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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Savage Detectives

Roberto Bolaño

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To purchase The Savage Detectives

Title: The Savage Detectives
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 577 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Savage Detectives - US
Los detectives salvajes - US
The Savage Detectives - UK
The Savage Detectives - Canada
The Savage Detectives - India
Les détectives sauvages - France
Die wilden Detektive - Deutschland
I detective selvaggi - Italia
Los detectives salvajes - España
  • Spanish title: Los detectives salvajes
  • Translated by Natasha Wimmer

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Our Assessment:

A- : a striking oddity

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 25/5/2007 Alex Abramovich
Entertainment Weekly B+ 30/3/2007 Jennifer Reese
The Globe & Mail A 9/6/2007 Michael Redhill
The Guardian . 23/6/2007 Ben Richards
Harper's . 4/2007 Siddhartha Deb
The Independent . 24/8/2007 Jason Wilson
London Review of Books . 6/9/2007 Benjamin Kunkel
The LA Times . 8/4/2007 Thomas McGonigle
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 27/4/2002 Andreas Breitenstein
The New Republic . 7/5/2007 Chloë Schama
The NY Observer . 1/4/2007 Emily Bobrow
The NY Rev. of Books . 19/7/2007 Francisco Goldman
The NY Sun . 28/3/2007 Benjamin Lytal
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/4/2007 James Wood
The New Yorker . 26/3/2007 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 1/4/2007 Vinnie Wilhelm
Sydney Morning Herald . 25/5/2007 Andrew Riemer
The Telegraph . 2/8/2007 Jonathan Gibbs
The Telegraph . 18/8/2007 Ed King
TLS . 29/6/2007 Siddhartha Deb
The Washington Post A 6/5/2007 Ilan Stavans

  Review Consensus:

  Generally impressed, some very much so

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Savage Detectives is good art. When it is dark, it is very dark. At other times, it is very funny, thrilling, tender, and erotic. At its best, it is dark, funny, thrilling, tender, and erotic at one and the same time, in a way few novels before it have been." - Alex Abramovich, Bookforum

  • "Taking it all in requires stamina, but the novel bursts with marvelous stories, rude energy, and eccentric voices that ultimately reward your effort." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "It's a massive, sprawling, romantic cauldron of a book: a self-portrait of the artist (refracted through dozens of literary mirrors), a history of his times, a cultural and political manifesto, a mystery novel and a game. Although not necessarily in that order. Half George Perec's Life: A User's Manual, half Don Quixote, half Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, The Savage Detectives is a strange journey. And if you did the math just now, you'll have a sense of the kind of excesses and impossibilities the novel contains. The plot of the book is easier described than undergone. (...) This second section, more of a virtuoso performance than a narrative, is what makes this novel a masterpiece. (...) This is a brilliant book, but it's as brilliant, hilarious and profound as it is indulgent, pornographic and puerile." - Michael Redhill, The Globe & Mail

  • "It is also easy to become exasperated with the poets depicted in Bolano's work, who are of a particular type that treads dangerously close to cliche. (...) All of this is redeemed, however, by the fact that Bolano writes with such elegance, verve and style and is so immensely readable." - Ben Richards, The Guardian

  • "This novel is an elegy for a generation of Latin American would-be poets fed on extremists like Rimbaud and Marx (a couple make love with Sade as a manual). But they did not take these mentors to the conclusions Belano and Lima do, by giving up art for something never defined that seems to be willed failure and uprootedness. Bolaño can be savagely comic as he mocks his generation, yet equally tender in his piecing together of broken lives." - Jason Wilson, The Independent

  • "It’s something close to a miracle that Bolaño can produce such intense narrative interest in a book made up of centrifugal monologues spinning away from two absentee main characters, and the diary entries of its most peripheral figure. And yet, in spite of the book’s apparent (and often real) formlessness, a large part of its distinction is its virtually unprecedented achievement in multiply-voiced narration. (...) Above all, Bolaño overcomes the problem of getting so many voices to comment on the same events, or sing to the same music, by letting each voice persist in its natural egocentricity." - Benjamin Kunkel, London Review of Books

  • "Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives is a deeply satisfying, yet overwhelming reading experience. Ostensibly about two poets and their search for another poet who has mysteriously disappeared, the novel becomes nothing less than a broad portrait of the Hispanic diaspora, spreading from Central and South America to Israel, Europe, Africa and every place in between, from the late 1960s through the 1990s. (…) Is it worth our time? Is it a good novel or a great novel? Time alone will supply the adjective "great, " but what I can say now is: The Savage Detectives is a very good novel." - Thomas McGonigle, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The Savage Detectives, a remarkable and demanding book, presents a Latin America that retains certain distinguishing characteristics (many taken from Bolaño's life), but in its emotional landscape it strikingly resembles the rest of the world. Its juxtaposition of stories from across the globe makes it clear just how similar those stories can be. (…) Bolaño is not an easy writer, and I wonder if he will find many American readers, who still crave water for chocolate. His flavor is distinctly different: sometimes serious, sometime playful, and not always clear about which is which." - Chloë Schama, The New Republic

  • "In The Savage Detectives Bolaño shows how time punishes us for the rebellious dreams of youth, bringing disappointment, painfully modest accomplishments, broken loves, illness, even violent death and, simply, the end of youth. But for readers no longer young, the novel also conjures youth in all its hilariousness and overwrought drama, and reminds us of the purity of young people's faith -- above all in poetry." - Francisco Goldman, The New York Review of Books

  • "The frank sadness of Mr. Bolaño's vision is always cut with the grandiosity of doom. His instantaneous images, so assertive in their flickers of apocalypse, punctuate his otherwise talky prose." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "A novel all about poetry and poets, one of whose heroes is a lightly disguised version of the author himself: how easily this could be nothing more than a precious lattice of ludic narcissism and unbearably "literary" adventures! Again, Bolaño skirts danger and then gleefully accelerates away from it. The novel is wildly enjoyable (as well as, finally, full of lament), in part because Bolaño, despite all the game-playing, has a worldly, literal sensibility. His atmospheres are solidly imagined, but the tone is breezy and colloquial and amazingly unliterary -- Gide's novel about writers, The Counterfeiters, comes to mind, or better, a kind of Latinized Stendhal, whose characters just happen to be writers (Bolaño often warmly invoked Stendhal)." - James Wood, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The novel, which has been given a bracingly idiomatic translation by Natasha Wimmer, is a teeming, Manhattan Transfer-like collage featuring more than fifty narrators, but its first hundred pages are anchored by a single, exuberant voice (…..) Bolaño called The Savage Detectives a "love letter" to his generation, but it feels more like a lament, a chronicle of dissipated potential. The novel’s fetishization of lost youth verges on romanticism" - Daniel Zalewski, The New Yorker

  • "Available now in a seamless translation by Natasha Wimmer, this novel is an utterly unique achievement -- a modern epic rich in character and event, suffused in every sentence with Bolaño's unsettling mix of precision and mystery. It's a lens through which the strange becomes ordinary and the ordinary is often very strange. (…) Each of the narrators is really telling his or her own story, and it works in part because each one is so compelling. But what ultimately holds The Savage Detectives together is the strength of Bolaño's vision. What all the characters share is a sense of instability and terror lurking just beneath the surface, a pervasive disquiet that drives the prose." - Vinnie Wilhelm, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(P)reposterous but strangely appealing (.....) I am certain that The Savage Detectives is a roman a clef for which I -- and, I suspect, most Anglo-phone readers -- do not possess the key. And just in case I'm suspected of philistinism, I'd better say straight away that that is our loss. What remains, then, is rather like the visible part of an iceberg: magnificent and impressive, but only a fraction of the whole." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "This is an extremely important book in the Latin American canon, but there is nothing difficult or high-minded about it. The Savage Detectives is a grubby epic, part road movie, part joyful, nostalgic confession. (...) In making himself the silent heart of the novel, Bolaño has reinvented Kerouac, but without the ego." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Telegraph

  • "But it's the effortless blend of irreverent humour with a muted sense of tragedy that was Bolaño's lasting contribution. Beneath the biographical ironies and the playful sampling of European genres lies a deep sense of rootlessness that goes to the heart of Bolaño's fiction. The detectives of the title refer to nothing so much as a fruitless search for origins that time and again turn out to be an illusion." - Ed King, The Telegraph

  • "(S)prawling, impressively manic (.....) Their excess and entropy suggest how ideas of art and freedom run aground eventually, and how people in growing old lose their youthful idealism, but it also reveals greater social changes, showing the world of late capitalism as ever more inhospitable to utopian dreams." - Siddhartha Deb, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A)n outstanding meditation on art, truth and the search for roots and the self, a kind of road novel set in 1970s Mexico that springs from the same roots as Alfonso Cuarón's film Y tu mamá también. (…) As the title suggests, the material has the shape of a detective story, yet one that stretches the genre to its limits. The narration is polyphonic (…..) The cumulative effect of these satirical episodes is astonishing. Everyone in them is looking to understand what motivates Belano and Lima, but fails to do so. It's a Rashomon-like quest, in which truth is evasive, ultimately unattainable. That, indeed, is the tone of the entire novel." - Ilan Stavans, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Savage Detectives is part quest-tale, part paean to the Latin American -- and specifically Mexican -- literary scene. The novel has three sections, beginning and ending with ones consisting of the journal entries of teenage student Juan García Madero in late 1975 and 1976, as he is drawn into the world of the 'visceral realists'. The longer middle section consists of short accounts from dozens of other characters from the period 1976 to 1996, making for all sorts of other perspectives on events and the two literary leaders García Madero gets caught up with, Ulises Lima and the Bolaño-like Arturo Belano .
       The novel begins simply enough, a young man beginning his studies and more drawn to literature than something serious like law. He gets caught up in a swirling literary circle -- where it can be hard to differentiate between poseurs and those with any real literary interest (and/or talent). The school of thought he finds himself confronted with is 'visceral realism', and though it's not entirely clear what that is ("I am not really sure what visceral realism is" he begins the second entry in this journal -- the day after he accepted membership in the group), that suits him just fine. And they do offer adventure enough, as he gets his first real taste of sex and the literary lifestyle -- which, in this case, is hardly anything like what one might expect.
        García Madero is young and a bit naïve, but he's also more serious than many of those he comes across. Familiar with poetic terminology and what seems like every obscure rhyme scheme and metre ever conceived, he's different from the more carefree (and careless) friends he makes; "It's just a question of memory. I memorize the definitions, that's all" , he explains, but it's still something that sets him apart. Lima and Belano are the confounding leader-figures, their semi-mythical reputations kept up with a decent dose of mystery and the fact that they are apparently so outside any mainstream ("Belano and Lima are like two ghosts", García Madero finds) -- part of what García Madero wants to plumb, though he also seems happy enough to be along for this particular (and peculiar) ride.
       Much of the novel is given to this literary movement of visceral realism (echoing, presumably, Bolaño's own 'infrarealism'). With the focus on poetry rather than fiction the establishment-figure that is the biggest target of attack is Octavio Paz, an amusing running joke that also includes them meeting the hated master (though without the hoped-for real confrontation).
       The Savage Detectives is a road-trip book of sorts, too, straying very far and wide. Like Bolaño, Belano is a Chilean who winds up in Mexico City, and the novel is full of displacements; eventually, many of the characters find themselves very far afield. With all the travelling that goes on there's a pervasive sense of rootlessness throughout the novel , and one of the central plot-threads is a search for roots, for the origins of visceral realism and the (naturally elusive) poet Cesárea Tinajero. As one character diagnoses:

All poets, even the most avant-garde, need a father. But these poets were meant to be orphans.
       Still, the final section, in particular, is an an almost desperate 'on the road' chase after such a father- (and/or mother-) figure, where: "Traces of Cesárea Tinajero keep appearing and disappearing". The search also comes to quite the head; along with everything else, The Savage Detectives turns out to be quite exciting. Bolaño can't quite keep up a thriller-pace throughout, but he does for -- for a book that so insistently focusses on the poetic -- surprisingly long stretches.
       The Savage Detectives defies easy description or review. It is not a straightforward sort of narrative; indeed, at first sight it looks all cobbled together -- almost a mess of a book. But it's artfully and cleverly done, and unlike most anything most readers are likely to have ever come across. The novelty doesn't lie so much in the presentation, which isn't that much of a stretch, but in the tone, or rather: tones. Bolaño weaves together something that is more than just a 'story'. But figuring out everything that he's up to (and how he manages it) is something of a challenge: The Savage Detectives is a book that probably rewards effort and re-reading -- though it's good fun simply as is, too.
       A peculiar pleasure -- but definitely a pleasure, if you're open to it.

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The Savage Detectives: Reviews: Roberto Bolaño: Other books by Roberto Bolaño under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean author Roberto Bolaño lived 1953 to 2003.

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© 2007-2020 the complete review

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