I don’t normally read hyped books but my friends more or less ordered me to read The Savage Detectives by the dead Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. It wasn’t until about 400 pages into this wonderfully titled novel—a translation of Los Detectives Salvajes published originally in Spain in 1998—that I realized it isn’t, strictly speaking, a detective novel. It’s a poem in hard-boiled prose.
By then, it didn’t really matter. I was swept into a mysterious narrative circling around an investigation into the disappearance of poets. Just like rock stars and film stars, poets too fade away into oblivion and not always as mercifully. Set primarily in the 1970s and written in a diary format, the novel begins in Mexico and tracks two quixotic poet-detectives—Belano and Lima—who are searching for a poet, Cesárea Tinajero. She disappeared in the 1920s in the sinister Sonora desert, which is crawling with scorpions and tarantulas.
After a number of chapters, one starts to suspect that the story is woven around an enigmatic central event—most likely a case of manslaughter—the exact details of which will be revealed only at the end. Bolaño seems to have had a fascination for a town called Juarez on the opposite side of the Rio Grande from US city El Paso. Juarez apparently has an unusually high homicide rate. The town, fictionalized as “Santa Teresa”, represents a descent into a hell on earth, something paralleling La Divina Commedia. The same city also features in Bolaño’s other, even more famous, novel 2666—perhaps meant to be read as “two times the number of the beast” or “the second coming of the devil”.
In its fattest section, written as a series of interviews conducted between 1976 and 1996, The Savage Detectives then goes on to document the detective-poets Belaño and Lima. On the surface, it is a compilation of the traces they themselves left in the minds of people during the decades after that mysterious central crime. Their trajectories lead us on across the world to places such as Barcelona and Israel, their own poetry now forgotten, the two of them merely living as wrecks. There are hilarious accounts of a decrepit Lima going missing during a literary delegation to Nicaragua and of the Nobel laureate Octavio Paz meeting him in a seedy Mexico City park; and there are tragic images of the diseased and suicidal Belaño as a jaded war correspondent in Africa.
Visceral: Roberto Bolaño. Bloomberg
The novel closes with us returning to the unreliable diarist, who travels in a stolen Ford Impala with Belaño, Lima and a runaway prostitute in the Sonora desert: a road movie taking us through small-town Mexico until the end is revealed in its sad brutality.
The parallels between Bolaño’s life and that of one of the “savage detectives”, the bohemian Arturo Belaño, who is Bolaño’s alter ego, may encourage readers to think this book is autobiographical. But such assumptions would lead us to miss the point.
At its core, the book is a larger statement about the documented and undocumented histories of artistic movements—exemplified by “Visceral Realism” which may or may not have been based on a little-known surrealistic Mexican left-wing movement called infrarrealismo and that Bolaño belonged to—and how meaningful or meaningless individual authors are to world literature. Keep in mind that Bolaño wrote against the clock, knowing that he was going to die within the next few years (in fact, he only lived five years after the book was published). That is a serious deadline.
As a vehicle for this enormous investigation, he uses the aesthetics of the hard-boiled crime novel—the narrative is packed with tequila, sex, violence, pot, lunacy—written in a lean, mean prose. We, the readers, are turned into savage detectives and presented with all the evidence, the mysterious leads, the testimonies, the documents relating to the lost poets, so that we may unravel “the case” before us. For a reader of detective fiction, the effect is mind-blasting.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based writer of crime fiction. Write to him at email@example.com