The hype surrounding the name of Roberto Bolaño has been massive over the last year or so. His major works, 2666 and The Savage Detectives, have received the most coverage, so why not start with them, right? And since you could build houses with 2666, I figured I’d start with the (slightly) smaller of the two.
In Mexico in 1975, a group of experimental poets, the visceral realists, are making headways in publishing their new, revolutionary poetry. A young man is caught up in the excitement of the newness of poetry, and is drawn into the adventures of these poets, led by two enigmatic men – Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.
I don’t think that brief little blurb does this giant novel any justice, because there is so much more going on here. There are three sections: the first and last are told, diary-style, by the young poet caught up in the excitement of the visceral realists. Straight out of school and into university, he meets up with a group of poets raging against the magical realist movement of South American literature worldwide, determined to come up with something different, something unique. What it is exactly that makes this group unique is never explicitly dealt with – instead, the lives of these people takes precedence. In this first section, Bolaño shows us his true genius – characters that are confusing, contradictory, but above all else, normal. They are real people with real concerns. Much of Bolaño’s work deals with his own experiences, and the visceral realist movement is no different – his own work in hyperrealism is here mirrored, and the fractured nature of the visceral realist group perhaps allows him to take out som of his own frustrations with his real-life literary movement.
The middle section (taking up most of the pages), however, is a history of the activities of Lima and Belano between 1975 and 1995. Yet, this history is not told by these characters, or even one omniscient narrator. Instead, we get snippets and short stories from people they have encountered around the world in their travels. This makes pinning down anything definite about these two men very difficult, but also very rewarding. For they are the savage detectives of the title – in a quest to find a young female poet, they do things that are often only hinted at, but also are occasionally explained in graphic detail. From the pieces one can piece together, it seems that Lima is the more adventurous of the two, more willing to go that extra mile – at one stage, he ends up in an Israeli prison. And while each of these narrators is a separate entity, they have similar narrating styles and observations, helping to create something more of a solid image of these two runaway poets. Some of these narrators only give us a few paragraphs; others whole chapters. Some even last the entire novel – the first narrator, Amadeo Salvatierra, has a story that has to be told over several nights, with several bottles of liquor.
There are two main themes here, too: Arturo Belano; and literature. The first, Arturo Belano, is the pseudonym for Bolaño himself, allowing him to fictionalise his own experiences, as I’ve mentioned above. But as a person, how do we see Belano/Bolaño? He is difficult to peg down, but in comparison to Lima, he seems a far nicer, if somewhat more awkward, person. He is more content to go with the flow, and chill out. But hey, I could be completely wrong.
And what do we get of literature? Bolaño is definitely an author concerned with writing, with reading, with reacting to other texts. There are gratuitous references to authors – both real and imagined – and unless you have a very deep background in South American literature, you won’t get most of them. I certainly didn’t. But, then, he mentions Stephen King, too, so that’s nice to see. It’s hard to describe just how important literature is in this novel – it’s woven into the very fabric of what’s going on all the time, if that doesn’t sound too wanky. Arguably, the main plot is Lima and Belano trying to find a lost poet – Cesárea Tinajero – so right from here, it is clear that the written word is important. But each and every character’s obsession with books – writing in particular – is so very ingrained. If someone’s feeling a little sad, they’ll write a short poem. If they’re happy, the same thing. Again and again, we encountered people obsessed with literature, some unhealthily so, as one of them has the self-reflexive nerve to point out.
Look, I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand most of what this novel is trying to say. It definitely needs to be read probably two or three times before you can begin to understand what Bolaño is trying to say. If I reread this novel in five years, I’ll probably look back at these thoughts and hit my past self over the head. But to begin to try and understand, or at least think about, what Bolaño is trying to say is worth it. This truly is a masterwork – the hype is real for a reason.