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The Savage Detectives: A Novel Hardcover – April 3, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This novel—the major work from Chilean-born novelist Bolaño (1953–2003) here beautifully translated by Wimmer—will allow English speaking readers to discover a truly great writer. In early 1970s Mexico City, young poets Arturo Belano (Bolaño's alter ego and a regular in his fiction) and Ulises Lima start a small, erratically militant literary movement, the Visceral Realists, named for another, semimythical group started in the 1920s by the nearly forgotten poet Cesárea Tinajero. The book opens with 17 year-old Juan García Madero's precocious, deadpan notebook entries, dated 1975, chronicling his initiation into the movement. The long middle section—written, like George Plimpton's Edie, as a set of anxiously vivid testimonies from friends, lovers, bystanders and a great many enemies—tracks Belano and Lima as they travel the globe from 1975 to the mid-1990s. There are copious, and acidly hilarious, references to the Latin American literary scene, and one needn't be an insider to get the jokes: they're all in Bolaño's masterful shifts in tone, captured with precision by Wimmer. The book's moving final section flashes back to 1976, as Belano, Lima and García Madero search for Cesárea Tinajero, with a young hooker named Lupe in tow. Bolaño fashions an engrossing lost world of youth and utopian ambition, as particular and vivid as it is sad and uncontainable. (Apr.)
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From Bookmarks Magazine
Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died in 2003, won the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize for The Savage Detectives (1998), a book he called "a love letter to my generation." By turns humorous and sad, this literary mystery also affirms the value of literature and serves as a modern history of the Latin American literary scene. Critics praised Bolaño's vivid, experimental novel, applauding Natasha Wimmer's skillful translation from the chatty, slang-filled Spanish. Though Richard Eder found fault with the "cacophonous Greek chorus" (Los Angeles Times) and others found the work too fragmentary, most critics regarded the technique as inventive and entertaining. Readers will be happy to hear that four of Bolaño's shorter works are currently available in English, and additional translations are planned.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Top customer reviews
Any writer who wants instruction in how to orient the reader to time and place should take this book as the only lesson they will need. Also, in a novel about poets, not one line of poetry from the main characters...fantastic device. No, this is not a character-driven book: it is about the life and death of a way of life and way of seeing the world, of a time and place that the author misses very much. If you view Visceral Realism in Mexico City in the late 1970's as a character in its own right, you will be just as saddened to see it unraveling, along with its leaders, as you would with any other literary character.
This edition is worth reading for the author's comments in interviews on Latin American literature alone....never liked Vargas Llosa or Isabel Allende, or Laura Esquivel, and I now feel freed.
Okay, that's, in a nutshell, what the novel is "about."
But the experience of reading "The Savage Detectives" is one that cannot be described in words other than those Bolano himself used to create this passionate and poetic adventure of heart, mind, and soul. This is a book that follows two characters--through the eyes of a dozen or so other characters--who take literature seriously, as a matter of life and death, not as a mere pastime, not as simple entertainment. If you don't share something of the same conviction, you're likely not to get the point of this novel; actually, you're likely to conclude that there isn't any point to it at all.
This is a novel that cannot be contained, nor can it contain itself. If it's difficult to say precisely what it's about, that's in good part because it's about everything--about life and death, about love and art, about beauty and squalor, corruption and violence, humanity and inhumanity. "The Savage Detectives" has the tone and authority of a summing up of all that Bolano had seen and thought in his abbreviated life--a message he was desperate to get down, if not in the most symmetrical of forms, than in a far more honest, if messy, explosion of urgency.
This novel throbs with life and intensity--it manages to be both unbearably sad and irresistibly inspiring. Bolano writes as if he's running only a step or two in front of the burning fuse, which, as it turns out, he was. In the end, though, we all share the same fate. And it seems a good part of Bolano's intent to get us to realize, viscerally, as his fictional "visceral realist" poets do, that time is short and the world is big. Let's live while we can.
It's tempting to call "The Savage Detectives" the best book I've read all year, but such an assertion would no doubt be suspect because of the fact that it's the most recent book I've read. It is, however, at the very least, among the best books I've read in this or any year.
Take the negative reviews of "The Savage Detectives" under advisement. So many of them complain precisely about those things that make this novel so unique and so powerful. Like his even more ambitious "2666," "The Savage Detectives" simply isn't everyone's favorite slice of pie. There are people, after all, who hate coconut custard. Go figure.
The novel has three distinct sections. The first and third are narrated by a young visceral realist poet, the 17-year old Juan García Madero. These portions are linear and connected, and tell a specific story. The middle section is nonlinear and consists of a large number of characters (some imagined, some not) being "interviewed" and telling their stories as they relate to Arturo Belano (Bolaño's alter-ego in the book) and Ulises Lima. These stories are what I mentioned above, subsisting on their own but coming together to tell a grander tale of life and notoriety and expectation and aging. Note: I DID find the transition from the first to the second section abrupt and jarring--I had a harder time picking up the book as often once I reached that second section. BUT, after getting used to the new format, that section flowed as well as the others, especially toward its second half, when the pieces begin to fall together nicely and the many (many!) characters are recognizable both in their own subsequent interview entries and as the related characters tell their "other" sides of the story.
My writing has been inspired after reading The Savage Detectives. I have the desire to be a more active part of literary "movement," or collective--whatever. The good old visceral realists.
Fantastic book. I will need to read it again, if not only to gain the inspiration again, but to be able to understand the vast multitude of characters, and how such people can relate to the goings-on and relationships within my own life.
A quote or two can sum up some themes in the book:
"writing poetry was the most beautiful thing anyone could do on this godforsaken earth" (134)
"Literature isn't innocent." (154)
"what a shame that time passes, don't you think? what a shame that we die, and get old, and everything good goes galloping away from us" (185)
"Do you know what the worst thing about literature is? ... That you end up being friends with writers. And friendship, treasure though it may be, destroys your critical sense." (359)
"a poem doesn't necessarily have to mean anything, except that it's a poem" (397)
"in a burst of utter Mexicanness, I knew that we were ruled by fate and that we would all drown in the storm, and I knew that only the cleverest, myself certainly not included, would stay afloat much longer" (406)
"I try not to rush the passage from comedy to tragedy. Life does a find job on its own." (500)