by Rodrigo Aguilera Croasdaile
“We are all writing the same book, at the end of the day. And that same book, at the end of the day, is nothing – in uppercase letters, that is, or maybe in lowercase.” — Roberto Bolaño
Go to your nearest library or bookstore and find a copy of Roberto Bolaño’s 1998 novel The Savage Detectives (or Natasha Wimmer’s 2007 English translation). Once you find it, steal it. If you get caught, say it’s a reference to the book. The young poets in The Savage Detectives steal books. One of them reads books in the shower. Another has a sword fight with a critic of his work. Yet another calls himself Piel Divina, Luscious Skin. At one point, they plan to kidnap Octavio Paz, real life Mexican poet and Nobel Prize laureate. Imitate the poets at your own risk. This is serious literature.
Bolaño’s novel draws from his life as a Chilean in Mexico of the 1970s, and is equal parts tragic, absurd, and deceptive: it is entirely composed of testimony, without a single concrete fact. The order of its chapters, at first chronological, ends up looping over itself; the narrative often loses sight of its protagonists, going off into massive tangents with one-night stand-ins. These literary games are almost frustrating—at times it feels like a massive collection of short stories crammed between the pages of a novella—but our initial dissatisfaction is exactly the point. By avoiding factual omniscience, by tossing aside protagonism, and by refusing closure to its own narrative, the novel feels more real, more viscerally real than any other. The Savage Detectives does not try to bring literary order to the chaos of life, but rather to succumb to it. The result is a book that feels aware of its own status as a book, a narrative, a lens through which Life and Literature refract upon each other.
I: The part about the book
The Savage Detectives begins with the diary of Juan García Madero, a college student and amateur poet, who has just been “cordially invited to join the visceral realists” (Bolaño, 3). His entries detail his first meeting with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, who accepted him into the movement on day one. Our narrator idolizes the two and follows in their footsteps—meaning, for the most part, skipping class and stealing books. From the perspective of the younger García Madero, the entries play out as a picaresque, with a wide cast of aimless characters going in circles around Mexico City. The diary tracks discordant narratives: Lima and Belano are searching for Cesárea Tinajero, a 1930s poet and predecessor of the visceral realists; García Madero meets the poet María Font and her prostitute friend, Lupe; he starts dating María Font and almost immediately breaks up with her; Belano starts expelling visceral realists from the group; García Madero stops going home to his aunt and uncle and moves in with a new girlfriend; Lupe runs away from her boyfriend/pimp Alberto. Among all this, García Madero remains aloof, distant even from his own diary, wandering through bookstores and cafés of the city.
The narrative threads really start to come together only by the last two entries of the diary, one hundred and thirty pages in. García Madero visits María Font’s house on December 30th and finds it under attack: the pimp Alberto is holding a siege to get Lupe, who is hiding inside. García Madero manages to enter the house but is unable to leave. On New Year’s Eve, Lima and Belano come to the rescue: they agree to take the Font family’s Chevrolet Impala and leave the city with Lupe on board. An adventure begins: Belano and Lima set off to find Tinajero, the founder of the visceral realists, while rescuing Lupe from the tyrant Alberto. Juan García Madero joins the quest:
I saw the two thugs get out of the Camaro and I saw them coming toward me. I saw that Lupe was looking at me from inside the car and that she was opening the door. I realized that I’d always wanted to leave. I got in and before I could close the door Ulises stepped on the gas […] through the back window I saw a shadow in the middle of the street. All the sadness of the world was concentrated in that shadow, framed by the strict rectangle of the Impala’s window. (Bolaño, 124)
The monstrous second part of the novel begins. “The Savage Detectives: 1976-1996,” consists of a series of statements by over forty characters throughout twenty years, the first in January 1976 and the last in December 1996. The statements, in general, relate to the visceral realists: Belano and Lima each travel around the world, alone; some Mexicans stay true to the movement but eventually leave it; many die young. García Madero and Lupe are never mentioned. Here we must emphasize the chaos of this part: the statements often have little to do with each other or even with the characters we already know. They are not contained within a city, nor the span of two months, nor by the point of view of one person. The first part feels like a one-act play by comparison. Even summarizing the second part implies a kind of coherence that is not fully there. Lima and Belano cross paths only once in twenty years. In some statements, they are only shadows on the background of entirely self-sufficient narratives. The lives of the part’s characters create a shapeless constellation. They are together only by virtue of the novel itself—by the fact that their statements, together, accumulate into what we recognize (or choose to recognize) as a novel, intertwining their stories and presenting them as one.
The novel’s greatest effort to keep the stories together is Amadeo Salvatierra. His statement stands out from all the rest: it is the first—chronologically and structurally—and it is the only one split up into separate parts—thirteen total—and it is the last. He relates, among pages and pages of other statements that span twenty years of life, the single night he met Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano in 1975, when they inquired him about Cesárea Tinajero. Bolaño’s narrative intentions are clear enough: the statement brings context and meaning to the lives of Belano and Lima, and it creates a crescendo to the story by handing it out in pieces. But the effect produced by such choices is only that: the author’s choice. The artificial placement of the account seems to want to say something more, something that must go beyond the insufficiencies of the text in order to be said.
The third part of the novel takes us back to the Impala. The promise that Lima and Belano made to Amadeo Salvatierra (The night before? A month ago? Twenty years?) is still fresh in their heads and ours. Alberto the pimp is hot on their trail. After the magnitude of the previous part, the prospects for the remainder feel miniscule. Our return to this moment is disorienting. Juan García Madero himself seems to notice something has changed. His first entry reads:
Today I realized that what I wrote yesterday I really wrote today: everything from December 31 I wrote on January 1, i.e., today, and what I wrote on December 30 I wrote on the 31st, i.e., yesterday. What I write today I’m really writing tomorrow, which for me will be today and yesterday, and also, in some sense, tomorrow: an invisible day. But enough of that. (Bolaño, 527)
What starts off as a clarification ends as a rising suspicion that the text, time, and identity are constantly affecting each other. He recognizes the uncertainty of his own account: his entries are not fully accurate as they have been affected by memory and foresight at the time of writing. He reflects on his omnipresence in the “today” of the date in the diary, in his physical “today,” on the yesterdays and tomorrows of life and literature. What, then, is that invisible day? It could be the day that has not happened yet—that, once it happens, will become visible. It might also be the unwritten day, which does happen and will happen but remains unknown to us. García Madero stops himself right when he is about to crash into the fourth wall. The novel, however, is already leaving us. The final pages feel like a film dissolving on the projector, still running. You don’t have to steal the book, but go read it.
II: The part about the writers
“Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters.”
— Roberto Bolaño, 2666
Juan García Madero admits, on the first page, not to know what visceral realism is. By the end of the book, the question remains. Amadeo Salvatierra, who knew Cesárea Tinajero, doesn’t know the answer. We readers might discover the movement is based on a real one, infrarrealismo, that Bolaño belonged to, but that doesn’t answer what visceral realism is, or what it means, or what makes a visceral realist. The question is of monumental importance. It might be, for all we know, the first question Lima and Belano wish to ask Tinajero. It is, by far, the most fascinating question left unanswered in the entire novel. The answer could fundamentally change Latin American literature in the 21st century. I’m serious. This is serious literature.
Let’s go back to our Author. Roberto Bolaño was born in 1953, meaning he belonged to the generation that followed that of the Latin American Boom: South American writers like Vargas Llosa from Perú, García Márquez from Colombia, and Cortázar from Argentina, whose novels were translated and read in the United States and Europe. Reviews of Bolaño’s books will not let you forget that: browse the Amazon page for The Savage Detectives and you will find phrases like “the most important writer to emerge from Latin America since García Márquez,” or “Latin America’s literary enfant terrible.” It’s a cruel joke (admittedly, a funny one) that a book so obsessed with novelty and youth in literature, written by an author who personally belonged to a movement that hoped to “blow the brains out of the cultural establishment,” is praised through comparison to the books that come before it. But it gets funnier.
Bolaño’s last work, the 1100-plus pages-long 2666, is, in the opinion of many, his greatest. Through its posthumous publication, the heir of the Boom became the definitive Latin American author of his generation and has kept the title ever since (even now, twenty years after his death, no one has stepped up). The praise takes another turn: 2666 is seen as “one of those exceptional books that transcend[s] its author and its time to form a part of world literature.” (Amazon, translation mine) In other words, Bolaño is no longer contending for a spot among García Márquez or Octavio Paz, but has instead been crammed into the ranks of The Greats. What gives? Does the “polymathic descendant of Borges and Pynchon” earn the privilege of not being compared to his peers? Is Bolaño’s reward to ignore anything in his books that would characterize it as Chilean, Latin American, or Spanish literature? The Savage Detectives, therefore, lies in the shadow of two giants: the previous canon of Latin American authors deemed fit to be read in the first world, and Bolaño’s own magnum opus, which managed to peel off its label of exported product.
This metatextual irony and its effect on (re)readings of The Savage Detectives is worth exploring, because Bolaño himself explored it in his work. “Sensini,” a short story published in a collection one year before The Savage Detectives, is narrated by a young author advised to participate in literary competitions. An addition at the very end states that the story was submitted to a fiction contest and won. In an interview, Bolaño declares:
The literary wager of ‘Sensini’ was not fulfilled, one-hundred-percent, in the writing of the work. The literary wager was fulfilled by winning a prize – which was doing a full circle of what was being said in the story – but winning a real prize. (Bolaño, La Belleza de Pensar, translation mine)
The literary game, that of “giving one thing (which apparently has one meaning) many meanings,” finds a place in the only visceral realist poem made explicit in The Savage Detectives. “Sión” by Cesárea Tinajero, is a drawing (or, maybe, three drawings forming a poem, like three verses would) with no text. Amadeo Salvatierra, who has known about it for fifty years, cannot make sense of it. Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, however, explain it to him: the poem is a joke. The original Spanish text uses the word juego—not a joke but a game.
Just as “Sensini” made a literary wager by existing as a prize-winning story, so The Savage Detectives stakes its story on its existence as a book—a Latin American book, a Mexican and Chilean book—to give meaning to its story and to the lives of its characters.
How does this attention to the book-ness of the book play out? We’ve observed the arbitrariness of Amadeo Salvatierra’s placement in the second part, or the sandwiching of those testimonials between Juan García Madero’s diary, but there are even earlier traces of the central concern with structure and meaning. García Madero writes on December 10:
This afternoon, as I arranged my books in the room, I thought about Reyes. Reyes could be my little refuge. A person could be immensely happy reading only him or the writers he loved. But that would be too easy. (Bolaño, 92)
No other section in the first part of the novel is so self-aware. García Madero’s dissatisfaction with life, projected into his literary search, reveals the anxiety lurking within his plotless diary, familiar to many but raised to a meta-textual level: the book about our lives makes no sense. In other words, García Madero — through his writing and through his systematic wanderings of cafés and book stores — is searching for structure and meaning in a structureless and possibly meaningless world — that world being Mexico City, Latin America, the novel itself, or existence in general. Structure, Bolaño yells through the pages, is not found in the lives of the poets, but in the literature that serves as their escape from life. The coherence that we try to find in our lives’ wanderings is just like Amadeo Salvatierra’s account: artificial, arbitrary, imbued with meaning only because we choose to, or because we will it to contain meaning.
III. The part about Books
I would rewrite my poems as many as ten or fifteen times. When I saw Jacinto, he would read them and give me his opinion, but my real reader was María. Finally I would type them up and put them in a folder that kept growing day by day, to my satisfaction and delight, since it was like concrete proof that my struggle wasn’t in vain.
— The Savage Detectives, 340
How should we read this book and the concern it lays out? Should we find heroism through some secret victory of the poets who, despite succumbing to time, are bound by their loyalty to their craft and to each other? Should we despair at our sorry attempt to make sense of things, both within the book (and all books) and in our own lives? Should we laugh at the joke, or are we the punchline? The novel dedicates an entire section to this uncertainty: chapter 23 of Part II, made up of nine statements by nine different people, all with the same ending. The language of its speakers varies on cryptic, pedantic, anxious, but they all comment in the final line: “Everything that begins as comedy ends as ____.” The last word varies; we get tragedy, tragicomedy, comedy, cryptographic exercise, triumphal march, mystery, comic monologue, but we aren’t laughing anymore. The novel seems to pause, to ask, “What do you think?” before ending its twenty-year story. The chapters that follow bring a close to the second part: Lima meets Octavio Paz, and fades into the background of Mexico City; Belano goes to Africa to an uncertain fate; a young man claims to be “the only expert on the visceral realists in México” (who also does not remember Juan García Madero); we hear the last slice of Amadeo’s story. With nowhere left to go, we have to move as a visceral realist does. We now go, in the words of Ulises Lima, “backward, gazing at a point in the distance, but moving away from it, walking straight toward the unknown.” We return to the single moment between 1975 and 1976, to the “strict rectangle” of the window of an Impala.
We have followed a boy’s diary in 1975, then meandered through twenty years of stories (none of them including him), and we now return to his diary in 1976, right where we left off. The effect produced, while not real to the characters, is visceral. Lima, Belano, Lupe, and Juan García Madero are young again, but we have seen them age. We know the visceral realists disintegrate as a group not long after they leave. We know that, whatever it is they find in the desert, the search goes on for twenty years (or forever). We know that a chaotic, painful, and mostly disappointing life will follow, and that they, just like the Buendías in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, “did not have a second opportunity on earth” (417). We feel that the last part is happening almost at the end of time, where both past and future disintegrate, leaving only the “today” that García Madero writes about.
This is not the only place where the present devours everything before and after it. Amadeo’s all-encompassing account—narrating everything about the night from the moment he opens the door to Lima and Belano, to the break of dawn—might also remind one of Jorge Luis Borges’s story Funes, his Memory. In it, the eponymous Funes can remember everything with such detail that he can spend the entirety of a single day remembering another entire day (131-137). Amadeo Salvatierra’s account seems to magnify the timespan of its memory even more than that. Because the statement is split up and spread throughout the entire second part, the fateful night seems to happen before, during, and after the wanderings of the visceral realists, all at the same time. Now Borges’s Aleph comes to mind: a point in space containing all other points in the universe (274-286). This attitude of capturing is personified by García Madero himself, throughout all his diary entries at the book’s start and finish. During the New Year’s celebration held under the threat of real violence, García Madero follows everyone in the house, recording their actions with what David Kurnick calls a “will to record, a will hard to distinguish from a desire to hold everything in a kind of impersonal love” (71). The collective in the house, however, appears united only by virtue of being collected in García Madero’s writing, and the dominant mood is absurdity —why are all these people here, and what is keeping them there? What, for the reader, feels like storylines coming together, the characters in the novel perceive as disaster; for García Madero, it is pure Literature and pure Life.
By the end of the book, we know what happens — with Lupe, with García Madero, with Belano and Lima, Cesárea Tinajero, and all the poets. Yet we do not know the Big Question: what is visceral realism? And, since we do not know that answer, we also do not know the corollary—who is a visceral realist? The importance of our questions is epistemological—think of Amadeo Salvatierra, who could not understand Tinajero’s poetry. It is also political—think of the movement’s hatred for established poet Octavio Paz, or Arturo Belano escaping Pinochet’s Chile, or the shadow of the United States border as they flee to the desert of Sonora. Strangely, it is hereditary — consider the first visceral realist in the 30s, then Lima and Belano in the 70s, and the new followers of the novel published in 1998. Finally, it is wholly literary — think of the young artists, Roberto Bolaño first among them, wanting to establish their work beyond that of their predecessors. The answer is, finally, another game.
During the road trip to Sonora, García Madero makes a set of riddle-drawings for others to guess. The answers are all a joke, and a silly one, at that:
Can you guess the answer? It’s a Mexican seen from above. A Mexican smoking a pipe, riding a tricycle, etc. The joke is the sombrero-shaped circle. Belano even jokes that he doesn’t understand the joke because he’s not Mexican. The only one who does guess correctly, each and every time, is Lupe—the one with no literary ambitions, the one always left aside. Yet the game is what comes closest to Cesárea Tinajero’s poetry, her games. García Madero, by creating them, and Lupe, by guessing, seem the most fit to be the inheritors of the literary movement, not because of their skill in writing (even given García Madero’s obsession with poetic meters), but for their ability to play.
The ability to see things from different perspectives. An understanding of the world beyond language. A sense of humor. The answer is still ambiguous and not entirely convincing, but there’s nothing more. The Savage Detectives, in the end, avoids becoming the sum of its parts, while still being the force of a collective, much like the fidelity of the visceral realists to each other—existing through, and also beyond, its components. The book, through the very fact that it is a book and by the fact that we give it meaning (just as we force meaning into our lives—or rather, open the door to our lives in the hope that meaning might drop by), becomes that which we truly appreciate: a Complete Work, a Book, maybe one of The Books. At the very least, it is a book worth its weight in the hand, nudging you to take it with you. Steal it and walk on.
Rodrigo Aguilera Croasdaile is a graduating senior from Amherst College, ’23. He was born and raised in Honduras before enrolling at Amherst, and writes in English and Spanish. He recently completed his senior honors thesis: a novel set in Honduras, titled Capital.
Bolaño, Roberto. Los Detectives Salvajes. Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona, 1998.
Bolaño, Roberto. The Savage Detectives. Translated by Natasha Wimmer, Picador, 2008.
Bolaño, Roberto. 2666. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. Picador, 2008.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. Translated by Andrew Hurley, Viking Press, 1998.
Kurnick, David. The Savage Detectives Reread. Columbia University Press, 2022.