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Roberto Bolaño - The Savage Detectives (Los Detectives Salvajes) Legolas Send a noteboard - 10/02/2012 10:48:46 PM
I figured it was time to read a novel in Spanish again, and went for this one in part due to Larry's many comments about Bolaño, and in part because of its very prominent location in the Madrid bookstore I bought it in two years ago (and because, you know, I bought it so it'd be a shame not to read it...).

The novel is divided into three sections: the first and the last section, which together make up perhaps a third of the book, are told from the viewpoint of an adolescent poet, Juan García Madero, in the Mexico of 1975-1976, who mostly distinguishes himself by his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure poetry terminology and his inexplicable talent for getting laid a lot. Madero encounters two slightly older poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, who have founded a poetic movement that they call "real visceralism". As it turns out, however, said movement takes its name from an even more obscure one founded in the 1920s by a woman called Cesárea Tinajero, who then vanished from the face of the earth - and Belano and Lima, the "savage detectives" of the title, are very eager to find out what happened to her. The middle part of the novel, the longest by far, tells the tale of their search, through a huge amount of different PoVs, but never Belano's or Lima's own.

The result is a book that, as cliché as it may sound, is easiest described as a mosaic. Not only in the sense that the reader has to puzzle together bits and pieces from all the different PoVs to get an idea of what is going on, and who Belano and Lima really are, but also in the sense of having very different voices and approaches from one PoV to the next. There's a short-tempered American woman who inserts Mexican obscenities into every sentence, a rather disturbed Austrian with some rather scary ideas, a Spanish lawyer who has an obsession with Latin proverbs, and so on. Madero is a rather bland and unoriginal protagonist in comparison, but his naiveté and initial cluelessness are necessary to make the book work, I suppose.

It helps when reading this book to know a lot about Mexico and Latin-America in general (plus some random topics like the Liberian civil war of 1989-1996), which I don't, but with a little help from Wikipedia, or even without, the reader can still manage. There are also references to other Bolaño novels, like his magnum opus 2666, and one of the chapters in the book briefly retells the story of his novel Amulet, about a woman's experiences during the Mexican equivalent of May 1968. I haven't read any of those yet, but do intend to do so now.

All told, this is definitely not a novel of which one understands everything on the first read-through (even aside from the language issue; I do think I understood 90-95%, language-wise). Part of the reason is the timeline - the final part of the book is set before the entire middle part - but mostly it's the complexity of the structure and the themes. All the same, though, it was a breeze to read, and there were only a few moments that I found myself slightly bored, during some of the longer PoVs near the end of the middle part.

I highly recommend this novel, and to those who feel up to it, I recommend reading it in the original language, as the different registers or variants of Spanish used by different characters really help with establishing the various settings. Plus, Mexican slang is just fun.
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Roberto Bolaño - The Savage Detectives (Los Detectives Salvajes) - 10/02/2012 10:48:46 PM 5743 Views

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