Wednesday, April 15, 2009

THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES by Roberto Bolano

Bolano's Savage Detectives impresses me considerably less than it did the overly effusive James Wood, who praised (?) it as "amazingly unliterary," as if that's some kind of accomplishment. The vast majority of minds and lives are amazingly unliterary; we read to learn from the tiny minority that are not. Already, at 30 pages into this 500+ page book, it's starting to feel slack, baggy, and I'm finding little of interest in the prose or the form. In contrast to Bolano's marvelous novella By Night in Chile, this book is a less concentrated, less tense work, and the difference shows to its detriment. The ironies of unreliable narration (or more accurately, impaired narration) are of the standard sort found in most literary fiction today, and the deliberately colloquial, antilyrical prose--certainly an intentional riposte to the previous Latin American generation's baroque lyricism--has little to recommend it. I may return to the book in the future, perhaps even the near future, but for now it goes back into one of my book-towers between David Grossman's Be My Knife and an illustrated guide to the National Gallery of Ireland (no, my books aren't arranged in anything approximating order).

A postscript: This book falls into one of the traps set for novelists: the diary trap. While books written in the form of journal entries may be relatively easy to write (and I know from experience that they are, as are books consisting entirely of voices), they are often rather boring to read. The episodic form breaks up narrative tension and makes the book too easy to put down. By contrast, By Night in Chile's unparagraphed form demands and holds the reader's attention from first sentence to last. It's possible that Bolano was better at tour de forces and never really mastered the long novel form, a possibility that lowers my expectations for 2666.

3 comments:

Sam said...

The diary format changes after the introduction 'Mexicans lost in Mexico', unfortunately the older readers I know always get turned off by that introduction. However the rest of this book is amazing. By Night in Chile was good, but The Savage Detectives is a much greater work, a love letter to himself (Bolano) true, but all the more poignant now he is dead. Pick it up and finish it, I'm sure you won't regret it.

Ana said...

I'm with Sam on this one. In fact, the diary entries of the first part are much more interesting in retrospect, when, in the labyrinth of the second part, one realises that Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are essentially the protagonists of the book, but that we are being limited to an exterior access to their action and discourse at all times. There's something distinctly Joycean about the entire encounter, not least for the abundant life found in moments of complete paralysis. Imagine abandoning Ulysses after 30 pages!

BRIAN OARD said...

Ana,

See my Sept.22 post for the results of my second and complete encounter with Savage Detectives. I mentioned here that I would be returning to the book in the future. Well, that future was last September. I pretty much agree with you now. It's an astonishing, remarkable novel.