The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
I love this book so much that I had a t-shirt made of the above book cover. It is one of my prized possessions that I am often worry where it is, whether it blow away in the wind or if someone will steal it. I will make it a family heirloom that will be treasured for generations even when it is a rag. I will make copies of the t-shirt for the whole family which we will all wear outside in public at the same time; no matter how much the wife moans, the children cry, the people point, whisper and gossip saying “here come that weirdo t-shirt family”. It will be a worthy sacrifice in honour of this great book. My wife knows how much I love the t-shirt and has been threatening to use the t-shirt as a nappy for our future children, using it as a dish towel, or even more cruelly, using it as bog roll. This cold, such cold, foreboding acts of blasplemy has given me nightmares, freezing shivers, icy sweats and put me on knife’s edge, but it ultimately gives her the power to blackmail me to do anything she pretty much wants. Dear God, is this what sanctity of marriage is all about? You may think that I shouldn’t worship and obsess over material objects as much, but like the book, this t-shirt is sacred to me. And almost just as important, I think it looks cool. Nobody else has it. So there.
The book and me
I have written about this book before on my blog. I read it in May and June 2014 after I saw it on the bookshelf Dowal School where I was working at the time. The copy was donated by Melissa Crane, who had come to Honduras with ICYE the year before me, and I had met her at an ICYE camp in Essex before she went back in 2010, which provides a nice little story within itself. Before that, my only knowledge of Roberto Bolaño was seeing his posthumous book, 2666, which I saw advertised at Moor Street Station in Birmingham coming to and from work. I don’t take those adverts to seriously as they are usually littered by bog-roll books by Katie Price, Tony Parsons, Nicholas Sparks and Louise Mensch, all of whom I think can be wholly agreed upon provide a poor service to literature. At the time I was reading a lot of books about Spain, as that was my muse at the time, so the name Roberto Bolaño caught my eye. For whatever reason though, I forgot to research it any more. Strangely though, talking of Spain (or rather Catalunya), I spent a university summer break working at a camping company near the town of Calella de Palafrugell on the Costa Brava; a beautiful beach town that everyone should visit at least four times in their life (as I have). It turns out the Chilean writer had lived in the neighbouring Catalonian town, Blanes (which I visited a few times), from 1981 until 2003 when he died waiting for a liver or kidney transplant. Rumour has it he was an alcoholic or drug user, but friends and lovers have since refuted this.
I knew nothing of him at the time and I was reading For Whom the Bell Tolls at the time and interested in Spanish Civil War history, which, of course, sparked Franco’s long period of repression of Catalonian culture. But this kind of completes my own intangible magical circle between myself and Roberto, not matter how much of a consequence or insignificant it seems to you, which it is important.
But be careful using the word magical near Roberto; it seems he detested magic realism, and fellow Latin American writers Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez faced a raft of criticism from him, who Allende seemed particularly offended. The thing for me is, I agree with Bolaño. I have read 100 Years of Solitude and believe it is one of the most overrated books ever written, and I don’t think much of Allende’s work either. However, I accept the translations may have been poor and I still respect them as pioneers in Latin American literature, but neithet touch the likes of Roberto Bolaño or Mario Vargas Llosa (who I am reading at the moment, and I really want to include Aunt Julia & The Scriptwriter on this list, but I don’t think I can choose a book that I’ve not yet finished reading).
The importance of this book? It awoke me to the best of Latin American Literature, and I now have Andreas Neuman, Julio Cortazar and many others in my sight.
It can be long. It can be complicated. But foremostly, it can be, or is, twistedly brilliant. The novel is split into five parts telling the story of the search for a 1920s Mexican poet, Cesárea Tinajero, by two 1970s poets, the Chilean Arturo Belano (alter ego of Bolaño) and the Mexican Ulises Lima, mixing bohemia, poetry, a road trip and then later a series of witness accounts of the two protagonists as they globe trot escaping an incident that I don’t want to spoil. You never meet them, but you learn so much about them through these testimonials and you begin to feel for their loneliness in life, despite their flaws. It is partly based on Bolaño’s life. In short, like me with this book, you go through a journey (as you do with most books) but you get the book never completes a full circle when our two main characters disappear into the jungles of life. It also makes me fall deeper in love with the Latin American character, the subtle intelligence but always falling for the temptation of committing sins in an intimate yet liberating, and is then waved off in an innocent way. Is this why there is so much impunity on this continent? Maybe I’m wrong and this is a common human flaw found all over the globe, but it’s one that is explored in the book and I see in many different people in Honduras. This isn’t a criticism. It’s an admirable observation that in the UK I don’t see, a freedom to be reckless but not insensitive or weighed upon with our conscious of right and wrong, trying not to bear ills. Not everyone in Latin America possesses this attitude. Remember that religious tradition still plays a big role in society. But in the upcoming generations in Honduras, I see Arturo Belanos and Ulises Limas coming through. In a way, the two characters feel like pioneers for young Latin Americans, particularly in the middle class, who have never read the book let alone heard of it or our great protagonists.
This book, like The Woman Who Walks into Doors, inspires me to write but also fills me with fear. Whereas Roddy is great with words and Irvine is amazing with humour and subculture, Roberto is an expert at plot. Fear of not reaching their level is paramount, but as most books on writing say, find you own voice. That’s what I plan to do. As well as read 2666, which people say is even better than Savage Detectives.
Your plan, however, whether you’re a novice or not to Latin American literature, is to buy this book, read this book, take in its brilliance, then come back online and thank me for introducing you to Roberto Bolaño, just as I did to Melissa Crane.