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Literature / The Savage Detectives

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“Finally the Work journeys irremediably alone in the Great Vastness. And one day the Work dies, as all things must die and come to an end: the Sun and the Earth and the Solar System and the Galaxy and the farthest reaches of man's memory. Everything that begins as comedy ends in tragedy."

The Savage Detectives is an 1998 novel, Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s epic on the life of storytellers. It is a Doorstopper novel made almost exclusively on Alternate Character Interpretation, Offscreen Moment of Awesome, Big-Lipped Alligator Moment and oddly enough, realistic consequences. The book is divided on three parts. All three sections are somewhat stand-alone, but only as a whole the point of the book can be understood. The events take place in the period 1976-1996.

The first part is called Mexicans Lost in Mexico. Guess where it takes place. Juan García Madero is a 17 year old in Law College. In a Literature Class, he meets Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the founders and leaders of the visceral realists, a group of young postmodern poets. Impressed by Garcia Madero’s encyclopedic knowledge on archaic literature terms, they eventually allow him to join the visceral realists and meet the rest of the group. Garcia Madero eventually leaves college and becomes a poet, while trying to figure at the enigma that are Ulises and Arturo, who appear to be searching the trails of a little know poetress known as Cesarea Tinajero, the original founder of the visceral realists which Arturo and Ulises would later refound. At the end of this part, through a tad complicated series of events Ulises, Arturo, Garcia Madero and teenage prostitute Lupe escape in a classic car from a group of corrupt cops led by an angry pimp.

Thus the second part starts and things get kinda complicated. This section, taking up about 400 pages and spontaneously called The Savage Detectives, is formed exclusively by proto-interviews made by an unnamed person who is looking information on Arturo, Ulises and the rest of the visceral realists throughout the next 20 years. Garcia Madero appears to have ceased to exist. Each chapter is made by several narrations by different characters on the most diverse locations (some of the actual visceral realists narrate at times, but never Ulises, Arturo or Garcia Madero) each telling their own experience with the main characters, never to the point and always according to their personal view of the character in question. Throughout a span of 20 years, we follow the visceral realists as most of them try to continue their literary careers or plainly continue on surviving, with an emphasis in the weird travels of Belano and Lima throughout most of Europe.

The third part returns to the exact ending of the first part, and is titled On the Deserts of Sonora. Arturo, Ulises, García Madero and Lupe escape from their deaths while searching for the mysterious Cesarea Tinajero. Don’t expect much closure on anything though. Known for the ultra-enigmatic ending and for leaving the Riddle for the Ages “What is behind the Window?”. That doesn’t make more sense on context.

The novel became the lovebird of every single Spanish-speaking literary critic shortly after the death of its author. It was soon translated to English, though a lot of inside jokes may be inexplicable for someone without a degree on Spanish Literature, English-speaking or not. Specially loved by authors, as it is perhaps the most accurate depiction of young artists in the present day and the lives they often live. And not just the nice or even the dramatic side of it.

This work contains examples of:

  • Affectionate Parody: Of post-modernism, especially post-modern poetry. Especially the deal with Cesarea’s poem “Sión”, actually three different drawings of a straight line, a curved line and zigzagging line that Belano and Lima consider a great poem.
  • The Casanova: Arturo, even though he is never referred to as handsome, gets around a lot. Then again, the novel does take place throughout a space of 20 years. Compare to Ulises, who is effectively asexual save for his thing for Claudia.
  • The Cameo: besides the endless references to real authors some actually appear on the book and some even narrate secitons of the book. Noteworthy in particular is the attempt to kidnap novel laureate Octavio Paz by the visceral realists and his meeting with Ulises at the end.
  • Child Soldiers: Jacobo Urenda and Belano moan over the fact that most of the soldiers in the Liberian Civil War are in fact kids.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Ulises reads while taking a bath. Reads while taking a bath.
  • Death Seeker: Belano.
  • Decade Dissonance: One common complaint is that most poets are living the rough life, acquainted to prostitutes and pimps and dealing drugs, which isn't accurate to the sedentary life of the average Literature graduate, aka most young writers nowadays. This is because that was actually the way poor writers lived, especially in Latin America, back when Bolaño was young and managing a living through literature was more difficult.
  • Downer Ending: All of the visceral realists fail in their literary careers, with the exception of Arturo, who becomes a moderately known novelist only to leave to Africa shortly thereafter. Ulises becomes a drug addict in the slums of Mexico City, Cesarea is killed soon after she meets Ulises and Arturo, and Garcia Madero is never heard of again.
  • Dead Artists Are Better: Bolaño reacted to his sudden fame with extreme deadpan, only to die shortly thereafter and immediately be idolized as one of the greatest Spanish-speaking authors of the last century.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Ulises travels to Israel for Claudia and still doesn’t get her.
  • Duel to the Death: Belano challenges literary critic Iñaki Echevarne to a duel with swords on a beach for a review. A review, by the way, tht's yet to be written. We never really know how it ended, since none of the witnesses are too enthusiastic to tell us, but clearly they both came out alive.
  • Flamboyant Gay: Luis Sebastian Rosado. Like whoa. His name can even mean “Sore skin”. The other gay characters, San Epifanio and Luscious Skin (who is actually bisexual) are relatively Straight Gay in comparison. Then again, Luscious Skin is known by everybody as Luscious Skin, so yeah.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Ulises and Arturo, even though the heterosexuality is actually contested. Ulises and Heimito later.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Lupe, somewhat averted in that she is portrayed as childish and ignorant.
  • Lost in Translation: the word “savage” can mean in Spanish “stupid” so the title can be read as “The Stupid Detectives” which some believe may be more accurate. It is more likely the ambiguity was on purpose, though, as it is a theme through the novel.
  • Mad Artist: Almost every character has a degree of eccentricity, but Arturo and especially Ulises take the key. The unexplainable actions, the sudden mood swings, the strange ideas, the even weirder situations in which they lead themselves in…
  • Magical Realism: At one point an acquaintance of Cesarea mentions an odd feeling in her room, and wonders aloud whether she had gained the ability to manipulate reality at will. This is never disproven. Or referenced again at all. Considering Bolano was a vocal critic of magical realism and its impact upon Latin American literature, this may have been a subtle Take That!. It's not quite the only moment of sudden weirdness or magic in the novel, either, and more to the point, none of them are given too much attention.
  • Meaningful Name: Everybody. The most blatant one is Cesarea Tinajero. Her first name is a dead ringer for the spanish word for "caesarean" as in "caesarean section". Not to mention being the female version of Caesar, a heavily symbolic name by itself.
  • Mind Screw: albeit subtle, this is the inevitable result of taking ambiguity as a religion. Especially García Madero’s disappearance, which can be explained in ways both mundane or more mind-screwy, but nevertheless gives this impression.
  • The Muse: Cesarea is a Deconstruction of this. For starters, she inspires with her own creations while she herself is a mystery, for starters. She also loses her beauty by the time she appears on the story, profetizing the ultimate fate of the literary movement she inspired.
  • Noodle Incident: The fact that Arturo was married and has a son is spontaneously mentioned.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Maddeningly so. Cool things are inferred. Never shown. This includes an apparent confrontation between Arturo and a demon, the details of the Ulises/Claudia relationship and of his journey to Vienna and the long expected conversation between both Arturo and Ulises with the “mother” of their group, Cesarea.
  • Queer Romance: Between Luis Sebastian Rosado and Luscious Skin. predictably, it ends in tragedy.
  • Riddle for the Ages: What Is Behind the Window?
  • Road Trip Plot: The third part. There's also Mary Watson, who relates her 1977 summer, when she and others hit the road from France to Spain.
  • Rule of Symbolism: At one point, a narrator points out that every literary movement needs a patron and that the visceral realists will fail because they lack one. This puts into another light the search of Ulises and Arturo for Cesarea, “mother” of the visceral realists. By the time they meet her she has lost her beauty, dies and that they are the ones that bury her.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: In a space of 20 years, Ulises has exactly one love interest. And it doesn’t end well.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Neo-nazis appear in Ulises’ unexplained journey to Vienna. As he was previously described as being brown-skinned, you expect him to be in serious danger, but as soon as the Nazis are told he is not a jew they leave him alone. Heimito Künst, one of them, is Ulises’ best and only friend, but is sympathetic-ish due to being delusional and not being so hell-bent in the murdering part of it, as far as it is shown.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Heimito. Hanging around with a guy who punches people and take their money may be the one point where Ulises crosses the Moral Event Horizon for some.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Everybody, but Heimito Künst takes the cake. He is convinced Jews are creating an atomic bomb under Israel. Yeah.
  • The Unreveal: Regarding who the "interviewer" in the second part is. One character explicitly addresses them as "Belano" multiple times during his report, but none of the others before or after acknowledge it, and when mentioned they are referred to in the third person. In addition, even acknowledging the possibility that all the interviews except one were done without revealing the identity of the one conducting them, contradictions and plot holes still arise if you take that as the sole answer.
  • Walking the Earth: Lima and Belano go to Europe, Latin America, Israel and even Liberia.
  • Word Salad Title: Ulises and Arturo are technically detectives, what with searching for Cesarea and all, but they are never referred as so. They are not particularly savage, though that may be chalked to Lost in Translation.
  • Writers Suck: Most of the poets are shallow and pretentious.