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The Past Recedes

The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolaño (translated by Natasha Wimmer)

This novel was first published in English in New York, in 2007, by the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  The original was first published in Spain, in 1998, by Editorial Anagrama, as Los Detectives Salvajes.  I remember being passed a copy of the translation in a hamburger place somewhere around Baker Street in late 2008 or early 2009, and then reading it in Brixton in the month after that.  I say this because it is a book that asks to be traced back to its origins, it is a book that challenges the reader to look behind it and through it, and it is a book that meticulously charts the passing of human life.

The first part of the novel is entitled ‘Mexicans lost in Mexico (1975)’, and is narrated in diary form by Juan García Madero, a seventeen-year-old who has just joined a gang of Mexican poets that call themselves the Visceral Realists.  The group is led by Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, who are presented as mythical, cultish figures through the eyes of the young narrator.  This first section lasts for about 130 pages before giving way to the second part of the novel, entitled ‘The Savage Detectives (1976-1996)’.  The second section represents the bulk of the novel at around 400 pages, and switches narrator every few pages as it follows the lives of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano in the two decades following their time as the Visceral Realists in Mexico City.  The changing perspective, and the fact that this part is drawn out over twenty years and multiple countries, gives it a disconcerting effect, as though the writer is physically pulling apart the unity of the initial section.  The novel then ends back in Mexico City in 1976 (‘The Sonora Desert’) with García Madero once again the chronicler of events.

It is difficult to describe what exactly makes the novel so compelling, but part of it is undoubtedly the way in which Bolaño dissects the lives of his two protagonists.  This is to a large extent an exercise in autobiography, and Arturo Belano shares a great deal with the author himself.  It occurred to me after I had first finished reading the book that García Madero does not make an appearance in any form in the pages between the first and third sections, as if he is completely forgotten by history.  Some people might find this tragic, a promising young poet is just dropped from literary circles and noone sees fit to follow his career again.  However, amidst the sense of nostalgia and lost opportunity that pervades much of the novel, it almost feels as though García Madero is the one who managed to get away, to succeed.  In any case, we can only associate him with the present tense of his diary and the glorious possibility that he did in fact go on to write something brilliant.

The Editors

You can buy the book here.

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