No question Roberto Bolano is a brilliant writer and the Savage Detectives pulsates with this brilliance. But not all brilliant writers are reader friendly – Joyce with his Finnegan’s Wake being probably the prime example. And for me not all of Bolano’s brilliance quite comes off in this novel. It’s heralded as a road novel, which is only true of the last and relatively short part. The first part is a coming of age story of a young aspiring poet who we get to know through the pages of his diary. He meets Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano who call themselves visceral realist poets. They are obsessed with finding a poet from the 1920s named Cesárea Tinajero. Her work has vanished and she too appears to have disappeared into the Sonoran Desert. Lima and Belano, accompanied by the young diarist and a prostitute, set out on a quest to find Cesárea, in the fashion of Don Quixote’s quest to find Dulcinea.
The very lengthy middle section is literary documentary – a kind of literary version of Who Killed Kurt Cobain. Here, through a series of interviews, we meet a concatenation of characters who ostensibly tell us what they know about Lima, Belano and Cesárea. Truth to tell we learn little in the way of hard evidence about these three characters; but learn a great deal about the subjects of the interviews themselves. About their youthful hopes and conquests and subsequent difficulties as they grow older. There are so many voices in this part of the novel, all distinctive, that it’s inevitable that while most are captivating others are a little flat by comparison. So there’s a recurring sense of loss when a particularly favourite voice is replaced by a less enthralling speaker. And this, for me, a kind of over gleeful self-indulgence with his cast of characters, is what prevented this novel from being a masterpiece. He committed a similar error of judgement in 2666 when the rollcall of descriptions of murdered female corpses just went on far too long.
Essentially Bolano with the Savage Detectives serves up a playful celebration of the transfiguring illusions of youth, ultimately juxtaposed with the difficulties and disenchantments of middle age. All unreliably narrated but with the post-modernist trick or treat implication that one of the characters sought after in the novel might well have written it.