Monday, April 07, 2008
monday book review: the savage detectives, by roberto bolaño
Where to begin?

The Savage Detectives is one of those titles I couldn't seem to avoid. When it was originally released in 1998 it won a slew of awards I had never heard of, and upon the release of its 2007 English language translation it was met with a loads of new praise. The New York Times named it one of the Ten Best Books of 2007, it was featured in the Morning News's Tournament of Books, and the dust cover is littered with glowing reviews from at least ten critics, calling it "brilliant," "important," "a glittering diamond," "magnificent," and Bolaño lauded as a "genius" and "the next Garcia Marquez." Oddly, what the dust jacket does not say is what the book is about.

Turns out there's a very good reason for that, since the book isn't really about anything. (And since it clocks in at a whopping 557 pages, I, for one, found that tremendously annoying.)

To the best I could figure, The Savage Detectives tells the story of a semi-fictitious underground poetic movement native to Mexico and operating in the 1970's called visceral realism, a movement which I wasn't much closer to understanding at the end of the book than I was before I began. The first 120 or so pages focuses on a young college student's discovery of visceral realism and his interactions with the outlaw, oversexed oddballs connected with the movement, but after this first act the novel completely shifts. The remaining 400+ pages are a collection of short interviews with 20-30 people conducted by an unknown interviewer who's attempting to piece together the stories of Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (modeled after Belaño, I presume) - the founders and leaders of the visceral realists. This section is difficult, occasionally entertaining but more often interminable, and a reader needs a flowchart to keep track of the myriad narrators. Even then there's precious little storyline tying this mess together.

And now I'm left wondering: What did I miss? Did I read the same book as everyone else? Part of me even wonders if the critics who hailed it ever bothered to finish reading the cumbersome, beastly thing, or if they dubbed it brilliant simply because it's so damn difficult to read. Call me crazy, but difficulty need not be the standard to which brilliance is measured. There's often brilliance in simplicity, and while interesting sentences and experimental styles certainly have their place, if you're going to go on for nearly 600 pages, there should at least be a satisfying story to make it worth the reader's while.

(But with that said, there were a heckuva lot of super sexy/borderline obscene parts in the book, in case that does it for you.)

Roberto Bolaño
1998, 2007, 577 pages

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Blogger Mary said...

Whew. Thanks for the review. I've seen this one a lot and I was wondering about it. I think if I'm going to read giant 400+ page books I'll stick to things like the books I skipped in High School (Jane Eyre, How Green Was My Valley, etc.) Unless you come up with a must read...

Blogger Carrie said...

When I first read this review, I was just thought how I definitely won't be reading this book anytime soon.

But now I'm realizing how impressed I am you stuck with it. I could never do it with that long of a book I don't dig. Well done.

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