 1996. Each person interviewed is somehow connected to two characters from the first section, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the founders of visceral realism who are in search of a more legendary poet, Cesárea Tinajero.
This trio of strange poets will be addressed later. García Madero serves as narrator for Part 1, and it is through his perspective that Bolaño paints a detailed image of Mexico's literary scene. The visceral realist group that García Madero becomes involved with is ever-present and equally uninspired; the "literary lifestyle" led by this eclectic group is marred by self-satisfaction and incestuous relationships, entangled in a web of interpersonal involvements and the peacocking associated with it. A common practice among the visceral realists is shoplifting various books from bookstores; all claim to read the books they steal but all are liars on this front, save for Belano, who in turn explains the essence of each book, which the visceral realists then parrot ad nauseum. This is exclusively done by the male visceral realists, presumably to impress the notably fewer and notably more successful women among them. The female visceral realists are instead, fittingly for a teenage narrator, defined largely by their sexual relationships (at least in Part 1). García Madero begins the story sexually inexperienced, lusting after the waitresses at the bar he frequents, Encrucijada Veracruzana. His first sexual experience is with the waitress Brigida, though García Madero realizes immediately afterwards that sex without love is emotionally lacking. He finds fulfillment later in Maria Font, though his thoughts are wrought with her sexual past; Maria has engaged sexually with several other visceral realists, something which García Madero finds increasingly bothersome. It is through Maria that he meets Angelica, Maria's sister, to whom García Madero gives more thoughts on her virginity than her poetic talents (Angelica is the sole recipient of the Laura Damian prize, a supposedly-prestigious award for outstanding poetry). When García Madero meets Simone Darrieux, all he can focus on is her open interest in sadomasochism. Later, he is introduced to Maria's friend Lupe, a prostitute whose stories of a well-endowed pimp fraught García Madero with insecurity. When his feelings for Maria go unreciprocated, he finds solace in the opposite dynamic via Rosario, a waitress who is madly in love with García Madero, though he feels little for her.
Of particular interest is the uninterest of the visceral realists; in the right company, a majority of the visceral realists will opine how the movement represents more of a social circle than a set of poetic tenets they desire to adhere to. Indeed, visceral realism is intentionally difficult to define; García Madero himself claims he is "not really sure of what visceral realism is" on the novel's first page.
It is only thanks to Bolaño's brilliant prose (translated to English by Natasha Wimmer) that such a story is workable; much of Part 1 consists of García Madero's wanderings, with little narrative throughline until the later actions of Maria's father, Quim Font. Quim, a deranged former-architect, becomes involved with Lupe and steals her away from her pimp, setting into motion the events of Parts 2 and 3. In lesser hands, the meandering thoughts of García Madero would prove inadequate to drive the 150 pages that make up Part 1. However, Bolaño delivers, with a deft hand, writing that is engaging, amusing, and saddening.
It is also during Part 1 that Bolaño reveals the first hints of the disruption to come; in García Madero's quest for fulfillment, he becomes estranged from his aunt and uncle. He spends little time with them despite them being his primary caretakers at the beginning of the story. They have sparse appearances throughout, exacerbated by García Madero's increasing tendency to spend nights at the Font household and, later, his moving in with the waitress Rosario. When he visits to tell them that he is doing okay, the two are fearful of his new company and new drug habits. Through García Madero's dogged pursuit of the visceral realists's fantastic and idyllic literary lifestyle, he loses his relationship with his family. After Part 1, neither his aunt nor uncle are mentioned again.
Part 2, the titular "Savage Detectives," is a marked departure from the idle musings of García Madero. Indeed García Madero is not even mentioned until the final pages of Part 2. Instead, the story shifts to a series of different narratives, listed chronologically from 1976 on towards 1996. The characters from Part 1 have all somehow been displaced since Quim had Lupe, Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima, and García Madero escape Mexico City with Lupe's pimp, Alberto, in pursuit. The protagonists of Part 2, denotatively, are Lima and Belano, whose wanderings drive the multifaceted narrative. However, neither of the two serve as direct narrators; instead their stories are told through the various people they met while wandering. These narratives are varied; some are short stories in their own rights, detailing a period of time in character's lives that seem to incidentally include Lima and Belano rather than having their inclusion be the focus; some are relatively short insights into the minds of characters from Part 1, such as one narrated by Felipe Müller which largely consists of him summarizing Theodore Sturgeon's 1962 short story "When You Care, When You Love," a story that Belano had once told him about some time in the past. As a whole, these narratives paint Lima and Belano as drifters to the greatest extreme; the pair separate and travel across the world, rarely remaining in the same company for more than a few months' stretch. Ulises becomes a fisherman in France, dead-set on making a trip to Israel. Upon doing so he stays with a trio of admirers, however he is later thrown in an Israeli prison. After his release, he joins his friend Heimito in Austria, though he is soon thrown in another prison before being deported back to France. Not long afterwards, Ulises goes missing in Managua amidst the Nicaraguan Revolution. He reappears in Mexico two years afterwards.
Belano, on the other hand, takes up a position as a night watchman before moving to Barcelona. He repeatedly attempts to ply his trade as a poet, though to increasingly little avail as the name "visceral realist" has become a poisonous term in the publishing industry. Over time, Belano becomes ill and decides to move to Tanzania, eventually traveling to a war-torn Liberia.
The most consistent aspect of Part 2 is a narrative told by Amadeo Salvatierra, which is the only narrative not listed in chronological order. Instead, Salvatierra's story is broken into pieces and scattered throughout Part 2. Taking place over the course of a single night in January 1976, the aged Salvatierra drinks tequila and coffee with a group of others (implied to be Belano and Lima themselves) who ask him about his old friend, the mythical poet Cesárea Tinajero. He is happy to regale them with tales and it is through his narrative that the reader is exposed to this elusive poet. Indeed, it is here wherein the reader is given a glance at one of Tinajero' poems, Sión, the meaning of which has stumped Salvatierra for his entire life. For the purpose of analysis, I have transcribed the poem, in its entirety, below:
Even seeing one of her poems directly, the reader cannot readily identify the meaning, and neither can Salvatierra. Indeed, the reader will question whether such a pictogram can be considered "poetry" at all. Nonetheless, it has fascinated Salvatierra.
The third and final Part returns to the perspective of Juan García Madero. This Part is primed with mystery; in the last pages of Part 2, the foremost expert on visceral realism circa 1996 claims that there was never anyone named "Juan García Madero" associated with the visceral realists. Part 3 reveals that García Madero and co. have successfully evaded Alberto, now opting to pursue Lima and Belano's goal of finding the elusive Tinajero. By miracle they manage exactly that, eventually tracking Tinajero to a remote village in Central America. This meeting is short-lived and ultimately fruitless; Alberto catches up with the group soon after, leading to Tinajero's death. Anything that Belano and Lima may have learned from her is kept secret from the reader; Belano and Lima separate from García Madero and Lupe immediately afterwards, resulting in the events of Part 2. The fates of both García Madero and Lupe are left unknown. Of particular note are the last writings of García Madero; a series of three pictograms described as windows. The novel ends with a question regarding the final pictogram: "What's outside the window?"
We'll return to this question later on.
The aforementioned founders of visceral realism, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, are nebulous and mercurial characters; they are just as often referred to as brilliant poet-revolutionaries as they are perpetually-broke drug dealers. Throughout Part 1, they appear intermittently, as they are rarely the focus of García Madero's thoughts. Yet their appearances are consistently strange; García Madero finds the pair smoking marijuana in the backroom of Encrucijada Veracruzana only moments after his coitus interruptus with Brigida; the two laugh at him for not properly putting his pants back on. In Part 2, Lima returns from Nicaragua with claims of traveling a mystical river between Mexico and Central America, living on a pair of islands he refers to as "the island of the past" and "the island of the future." Before Belano moves to Tanzania, he takes umbrage at a literary critic that he is anticipating a negative review from and challenges him to a saber-duel-to-first-blood on a nudist beach.
Mimesis is a seminal aspect of The Savage Detectives as a whole. Several of the characters are derived from existing poets (e.g. Arturo Belano is a fictional version of Bolaño himself while Ulises Lima is a fictional version of Bolaño's friend Mario Santiago Papasquiaro). Others are explicit stand-ins for real people (e.g. Alice B. Toklas, Michel Bulteau, and Manuel Maples Arce). The visceral realism movement is derived from the Infrarealist movement that Bolaño helped found in 1975. Like visceral realism, Infrarealism was a failed and sparsely-published artistic movement that was predominantly defined by its antagonistic relationship with "state-supported" poets such as Octavio Paz (a poet similarly hated by the visceral realists).
I'll return now to the Tinajero poem from Salvatierra's story as well as the theme of disruption I mentioned before. The poem, as I see it, is a visual representation of disruption; consider the poem as a pair of objects, a line and a box, going through three distinct stages. In the first stage, the line is straight, however it becomes jagged over the course of two disruptions. The box, opposite the line, doesn't experience disruption firsthand but is instead affected by the disruption of the line; the box remains in relatively the same position, however it sinks on the y-axis as the line is further disrupted and the box falls into a chasm.
Returning to the final pictograms described by García Madero; across three diary entries he draws three separate boxes, each addended with the question "What's outside the window." He answers the question himself for the first two boxes; the first box, including a triangle on its side, is answered as "A star." The second box, drawn plainly, is answered as "A sheet." The final, unanswered, box, is drawn via dotted lines. "What's outside the window?"
Due to the large number of characters in the novel, I ended up writing out a reference list to help me keep track of who was who. For posterity, I've included the list here so that it may be of some help:
(in alphabetical order)
Abraham Manzur, a painter in an on-and-off relationship with Edith Oster.
Alain Lebert, a French fisherman.
Alberto Moore, Lupe's pimp
Alfonso Pérez Camarga, a painter with an unfriendly view of Belano and Lima.
Álvaro Damián, Laura's father and a friend of Joaquin Font. He suffers a series of failures, leading to the discontinuing of the Laura Damián Prize and his subsequent suicide.
Amadeo Salvatierra, a poet who was once friends with Cesárea Tinajero.
Andrés Ramirez, a stowaway who ends up in Spain, wherein he sees a series of numbers in various hallucinations; these numbers cause him to win a soccer lottery, leading to a gambling addiction. Over time, his gambling earns him enough money to buy a bar and live a quiet life, however he remains obsessed with attempting to see the numbers once again.
Angélica Font, Font family's younger daughter. Winner of the Damián prize. She dates Pancho Rodriguez. Purged from the visceral realists.
Aníbal, a poet obsessed with María
Arcimboldi, a French novelist first mentioned by Rosado, renowned for his book The Endless Rose. He reappears in Bolaño's later novel, 2666.
Arturo Belano, Chilean poet, co-founder and de-facto leader of the second wave of visceral realists. After leaving Mexico, he works as a campgrounds night watchman. By 1978, he had moved to Barcelona and by the 1990s, he had moved to Liberia.
Auxilio Lacouture, a Uruguayan volunteer professor at UNAM, self-styled as the "mother of Mexican poetry." She gained notoriety due to her presence in the Mexican Movement of 1968, during which UNAM was attacked by the Mexican military. Lacouture, who was in the bathroom during the initial attack, remained hidden inside the university for two weeks.
Barbara Patterson, American women who travels with Belano for a time. In love with Rafael
Brígida, a waitress at Encrucijada Veracruzana who was sexually involved with Madero.
Carlos Monsiváis, publisher adept at identifying people by hair length. Once courted by Ulises and Belano.
Cesárea Tinajero, a near-mythic poet noted as the "mother of visceral realism." She founded the original incarnation of the visceral realists, sometimes known as the "northern visceral realists," in the 1920s.
Clara Cabeza, Octavio Paz's secretary. When she is asked to catalogue every Mexican poet from 1950 onward, she fails to find any mention of Ulises Lima.
Daniel Grossman, an Israeli who was once a fan of Ulises Lima.
Dolores Pacheco, an old friend of Quim Font's.
Don Crispín, an "out-of-practice" homosexual
Edith Oster, an anorexic Trotskyite who becomes romantically involved with Arturo Belano. She has an on-and-off relationship with Abraham Manzur.
Encarnación Guzmán, a poetess and close friend of Cesárea.
Ernesto García Grajales, the foremost expert on visceral realism in 1996.
Ernesto San Epifanio, poet and noted homosexual. He is later subjected to a series of surgeries due to a brain aneurysm and subsequent medical malpractice. He is lobotomized as a result; his parents believe that this is a silver lining which has cured him of his homosexuality.
Felipe Müller, Belano's best friend, in love with Angelica
Fernando López Tapia, publisher of Tamal magazine who has an affair with Xóchitl García.
Gimp, an alcoholic poet in his 30s. Sexually involved with Maria Font.
Gonzalo Müller, Felipe's brother
Guillem Piña, Belano's second during his duel with Iñaki.
Heimito Künst, a large man with a simple mind. He is befriended by Ulises and the two are subsequently locked in an Israeli prison and, later, an Austrian prison. After being released from the Austrian prison, Ulises is deported to France and Heimito never sees him again.
Hernando García León, a man who dreams of John the Baptist.
Hipólito Garces, a known swindler living in Paris.
Iñaki Echevarne, a literary critic who duels with Belano.
Jacinto Requena, visceral realist poet and Xóchitl's partner. Missing three teeth. He eventually becomes a film critic.
Jacoba Urenda, an Argentinian photographer who meets Arturo Belano in Liberia. He is married to Simone.
Jaume Plannells, a friend of Iñaki's and his second during the duel.
Jimmy Cetina, a photographer specializing in "artistic nudes."
Joaquin Vázquez Amaral, a translator noted for his translation of Ezra Pound's Cantos.
Jorgito Font, a poet and the youngest member of the Font family.
José "Zopilote" Colina, a publisher who views the visceral realists with disdain.
José Manuel, Quim Font's psychiatrist.
Juan García Madero, teenage poet and college student who drifts into the circle of the visceral realists. He becomes romantically/sexually involved with Maria Font as well as with Rosario, a waitress at a bar that he frequents. He later becomes involved with the larger Font family, including Maria's sister Angelica, and their deranged father Quim.
Julio Martínez Morales, a poet, writer, and critic.
Laura Damián, a poet who died in a car accident before she was twenty. Her early death led to the creation of a prestigious prize bearing her name.
Laura Jáueregui, A poet purged from the visceral realists. She dates César Arriaga and befriended María, Rafael, and Ulises. Belano was in love with her, however she didn't return his feelings.
Lisandro Morales, manages a publishing house and is roped into a deal with Ulises Lima. and Arturo Belano.
Lola, a single mother who is romantically involved with Ulises Lima. She reappears during a narrative by Quim Font, who refers to her as "his son's girlfriend."
Luis Sebastián Rosado, a man who becomes involved with Luscious Skin. Belano disapproves of their relationship.
Lupe, a prostitute and friend of María Font's from dance school.
Luscious Skin, a bisexual poet who has taken many lovers, among them being María Font and Luis Sebastián Rosado. Purged from the visceral realists. He believes that Belano hates him, and refers to Belano as the "André Breton of the Third World."
Manuel Maples Arce, a novelist interviewed by Belano.
Marco Antonio Palacíos, a writer.
María Font, Garcia's first lover. She manages her mental unease via sexual promiscuity.
María Teresa Solsona Ribot, a bodybuilder who meets Arturo Belano in Barcelona.
Mary Watson, an American woman who hitchhikes along with a group of others. She is briefly involved with Belano in 1978.
Michel Bulteau, a French poet who briefly meets Ulises Lima.
Moctezuma Rodríguez, a poet and Pancho's brother.
Normal Bolzman, a Mexican living in Israel. He is roommates with Claudia and Daniel. He becomes romantically involved with Claudia for a time.
Pablo del Valle, formerly known as Pedro García Fernandez.
Pancho Rodriguez, poet in love with Angelica. The two begin dating after some time.
Pelayo Barrendoaín, a mentally ill writer.
Pere Ordóñez, a writer critical of the state of Spanish and Latin American literature.
Perla Avliés, a woman whose school friend befriended a film director, whom he later stopped seeing due to a disagreement over Neruda vs Parra as the greatest Spanish poet.
Quim Font, formally known as Joaquin Font, is a former architect, once-wealthy but now broken and somewhat deranged. He rescues Lupe from Alberto, though he is later confined to a mental asylum. While in the asylum, he suffers from dementia, eventually forgetting his friends and family.
Rafael Barrios, poet and visceral realist who idolizes Ulises and Belano.
Roberto Rosas, a Parisian poet living in the Passy Shantytown.
Rosario, a waitress at Encrucijada Veracruzana whom Garcia has a crush on. They become involved and move in together.
Simone Darrieux, a French poet and friend of Belano who is interested in sadomasochism.
Sofía Gálvez, a visceral realist poet.
Sofía Pellegrini, a poet living in the Passy Shantytown.
Susana Puig, a nurse who is sexually involved with Arturo Belano. She witnesses his duel with Iñaki.
Ulises Lima, a Mexican poet and co-founder of the visceral realists. After he and Belano leave Mexico, he winds up in Paris, later Tel Aviv, then Austria, before returning to Mexico.
Verónica Volkow, Trotsky's great granddaughter
Xóchitl García, a pregnant visceral realist who is romantically involved with Jacinto Requena.
Xosé Landoiro, a lawyer and poet who witnesses Belano saving a lost child from the "Devil's Mouth." He later meets Belano in Barcelona and becomes vengeful when Belano becomes involved with Xosé's oldest daughter.