Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives opens – and closes – with the diary entries of a young poet enamored with the Visceral Realists, a group of poets whose aim is to overthrow what they perceive as the conservative and safe poetry dominant in Mexico.
Diarist Juan García Madero is an idealist, an autodidact of poetry and more than a touch naïve. He is a representation of that certain type of person which is so often found on the literary fringes – eager, inventive, passionate, exuberant, innocent, ignorant, inexperienced. His diary ranges first over the last months of 1975, then January and February of 1976 in the third part. Together, these sections display an interesting novel that is caught up in the question “What is art?” It is the second and by far the longest part of the novel, however, that displays Bolaño's genius. A swirling maelstrom of characters, events and plots, it is an attempt to do no less than display the history of contemporary Latin American – Mexican in particular – poetry. The novel is satisfying the way few novels are, with every risk that Bolaño attempts overcome with astonishing power and effect.
Juan García Madero is a sweet young man. He becomes caught up in the conceits of the visceral realists, a group of poets who may, or may not, be talented. It becomes difficult to determine the actual poets from those who simply admire the bohemian lifestyle that comes with the pursuit of art. His diary is powerfully passionate about poetry and powerfully innocent about life – It is completely accurate that a seventeen-year-old male would share with his diary that the first woman he ever slept with experienced 'ten or maybe fifteen' orgasms, when in all likelihood she had none. Bolaño is astute in using the voice of his characters with honesty but not irony – that is, he allows them to speak with their voices and not his own wink-wink author's persona.
Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano are portrayed as the leaders of visceral realism, and it is to these figures that Juan García Madero, and the reader, is most powerfully drawn. They have something of a mystery about them because their thoughts and motives are never shown; nor, really, are their beliefs on poetry. In the second part of the novel, when the narrative fragments and the reader is flung from one end of the globe to the other, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano are the threads that hold the work together.
The middle section of the novel is its most powerful and the hook on which Bolaño's genius rests. It is years later and the visceral realist movement has died. The participants, their girlfriends and boyfriends, and other important players during the time, carry on with their lives in much the same way that any group of young people eventually become a very different group of more mature adults. Some of them still engage in poetry, but many do not. Some remember the visceral realism movement fondly, and some don't give it another thought. Some live in Mexico still, others in Europe or America. Their lives are all so different that only two things that hold them together – the visceral realist movement, and the constant appearance of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano in their lives. These two, it seems, carry the torch – but for what? While Bolaño has not written a mystery or a thriller, the novel's narrative thrust depends upon the mystery of the two characters. Invariably their appearances make for interesting, confusing times, coming in as they do at key periods in the other character's lives.
Bolaño structures the second part in a manner which has each of the characters explain their lives in a first-person, conversational manner. They seem to be speaking directly to someone, or perhaps to themselves. What is presented is more honest than a simple omniscient narrator conveying everything, and more mysterious because of what is left out. Years go by in a flash, but moments are narrated in heartbreaking beauty – or horrifying detail – or with exquisite fondness for a lover, a friend, a parent – or contemptuous toward dreams that lie unachieved – or, but the list goes on. Bolaño's massive list of characters are all wonderfully portrayed as sad, happy, lonely, fulfilled (though not too many of these), despondent, adventurous, weary, humble and extravagant. He allows them to talk with their voice rather than his, which provides the reader with a constantly changing array of emotions and situations. Bolaño is, in effect, highlighting the diaspora that occurs when a group of people move from young adults to maturity, with the alteration in outlook and temperament that comes with it. One of the characters, Albertito, once a fiery poet with as strong views on life and literature as anyone else, has this to say after learning of the horrific death of one of his former friends and visceral realist members: 'Nothing's happening, it's all over...but I didn't get any sleep, and I couldn't take the day off either, because we're swamped at the office.' How life changes, how often such mundane considerations eventually overtake the glorious passions of our youth.
It is difficult to underplay the importance of poetry and literature in the novel and its characters. The vast majority of the characters are poets. They do not believe that their poetry can solve their problems; however, they do believe that poetry can solve a problem. Poetry is seen as a necessary evil, a required aspect of your vocation, whatever else you may do with your life. Poetry is not glorified or vilified, it is not made holy or condemned to the fringes of 'outsider art', it is not overtly political but nor is it bipartisan in nature – Bolaño's characters believe that poetry simply is, it is an aspect of self. Literature and what it means and most importantly what it can do, is never escaped nor denied by the characters. They may not worship at the altar of art any more, but their lives are invariably touched with poetry and books.
The novel is difficult to read because there is no defining center beyond the mystery of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, and the curiosity of the future of visceral realism. What is has, though, is an inexhaustible commitment to the potential of art, to what uncompromising literary vision can create. Bolaño has created scenes that conform to just about every broad stroke of life that can be imagined, but better than that he has explored the nuances of literary and personal life, from the private sadness to the public joy of simply being alive. Sadness is not exploited for melancholy and danger is not transformed into melodrama – rather, lifes are presented as they are, in the honest voices of the character experiencing it.
The Savage Detectives could have fallen under the weight of its many voices. That it does not suggests immeasurably more about the man's talent than any simple review. The protagonists of the work – Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano – are fragments, invisible, absent most of the time and yet they are the powerful core of a wondrous piece of art. The other members of the once-proud visceral realists are the singers who are reduced to only humming the memory of the two men, who by necessity become footnotes in the lives of all the others. Bolaño keeps all the balls afloat as he juggles, and it is amazing to see how many balls he adds without breaking a sweat. The Savage Detectives is astonishing, inventive, and unlike anything else you are likely to read. It is simultaneously without a center and yet firmly aligned around a solid core, but above all it is a paean to poetry, Mexican poetry, and the grandness of dreams that don't die but simply fade.