The detective theme runs loosely through this novel. The two main protagonists, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, search for a long-forgotten poet. The narrators, dozens of them, are like a series of witnesses recalling their memories of Belano and Lima and weaving in details of their own lives.
Roberto Bolaño does little to disguise himself as a character – as well as having an almost similar name to his creator Arturo Belano was born in Chile, grew up in Mexico before emigrating to Europe and roaming around France and Spain.
In Mexico City, Belano and Lima are the figureheads in the Visceral Realists, a fringe group of a dozen poets. It is these poets and their partners, friends, families and associates who narrate the Savage Detectives, with Belano and Lima coming in and out of view, sometimes on the merest fringes of the action only to suddenly take up centre stage again.
Before turning to fiction Bolaño was a poet and in this novel he lays bare his passion for poetry and his belief that being a poet demands a total way of being and living rather than a pastime or even an occupation.
There are pages where he simply lists the names of poets, and discussions on poetic technique and academic theory. In Ireland poets tend to be regarded as niche figures, unknown and disregarded among a handful of big names (who most people may have heard of but few will have read), but Bolaño’s young poets are rebellious, anarchic, dangerous, hard-living and full of passion.
They are contemptuous of the establishment figures (including Ocatavio Paz – Mexico’s Nobel Laureate who at one point they plan to kidnap and who even makes an appearance as a character).
However, that youthful passion becomes dissipated as the years pass and the viscerals drift apart, marry, hook up with partners, get jobs and get caught up in the cycle of modern life, working, eating watching television and stagnating. Some continue to write.
Opening in 1975 the Savage Detectives follows the lives of Arturo, and to a lesser extent Ulises, into the mid-1990s, always from the perspective of other narrators into whose lives they drift in an out. It is narrative technique that is unsettling and forces the reader to fill in gaps and make assumptions. Added to this is a chronology which jumps back and forward in time so that you can find your self reading a scene that took part decades before the one that preceded it.
There is an almost supernatural subtext to the story and Arturo and Ulises seem to be cursed. Many of the people they come into contact with suffer ill-health, madness, misfortune and death. Both end up in Europe, living in poverty and working at menial jobs, although always with the hint of continual writing going on although Arturo is the only one who eventually has work published.
The supernatural elements come to the fore in a more tangible way when a boy is falls into a disused mineshaft at a campsite in Galicia where Arturo is working as a watchman. Someone is lowered in to the pit to rescue him is hauled out screaming and says he has seen the devil. When Arturo is lowered in to attempt a second rescue he descends deep and then calls for the rope on which he is being lowered to be cut. While those outside believe that he may have fallen to his death alongside the lost boy he eventually emerges carrying the still-alive missing child.
Bolaño doesn’t overplay the supernatural and it is not a major element but, as in his later novel 2666 (reviewed here) it is there.
The Savage Detectives also calls on its readers to make their own imaginative conclusions. There is no tying up of lose ends. We last see Arturo working as a reporter in an African war-zone heading into a possible massacre, but the narrator of this chapter is unable to fund out any more information about him and there is the suggestion that he is still alive. We last see Ulises standing in a park talking to Octavio Paz but don’t get to find out what he is doing or if, like Arturo he is still writing.
The non-linear narrative and shifting perspectives can be demanding and the loose ends frustrating but then like 2666 the point of these novels seems to be the actual reading and experiencing of it rather than getting to the end to find out what happened.