Impressions of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives

Caroline, in her kitchen, near the city center, Europe, January 2012. Defeat. Defeat. Defeat. I had a feeling I wouldn’t finish The Savage Detectives. 700+ pages is just a tad too long for me these days. Still, I was full of good intentions and even bought the German translation early in December thinking that if it had to be a chunky book it might be wise to read it in German and not in the Spanish original. It’s been far over a year since I’ve read my last Spanish novel and I didn’t want to tempt fate. Chunky novels have always been a huge turn off for me but these days, with so little spare time, I’m even less in the mood for a longterm reading committment.

Despite all these length related reservations and after having read the first 50 pages I thought I might finish easily. The whole of Part I was a surprisingly quick and amusing read. Admittedly, it was occasionally a bit exasperating to read the fictitious diary of a breathless, overenthusiastic and over sexed young man but it was at the same time refreshing. The reason why I didn’t manage to finish was a pure case of “wrong reader-right book ” or something like that. Listening to Juan García Madero telling the story of how he got involved with the movement of visceral realism, frantically wrote poetry and discovered the joys of sex made me feel as if I had met one of my teenage friends again. We were reading the same books as Juan Gracía; the Surrealists, Perec, Lautréamont. We were fascinated by experimental literature, the nouveau roman and anything that smelled avantgarde and nontraditional. It seems that most people who experiment with writing and literature revisit the same masters. Meeting a literary figure like Madero was almost eerie. Now, apart from not doing well with chunky books I often don’t do too well with novels about writing.  As much as I love memoirs and non-fiction books about reading and writing, I find a novel about the same topics artificial.

By the time I started part II, which consists of several dozens of short chapters, all told by another narrator who adds information and elements to the whole story, I knew I couldn’t finish. There were too many other books calling me. First Nick Hornby’s essay collection Housekeeping vs The Dirt, then I started Henry Green’s Party Going and my own readalong title Zennor in Darkness and finally I developed an obsession. All the books on my TBR pile which were written by someone named Elizabeth started calling me. First it was Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, then Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, after that Elizabeth Berridge’s Across the Common followed by Elizabeth Jane Howard’s After Julius and finally Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris. I know, this sounds serious and I will have to analyze this weird obsessive compulsion at a later date. I would say the name is a pure coincidence but what is not is the size of their books, all just under 200 pages.

There is one thing that puzzled me a great deal while reading The Savage Detectives. While all these people in Bolaños novel celebrate short literary forms, like poetry, their author chose this traditional form of the long novel. Is that why part I is composed of short diary entries and part II – a 500 pages long sequence – of short chapters? To make us believe he does, after all write a short form? He is cheating, isn’t he?

In any case, even though Mrs Cat started supervising my reading progress, I had to throw in the towel and put The Savage Detectives on the half-read chunkster pile where it’s sitting right next to Anna Karenina. A far better fate than the one that befell Dumas’ La Reine Margot. That one was disposed of.

I have not given up on Bolaño. Far from it. There are still many others of his books on my piles and one of them will be my first one in 2012. Not sure which one though. 2666, Amulet, Last Evenings on Earth or Monsieur Pain?

If you want to read a few proper reviews of The Savage Detectives, please make sure to visit the hosts of the readalong Rise and Richard and the other participants. Here is Bellezza’s post and Sarah’s.