Monday, April 02, 2007

Book Review: The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Vinnie Wilhelm reviews Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives.

"The Savage Detectives" is ostensibly about a group of avant-garde poets in Mexico City in the mid-1970s, the so-called visceral realists, who have taken the name of another obscure avant-garde Mexican poetry movement from the 1920s. The tenets of visceral realism remain vague; its followers are young, broadly leftist and anti-establishment. They don't like Octavio Paz, and may or may not be planning to kidnap him. In the predawn hours of New Year's Day 1976, the group's enigmatic leaders, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, leave the capital in a borrowed Chevy Impala, heading north into the Sonoran Desert on a quest to find the lost mother of visceral realism, Cesárea Tinajero, who disappeared there 40 years before. Belano and Lima are accompanied by a hooker named Lupe and the teenage visceral realist poet Juan García Madero; they are pursued by a murderous pimp.

That's how it starts. From there the plot swings around and smashes itself to pieces, to borrow a phrase of Bolaño's. The book's opening section, which takes us up to the Impala's flight from Mexico City, is narrated by García Madero, and we return to his narration at the end of the novel for the denouement in Sonora. In between lies a 400-page assemblage of monologues, varying in length from a single, short paragraph to upward of 20 pages, delivered by the disparate cast of characters Belano and Lima encounter in 20 years of vagabond wandering after they leave Mexico in 1976. The monologues are presented as interviews conducted by an unnamed detective or detectives, for an unstated purpose, and the story they trace covers a lot of ground. This is a novel set in Mexico City, Oaxaca, Tlaxcala, Managua, Barcelona, Roussillon, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, New York, Luanda, Kigali and the war-torn countryside of Liberia, among other locations. It is a novel that features no fewer than 54 first-person narrators (I counted), who speak to us from parks and libraries, bars and dark apartments, from inside lunatic asylums, and from the hospitals in which they are dying. Many of them are poets, many are Latin American exiles and almost all are living in some kind of desperation on the margins of the late 20th century.

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