The Pequod Review:
Robert Bolano seemed to arrive out of nowhere (in the English-speaking world anyway) with his fourth novel, The Savage Detectives, a thrilling and revelatory book about a nomadic gang of Latin American poets.
The novel is comprised of three distinct sections. The first (“Mexicans Lost in Mexico,” about 120 pages long) begins in Mexico City and is narrated by a 17-year-old aspiring poet named Juan Garcia Madero, who has recently been invited to drop out of school and join a group of poets that call themselves the Viceral Realists. (“I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.”) The book then pivots toward its longer second section (“The Savage Detectives,” about 400 pages long), comprised of about 50 interviews with people around the world who have come into contact with the founding members of the group. The book closes with the third section (“The Sonora Desert,” less than 100 pages long) which returns to Madero’s first-person account and takes place in the desert.
As with all of Roberto Bolano's books, The Savage Detectives is an exhilarating read. It explodes with narrative voices — many of them not entirely reliable, warped by hazy memories and self-justifications. And it has a heady mix of youthful energy and rebelliousness, as the Visceral Realists are alternately portrayed as both brilliant literary figures and as aimless drifters wandering around Mexico City’s coffee shops. In his 1999 acceptance speech for the Romulo Gallegos prize (awarded biennially to the best Spanish-language novel), Bolano described the novel as one that “tries to reflect a kind of generational defeat and also the happiness of a generation.” This is a very profound statement, and the book effectively builds to an ambiguous outcome, as the narrator (Madero) uses poetry to help cope with struggles in other areas of his life.
The Savage Detectives may not quite be Bolano’s best book (that would be 2666, published in 2004). But it is dark, suspenseful, erotic, and funny. It is about human nature and our desire (especially in late adolescence) to find our identity and purpose in life. The book is also about politics, as its narrative follows key events in recent Latin American history, including the 1968 Mexican student movement, the Pinochet coup, and the triumph of the Sandinistas. Highly recommended.