I am struggling over writing this review. The Savage Detectives
has become an important book to me, and I’m trying to find the best way to put a whole series of associations, emotions, and thoughts into words about how it has entered into my life and mind and heart. I have a tendency to hide behind a lot of formal analysis when I am writing, but I don’t think that approach is good enough for this review.
I just met a close friend from graduate school for dinner last week - he now lives in San Francisco, and we don’t get to see each other all that often. We entered the restaurant soaking wet from a tropical-style thunderstorm that hit just as we got out of the cab. As we were drying off (courtesy of a pile of extra napkins that the sympathetic host gave us), we reconnected with each other as if no time had passed since we navigating the highs and lows of graduate school together. It was the 1990s, and we were like sponges, soaking up ideas and books and movies and good meals together. We were politically active too, campaigning together to elect Clinton, writing a parody of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas
to try to shake off the sting of the 1994 US elections that swept Gingrich and a wave of other Republicans into the House, and commiserating with each other over the latest offensive legislative initiative. It was an exciting, scary, enthralling time to be alive.
As I was talking with my friend over old times and new, our conversation kept resonating with The Savage Detectives
. In our mid-40's, we were looking back across our lives, with affection for our younger selves, but also with understanding over how we had grown and changed over the years, and how the world had changed with us. In The Savage Detectives
, as Bolaño pays homage to his younger self and his comrades in poetry, there’s a maturity and wisdom mixed in with the affection, humor, excitement, and sadness that he brings to his exploration of the Visceral Realists, who came together to form an artistic-political-counter-cultural movement in Mexico City in the 1970s, similar to the Infrarealist movement that Bolaño belonged to. Bolaño represents himself through two characters in the novel - Juan García Madero, a young, naive student who navigates sexual, artistic, and emotional transitions and rites of passage, and Arturo Belano who, along with Ulises Lima, heads up the Visceral Realists, a group of young poets who are striving to forward political and artistic aims through their poetry.
The novel is structured around three sections: a first and a third section narrated by Juan through diary entries, and a long second section, in which Visceral Realists and their friends, family members, associates, and enemies come together to tell their story through interviews or oral histories. There are many themes you can explore through the novel -- the Latin American poetry scene, the formation of youth cultures and countercultures, gender relations, sexuality, and rites of passage, the split between ideals and reality, how friends grow up, grow apart, and sometimes re-connect. To me, though, what I take from the novel more than anything else is a re-immersion in the excitement of youth, with its discoveries, explorations, complications, and questions. There’s a dynamism throughout the novel, and while Bolaño is willing to poke gentle fun at himself, he also recaptures the excitement, energy, and ideals that fueled the Visceral Realists.
There is another personal and special meaning of The Savage Detectives
for me. I joined a Goodreads group read moderated by Ian Graye (see http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/72746-roberto-bolano-s-the-savage-detectives ). In a short period of time, through discussions of the novel, posts of music we loved, and some very creative collaborative interviews, we formed a tight-knot group of fellow adventurers. I am grateful that everyone was so welcoming to me, a relative newcomer. The group exhibited camaraderie, warmth, creativity, intelligence and humor; I can’t imagine a better group to have read The Savage Detectives with, or a better novel to have read with this group. Many thanks to all of you for a truly special experience. It’s worth coming out from behind my barrier of academic analysis to say that!