Roberto Bolaño’s Los Detectives Salvajes (1)

This is my promised review of Roberto Bolaño’s masterpiece Savage Detectives. This first post offers an overview  of Latin American themes in literature, being based on an essay I wrote for school. But let me first tell you a bit on how I met Bolaño. It was in the late autumn of 2011, when I was in Berlin, attending classes at the Freie Universitaet. All  the Latin American students I met on this occasion told me that I should read Bolaño, that his work is going to change my life. The first thing I discovered from him and had a lasting impression on me was his short story Clara, featured in the New Yorker fiction podcast here: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/02/fiction-podcast-francisco-goldman-reads-roberto-bolano.html 

1. Why is Latin America different?

The North American West ends up right at the border between the United States and Mexico. On the Mexican side, NAFTA brought booming industrialization in the 90s, the current recession brought massive unemployment, and the drug lords were always there, a mix of these factors making, for example, Ciudad Juarez, just over the Rio Grande from the United States, the city with the largest number of violent deaths in the world, for a city that is not located in a war zone[1].

Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that books as his don’t do anything else by describe the mere reality of Latin America, but for us, Europeans, this reality is hard to conceive, since our biggest river, the Danube, is nothing compared to the Amazon[2]. However, this is not going to be an essay on any Garcia Marquez book, but on a book from an author who is less known, but increasingly popular, at least to North American audiences, lately. The book is “Los Detectives Salvajes” (The Savage Detectives), written by Roberto Bolaño and published in Spanish in 1998, winner of multiple literary awards, translated to Romanian in 2013.

            If we were to put this novel in a wider context from a theoretical point of view, a special consideration should be given to Moses’ ideas on Mexico as “world of political bloodshed and revolution, civil war and exile”[3]. Indeed, this should be said of the whole of Latin America, since Savage Detectives is a novel on the Latin American destiny, in the immensely wide space ranging from Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, to the exiles and peregrinations in Paris, Barcelona, Austria, Israel, Liberia, Rwanda in times of civil war, of the two protagonists, Chilean poet Arturo Belano and Mexican poet Ulises Lima, from the perspective of the testimonials of those who knew them in the period between 1976 and 1996. Although politics is in the background rather than in the center of the story (which deals more with the cosmopolitan artist’s life, the novel is, however, also a tale of political and cultural modernization, of political contestation and the violent response to this contestation, many background stories dealing with such problems of the Mexican and Chilean society. We could, like Moses, read Savage Detectives from the point of view of global hybridization[4], or how he nicely puts it:

“political revolutions and tragic historical events that constitute either the background or the

explicit subject matter of their writing, for all their differences, collectively comprise an

overarching cosmopolitan narrative, a story that encompasses the whole globe, a tale

related by the distinctive and individual voices of a large extended family”[5].

All the elements for such a reading are to be found in the text: political militantism and revolutions, recollections of tragical historical events, especially from those living in the 30s, a time of the cult of authoritarian personalities (generals leading the peasantry to revolution), but also in the 70s, who has seen many political turmoils such as authoritarian military regimes taking over the power in most Latin American countries (Chile’s Allende regime overturned through a military coup by Pinochet, the Sandinist left-wing oriented authoritarian movement under Somosa leading Nicaragua)[6] are just two examples which, although referenced rather indirectly in the stories told, do have an important echo in the novel, and the decisions that characters make are, to a certain extent, politically constrained, and my purpose is to search and analyze such instances in the novel. Moreover, what is also present in The Savage detectives is the interplay between “the self-consciousness we call modernity, the narrative practices we call modernism, and the social, political, and economic process we call modernization”[7].


[1] Economist – Mexico’s murder capital: A “dying” city protests, February 18th 2010, online at

 http://www.economist.com/node/15546115, retrieved January 28th 2014

[2] I have seen the quote on the inside cover of a Romanian edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, someone has put it in a literary blog that I quote here: „Cărțile mele pot părea fantezie, dar eu nu fac decât să descriu realitatea noastră, a Americii de Sud. Ele conțin mult mai puțină imaginație decât ar crede un cititor european, pentru că atunci când vorbesc de fluviu cel mai mare fluviu din Europa, Dunărea, nu poate descrie imensitatea Amazonului, la fel cum o ploaie europeană nu are nimic în comun cu o aversă în jungla sudamericană.” , online at http://www.catchy.ro/sa-traiesti-pentru-a-povesti-realitatea-magiei-gabriel-garcia-marquez/26503 , retrieved January 28th 2014

[3] Michael Valdez Moses – The Novel and the Globalization of Culture, 1995, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, p. X

[4] Ibid, pp. X-XI

[5] Ibid, p.X

[6] Thomas Skidmore, Peter Smith – Modern Latin America –Sixth Edition, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 2005, pp.66-131

[7] Michael Valdez Moses – Op. cit., p. XII

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