The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives

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by Roberto Bolaño

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National Bestseller

In this dazzling novel, the book that established his international reputation, Roberto Bolaño tells the story of two modern-day Quixotes--the last survivors of an underground literary movement, perhaps of literature itself--on a tragicomic quest through a darkening, entropic universe: our own. The Savage Detectives is

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National Bestseller

In this dazzling novel, the book that established his international reputation, Roberto Bolaño tells the story of two modern-day Quixotes--the last survivors of an underground literary movement, perhaps of literature itself--on a tragicomic quest through a darkening, entropic universe: our own. The Savage Detectives is an exuberant, raunchy, wildly inventive, and ambitious novel from one of the greatest Latin American authors of our age.

Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
An utterly unique achievement—a modern epic rich in character and event. . . . [He is] the most important writer to emerge from Latin America since García Márquez.
author of The History of Love Nicole Krauss
My favorite writer . . . The Savage Detectives is an ark bearing all the strange salvage of poetry and youth from catastrophes past and those yet to come.
Los Angeles Times Thomas McGonigle
The Savage Detectives is deeply satisfying. . . . Bolaño's book throws down a great, clunking, formal gauntlet to his readers' conventional expectations. . . . A very good novel.
A bizarre and mesmerizing novel . . . It's a lustful story—lust for sex, lust for self, lust for the written word.
Roberto Bolaño's masterwork, at last translated into English, confirms this Chilean's status as Latin America's literary enfant terrible.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Emily Carter Roiphe
Combustible . . . A glittering, tumbling diamond of a book . . . When you are done with this book, you will believe there is no engine more powerful than the human voice.
An exuberantly sprawling, politically charged picaresque novel.
The New York Times Book Review
Wildly enjoyable . . . Bolaño beautifully manages to keep his comedy and his pathos in the same family.
The Nation John Banville
One of the most respected and influential writers of [his] generation . . . At once funny and vaguely, pervasively, frightening.
With any luck at all, Natasha Wimmer's luminous translation of The Savage Detectives will focus some long-overdue Anglo attention on the late Roberto Bolaño, one of Latin America's most influential writers. Ostensibly the story of two poets in search of a third, this freewheeling roman à clef mines the revolutionary landscape of the 1970s, the violent history of Latin American politics, and a rich trove of contemporary literature for a bold, bracing, and utterly original take on the conventional road novel. Often credited with breaking the long spell of magic realism over Latino literature, Bolaño uncovers in this remarkable book the painful, often violent collision of life and literature and the essential nature of the writer as fugitive/exile. Highly recommended for discerning readers.
Publishers Weekly
Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The late Chilean writer Bolaño's 1998 (U.S. 2007) novel begins with a 17-year-old's diary entries describing life in 1970 Mexico City. The narrative's second part is a meditation on the visceral realism movement founded by poets Ulises Lima and Arturo Belaño, capped by their search 20 years previously for the poet Cesárea Tinajero. This Latin American On the Road presents a dreamlike patchwork of Lima and Belaño's adventures from which to reconstruct their literary pilgrimage. Narrators Eddie Lopez and Armando Duran reinforce the novel's sense of place with their rounded pronunciations. Essential. [Bolaño's final novel, the National Book Critics Circle Award winner 2666, is also available from Blackstone Audio.—Ed.]—Judith Robinson, Univ. at Buffalo
Kirkus Reviews
The search for a missing poet is the nominal subject of the late (1953-2003) expatriate Chilean author's blazingly original 1998 masterpiece. This almost aggressively literary novel, which won major Latin American literary prizes and follows into English translation several briefer works (Last Evenings on Earth, 2006, etc.), evolves around the professional friendship of poet intellectuals Arturo Belano (an obvious authorial surrogate) and Ulises Lima. In the course of founding a literary movement they label "visceral realism," the pair undertake a quixotic journey hoping to find their predecessor, Mexican poet Cesarea Tinajero, known to have disappeared into the Sonoran Desert decades earlier. But before we learn of their progress, Bola-o introduces the ardent figure of 17-year-old hopeful poet Juan Garc'a Madero, offering a wonderful account of the fledgling artist's plunge into Mexico City's artistic world, energetic discovery of the multitudinous pleasures of sex and hard-won solidarity with the visceral realists, once he has learned (through tireless networking) that unqualified poets are being rigorously purged from the movement. Juan Garc'a's breathless narrative then yields to a 400-page sequence in which various involved observers relate and comment on the shared and separate odysseys endured by Ulises (an adventurer prone to miscalculations and missed travel connections), Arturo (who becomes a war correspondent, as the novel travels to Europe and North Africa) and faithful Juan Garc'a. In a brief final sequence set in the desert, Juan Garc'a resumes the narration, treating the by-now brain-teased reader to a contest in which the poets display their knowledge of arcane literarytrivia. The sad, surprising result of their quest for the elusive Cesarea is also revealed. One of the most entertaining books about writers and their discontents since Boswell's Life of Johnson. A brilliant novel, fully deserving of its high international reputation.
Neuen Zürcher Zeitung Andreas Breitenstein
The brightest hope for the future of South American literature.
Le Monde des Livres Fabienne Dumontet
An event…The Savage Detectives [is] a brutal and lyrical vision of the last thirty years of the millennium.
The Times Literary Supplement Amaia Gabantxo
A rare and fertile talent.
Les Inrockuptibles Fabrice Gabriel
Certain books go by too quickly. We wish they'd last longer and count the pages, not out of boredom, but out of anxiety at having to tell the characters goodbye. The Savage Detectives is one of these books…In the twists and turns of its mock-scholarly construction, The Savage Detectives succeeds in capturing both the fever of the past and the terrible, impossible yearning to have it back.
The New York Times Francisco Goldman
Bolaño, it seemed to me, hovers over many young Latin American writers, even those in their 40s, the way Garciá Márquez must have over his generation and the following one.
The Financial Times Angel Gurria-Quintana
Powerful and disorienting . . . [Bolaño's] books are bursting with humour that is both raw and sophisticated.
El Periodico Elena Hevia
Bolaño is a prodigious storyteller on the level of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.
La Vanguardia J. A. Masoliver Ródenas
The great Mexican novel of its generation . . . By turns sublime and sinister, The Savage Detectives is a magnificent portrait of an era—and of every era in which people experience literature as passionately as life itself.
Der Spiegel Matthias Matussek
Quite possibly the boldest author in Spanish literature today.
Sächsischen Zeitung Rulo Melchert
One of the most important novels in modern Latin-American literature.
The New York Times Book Review Francine Prose
[Bolaño's work is] something extraordinarily beautiful and (at least to me) entirely new…Reading Roberto Bolaño is like hearing the secret story, being shown the fabric of the particular, watching the tracks of art and life merge at the horizon and linger there like a dream from which we awake inspired to look more attentively at the world.
The New York Times Larry Rohter
His generation's premier Latin American writer…Bolaño's reputation and legend are in meteoric ascent.
Le Magazine Littéraire Enrique Vila-Matas
The Savage Detectives gave us the first real signs that the parade of Amazonian roosters was coming to an end: it marked the beginning of the end for the high priests of the Boom and all their local color . . . It also introduced us to an astonishing writer who reminded us how much deep joy there was in the passion of reading and, at the same time, spent his days on the edge of an abyss that no one else had ever noticed. What was he doing there? He was writing, on a ledge overlooking the void. In retrospect, The Savage Detectives must be considered—along with his giant, posthumous 2666—one of the two major axes of Bolano's extaordinary, already legendary work.
El País
Bolaño [is] the brightest literary star in the current Latin American panorama.

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Copyright © 1998 Roberto Bolaño
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-374-19148-1

Chapter One




I've been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.


I'm not really sure what visceral realism is. I'm seventeen years old, my name is Juan García Madero, and I'm in my first semester of law school. I wanted to study literature, not law, but my uncle insisted, and in the end I gave in. I'm an orphan, and someday I'll be a lawyer. That's what I told my aunt and uncle, and then I shut myself in my room and cried all night. Or anyway for a long time. Then, as if it were settled, I started class in the law school's hallowed halls, but a month later I registered for Julio César Álamo's poetry workshop in the literature department, and that was how I met the visceral realists, or viscerealists or even vicerealists, as they sometimes like to call themselves. Up until then, I had attended the workshop four times and nothing ever happened, though only in a manner of speaking, of course, since naturally something always happened: we read poems, and Álamopraised them or tore them to pieces, depending on his mood; one person would read, Álamo would critique, another person would read, Álamo would critique, somebody else would read, Álamo would critique. Sometimes Álamo would get bored and ask us (those of us who weren't reading just then) to critique too, and then we would critique and Álamo would read the paper.

It was the ideal method for ensuring that no one was friends with anyone, or else that our friendships were unhealthy and based on resentment.

And I can't say that Álamo was much of a critic either, even though he talked a lot about criticism. Really I think he just talked for the sake of talking. He knew what periphrasis was. Not very well, but he knew. But he didn't know what pentapody was (a line of five feet in classical meter, as everybody knows), and he didn't know what a nicharchean was either (a line something like the phalaecean), or what a tetrastich was (a four-line stanza). How do I know he didn't know? Because on the first day of the workshop, I made the mistake of asking. I have no idea what I was thinking. The only Mexican poet who knows things like that by heart is Octavio Paz (our great enemy), the others are clueless, or at least that was what Ulises Lima told me minutes after I joined the visceral realists and they embraced me as one of their own. Asking Álamo these questions was, as I soon learned, a sign of my tactlessness. At first I thought he was smiling in admiration. Later I realized it was actually contempt. Mexican poets (poets in general, I guess) hate to have their ignorance brought to light. But I didn't back down, and after he had ripped apart a few of my poems at the second session, I asked him whether he knew what a rispetto was. Álamo thought that I was demanding respect for my poems, and he went off on a tirade about objective criticism (for a change), a minefield that every young poet must cross, etc., but I cut him off, and after explaining that never in my short life had I demanded respect for my humble creations, I put the question to him again, this time enunciating as clearly as possible.

"Don't give me this crap," said Álamo.

"A rispetto, professor, is a kind of lyrical verse, romantic to be precise, similar to the strambotto, with six or eight hendecasyllabic lines, the first four in the form of a serventesio and the following composed in rhyming couplets. For example ..." And I was about to give him an example or two when Álamo jumped up and cut me off. What happened next is hazy (although I have a good memory): I remember Álamo laughing along with the four or five other members of the workshop. I think they may have been making fun of me.

Anyone else would have left and never gone back, but despite my unhappy memories (or my unhappy failure to remember what had happened, at least as unfortunate as remembering would have been), the next week there I was, punctual as always.

I think destiny brought me back. This was the fifth session of Álamo's workshop that I'd attended (but it might just as well have been the eighth or the ninth, since lately I've been noticing that time can expand or contract at will), and tension, the alternating current of tragedy, was palpable in the air, although no one could explain why. To begin with, we were all there, all seven apprentice poets who'd originally signed up for the workshop. This hadn't happened at any other session. And we were nervous. Even Álamo wasn't his usual calm self. For a minute I thought something might have happened at the university, that maybe there'd been a campus shooting I hadn't heard about, or a surprise strike, or that the dean had been assassinated, or they'd kidnapped one of the philosophy professors. But nothing like that was true, and there was no reason to be nervous. No objective reason, anyway. But poetry (real poetry) is like that: you can sense it, you can feel it in the air, the way they say certain highly attuned animals (snakes, worms, rats, and some birds) can detect an earthquake. What happened next was a blur, but at the risk of sounding corny, I'd say there was something miraculous about it. Two visceral realist poets walked in and Álamo reluctantly introduced them, although he only knew one of them personally; the other one he knew by reputation, or maybe he just knew his name or had heard someone mention him, but he introduced us to him anyway.

I'm not sure why they were there. It was clearly a hostile visit, hostile but somehow propagandistic and proselytizing too. At first the visceral realists kept to themselves, and Álamo tried to look diplomatic and slightly ironic while he waited to see what would happen. Then he started to relax, encouraged by the strangers' shyness, and after half an hour the workshop was back to normal. That's when the battle began. The visceral realists questioned Álamo's critical system and he responded by calling them cut-rate surrealists and fake Marxists. Five members of the workshop backed him up; in other words, everyone but me and a skinny kid who always carried around a book by Lewis Carroll and never spoke. This surprised me, to be honest, because the students supporting Álamo so fiercely were the same ones he'd been so hard on as a critic, and now they were revealing themselves to be his biggest supporters. That's when I decided to put in my two cents, and I accused Álamo of having no idea what a rispetto was; nobly, the visceral realists admitted that they didn't know either but my observation struck them as pertinent, and they said so; one of them asked how old I was, and I said I was seventeen and tried all over again to explain what a rispetto was; Álamo was red with rage; the members of the workshop said I was being pedantic (one of them called me an academicist); the visceral realists defended me; suddenly unstoppable, I asked Álamo and the workshop in general whether they at least remembered what a nicharchean or a tetrastich was. And no one could answer.

Contrary to my expectations, the argument didn't lead to an all-around ass-kicking. I have to admit I would have loved that. And although one of the members of the workshop did promise Ulises Lima that someday he would kick his ass, in the end nothing actually happened; nothing violent, I mean, although I responded to the threat (which, I repeat, was not directed at me) by letting the threatener know that he could have it out with me anywhere on campus, any day, any time.

The end of class was surprising. Álamo dared Ulises Lima to read one of his poems. Lima didn't need to be asked twice. He pulled some smudged, crumpled sheets from his jacket pocket. Oh no, I thought, the idiot is walking right into their trap. I think I shut my eyes out of sheer sympathetic embarrassment. There's a time for reciting poems and a time for fists. As far as I was concerned, this was the latter. But as I was saying, I closed my eyes, and I heard Lima clear his throat, then I heard the somewhat uncomfortable silence (if it's possible to hear such a thing, which I doubt) that settled around him, and finally I heard his voice, reading the best poem I'd ever heard. Then Arturo Belano got up and said that they were looking for poets who would like to contribute to the magazine that the visceral realists were putting out. Everybody wished they could volunteer, but after the fight they felt sheepish and no one said a thing. When the workshop ended (later than usual), I went with Lima and Belano to the bus stop. It was too late. There were no more buses, so we decided to take a pesero together to Reforma, and from there we walked to a bar on Calle Bucareli, where we sat until very late, talking about poetry.

I still don't really get it. In one sense, the name of the group is a joke. At the same time, it's completely in earnest. Many years ago there was a Mexican avant-garde group called the visceral realists, I think, but I don't know whether they were writers or painters or journalists or revolutionaries. They were active in the twenties or maybe the thirties, I'm not quite sure about that either. I'd obviously never heard of the group, but my ignorance in literary matters is to blame for that (every book in the world is out there waiting to be read by me). According to Arturo Belano, the visceral realists vanished in the Sonora desert. Then Belano and Lima mentioned somebody called Cesárea Tinajero or Tinaja, I can't remember which (I think it was when I was shouting to the waiter to bring us some beers), and they talked about the Comte de Lautréamont's Poems, something in the Poems that had to do with this Tinajero woman, and then Lima made a mysterious claim. According to him, the present-day visceral realists walked backward. What do you mean, backward? I asked.

"Backward, gazing at a point in the distance, but moving away from it, walking straight toward the unknown."

I said I thought this sounded like the perfect way to walk. The truth was I had no idea what he was talking about. If you stop and think about it, it's no way to walk at all.

Other poets showed up later on. Some were visceral realists, others weren't. It was total pandemonium. At first I worried that Belano and Lima were so busy talking to every freak who came up to our table that they'd forgotten all about me, but as day began to dawn, they asked me to join the gang. They didn't say "group" or "movement," they said "gang." I liked that. I said yes, of course. It was all very simple. Belano shook my hand and told me that I was one of them now, and then we sang a ranchera. That was all. The song was about the lost towns of the north and a woman's eyes. Before I went outside to throw up, I asked them whether the eyes were Cesárea Tinajero's. Belano and Lima looked at me and said that I was clearly a visceral realist already and that together we would change Latin American poetry. At six in the morning I took another pesero, this time by myself, which brought me to Colonia Lindavista, where I live. Today I didn't go to class. I spent the whole day in my room writing poems.


I went back to the bar on Bucareli, but the visceral realists never showed up. While I was waiting for them, I spent my time reading and writing. The regulars, a group of silent, pretty grisly-looking drunks, never once took their eyes off me.

Results of five hours of waiting: four beers, four tequilas, a plate of tortilla sopes that I didn't finish (they were half spoiled), a cover-to-cover reading of Álamo's latest book of poems (which I only brought so I could make fun of Álamo with my new friends), seven texts written in the style of Ulises Lima, or rather, in the style of the one poem I'd read, or really just heard. The first one was about the sopes, which smelled of the grave; the second was about the university: I saw it in ruins; the third was about the university (me running naked in the middle of a crowd of zombies); the fourth was about the moon over Mexico City; the fifth about a dead singer; the sixth about a secret community living in the sewers of Chapultepec; and the seventh about a lost book and friendship. Those were the results, plus a physical and spiritual sense of loneliness.

A couple of drunks tried to bother me, but young as I may be, I can take care of myself. A waitress (I found out her name is Brígida; she said she remembered me from the other night with Belano and Lima) stroked my hair. She did it absentmindedly, as she went by to wait on another table. Afterward she sat with me for a while and hinted that my hair was too long. She was nice, but I decided it was better not to respond. At three in the morning I went home. Still no visceral realists. Will I ever see them again?


No news of my friends. I haven't been to class in two days. And I don't plan to go back to Álamo's workshop either. This afternoon I was at the Encrucijada Veracruzana again (the bar on Bucareli), but no sign of the visceral realists. It's funny the way a place like that changes from afternoon to night or even morning. You'd think it was a completely different bar. This afternoon it seemed much filthier than it really is. The grisly night crowd hadn't shown up yet, and the clientele was-how should I put it-more furtive, less mysterious, and more peaceable. Three low-level office workers, probably civil servants, completely drunk; a street vendor who'd sold all his sea turtle eggs, standing next to his empty basket; two high school students; a gray-haired man sitting at a table eating enchiladas. The waitresses were different too. I didn't recognize the three who were on duty today, although one of them came right up to me and said: you must be the poet. This flustered me. Still, I was flattered, I have to admit.

"Yes, I'm a poet, but how did you know?"

"Brígida told me about you."

Brígida, the waitress!

"And what did she tell you?" I asked, not daring to use the informal with her yet.

"That you wrote some very pretty poems."

"There's no way she could know that. She's never read any of my work," I said, blushing a little, but increasingly satisfied by the turn the conversation was taking. It also occurred to me that Brígida might have read some of my poems-over my shoulder! That I didn't like so much.

The waitress (her name was Rosario) asked me to do her a favor. I should have said, "It depends," as my uncle had taught me (to the point of exhaustion), but that's not the way I am. All right, then, I said, what?

"I'd like you to write me a poem," she said.

"Consider it done. One of these days I promise you I will," I said, using with her for the first time and finally getting up the courage to order another tequila.

"It's on me," she said. "But you have to write it now."

I tried to explain you can't just write a poem that way, on the spot.

"Anyway, what's the hurry?"

Her explanation was somewhat vague; it seemed to involve a promise made to the Virgen de Guadalupe, something to do with the health of someone, a very dear and longed-for family member who had disappeared and come back again. But what did a poem have to do with all that? It occurred to me that I'd had too much to drink and hadn't eaten in hours, and I wondered whether the alcohol and hunger must be starting to disconnect me from reality. But then I decided it didn't matter. If I'm remembering right (though I wouldn't stake my life on it), it so happens that one of the visceral realists' basic poetry-writing tenets is a momentary disconnection from a certain kind of reality. Anyway, the bar had emptied out, so the other two waitresses drifted over to my table and then I was surrounded, in what seemed (and actually was) an innocent position but which to some uninformed spectator-a policeman, for example-might not have looked that way: a student sitting with three women standing around him, one of them brushing his left arm and shoulder with her right hip, the other two with their thighs pressed against the edge of the table (an edge that would surely leave a mark on those thighs), carrying on an innocent literary conversation, but a conversation that might look like something else entirely if you saw it from the doorway. Like a pimp in conference with his charges. Like a sex-crazed student refusing to be seduced.

I decided to get out while I still could, and doing my best to stand up, I paid, sent my regards to Brígida, and left. When I stepped outside the sun was blinding.


Excerpted from THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES by ROBERTO BOLAÑO Copyright © 1998 by Roberto Bolaño. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Savage Detectives 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 reviews.
sandiek More than 1 year ago
Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives is the story of a group of young poets in Mexico in the early 1970's. The book is written in three parts. The first part is the story of the Visceral Poet group, young poets and writers living in Mexico City, all Hispanics from various countries. The founders of the group are Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, who named the group after an earlier set of visceral poets in the 1920's. That group centered around a female poet, Cesarea Tinajero, who disappeared mysteriously. In the first part, we meet the various characters through the eyes of a 17 year old, who thinks he might be a poet. This young man, Juan Garcia Madero, spends his days reading and writing and discussing literature with the group members. He also discovers his sexuality, and much of the section deals with his sexual awakenings and various partners. The second part is written forty years later, and is written as a series of short interviews with various people who have encountered either Lima or Belano over those years. Through these vignettes, we discover what has happened to these poets over the succeeding decades. The story winds through several countries and continents. Each person knows a bit of their stories, and the reader is able to slowly piece together their lives. The third part is a flashback to the road trip that Belano, Lima, Madero and a prostitute take to try to find Cesarea and what caused her to disappear. The events of that trip fuel the rest of the book, although the reader only realises this in retrospect. The Savage Detectives is a book that will be considered important for years, and will probably become a classic. Many readers might pick it up thinking it is a mystery, and they might be disappointed. But those readers that stick around for the ride will be entranced as they enter Bolano's world. This is definately a book that will bear rereads, and is recommended for readers who appreciate cutting edge literature and exposure to the literature of other countries.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I decided to buy this book because I read great reviews about it in several magazines. It's very long (almost 600 pages!), and a really tough read. It took me almost 3 months to get through it. The story follows two poets over 20 years, and it's told by individuals they've crossed paths with over the years. The problem is they've crossed paths with so many different people, its hard to keep up!! I'll probably try reading this book again in a few years. I recommend the Savage Detectives to anyone who has the time to spend reading it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A detective story... floating in a world of words, a breathless account of the search for a lost poet or was it a lost poem. It exposes the naive adolescent and lost mind set of a man on a mission to prove his existence. Its a rapturous list of name, and references in the style of Borges, but with a breathlessness that the old master, did not contribute. Is the story real, is it fake, is it realistic? It raises so many questions of self and the need for direction and focus. But it also raises questions of meaning and purpose. Who am I today? Am I a Poet or am I the poets muse?
Guest More than 1 year ago
i don't know if it was my mindset or having too many distactions or what...i just accept the fact that this is a great book, but one which i never really was drawn into.
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constructivedisorder More than 1 year ago
I got caught up in this book immediately, even as I was scrambling to keep up with all the characters and the plot. It was like reading Kafka or Joyce for the first time. It's one of the most mentally engaging books I've ever read - on a whole different level.
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sketchyfiction More than 1 year ago
I won't spoil this book, but something around 51 characters describe the somewhat twisted lives of two poets and their movement. A great read, to be sure.
artgarfunkl More than 1 year ago
1,000 Garcia Marquez earthquakes at once, over and over, the entire book. One long orgasm. For readers with endurance and passion.
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