Book Review: Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives

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07/24/2012 by Stephen Silke

2 of 5 Stars

Too Much Telling Leaves the Novel Flat

Roberto Bolaño quotes Juvenal in his novel The Savage Detectives, translated in 2007 by Natasha Wimmer, “Nemo repente fuit turpissimus,” No one ever became thoroughly bad in one step. Unfortunately, this book is a ton of steps in the wrong direction. Name dropping poets–even if their names have been changed–does not make for interesting writing, nor is it heroic or laudatory to live in abject poverty and bohemianism if there is no evidence that any of your work is good. Here, in spite of the poets calling themselves “Visceral Realists,” no evidence of good work is presented.

Contributing to this is the lack of visceral narrative thread. The book is an experiment at a non-linear detective novel. And while the concept is interesting (if you were to tell it to your friend) as it stands its execution fails, and is not worth the time.

Effective traditional or experimental narrative techniques were not employed in the construction of this book, so there is no captivating “through line.” Rather, the “novel” is bound and gagged by its use of multiple first person narratives (over 40 different characters), who all loosely sound the same, have similar cadences to their voices, and are roughly interested in the same trite bohemian topics. I guess Bolaño wasn’t alive long enough to see Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and learn that the notion of Bohemia like so many other great things has been packaged and sold and made touristy, and then can now be proclaimed dead.

In this book we are force fed narratives requiring us to care about a couple poets: Arturo Bolano (sic) and Ulises Lima, but are also shorted the dramatic scenes that would lead us to care about these two. The sum effect of the book’s failure to engage us is the creation of one big flat character: Bolaño. He is awkwardly there on every page, the grand authorial intrusion, who is just phoning it in with thinly veiled and only slightly variant versions of his poet riffraff voices.

If I’m critical, it’s because I read all 648 pages. I had to keep hoping for interest in anything–poetry, characters, Bolaño, a plot, anything. But nothing was there, nothing ever coalesced, and my hope, along with my time was wasted. I would have preferred that the book’s largesse, since it claimed to be about poetry, be written in a poetic way, or perhaps employ captivating narrative craft (there is a Rimbaud poem cited in the novel, but you’d do better reading Rimbaud: Complete Works, Selected Letters, Bilingual Edition by Chicago Press, rather than waste your time with only one poem among Bolaño’s regrettable characters).

One bright moment in the book, however, were pages 374-420, where a discernable series of episodes is strung together, but alas, these pages are also narrated by Bolaño’s awkward character voice which sounds similar to all the others that he employs in efforts to make the characters divergent.

I know Bolaño could write because I’ve read “The Insufferable Gaucho” and it was a well-written short story, good from beginning to end. Perhaps this novel’s voices fail because of a failing in translator Nathasha Wimmer? I cannot make this accusation though, because I don’t know Spanish, but it is possible.

If you as a reader value being part of the avant-garde, and want to be pummeled by that now tired affectation (think of a humorless Portlandia) for the length of three short novels by all means jump right in, but as for me, I feel obligated to try and stop you. Bolaño’s narrator draws a square on the last page of the book and asks “what’s outside the window?” I say place the book inside the window and then reply “the world, life, and everything that is interesting–whatever is not disingenuous.” The Savage Detectives is of course, not included. 2 of 5 stars.

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