You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Savage Detectives

I last encountered the Mexican author Roberto Bolano when I read his Last Evenings on Earth, an intriguing collection of short stories. Like many of the stories in that book, his novel The Savage Detectives deals with the lives of writers. Writers and poetry form the backdrop of the story; they are the medium through which the story is built. In a sense there are many stories that come together to create a sort of mosaic of the main characters. In this way Bolano builds on the strengths of his short story writing.

The novel has an unusual structure. The first part, "Mexicans Lost in Mexico", is told from the point of view of Juan Garcia Madero, a teenage Mexican who desires to be a poet. The section is written like his journal, so we get his point of view exclusively. He tells how he stops going to class at university and starts hanging with the visceral realists, a small group of ragtag local poets. While he is excited to be a part of the group, he doesn't really comprehend what visceral realism means, and at times it seems to mean only what its creators want. At the center of the group are Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.

Garcia Madero tells how he loses his virginity and starts a relationship with Maria Font, whose middle class family he becomes close to. He has a strange relationship with Maria's father, Quim Font, who becomes a quasi-father figure to him. Quim welcomes him into the family and gives him money, though he obviously suspects that he and Maria are sleeping together. It becomes stranger when Garcia Madero encounters Quim with Lupe, a prostitute who is a friend of Maria's. Trouble arrives when Lupe gets on the wrong side of her pimp, and Quim and Garcia Madero hide her in a hotel room. Then for a while they stay at the Font family's house, but the pimp sits in his Camaro across the street. Finally, on New Year's Eve of 1975, the other two poets make a getaway with Lupe in Quim's car, with Garcia Madero coming along at the last minute.

The middle section, which encompasses two thirds of the novel, are a series of narratives from many different characters over the following two decades. Though we never hear the words of Belano and Lima, it becomes clear that the stories are all about them. They travel across Europe and back to Mexico. In many of the narratives it takes a while to realize which character is which, as when an English student traveling through France and Spain tells her story about a watchman at a camp who is revealed towards the end of the story to be one of the poets. Through these bits of story collage an image forms of the two poets. They seem to be wandering around aimlessly, haunted by something in their past. Lima will be found to be crying in the middle of the night. Belano is seen in Africa as a correspondent, trying to get himself killed. There is no mention of what happened after they left the Font's house or what caused them to be so despondent. They continue to write poetry with middling success, all while working odd jobs and living with the benefit of friends. There is a strong impression of two lost souls.

The third section is called "The Sonora Desert", and it describes the events in the beginning of 1976, again from Juan Garcia Madero's diary. It is here that answers are given to the questions raised in the second section. Lima and Belano are obsessed with a woman named Cesarea Tinajero who wrote a few poems in the 1930's. There seem to be parallels between her and Laura Damian, a girl who had recently died and had a poetry award named after her. The two poets travel with Garcia Madero and Lupe through Sonora, all the time worried about whether Lupe's pimp is following them. The flight from the pimp is mixed up with the search for the woman poet.

Bolano's style of writing is simple but he can build elaborate metaphors or pictures of the characters' impressions. He is very effective in this novel in the way he creates character out of a variety of different pieces. The tension at the end of the first part is held through the book until the final section. At times the narratives in part two are confusing, but the picture slowly starts to build. We experience the sadness of the poets and the distance they feel from the world around them. Throughout their lives they seem to be running away from something, but we only see glimpses of it. The structure of the middle section, with its many little pieces, seems to reflect the shattered lives of the characters, as if their lives could never be whole again. A-


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