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The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolaño, Natasha Wimmer

This review, such as it is, might be considered spoilerish, actually, it’s a lotta spoilerish, it’s presented in a rambling, perhaps, incoherent manner, and it is tentatively offered. It also includes a speculative consideration, for your reading enjoyment—one you’re very entitled to disagree with. Take a little theory, take a little text, stir them together, you get speculation. Toward that end I focus on a single aspect of the novel. You’ve been warned.

Ladies and Gentlemen, you want to know what Visceral Realism is? Listen to this, one of the great songs (one of my ‘desert island picks’-- any version). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2rjDBQ1UDY The guttural (bass) at play with the high-soaring (the stellar Mitchell vocal & lyric). Play it again, follow Jaco Pastorius’ bass line. Play it again. You can feel it; it will own you. JP, gone too soon. RB, gone too soon. Life sux, but they’ve left us their music.

Okay. I wondered how to begin this thing, there it is. It works or it doesn’t, but you can’t fault the song—not without being a dick.

This is the second time I’ve read TSD, and this time I read it differently, for lack of a better term, I read it more slowly, closely if you will, things began to appear to me that hadn’t with the first reading. I started compiling a list of all the proper names, with indications when I knew the names were real, but several chapters into the second section I knew I wouldn’t be able to maintain the list and finish reading the novel any time soon. I started keeping running summaries of the entries in section two (The Savage Detectives), and something interesting became apparent, actually unapparent, that created dissonance—which led me to a single conclusion: this is a book about Legend Making. Creating a legend. How fact (fictive fact) and myth (fictive myth) and creative license combine to create Legend.

Everyone knows Arturo Belano is Bolaño’s alter-ego—his fictive self. With The Savage Detectives, Bolaño creates his mythic self, his self as he wishes to be seen, his self as he knows others have seen him, perhaps even the self he hoped to never be. The life of Bolaño and Belano so closely intertwined, most of us will never know where one varies from the other; a double-helix, the germ cell of a Legend.

For the handful who don’t know what this novel is, I’ll provide the briefest summary I can: Parts I & III are Juan García Madero’s diary entries chronicling how he, Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima and Lupe, the prostitute, met in Mexico City and fled to the Sonoran Desert— to escape Lupe’s pimp (Lupe and García Madero) and to find a lost literary hero of the Visceral Realist movement, Cesárea Tinajero (Belano and Lima); Part II is a series of oral histories/testamonies/interviews (less the questions and the voice of an interviewer) presented in the chronological order in which they were made except for one which seems to have occurred in a single telling but split into sections across chapters—the order of the entries has little or nothing to do with the narrative chronology. My interest is Part II—the troublesome Part II.

Why troublesome? To begin with, the story of Amadeo Salvatierra (dated January 1976): in an extended ‘testimony’ which spans 13 of the section’s 26 chapters, Salvatierra recounts the night and morning spent with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, drinking heavily, discussing Cesárea Tinajero, and analyzing the only poem of her’s Salvatierra has; Lima and Belano explain to Salvatierra that the poem is a joke. Why is this troublesome then? Salvatierra tells his story while Lima and Belano are off in the desert, far, far away from Mexico City. Hold that thought.

Unlike the Salvatierra testimony and others from January ‘76, the entry from Andrés Ramirez (Barcelona, Dec. ’88) is clearly addressed to Belano; while the interviewer’s questions are omitted, the responses are to Belano (“I was destined to be a failure, Belano, take my word for it.” “I know you’ve been in similar situations, Belano, so I won’t go on too long.”) Nor will I, but hold that thought. In the penultimate interview, and it’s clearly an interview addressed to an anonymous ‘sir,’ Ernesto García Grajales (Dec. ’96) summarizes what became of the Visceral Realists premised on the research he’s done for a book: “Yes, you could say I’m the foremost scholar in the field, Who are the Savage Detectives? Are they Belano and Lima on their search for the illusive Cesárea Tinajero? On their searches for something else? Are they the unnamed interviewers of the various testimonies in section II (which would include Belano)? Or, might they be someone else?

From [a:Wayne C. Booth we learn (perhaps, more than we’d like) about the Implied Author. From Wolfgang Iser we learn (perhaps, more than we’d like) about the Implied Reader. All well and good. Now comes the Implied Editor from this guy. Unless we assume that Bolaño was sloppy with his timeline, we have to believe someone asked Salvatierra to account for his night with Lima and Belano—someone other than Belano, as during January, 1976, Belano was chasing all over the desert and there’s no indication he’d contacted anyone from the road. So the testimonial was solicited by someone else—but who would have cared in January, 1976? It could have been Alberto the pimp or his policeman accomplice, but neither would have pursued further testimonies after early February. At least some of the testimonies were addressed to Belano, although it’s unlikely he would have crossed paths with narrators who only knew Lima in remote locations. Who initiated these leftover, unaccounted for testimonies? Who is the Implied Editor/detective who edited out the questions posed to these characters? Who could this other ‘detective’ be? And what makes him/her ‘savage’? Who is this Implied Editor? The one who’s taken all the various pieces, strands, stories of known origin but unknown behest, and determinedly (savagely?) attempts to make sense of them? Create the Bolaño/Belano Legend? Isn’t it just possible that we have seen the Savage Detectives and they are us?

One of the titles from my Favorites shelf, do I really need to tell you how much I like it? There are scads of great reviews for TSD, covering themes, impressions, and how Bolaño fits into the mindscapes of the various reviewers. Read them all; they’re worth it.