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”