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The Savage Detectives: A Novel


The Savage Detectives: A Novel Cover






I've been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.




I'm not really sure what visceral realism is. I'm seventeen years old, my name is Juan García Madero, and I'm in my first semester of law school. I wanted to study literature, not law, but my uncle insisted, and in the end I gave in. I'm an orphan, and someday I'll be a lawyer. That's what I told my aunt and uncle, and then I shut myself in my room and cried all night. Or anyway for a long time. Then, as if it were settled, I started class in the law school's hallowed halls, but a month later I registered for Julio César Álamo's poetry workshop in the literature department, and that was how I met the visceral realists, or viscerealists or even vicerealists, as they sometimes like to call themselves. Up until then, I had attended the workshop four times and nothing ever happened, though only in a manner of speaking, of course, since naturally something always happened: we read poems, and Álamo praised them or tore them to pieces, depending on his mood; one person would read, Álamo would critique, another person would read, Álamo would critique, somebody else would read, Álamo would critique. Sometimes Álamo would get bored and ask us (those of us who weren't reading just then) to critique too, and then we would critique and Álamo would read the paper.


It was the ideal method for ensuring that no one was friends with anyone, or else that our friendships were unhealthy and based on resentment.


And I can't say that Álamo was much of a critic either, even though he talked a lot about criticism. Really I think he just talked for the sake of talking. He knew what periphrasis was. Not very well, but he knew. But he didn't know what pentapody was (a line of five feet in classical meter, as everybody knows), and he didn't know what a nicharchean was either (a line something like the phalaecean), or what a tetrastich was (a four-line stanza). How do I know he didn't know? Because on the first day of the workshop, I made the mistake of asking. I have no idea what I was thinking. The only Mexican poet who knows things like that by heart is Octavio Paz (our great enemy), the others are clueless, or at least that was what Ulises Lima told me minutes after I joined the visceral realists and they embraced me as one of their own. Asking Álamo these questions was, as I soon learned, a sign of my tactlessness. At first I thought he was smiling in admiration. Later I realized it was actually contempt. Mexican poets (poets in general, I guess) hate to have their ignorance brought to light. But I didn't back down, and after he had ripped apart a few of my poems at the second session, I asked him whether he knew what a rispetto was. Álamo thought that I was demanding respect for my poems, and he went off on a tirade about objective criticism (for a change), a minefield that every young poet must cross, etc., but I cut him off, and after explaining that never in my short life had I demanded respect for my humble creations, I put the question to him again, this time enunciating as clearly as possible.


"Don't give me this crap," said Álamo.


"A rispetto, professor, is a kind of lyrical verse, romantic to be precise, similar to the strambotto, with six or eight hendecasyllabic lines, the first four in the form of a serventesio and the following composed in rhyming couplets. For example . . ." And I was about to give him an example or two when Álamo jumped up and cut me off. What happened next is hazy (although I have a good memory): I remember Álamo laughing along with the four or five other members of the workshop. I think they may have been making fun of me.


Anyone else would have left and never gone back, but despite my unhappy memories (or my unhappy failure to remember what had happened, at least as unfortunate as remembering would have been), the next week there I was, punctual as always.


I think destiny brought me back. This was the fifth session of Álamo's workshop that I'd attended (but it might just as well have been the eighth or the ninth, since lately I've been noticing that time can expand or contract at will), and tension, the alternating current of tragedy, was palpable in the air, although no one could explain why. To begin with, we were all there, all seven apprentice poets who'd originally signed up for the workshop. This hadn't happened at any other session. And we were ner-vous. Even Álamo wasn't his usual calm self. For a minute I thought something might have happened at the university, that maybe there'd been a campus shooting I hadn't heard about, or a surprise strike, or that the dean had been assassinated, or they'd kidnapped one of the philosophy professors. But nothing like that was true, and there was no reason to be nervous. No objective reason, anyway. But poetry (real poetry) is like that: you can sense it, you can feel it in the air, the way they say certain highly attuned animals (snakes, worms, rats, and some birds) can detect an earthquake. What happened next was a blur, but at the risk of sounding corny, I'd say there was something miraculous about it. Two visceral realist poets walked in and Álamo reluctantly introduced them, although he only knew one of them personally; the other one he knew by reputation, or maybe he just knew his name or had heard someone mention him, but he introduced us to him anyway.


I'm not sure why they were there. It was clearly a hostile visit, hostile but somehow propagandistic and proselytizing too. At first the visceral realists kept to themselves, and Álamo tried to look diplomatic and slightly ironic while he waited to see what would happen. Then he started to relax, encouraged by the strangers' shyness, and after half an hour the workshop was back to normal. That's when the battle began. The visceral realists questioned Álamo's critical system and he responded by calling them cut-rate surrealists and fake Marxists. Five members of the workshop backed him up; in other words, everyone but me and a skinny kid who always carried around a book by Lewis Carroll and never spoke. This surprised me, to be honest, because the students supporting Álamo so fiercely were the same ones he'd been so hard on as a critic, and now they were revealing themselves to be his biggest supporters. That's when I decided to put in my two cents, and I accused Álamo of having no idea what a rispetto was; nobly, the visceral realists admitted that they didn't know either but my observation struck them as pertinent, and they said so; one of them asked how old I was, and I said I was seventeen and tried all over again to explain what a rispetto was; Álamo was red with rage; the members of the workshop said I was being pedantic (one of them called me an academicist); the visceral realists defended me; suddenly unstoppable, I asked Álamo and the workshop in general whether they at least remembered what a nicharchean or a tetrastich was. And no one could answer.


Contrary to my expectations, the argument didn't lead to an all-around ass-kicking. I have to admit I would have loved that. And although one of the members of the workshop did promise Ulises Lima that someday he would kick his ass, in the end nothing actually happened; nothing violent, I mean, although I responded to the threat (which, I repeat, was not directed at me) by letting the threatener know that he could have it out with me anywhere on campus, any day, any time.


The end of class was surprising. Álamo dared Ulises Lima to read one of his poems. Lima didn't need to be asked twice. He pulled some smudged, crumpled sheets from his jacket pocket. Oh no, I thought, the idiot is walking right into their trap. I think I shut my eyes out of sheer sympathetic embarrassment. There's a time for reciting poems and a time for fists. As far as I was concerned, this was the latter. But as I was saying, I closed my eyes, and I heard Lima clear his throat, then I heard the somewhat uncomfortable silence (if it's possible to hear such a thing, which I doubt) that settled around him, and finally I heard his voice, reading the best poem I'd ever heard. Then Arturo Belano got up and said that they were looking for poets who would like to contribute to the magazine that the visceral realists were putting out. Everybody wished they could volunteer, but after the fight they felt sheepish and no one said a thing. When the workshop ended (later than usual), I went with Lima and Belano to the bus stop. It was too late. There were no more buses, so we decided to take a pesero together to Reforma, and from there we walked to a bar on Calle Bucareli, where we sat until very late, talking about poetry.


I still don't really get it. In one sense, the name of the group is a joke. At the same time, it's completely in earnest. Many years ago there was a Mexican avant-garde group called the visceral realists, I think, but I don't know whether they were writers or painters or journalists or revolution-aries. They were active in the twenties or maybe the thirties, I'm not quite sure about that either. I'd obviously never heard of the group, but my ignorance in literary matters is to blame for that (every book in the world is out there waiting to be read by me). According to Arturo Belano, the visceral realists vanished in the Sonora desert. Then Belano and Lima mentioned somebody called Cesárea Tinajero or Tinaja, I can't remember which (I think it was when I was shouting to the waiter to bring us some beers), and they talked about the Comte de Lautréamont's Poems, something in the Poems that had to do with this Tinajero woman, and then Lima made a mysterious claim. According to him, the present-day visceral realists walked backward. What do you mean, backward? I asked.


"Backward, gazing at a point in the distance, but moving away from it, walking straight toward the unknown."


I said I thought this sounded like the perfect way to walk. The truth was I had no idea what he was talking about. If you stop and think about it, it's no way to walk at all.


Other poets showed up later on. Some were visceral realists, others weren't. It was total pandemonium. At first I worried that Belano and Lima were so busy talking to every freak who came up to our table that they'd forgotten all about me, but as day began to dawn, they asked me to join the gang. They didn't say "group" or "movement," they said "gang." I liked that. I said yes, of course. It was all very simple. Belano shook my hand and told me that I was one of them now, and then we sang a ranchera. That was all. The song was about the lost towns of the north and a woman's eyes. Before I went outside to throw up, I asked them whether the eyes were Cesárea Tinajero's. Belano and Lima looked at me and said that I was clearly a visceral realist already and that together we would change Latin American poetry. At six in the morning I took another pesero, this time by myself, which brought me to Colonia Lindavista, where I live. Today I didn't go to class. I spent the whole day in my room writing poems.

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Edward, March 29, 2008 (view all comments by Edward)
This novel's imagination expands into a magical diorama. The author flirts with danger and then gleefully accelerates away from it. The novel is spendiferously 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. With much ado and thanks rightfully owed to the translator Natasha Wimmer, for editing much of the slang and converting it; so that we humble English readers can too enjoy its sublimity.
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Product Details

Bolano, Roberto
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Wimmer, Natasha
rcena, Juan G
rcena, Juan Gand#243
Juan G
Wimmer, Natasha
mez Band#225
Bolao, Roberto
G .
Juan Gand#243
mez B
Rosenberg, Andrea
Bolaano, Roberto
rcena, Juan
General Fiction
Literature-A to Z
Juan Ramand#243;n Jand#237;menez;poetry;Nobel prize;Peru;Lima;early 20th century;letter-writin
Juan Ramón Jímenez;poetry;Nobel prize;Peru;Lima;early 20th century;letter-writin
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Publication Date:
April 3, 2007
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
2 illustrations
9.00 x 6.00 in

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

The Savage Detectives: A Novel Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$14.95 In Stock
Product details 256 pages Farrar, Straus and Giroux - English 9780374191481 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

A decidedly Mexican novel that spans the entire globe, The Savage Detectives is Homer's Odyssey, Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and Borges's Ficciones all rolled into one — and somehow becomes more than the sum of its parts in the process. Beautifully vibrant language leaps off every page, magical realism battles with stark reality, and the constantly rotating cast of hundreds never feels shallow or poorly developed. Intriguing and innovative from the very first page, The Savage Detectives is a must-read for pretty much anybody, and my favorite book of 2007.

"Staff Pick" by ,

Put simply, Bolaño's novel The Savage Detectives is a retelling of Homer's Odyssey. The comparison to Joyce's literary monument Ulysses comes naturally, and Bolaño's work is arguably the better of the two, though it can also be considered homage to Joyce. The Savage Detectives at once mirrors and furthers the epic, is expansive where Ulysses is mysterious, and plies new understandings of people, religions, and nations from its reader in ways that Ulysses does not. Bolaño's tale is that of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, two friends who have gone in search of a missing poet, Cesárea Tinajera. Told in pieces by many characters over the course of decades, The Savage Detectives is a sometimes violent, passionate story of lost men in search of the puzzle that is before you.

"Staff Pick" by ,

Easily the year's most acclaimed literary sensation, Roberto Bolaño is enjoying a remarkably unprecedented ascendancy in fame. The Chilean novelist and poet, whose exaltation has long been celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, is posthumously sweeping the English-speaking countries (he died in 2003). Semana, a Colombian weekly magazine, recently published a list of the 100 best Spanish-language novels of the past 25 years, which, not surprisingly, included three works by Bolaño (number 3: The Savage Detectives; 4: 2666; and 14: Distant Star).

It was also recently announced that Natasha Wimmer (who translated The Savage Detectives) was awarded a $20,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to support the translation of his masterwork 2666. According to the NEA, "Six weeks before he died, his fellow Latin American novelists hailed him as the most important figure of his generation at an international conference he attended in Seville." His work is widely considered to be hailing a significant change of direction for Latin American literature as a whole.

The Savage Detectives, which Bolaño called a "love letter" to his generation, is an accomplished and thorough effort. No amount of praise or critical elucidation could possibly do this epic story (at nearly 600 pages) justice, as it's both astonishingly original and magnificently composed. The highly autobiographical novel tells the tale of a group of "visceral realist" poets (a fictionalization of the "infrarealism" movement Bolaño helped spawn in the 1970s), their days drifting throughout Mexico and western Europe, and their search for the elusive poet Cesárera Tinajero. The main characters, if the book can be said to actually have any, are the founders of the so-called "visceral realist" movement, Arturo Belano (a loose stand-in for Bolaño's own life) and Ulises Lima (Bolaño's poet-friend Mario Santiago). Told mostly in the style of an oral biography spawning 21 years, The Savage Detectives is a must-read for ardent fans of literature and poetry, as the novel chronicles the wanderlust of men and women for whom poetry is something well beyond the cafes and yellowing pages of forgotten verse.

Though he often garners comparisons to Borges, Pynchon, and Cortázar (a claim that, while not entirely erroneous, does little to exemplify his singular style), Bolaño's genius is, in part, his ability to synthesize the elements of literature which his forebears had set as standard, usurp them as his own, and then transcend them in an erudite manner heretofore unseen. Roberto Bolaño's newfound fame is, indeed, well deserved, and The Savage Detectives is one of the finest novels to come along in quite some time.

"Review A Day" by , "[A] bizarre and mesmerizing novel....Just now published in English, the book is a fist-to-gut introduction to a deceptively powerful writer who died at age 50 in 2003. It's a lustful story — lust for sex, lust for self, lust for the written word....Their antics will repulse you. Your moral compass will be pissed upon. But in a world where a guy who cuts up his penis with a blade is considered a 'real man,' Bolaño's visceral realists shine." (read the entire Esquire review)
"Review" by , "[B]lazingly original...[a] masterpiece....One of the most entertaining books about writers and their discontents since Boswell's Life of Johnson. A brilliant novel, fully deserving of its high international reputation."
"Review" by , "The journey for all, including the reader, may prove arduous, but as a picaresque road novel, coupled with successful character creation, intriguing experimentation, and a unique premise, it provides a rewarding reading experience."
"Review" by , "For readers interested in a straight narrative, this book will disappoint, but those who enjoy voice and character will find much to satisfy them."
"Review" by , "[A] deeply satisfying, yet overwhelming reading experience....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."
"Review" by , "[An] utterly unique achievement — a modern epic rich in character and event, suffused in every sentence with Bolano's unsettling mix of precision and mystery."
"Review" by , "The Savage Detectives is a masterpiece, but unlike other postwar masterworks, it doesn't proclaim its importance right away....More a series of encounters than a novel, the entire work resonates like a prose poem, returning us to the haunting image of young people marching toward history's abyss, only their song remaining."
"Review" by , "[C]omplex, numbingly chaotic and sinuously memorable....Some of the book's best passages are here; but the formlessness, the cascading miscellany...can make the book, or at least the reader, founder. Many gleaming lights are displayed, but foundering nonetheless."
"Synopsis" by ,
A retelling of a fantastical true story: two young men seduce Nobel laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez with the words of an imaginary woman and inspire one of his greatest love poems.
"Synopsis" by ,
“Intoxicating…I’ll be thinking of these characters, what they longed to create and what they managed to despoil, for a long time.” —Helen Oyeyemi

A retelling of a fantastical true story: two young men seduce Nobel laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez with the words of an imaginary woman and inspire one of his greatest love poems.

José Gálvez and Carlos Rodríguez are poets. Or, at least, they’d like to be. Sons of Lima’s elite in the early twentieth century, they scribble bad verses and read the greats: Rilke, Rimbaud, and, above all others, Juan Ramón Jímenez, the Spanish Maestro. Desperate for Jímenez’s latest work, unavailable in Lima, they decide to ask him for a copy. 

They’re sure Jímenez won’t send two dilettantes his book, but he might favor a beautiful woman. They write to him as the lovely, imaginary Georgina Hübner. Jímenez responds with a letter and a book. Elated, José and Carlos write back. Their correspondence continues, as the Maestro falls in love with Georgina, and the boys abandon poetry for the pages of Jímenez’s life. 

"Synopsis" by ,
New Year's Eve, 1975: Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, founders of the visceral realist movement in poetry, leave Mexico City in a borrowed white Impala. Their quest: to track down the obscure, vanished poet Cesárea Tinajero. A violent showdown in the Sonora desert turns search to flight; twenty years later Belano and Lima are still on the run.

The explosive first long work by "the most exciting writer to come from south of the Rio Grande in a long time" (Ilan Stavans, Los Angeles Times), The Savage Detectives follows Belano and Lima through the eyes of the people whose paths they cross in Central America, Europe, Israel, and West Africa. This chorus includes the muses of visceral realism, the beautiful Font sisters; their father, an architect interned in a Mexico City asylum; a sensitive young follower of Octavio Paz; a foul-mouthed American graduate student; a French girl with a taste for the Marquis de Sade; the great-granddaughter of Leon Trotsky; a Chilean stowaway with a mystical gift for numbers; the anorexic heiress to a Mexican underwear empire; an Argentinian photojournalist in Angola; and assorted hangers-on, detractors, critics, lovers, employers, vagabonds, real-life literary figures, and random acquaintances.

A polymathic descendant of Borges and Pynchon, Roberto Bolaño traces the hidden connection between literature and violence in a world where national boundaries are fluid and death lurks in the shadow of the avant-garde. The Savage Detectives is a dazzling original, the first great Latin American novel of the twenty-first century.

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