The Savage Detectives

Why does everyone love The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño’s new old novel? I say new because the English translation just arrived—to ecstatic reviews—and old because it was originally published in 1998 in Spanish. James Wood loves Bolaño:

Over the last few years, Roberto Bolaño’s reputation, in English at least, has been spreading in a quiet contagion; the loud arrival of a long novel, ”The Savage Detectives,” will ensure that few are now untouched. Until recently there was even something a little Masonic about the way Bolaño’s name was passed along between readers in this country; I owe my awareness of him to a friend who excitedly lent me a now never-to-be-returned copy of Bolaño’s extraordinary novella ”By Night in Chile.”

He goes on to cement, rather than knock down, that reputation. Francine Prose does too: “The novel seamlessly blends surrealism, lyricism, wit, invention and political and psychological analysis — and the same brilliance illuminates “Last Evenings on Earth.”” As if that weren’t enough, she concludes:

Like Bolaño’s work, this definition of fiction is at once transparent and opaque, lucid and elusive. And yet we intuit what he means. Reading Roberto Bolaño is like hearing the secret story, being shown the fabric of the particular, watching the tracks of art and life merge at the horizon and linger there like a dream from which we awake inspired to look more attentively at the world.

Accolades on the back of The Savage Detectives include one from John Banville. The Millions thinks Bolaño’s great too, although any post that includes a sentence like “[t]o borrow from Sir Mix-A-Lot: I like big books, and I cannot lie” is suspect.

More love from the New Yorker here.

Amid the hype I picked up a long, pointlessly digressive, and irritating novel, like Faulkner at his worse. Bolaño most reminds me of Faulkner, but he can’t pull off the multiple narrative voices, who consume the latter 400 pages in a frenzy of confusion and uncertainty. I’m also reminded of Richard Farina’s English-language novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, another, equally irritating novel with the principle attribute of narrative uncertainty leading to reader boredom. In this respect Bolaño and Farina resemble the Beats, an overrated group of nominal poets whose work should be forgotten like the days their adherents spent getting high. The Millions noticed the connection: “For Bolaño, as for the Beats, the poem is a way of finding beauty even (or especially) in insalubrious circumstances.” The context implies this is a good thing, but I take it as a bad—very bad—thing, as the Beats are incoherent, not visionary. Since Bolaño is Chilean, he may not have read any of them, but he still reminds me of them.

To be fair, some sentences in Bolaño are great, as when a chapter ends, “[i]t was Lupe and she was smiling like a spider,” which loses its resonance taken out of place, but is unexpected and wonderful. Occasional thoughts like this are okay: “And then I realized that something had gone wrong in the last few days, something had gone wrong in my relationship with the new Mexican poets or with the new women in my life, but no matter how much I thought about it I couldn’t figure out what the problem was, the abyss that opened up behind me if I looked over my shoulder.” The Savage Detectives has them too frequently. Comment one: Bolaño is not Proust. Comment two: Enough self-indulgent speculation. These seemingly random comments, deracinated from the action, fill the novel. One character, Quim Font, says ironically, “At a certain point you need to steep yourself in reality, no?” You don’t need reality to tell a good story, but you at least need a novel that hangs together. The Savage Detectives doesn’t, and it has no sense of place, too many characters, and too little narrative cohesion to make it worth reading. Novels with different speakers and different points of view can work, as The Bridge of San Luis Ray and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion demonstrate. Sadly, I just read 160 pages I’ll never get back that don’t.

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