Review: The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolaño

It’s hard to know where to begin with this book since it sprawls across decades and people. The framework of the novel is interesting as it is held between two parts of a diary written by one of the characters who is enamored with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. This narrator, Juan Garcia Madero, is a failed law student and aspiring poet. Seen through his naivety, Lima and Belano are wise, experienced men whom he wishes to emulate. However, as the rest of the novel takes place in a series of vignettes told from the perspective of recurring and seemingly random characters, we realize that Lima and Belano are not how Garcia Madero perceives them. Who are they then? 

That’s the question the novel revolves around. Are they small time drug dealers? Poets? Deadbeats? Criminals? Transients? All of those and more? If the story of your life had to be told from the perspective of everyone with whom you interacted, what would it look like? It would look similar to the Savage Detectives, as people try to piece together your motivations, make assumptions about your life and connect effects with causes even though they may be entirely wrong. Some people would see you as flaky, while others might value your trust. However a person is perceived though, it is an ungainly composite.

In writing the Savage Detectives, Roberto Bola
ño has created an ungainly composite. At times the novel soars, only to be dragged down by fragmentation and weight.

All of the vignettes are told in first person, but they are addressed to someone. I often wondered to whom are they speaking? At first, I imagined it was the initial narrator, Garcia Madero, but upon reaching the end, I no longer believed that. Perhaps they are speaking to some new version of Lima and Belano, some young poet searching for the truth about these two men born in the 50’s, much like Lima and Belano searched for the poet Cesaria Tinajero. Like Cesaria, the two men seem to be adrift as the years pass. Lima appears the most lost of all, while Belano finds peace at the end. At the end of the novel, we understand why and how the two changed. Events happen that cause people to grow up and adapt. The events that take place in the Sonora desert hit Lima and Belano so hard that they spend the rest of their lives trying to recover.

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