savage detectives

BY ERIC MARKOWSKY

This book has been chosen as a Great Read

Author: Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

2007, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Best ebook deal: Barnes & Noble

Filed under Literary

I’ve tried to write this review several times already over the summer. I sit down, I start typing, and then I just stop. I stare at the screen until my eyes start to hurt, and then I go back to the book, rereading large sections or hunting through the pages for a particular passage about poetry that might serve as a catalyst for everything I want to say. I copy out lines that didn’t seem very important before, thinking I’ve found what I need, and then I go back to staring at the screen.

I want to say something about the novel’s treatment of time, which is almost magical in its subtlety, or something about its formal elements, a combination of diary entries and interviews. I want to say something about the way the novel slices up its world into ribbons and weaves them together into one vision of two lives.

These are the things I’d like to say, but when I try, I see the strands of my arguments begin to unravel and tangle with the novel’s other threads and my thoughts go on and on. So for the purposes of writing a review that isn’t as long as the book itself, I’ll confine myself to commenting on its scope: reading The Savage Detectives is a project, and well worth the effort.

Bolaño’s sprawling nearly six hundred page novel chronicles the lives of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, tracing their epic wanderings across Latin America and Europe. The first and final sections are told through the diaries of the young poet Juan García Madero, but the bulk of the narration comes from a series of interviews conducted by (mostly) unidentified listeners over the course of twenty years.

This is the most straightforward summary of the book I’ve been able to write, honest in its description of the action and structure, dishonest in the sheer volume of plots and themes it leaves out. It says nothing of “Visceral Realism,” the poetry movement championed by Belano and Lima, or their search for the lost poet Cesårea Tinajero; it says little of the vast cast of characters who love and revile the heroes.

Reading The Savage Detectives takes commitment. It’s easy to lose track of relationships and even of who happens to be speaking at any given moment. It takes a lot of flipping back and forth, checking names and dates, but in the end it’s worth all the page turning. The final product is a world so rich and complete, so full of passion and contradiction, it’s hard to believe that it could possibly be contained between two covers.

Other books to read: 2666 by Bolano, and anything by Jorge Luis Borges, who Bolano revered.

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