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.

55 thoughts on “Impressions of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives

  1. Hi Caroline,
    Such a bummer you couldn’t get through The Savage Detectives! I loved the book but if you want to get a suggestion about what to read next by Bolano, you simply must try 2666. I think it’s the greatest book to be published in the first decade of this century.
    Have you tried other Latin American writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez?

    • Hi Elliott, thanks for the comment and the encouragement to read 2666. It was the one I wanted to start with but I was so tempted by the readalong. It’s another lesson learned, long books are not good choices for readalongs. I should have known better as during my own readalong nobody managed Elsa Morante’s 700+ novel.
      I read a lot of Latin American literature for a while and have liked the authors you mention and some others. It has nothing to do with Bolaño, I liked his style but the topic, length and the time pressure made for a fatal combination.

  2. So what you are saying, if I ever publish a book I should use the pen name Elizabeth. I’m sorry you didn’t get through this one. I was tempted by this group read but I had made too many commitments. I’m already behind in my War & Peace book…

    • I had no idea before this readalong that I had so many British women writers on my piles whose name was Elizabeth. I’m sure there are more… Now I have to find out if they all write in the same vein.
      Not sure about the pen name…
      I have to be super careful when I choose a long book…

  3. You got further than me through it. I think I’d recommend By Night In Chile, though it’s not on your list. It’s short, at least. – I think I’ve lost all interest in Bolaño though.

    • I managed 1/3. Thanks for the suggestion but I try to buy no more books by authors whose books I seem to collect but not read to… I haven’t lost interest but I need a shorter one next. Although I still have a feeling I would appreciate 2666.

  4. I’m sorry this didn’t work out for you, Caroline, but now I finally don’t feel as guilty for not having finished the Morante book you mention yet! All kidding aside, I’d recommend you try either Nazi Literature in the Americas or Distant Star should you really want to try one of Bolaño’s shorter books (they are visceral and experimental and usually regarded as much more successful offerings than Amulet, which I like but not nearly to the same degree, or Monsieur Pain, which I haven’t read yet but is said to be a minor work among his output). As for The Savage Detectives, one of the things I love about the book is the second section sandwiched in between the two diary entries by Juan García Madero that bracket it. There are actually over 50 narrators in this section, a profusion of first-person perspectives and storytelling derring do by Bolaño that just amazes me. As to why Bolaño chose a long narrative form, the novel, to celebrate a shorter narrative form, the poem, I think it’s worth mentioning that he started out as a poet (like the Belano character in the book in the book, who is a fictionalized version of the author) before taking on the novel as his main genre of choice. Some of this decision was likely economic as everybody knows that the novel sells better than the poetry chapbook for the most part; other parts of it might have had to do with a poet seeing a novel as a technical challenge to take on and beat. I think he did pretty well myself. Anyway, thanks for writing about your experience with the book (I’ve never seen that cover, by the way)–I’ll link to your post when I put my own up hopefully later today. Cheers!

    • All in all I just wanted to make you feel good about the Morante and Böll and…
      Now you are adding two more titles…
      The cover is surprsing, isn’t? Not sure it’s well chosen. The editions of his other novels are quite different.
      I rememebered that you mentioned that the book is autobiographical to a large extent which shows, I think. Not a bad thing. I think I would like to read his poetry if it can be found.
      he chose the novel but he is far from traditional in his approach, I was exaggerating. I can’t say i didn’t think it’s interesting but not for me at the moment.
      I’m very interested to read yours and the other reviews. Rise commented that it took him 5 months to read the book the first time… I think I tried to force myself and that’s never a good thing with books.

    • Partly economic, but also something more personal about his own creativity.

      The key path to follow in Bolaño’s creative biography was his discovery that he was not a poet, which was a real blow, since poetry is The Most Important Thing in the World, and that he was not a real conceptual artist, even though most of his favorite writers are conceptual artists. So he became or discovered that he was a non-conceptual non-poet whose subject was poets and conceptual artists.

      Richard’s right about Monsieur Pain, by the way. How much do you like Cesar Vallejo? The novel makes clever use of Vallejo. Some of the ideas are reworked in SD.

      • Thanks for your comment. Funny actually, when I wrote that he was cheating, I wasn’t really wrong, was I?
        I can understand where he is coming from. Notto be able to write poetry. He manages to convey quite a lot of more condensed writing, the approach is just different. I came to this book relatively unprepared, meaning, I did hardly read anything about him before. I’m not very familar with poetry of Spanish language, Neruda and Paz, yes, but I must admit and haven’t read Vallejo. If I revisit The Savage Detectives I’d have to do more pre-work, possibly and – it seems – read Vallejo.
        The translation seems very good by the way, the flow sounds quite Spanish.

        • You can only cheat if there are rules to break.

          M. Pain is the Vallejo novel, not Detectives. You don’t really need to read Vallejo for that early novel – you do not need the what of Vallejo but the why. Just as with Detectives knowing about Paz is more important than knowing what he wrote.

          • Women who wear extra tight things below their clothes (or maybe men as well) to appear slim do not break rules but they do cheat. No? That type of cheating is what he did.
            Completely misunderstood about the Vallejo. I get you now. It might still be interesting to read him despite the why being more important. From all the praise Bolano gets, I’d say one of his minor novels might still be quite alright.

  5. Interesting point, Caroline, about Bolaño “cheating” by constructing Savage Detectives out of various short forms of literature. If that’s the case, then why not just return to it and treat each “short form” as a separate work, and voila – you’ll be done with the book in no time!

    I kid, of course. Your comment about feeling – with Part 1 – that you were again in the presence of one of your teenage friends just hits dead on one of the appealing (and occasionally annoying – get offa my lawn, you kids!) aspects of SD, which is this sort of adolescent energy and vitality in the book. Bolaño really does capture that wayward excitement one feels in learning about literature when every experiment seems new and wild and unprecedented, and that one is a part of it all and understanding it for the first time. Anyway, I’m sorry you didn’t finish the book, but only – selfishly – as it will deprive us of your further comments about it.

    • That’s so nice of you, Scott.
      After having read Tom’s comment I’m convinced I’m spot on with the cheating, only I didn’t know the reasons. At some point I thought he is failing terribly, not for us but for someone so in love with poetry.
      I liked the energy in part I and it felt familiar, … staying awake all night and write cadavre exquis…
      He does capture it well.
      I was thinking exactly what you suggest, to go on reading it, one short chapter per day… It would take some time but it would also be a very different reading experience…

  6. I liked M. Pain but it intrigued more than anything else for its subtle references. I have The Third Reich on the shelf, but to be honest I haven’t been that tempted to dip into Savage Detectives.

    • Guy, I’m pretty convinced that this wouldn’t be a book for you. Rather 2666. I’m interested in reading M. Pain and have read a lot of good things about the short stories.

  7. I didn’t finish either, and I feel greatly assuaged by your post. I found myself nodding to most of your comments; however, I didn’t finish because I found Part II entirely too annoying. Skipping around, amongst more or less arbitrary people, was just too tedious for this reader. I’ve scheduled my thoughts, which, I’m afraid are not as polite as yours.

    • I’m glad this post was of some use and that I’m not the only one who had to give up. I’m very curious to see what you have written.
      I must say I didn’t have a very negative reaction, I just felt this isn’t for me at this point in time. Although… I was a bit bored.

  8. Although I feel like I have a lot in common with Juan García Madero, being only somewhat older than him and still reading Perec with googly eyes, this time round I was glad Parts 1 and 3 move so quickly since I found his part of the story somewhat annoying. It is Part 2 that I loved. More about that later on my own blog. I can totally relate to your abandonment of the book though (I did the same thing for about the same reasons with Conversations in The Cathedral last year…)

    I read The Skating Rink by Bolano a few years ago and liked it pretty well. It is MUCH shorter. Still need to tackle 2666…

    • Sometimes it’s the wrong moment sometimes a book is realy not for us but I’m interested in your review, see what i will discover, although I must say, it will be almost everything as I have not read all that much of part 2.
      I can be pretty enthusiastic about books but not about those particular authors anymore. Maybe some of the Surrealists still though.

  9. Appreciate this post. I wouldn’t call it defeat but a truce.
    In interviews, Bolano always highlighted the economic reason for writing in prose but he excelled in writing prose poetry (as in Tres and Antwerp) so writing long and short fiction must be a natural thing to him. The second part is the messing around part. It’s a game he set for his readers.
    You can start anywhere, I think. Monsieur Pain is quite good for me. It’s about atmosphere. So are Amulet and Last Evenings on Earth. 2666 is a great one, it could have the largest payoff.

    • Thanks, Rise.
      Truce sounds way better…
      I didn’t entirely get into that game spirit, I will try and dip back in occasionally, see what happens. I can see that he will be very good at short fiction.
      I thought Monsieur Pain sounded interesting and I read a very fascinating review of Amulet. 2666 is a novel I wanted to read since I first saw it mentioned but I will go about it slowly, certainly not for a readalong. Some books take more time.

  10. I heard a review of The Savage Detectives on NPR several in 2007 and immediately ordered it. Unfortunately, it is one of my few DNF books. I eventually set it aside after realizing that I just didn’t care about the characters enough to continue. It bothered me at the time that I couldn’t appreciated such a critically acclaimed novel. Funny, though, I still have a scene or two that lingers in my memory five years and hundreds of books later, and that says something.

    • I understand the DNF and that some scenes stayed vivid. If Juan Gracía had stayed at the heart of it al, I might have cared somewhat more but those two poets didn’t interest me at all. They stand for a type of literature, paired with a political movement, that is just not my thing. You haven’t tried another of his books, I guess?

  11. Caroline, this is a very interesting comment to me because the two characters you mentioned are essentially apolitical! Which political movement do you think they stand for?

    • I felt it was a political movement (not explicit in those pages I read but I assumed it would be more obvious later) because they and their theory have something anarchistic and they didn’t exist in a vacuum. I just thought the avantgarde in Mexico always had a politcal agenda as well (maybe I read something into it). It also struck me that there was no mentioning of any other art, neither paintings, nor movies, music. It seemed too sober to not be political, a lot of it sounded like they were writing poetry and pamphlets. Maybe I really interpreted something into the text. They were very anti-establishment and that is political to me. Not in the sense of being members of a party (that would be a contradiction as it’s a form of establishment too and doesn’t correspond to the idea of anarchy).

      • Others can correct me if I’m not remembering something important in the text, but Belano and Lima are almost always (if not always) presented as cultural anarchists rather than political anarchists within the novel. In fact, they are criticized by some for not being “political” enough and by others (like the poetry workshop leader Álamo early on) for being “low-rent surrealists and false Marxists” (a great quote that it pained me to leave out of my post!). In other words, they are attacked from all sides for their very lack of politics even though they are definitely anti-establishment on the whole. Other art forms are mentioned later in the book, by the way, though not to the extent of literature by any means. One of the sad things about you giving up on the book so early, though, is that you ended up missing a few wonderful anecdotes related to just these themes: in one of them, a few of the visceral realists hang out with a woman who happens to be Trotsky’s great-granddaughter (a family tie that they aren’t aware of at first); in another, one of the poets goes missing in Sandinista Nicaragua after surprisingly being invited to take part in a Mexican poetry cultural embassy there; in perhaps the most affecting, Ulisses Lima and Octavio Paz have a chance encounter in a Mexico City park long after Lima’s visceral realist heyday.

        • I’m glad you put my reading into perspective. That’s why I usually finish books and if not, at least choose not to write too much about them. It’s obvious that one can draw the wrong conclusions when stopping afte one third. Who knows…one day I might finish it. The quote about the low-rent Surrealists and false Marxists is a good one.
          Still, i would say, it’s a roman à idées, a genre I’m not too keen on. Or don’t you think it is?

  12. “Wrong reader-right book” – I like that. When I feel Iike I can’t connect with a book I think that maybe I’m reading it at a wrong time and put it aside for a while.
    Funny that you should mention After Julius by Elizabeth Howard. That’s the next book I was going to read, after finishing The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins a couple of days ago.

    • In this case that’s really how it felt and I also think I might not return to it.
      That’s a coincidence, indeed, that you are going to read Elizabeth Howard. I have to finish a fe other books first and then it will read one of the Elizabeths and very possibly After Julius. I’m curious to find out whether we will both like or dislike it.

  13. The only Bolano I’ve read is Last Evenings on Earth, a short story collection that I enjoyed very much, but it does concern failed writers, mostly. Also, if you are not the greatest fan of chunksters (and I sympathise, not doing well with them myself), then are you sure that 2666 is the book you really want to try?

    • Your are right, of course. 2666 was the first of his books I bought and it has been sitting on the piles for a while. Indeed, it’s a major chunkster. I feel that I will like the book as such more but I will try the short stories first. Your comment tells me there is a fair chance I will like them.

  14. Sorry you couldn’t finish the book, Caroline…but to finish 700pages really need a great story to cover. You are still better than me, I don’t dare trying that thick book unless by SK.

    ow how time is getting shorter as we are getting older. Good plan to read thin books but I dont have much thin books.

    when you say great book wrong reader, I feel the same at Constant Garderner. The book is good, but I am not the right reader.

    • I liked The Constant Gardener when I read it a few years ago but I am not sure I would still like it. Yes, it’s fair in that case as well to say wrong reader-right book as the book is good. Like this one, just not for me. To make me finish 700pages it must be something that really speaks to me.

  15. What you’re saying reminds me a lot of the thoughts I had when I read it the first time around. I stuck it out but I think it took me about three months to finish (!). The middle section was incredibly confusing and I didn’t see the point of it at times.
    This time, I only re-read parts of it and I somehow felt like it came together in a much nicer way. Maybe one way for you to re-approach it (if you ever feel like torturing yourself with it again) is to rearrange the second chapter. This is a thought that occurred to me after I suddenly realised its similarities with Cortázar’s Rayuela (which I waffle on about in my own post). You can read it in lots of different ways, chronologically or by witness, and maybe that would make it more approachable? It’s a theory though, I haven’t tried it myself.

    • That sounds interesting and I might even try it. Or like Scott said, one chapter at a time and slowly slowly until part III. I’m glad to hear it took you longer to read it as well. I tried to force myself to finish on time but that did really not work. I’m interested to read your post and the conections with Rayuela. I’ve read some books by Cortázar but not that. What I have read was very readable, not like this at all.

  16. Sorry to know that you couldn’t finish ‘The Savage Detectives’, Caroline. It is one of my favourite books, but I can understand why you found it difficult to get through the second part. I hope you cheated and went to the third part, which continues the story which is left off at the end of the first part 🙂 The third part is only a few pages long, if I remember right. Hope you enjoy reading ‘Last Evenings on Earth’. I have read one story from that collection and I am hoping to read the rest of the book sometime. I am not sure about ‘2666’ – inspite of the wonderful recommendations and awards that it has received, it is still a mammoth, probably twice the size of ‘The Savage Detectives’. It also has a structure similar to that of ‘The Savage Detectives’ – small story at the beginning and longer section with monologues – but it is twice as long. I bought it when it came out, but it is still lying on my bookshelf and I am not planning to go near it anytime soon 🙂 Liked very much your reading theme – reading books by authors whose first name is Elizabeth. Happy Reading! Love the picture of Mrs.Cat 🙂

    • One of your favourite books even? Oh my, I must have done something wrong when reading it. Maybe I should have gone to part III directly. You have convinced me not to start 2666 too soon but definitely Last Evenings on Earth.
      She is a funny cat, he is more playful and gentle, she always wants to observe everything and likes to steal my chairs.
      These Elizabeths really haunt me. It seems I’m in he mood for English books.:)

      • Well, it wasn’t my favourite when I started reading the second part 🙂 I actually wanted to drop it, after I had read a little bit into the second part. It was so distracting without any continuity, offering a series of images without a story. But after I got into it, I fell in love with it.

        Nice to know that Mrs.Cat is very observant. And steals your chairs 🙂

        Hope you enjoy reading the story of the Elizabeths!

  17. I eventually found some time to read your post.

    I’ll call it an honest review about an honest attempt at a challenging book.

    That’s a book I have on my never list. Do you have a never list too?

    • I would have been surprised if you had felt the urge to read this next…. It’s a mattter of time economy as well. I don’t have a lot of time and to sacrifice all of it to this book was just not possible. I don’t have a list like that. Not yet. 🙂

  18. I love your little reading table and Mrs Cat looks quite comfy on it. Cats can make themselves so tiny when they want to curl up on a small spot! Too bad about the Bolano–I do want to read him at some point, too, but he seems a little intimidating to me. In the past I have not been bothered by long books–usually read a couple every year, but for some reason I have not been able to manage them in the last couple of years and I’m not sure what’s up. Anna K was my last long one I think. I never finished the Dreiser from last year, though he still sits on my night table. I hope to do better with Dumas in February. Love your list of Elizabeths though! Will you write about any of them? Did you like Elizabeth Berridge–I very much enjoyed Across the Common and liked Angel, too, even though she was such an unlikeable character! And I’m working on an Elizabeth Jane Howard now! Oh well, maybe the next one will be better? As a side note I have just finished writing my Dunmore post–will tweak it and post it after work tomorrow. At least I’ve accomplished one thing on time so far. 🙂

    • Thanks, Danielle. It’s a little corner in the kitchen in front of a radiator, that’s why Mrs Cat and myself love the spot. She can squeeze in anywhere. He couldn’t as he is twice as big. Usually the moment I moment, she gets on the chair.
      Bolano isn’t what I expected . I thought he would be a challenge style wise but he isn’t it’s like spoke language most of the time but I could imagine if all those names don’t tell you anything it could be very annoying. I just didn’t care for the people and their aspirations. And the middle section is like 98 short chapters all from someon else’s perspective…
      Oh the Elizabeth’s I like that little pile a lot but it has been a “temptation pile” so far, I haven’t started them I’ve done something I never do usually, stated thre or four other books which I have to finish first. I don’t like long books because I have no time and would have to spend too long with the same book.

      • The Elizabeth pile are books to look forward to then! 🙂 I have also been drawn more to shorter books lately, though even then I seem to be reading them all slowly. I think if I read one long with with other shorter ones it will work, but I still neglect the long one. I’m surprised Mrs Cat is not sitting on your newspaper–whenever I sit a paper or book down my cats think it is expressly for them–an invitation to come and sprawl on top of it!

        • He likes to sit and sleep on the laptop but she makes sure to not sit on anything. She has a far more nasty habit though and the clue is in the photos. I first took the upper one with the candle but when she jumps on the table you have to blow out the candle because she puts her nose into it. The last time she burned her whiskers off. Silly little thing.
          I’m looking forward to my Elizabeth pile but now that I have the time to read them, I’m tempted by other books. isn’t it typical? 🙂

  19. Caroline, sorry you didn’t finish. I did and am working on a post, if you can call it that. I can’t quite explain it but TSD and 2666 and a couple of stories I’ve read have me wanting to read more Bolano, as much as I can get my hands on.

    • I’m glad you liked it and am looking forrward to read your thoughts. You are in excellent company. Me and Bellezza are the only ones in this readalong who have been left standing in front of a closed door. I will read his stories next.

  20. Bolano isn’t quite on my never list, but at the moment he comes close. I find the hype somehow offputting, even if it is likely well deserved.

    Also, 700+ pages? I appreciate I read Proust and Pynchon, but for that many pages I really do expect something special.

    That said, I’m sorry you weren’t able to finish, but at least you bailed rather than continuing and hating it.

    I do tend to think with these books, and it’s a rather vulgar thought, I can read this 700 pager or I could read say five brilliant short novels at 150 pages apiece. Which is likely to prove more rewarding?

    One shouldn’t judge by width, but with time constraints as they are…

    • What actually made me put him aside was when I realized how many probably far better books (Proust volumes 3 onwards for example or even Dickens) I post-pone because of the size. And economy comes into it. I have not a lot of time and would much rather read 4 excellent books than one that I start to believe is a bit of a bubble. I expected something that I would like for the writing. But the writing – due to the form (diary and interviews) is purely spoken language. I think just after, or rather in parallel with Henry Green, wasn’t the best moment to read him. I will try his short stories.

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