“The Savage Detectives” by Roberto Bolaño

Reviewed by Alex Wenger

Image of “The Savage Detectives” by Roberto Bolaño

When we consider Roberto Bolaño, we might also think of D. H. Lawrence or Yukio Mishima. Like them, he lived a mythic, tragic life. Like them, he compressed into a short period--in his case, a single decade--a lifetime's production of beautiful pages. And also like them, the myth of the man threatens to swamp his works. In Bolaño's fiction, Bolaño the man appears on almost every page. His short stories often follow B., an itinerant writer dispossessed of Pinochet's Chile, living in Mexico and Spain--the arc of Bolaño's own life. His two novels published this spring in America, The Savage Detectives and Amulet, each include Arturo Belano, a Chilean living in Mexico City.

In The Savage Detectives, Belano, alongside his fellow poet, compatriot, and enigma Ulises Lima, plays a central role. The two men open the novel in their early twenties presiding over a circle of teenage poets. Over the course of two months at the end of 1975, everyone is drinking too much, believing themselves part of a "gang," doing drugs, having sex (invariably "all night long" or "until dawn"), pulling pranks on the city's established writers, stealing books, and staging a New Year's Eve escape from an enraged pimp. The circle is mostly poor or emotionally damaged kids operating outside the university system, and Lima and Belano at its center are revered as quasi-legendary figures. The portrait is a highly romantic one, and the reader might be forgiven for finding excess in all of this energy, or a self-mythologizing impulse on the part of the author. But to do so would be a mistake, for The Savage Detectives is not an indulgent work. Its initial exuberance is the exuberance of Alonso Quixano, and as in Don Quixote the identification with romance and chivalry begins as a papering-over of sadness and later becomes a source for tragedy.

Don Quixote may lend The Savage Detectives its timbre, but the novel sings with an enormous chorus of canonical voices. Engagements with literature are often direct, as a vertiginous roll of poets is presented for praise or hatred. Just as frequently, literary reference is the fabric of the narrative. Ulises's name conjures both Joyce and Homer, and indeed the novel features a great deal of shuttling about. Bolaño bows to none, so instead of a single odyssey, there are three, one for each section. In the first, it is 1975 Mexico City; in the second, the world at large over the following two decades; in the third, the Sonora desert, picking up where the first section ended in January 1976. But unlike Ulysses and The Odyssey, there is no reconciliation at the conclusion of these travels. Each time, the characters simply begin another round of peregrinations on a different scale. Bolaño never abandons a Joycean pleasure in formal audacity, however, despite the unhappiness dominating the novel. The vast middle section is related, variously, by scores of different narrators, each offering a curious, complicating shard of intelligence on the prismatic lives of Belano and Lima.

The text's games are joyous even when the characters are not. A grandiloquent, Latin-quoting attorney narrates Belano's descent into a fantastically deep chasm at the bottom of which the Devil is rumored to reside, and Bolaño has his storyteller nod to every poet of antiquity except Virgil or Dante, the two most obvious parallels. Elsewhere, a silly sword duel recalls Borges's story of dreams and duels, "The South." Sometimes the play is deeply encoded. Hundreds of pages pass between one character's description of Belano as a Julien Sorel, and the events in The Savage Detectives that reflect the self-destruction of Stendhal's hero and his murder of the woman he loves. And while Julio Cortazar is mentioned directly only once, his classic Hopscotch, about clever youth, a tragic death, textual puzzles, and the impossibility of life for Latin American intellectuals, contributes massively to this new work.

As intertextually complex as The Savage Detectives may be, it is also a fine read. Bolaño accomplishes an enviable feat by giving his narrators unique voices that deliver contradictory information without sacrificing narrative momentum. Our reward for this method is a nigh-fabulous Belano and Lima, simultaneously technicolor and inconclusive, a pair of Schrödinger's cats, who may or may not be dead at novel's end. And yet these two wraiths, unquestionably failures, may not be the "point" of The Savage Detectives. An odd visual puzzle, a dotted-line box appearing on the last page, suggests a secret possibility that throughout we have been trailing the wrong pair of fugitives and that, with this other pair, hope remains. Roberto Bolaño's ghost already haunts Spanish letters. It seems inevitable that this shade will spread his influence north very soon. Rightly so.

Alex Wenger is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction at Columbia University.