The Savage Detectives: A Novel
The Savage Detectives: A Novel
Roberto Bolano
Picador, 2008
656 pp., $20.00

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Reviewed by Laurance Wieder

Who Is This Writer? How Does He Know Me?

An encounter with Roberto Bolaño.

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 "The Savage Detectives" divides into 26 chapters (one for each letter of the alphabet). The story, or mystery, is told in the Mexico City rooms of Amadeo Salvatierra, near the Palacio de la Inquisición, over one long night in January, 1976.

 Salvatierra, a minor figure associated with both the Mexican Stridentists and the visceral realists of the 1920s, supports himself as a scribe. He answers the inquiries of those he calls "three boys" into the life and poems of Cesárea Tinajero, mother of visceral realism. "Who is Cesárea Tinajero?" is one mystery pursued by The Savage Detectives. But who are the three boys? Probably Belano and Lima, but who is the third? Are they the detectives? What is a poet without poems? Is not having an answer the same as there being no answer? Is disappearing the same as dying? Why do we do what we do, and does it matter?

 Over his last bottle of Los Suicidas mezcal—no longer available in stores— Amadeo Salvatierra recalls events of forty and fifty years past, and his oral history ripples outward, forward across two decades and five continents. In each of the 26 chapters, the multiple narrators are also characters, engines of the plot: poets and painters, novelists, critics, architects, anthropologists, editors, publishers, drug dealers, whores, pimps and gangsters, lawyers and heiresses, Nazis and kabbalists, body-builders, lottery winners, and Mexican Jews brought together like the thieves in The Maltese Falcon, in a quest for poetry.

 Midway through the evening and the book, one of the three boys asks Salvatierra, "Where are Cesárea Tinajero's poems?" The scribe digs out the sole surviving copy of the only issue of Caborca, and shows them Cesárea's one poem: "Sión". The poem can't be quoted: it's a visual stack of three drawings. They depict (from top to bottom) a small rectangle on top of a straight line; a small rectangle on one slope of a wavy line; a small rectangle on the steep of a jagged line. Salvatierra then asked the boys what they made of this poem, which he'd been looking at for more than forty years and "never understood a goddamn thing." They answer that the poem's a joke covering up something more serious. The scribe still wants to know what it means. They think. Time passes. They talk about other pieces in Caborca. "Well, then, I said, what's the mystery? Then the boys looked at me and said: there is no mystery, Amadeo."

 In "Mexicans Lost in Mexico," the December 14 entry in García Madero's journal records that no one gives the visceral realists "ANYTHING" (his caps), meaning money, column inches, invitations to party or to read. "Belano and Lima" he notes, "are like two ghosts." Then he asks: "If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?"

 Amadeo Salvatierra dispatches the detectives to interview Manuel Maple Arce, translator of John Dos Passos (really) and friend of Borges (maybe). The old man observes that "all poets, even the most avant-garde, need a father. But these poets were meant to be orphans."

 According to Quim Font, institutionalized Catalan architect, visceral realist magazine designer, father of the wildest girl in Mexico City, and unshakeable reality principle, Belano and Lima are writers of desperate poems. This limits their appeal, because desperate poems require desperate readers.

 All second-generation visceral realist poems are allusions, never citations. The only evidence of their existence is the memory of others. This is the contrapositive of Mandelstam's poetry, which was only preserved because others memorized it, and a variation on the Borgesian conceit that no book exists until a book is written about it.

 In the case of Belano and Lima, their very existence depends upon others' memories. For good or ill:

 A Latin-spouting Galician lawyer put his money in a Barcelona poetry magazine. He thinks he is a poet, a giant. Then he finds Belano (a nobody) in bed with his daughter.

 A Chilean bar owner in Barcelona recounts his tale of amazing luck. This multiple lottery winner addresses Belano directly, implying that the writer is present at the transcription, if not the scribe himself.

 Octavio Paz's secretary remembers a literary encounter between Paz and Ulisses Lima in a seedy Mexico City park.

 "The Sonora Desert" picks up García Madero's journal on New Year's Day, 1976. The quest for Cesárea Tinajero ends in a fatal duel in the dust. Idling in the the bordertown of Villiviciosa, the journalist's imagination gives out. The last entry is a line-drawing riddle.

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