I’ve been looking for a book like Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives for a long time, and didn’t realize it was already on my bookshelf.
Some backstory: My own writing process has been a train wreck for the last 12 months, a retreat into my own head. I abandoned a 300+ page manuscript. I questioned everything I’d ever written, whether any of it had ever been good, whether I even wanted to write again. Whether I even liked novels in the first place, or knew how to tell a story.
And, of course, as the writing went pear-shaped, so did my reading — reading books I’d read before and loved, looking for a spark of excitement in the familiar (books like Moby-Dick, Jesus’ Son, Oakley Hall’s Warlock) and in between them reading thrown-together Kindle books about writing and far-out monuments of inscrutability I’d heard about but not dared to attempt (like Delaney’s Dhalgren, or Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle).
None of it helped. None of it did anything but make me feel more doomed, more confused about why I thought I wanted to write novels in the first place. And yet, after I quit reading John Barth’s Sabbatical, I looked over my books and saw my big hardcover copy of Bolaño’s final novel, 2666, a book that still haunts me sometimes, still fills me with a feeling of dread, still reminds me that Big Books are (or can be) towering achievements despite their many ragged edges. Next to it was an earlier work of Bolaño’s that I’d bought but not read: The Savage Detectives (translated by Natasha Wimmer and put out in English in 2007, but originally published in Spanish as Los detectives salvajes in 1998).
What follows is a report of what I love about this book so far, just over 200 pages into the thing.
First: The voice. Oh, the voice. The first part of the book is the diary of a young Mexico City poet getting caught up with a movement (really just a group of poet friends who call themselves a movement) called the visceral realists in 1975. The second part of the book (which I’m still in, and which makes up the bulk of the work) is a string of pearls, each bead a first-person account of a run-in with the two “leaders” of the visceral realist movement, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Throughout the whole thing, the language is almost conspicuously non-literary, almost completely bare of any self-consciousness. The tone is that of someone speaking to you, telling you a story. Not to say that it isn’t well-crafted; Bolaño’s origins as a poet (Arturo Belano is, after all, a very thinly disguised author substitute, intentionally obvious) shine through every now and then like a bolt of lightning through the conversational tone, little finely-wrought witticisms and observations.
Second: In the end, it’s about a lot of things, but one thing The Savage Detectives is is a book about writing and about writers. Everything is about poets, about how they see their work, what excites them about poetry, about the written word. Characters argue about novels (and mostly hate Octavio Paz for reasons that haven’t been made clear yet). There’s a great passage about what it means to read “desperate” books, and what it means to be a “desperate” reader, what that does to someone. Given my own flight into fiction for reassurance, that resonated.
Third: The Latin America of the 1970s is a setting with which I’m woefully unfamiliar, but this book feels like a window into a world of political turmoil — Belano (as was his real life counterpart) is a Chilean living in Mexico who fought (unsuccessfully) against the 1973 coup in Chile, and the threat of exile hangs over the visceral realists even though most of them haven’t published anything yet. It’s reinvigorating to remember that writers and their books used to be things that were dangerous, that could cause problems for people who wrote them. Truths were told or stances were taken that could get writers in real trouble. Who in American fiction right now is dangerous? Who has enough readers, and is discussed seriously enough, to make the powerful uncomfortable? It energizes me, even though it seems (1) stupid and (2) impossible, to think that the truths contained in fiction can be that powerful. What was the last book you read that was dangerous?
The Savage Detectives is 650 pages long. It’ll probably take me another week to get through it at this pace. I’m not sure if I — or the book — can sustain this exuberance for that long. But it’s reminding me of what made me want to write novels in the first place, the exuberance of its storytelling, the frankness and the candor of these kids infatuated with poetry, the openness of the whole thing and its world.