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Roberto Bolaño: Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives)

It took nine years before this novel was translated into English and it is easy to see why. Firstly, it is long – 600 pages in the Spanish edition. Secondly, it uses a variety of regional Spanish – Mexican and Spanish being the main but not only ones, with a fair amount of slang. Thirdly, it presupposes a detailed knowledge of twentieth century literature, particularly twentieth century poetry. And, finally, it’s what critics call dense. Horrible word but probably applicable here.

The novel revolves around a very obscure group of Mexican-based poets called the visceral realists. They publish little, soon disappear from the literary scene, are little known, even in the poetry world and are not particularly influential. They seem to have been founded by one Cesárea Tinajero. She wrote – like most of the others – few poems and only one seems to have remained, consisting only of a few squiggles. However, she is known as the mother of visceral realism, not least because she produced the first – now legendary – visceral realism magazine. Unfortunately, not only has her poetry disappeared but so has she. The group is run by Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. The mythical significance of their first names is not accidental.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first – called Mexicans lost in Mexico, one of the many themes of the novel – is narrated by a young man, known generally by his last name, García Madero and is more or less an introduction to the novel and to the visceral realists and their related cast of characters. The second part, and by far the longest, is about the wanderings of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano round the world. They turn up in Mexico, of course, but also in Spain and Israel, Managua and Mozambique. These are, of course, the wanderings of Ulysses and Arthur, in their quest for the Grail/Helen, which/who may or may not be Cesárea. Bolaño tells their story through a series of first person narratives, some closely involved with the visceral realists and some only peripherally, if at all, involved. We never hear Lima’s and Belano’s story directly but only hear of them through the testimony of others. Of course, this means we get different, often conflicting perspectives. The final part is the final search for Cesárea. Suffice it to say it ends badly. But by then visceral realism is dead.

You could write a book on the themes of this novel. The role of literature, particularly poetry. A lost generation. Shifting points of view. Search for identity and oneself. Literary movements (visceral realism is clearly based on André Breton and the Surrealists, and Bolaño makes this clear). The changing role of literature (Bolaño makes this clear with two pieces of humour, firstly, the young woman who is unable to understand a line of poetry – it is clearly Valéry’s La chair est triste, hélas, et j’ai lu tous les livres, which you may have seen as one of the quotes on my homepage, taking it literally and then the professor (who is not a professor) writing a history of visceral realism. Madness. All the themes of modern literature seem to pop up in this book. It is likely to be seen as one of the major novels of the late twentieth century.

Publishing history

First published 1998 by Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona
First English translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007