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Roberto Bolaño: Los detectives salvajes (1998) – Group Read

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 As with so many of my posts, this one begins with an apology. As opposed to my plan, I didn’t have time to re-read the whole of Los detectives salvajes for the group read hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos and Rise of In Lieu of a Field Guide (the other participants are listed here).

Nevertheless, the partial re-read brought this iconic novel back to me after I first read it last June. I must say I enjoyed the parts that I re-read more this time around than I had the first time. Maybe it has something to do with having read this great review on The New Yorker’s website. I felt like I understood it much better. To give you an idea of what the book is all about, here’s a brief round-up.

The novel falls into three parts. The first one is the diary of 17 year-old poet García Madero (his first name isn’t terribly important – everyone calls him poeta García Madero). Young and impressionable, he meets the two main characters, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, and becomes part of their avantgarde group of poets, the “visceral realists”. Lima and Belano are looking for a woman named Cesárea Tinajero, who had been part of a group of the same name about 50 years earlier. Through the visceral realists, García Madero meets all sorts of interesting people. Set in the mid 70s, there’s lots of sex and marihuana. Indeed, Lima and Belano sell pot to make a living and afford at least some of the books they devour (they steal the rest). To cut a long story short, and because you should read it for yourself, things do not go so well and Belano, Lima, García Madero and a young prostitute called Lupe end up fleeing Mexico City northwards, always on the hunt for Cesárea Tinajero.

Then, García Madero’s diary is interrupted and we move on to the main body of the book, a collection of testimonials from a colourful set of people that somehow came into contact with Lima and Belano after their hunt for Cesárea Tinajero. Something must have happened on their search, because both of them are pretty disturbed – although then again, they were somewhat disturbed even during the first part. The testimonials take us from Mexico to France, Israel, Spain (and other places) – a crazy, restless tour de force through the remainder of the 70s and the 80s. There’s a duel, work as a campsite guard, and a fair share of drugs and general craziness. Both Lima García Madero (thank you, Richard, for pointing out this mix-up  – it’s what happens when you write a post and then don’t edit it before hitting “publish”) and Belano are cleverly drafted alter egos of Belaño himself (in the case of Belano, the name ever so slightly gives him away), who extensively travelled Europe during his life and worked some of the jobs his characters do in the novel.

Finally, in the third part, Los detectives salvajes returns to García Madero’s diary where it first left off, and we are told the rest of the search for Cesárea Tinajero. This denouement gives you a whole new perspective on the second part.

The first time I read Los detectives salvajes, I really wasn’t sure whether I’d understood anything at all. Especially the testimonials in the second part can get confusing, as they challenge the time-place continuum quite a bit and it’s difficult to keep track of where our Savage Detectives are at any given point in time and why they’re there. The first and second part, you’ll be pleased to hear, are less jumpy, but also the shorter parts of the novel. With all its fractions, this time around the novel really reminded of Cortazar’s Rayuela, with which it has been compared quite a lot. Although the fragmentation is different than that in Rayuela, there’s a similar feel to it that I can’t quite put my finger on. Indeed, like Rayuela, you could theoretically – although Belaño, unlike Cortazar, does not suggest this – read it in two ways: in the correct chronological order and in the order it “comes in”, one page after the other.

The two novels are also similar in their innovativeness. Belaño is respected by some (e.g. Jorge Volpi) as a revolutionary who ripped Latin American literature out of the magical realist rut it had gotten stuck in before he erupted onto its stage. Once you read the book, you can see why. There’s a lot of disrespect on behalf of the visceral realists towards writers who have “arrived”, especially towards Mexican icon Octavio Paz. In a way, I think I may need to read some Paz and then re-read Los detectives salvajes again to see where Bolaño is coming from. I already listed some of my favourite quotes from the novel when I first read it, but here is an Octavio Paz-related gem from this time around:

“[…] Belano y Lima reanudan sus investigaciones, han quedado citados, dicen, por el número uno de la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, un pendejo llamado Horacio Guerra que es, sorpresa, el doble exacto, pero en pequeñito de Octavio Paz, incluso en el nombre, fíjate bien, García Madero, dijo Belano, ¿el poeta Horacio vivió en época de Octavio Augusto César? […] y a mí me parecía que sí, en principio, yo hubiera dicho que sí, pero también me latía que Horacio no era muy partidario de Octavio que digamos”*

In my nerdiness, this made me chuckle quite a bit.

So what’s the gist of it? Los detectives salvajes is a challenge, and a confusing one at that. At 609 pages in my Spanish paperback edition, it clocks in among the heftier of reads. But at the same time, I feel like it’s the kind of book you can read again and again, and every time new facets will stand out and you will discover new aspects you’d previously missed. For me, although I’d already heard about the comparison before my first round of Los detectives salvajes, the connection with Rayuela suddenly really jumped out at me this time.

To me, Los detectives salvajes has become a book to read, let settle, and then read again. The impressions you’ll have gathered in the meantime will bring out new aspects of this incredibly versatile novel you never spotted earlier. The first time, I came away confused and felt like I “didn’t get” anything. This time, it was a lot better, even though I only re-read parts. It grew on me somehow. I’ve no idea why that is, but I think at some point there may be another re-encounter with the Savage Detectives for me.

What did you think? Have you read Los detectives salvajes and if you participated in this group read, was this a re-read for you? Did particular aspects of the novel stand out to you more than before? Which ones and why?

And if you haven’t read Los detectives salvajes before, are there any books you can read time and time again, always discovering new things about them?

For those of you patient enough to keep reading until this point, I’ve got an extra goodie for you. The artwork in the group read icon is by Jenny Volvovsky of From Cover to Cover, who redesigns book covers as she reads them. More versions of The Savage Detectives are here.

And for the rating-minded, here is my

Evaluation: 10/10 (the first time, it would have been more of an 8/10, to be honest)

English title: The Savage Detectives
German title: Die wilden Detektive

* my own translation: “[…] Belano and Lima take up their investigations again, they have been summoned, they say, by the number one of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature, a nerd called Horacio Guerra [guerra = war] who is, surprise, the exact double, but smaller, of Octavio Paz [paz = peace], even in name, go figure, García Madero, Belano said, did the poet Horace live in Octavius Augustus Caesar’s period? […] and it seemed to me that indeed, in principle I would have said yes, but I also had a hunch that Horace wasn’t exactly, shall we say, a follower of Octavius’s”

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Author: bettinathenomad

Nomadic fan of books, food, the outdoors, and water. International Relations geek. Chlorine is my perfume.

11 thoughts on “Roberto Bolaño: Los detectives salvajes (1998) – Group Read

  1. The Rayuela & Detectives salvajes comparisons are apt (I have to agree with you since I suggested the same thing!), but Cortázar’s work is more analytical and Bolaño’s more anarchic to my way of thinking. Of course, both are provocations! By the way, the Ulises Lima character was actually modeled on Bolaño’s friend, the Mexican poet Mario Santiago, and not on Bolaño himself–perhaps you meant to say García Madero was the other alter ego of Bolaño other than Belano? Mario Santiago, like his double in the novel, apparently also wrote poems within the margins of books (and on the walls inside people’s houses, which isn’t mentioned in the novel!) in real life. Anyway, thanks for posting on this in sync with this weekend’s discussions, Bettina. Do you have your next Bolaño novel in mind or will you be waiting a while before you take up another book by the Chilean maestro?

    • Woups – thanks for pointing out my Madero/Lima mix-up – you’re of course right. It’s what happens when you hit publish on a post before editing it again.
      As for Rayuela/Cortázar – Detectives/Bolaño, I agree with you in that Rayuela is more analytically constructed than Los detectives salvajes. The hopscotch is carefully configured, while the Detectives are more like loose bullets if that makes any sense.
      My next Bolaño? I honestly don’t know, there are so many other books on my reading list right now that I think it’s going to be a while… But I really enjoyed reading this one again.

  2. I read it in chronological order this time, 1st part and then 3rd before the 2nd part, and it acquired for me a different kind of resonance, like reading about Ulises’s reaction after Paz asked him about Cesarea Tinajero. What happened in the last part really cast a shadow on the goings-on in the middle section. It’s an ingenious structure and Bolano indeed acknowledged Cortazar, along with Borges, as behind it.

    • I did the same thing – first part, then third, and then bits of part two. As you said, it made me appreciate what happens in the second part in more depth, although this might also be because it was the second time I read the book and I was able to discover new aspects I’d overlooked the first time.
      As I said in the comments to Richard’s post that the longer I think about it, the more possible ways of reading the book I come up with. I think the next time (if I get around to that), I might try to deconstruct the middle section more and read it either in chronological order or by witness.

  3. I absolutely love Octavio Paz …. maybe that’s a reason why me and Bolaño, didn’t get along. Who knows? I also am rather fond of Marquez and magical realism in general. I think, if I pick it up again, I’ll read part 3 next and maybe then I’ll move on to part 2. I didn’t even think it was confusing, I just couldn’t relate so well.

    • I see… I also love Márquez, but to be honest I kind of see how Latin American literature needed someone irreverent enough to rip it out of its magical realist slumber, as much as I enjoy it…
      Anyway, I hope you give it a second chance at some point; as I said I really found it a struggle in the first round and enjoyed it much more this time around.

  4. Yet more of my future is used up already as Rayeula hops onto my TBR list. Disrespect can be creative even if the targets of the disrespect appear to have earned respect. In fact respect can be the worst thing that can happen to an artist.

  5. I definitely agree that this is a book to read several times, and that each time you come round to it again there will be so much more to experience. I will have to try the technique you and Rise used, and read it in chronological order next time just to see. Even though it had only been a few years, I honestly didn’t remember what happened in the 3rd part, and that would definitely have changed how I read the 2nd part…

    • Agreed – the third part definitely changes your perception of the second, and I think it makes you appreciate it better. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts after another re-read, but I suppose that like me, you’re going to let it settle for a while…

  6. Pingback: Junot Díaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) | Liburuak

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