After starting and quickly abandoning The Savage Detectives a few months ago, I had an intimation that I would be returning to the book in the near future... Well, the near future is now. I gave it another chance, and I'm very glad I did. This is one of those rare novels that after a rather unpromising beginning progressively improves until it eventually touches greatness. And even the opening section impressed me more on this reading. The first 140 pages didn't impress me enormously (my mind remained unblown), but they were good enough to keep me reading--as good as they needed to be. This time I can see beyond the lazy diary form of the first section and enjoy Juan Garcia Madero's naive and unreliable narration (an unreliability signaled by his literally incredible sexual athletics) and the mysterious, apparition-like entrances of Arturo Belano (obvious authorial stand-in) and Ulises Lima, the leaders of the obscure (but not entirely fictional) 'visceral realist' poetry movement in 1970s Mexico City. Their enigmatic appearances in Garcia Madero's narrative prepare us for the roles they will play throughout the book: never speaking directly but always spoken about, always seen obliquely through the distorting lenses of others' eyes and minds and often enveloped in a weedy haze. Bolano's sex scenes in this first section are also good, and their range--from comic to horrific--is impressive. But the novel doesn't really take off until its four central characters climb into a Chevy Impala and flee Mexico City for the dubious haven of the Sonoran desert. At that point, the first section abruptly ends, the narrative breaks, and the novelistic form radically explodes into a long, 450-page collection of monologue fragments in which multiple narrators, most of whom are extremely minor characters, recount various stories of the lives and wanderings of Belano, Lima and the other visceral realists. The form is successfully entropic--a rare achievement--as it negotiates an original pathway between the Scylla and Charybdis of traditional coherence and postmodern fragmentation. This section is the novel's heart and Bolano's triumph, as impressive as his nearly perfect novella By Night in Chile. The various voices--sentimental, bitter, bitchy, pompous, angry, enigmatic, uncomprehending--sound out against each other in cacophonous chorus, recounting the litany of failures and temporary stays against failure that constitute the characters' lives after the collapse of their movement. As I read, I was reminded repeatedly of Flaubert's Sentimental Education and began to see The Savage Detectives as a contemporary Mexican Sentimental Education and the long second section as a gigantic expansion upon the famous "He travelled..." passage in which Flaubert glosses over the years of Frederic Moreau's aimless and disappointed wanderings. This is a Sentimental Education focusing on what happens after the dreams collapse: the life of flight and poverty on the margins of our globalized world.
"Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy," says Bolano's fictional critic (and Arturo Belano's dueling opponent) Inaki Echeverne, and the novel bears out this pronouncement even as it attempts to dilute it with self-protective irony. The chapter that contains this line, one of the book's very best sections, ends with a tale told by the Chilean Arturo Belano, a tale of two writers, one Peruvian and the other Cuban (unnamed but clearly Reinaldo Arenas), both of whom suffer equal but opposite forms of ideological attack. At the story's end, Bolano's Chilean listener tells him "You and I are Chilean...and none of this is our fault," thus completely missing the point of Belano's tale and reaffirming his own sense of ideological purity, a sentimental leftist illusion of purity born (irony of ironies) in the destruction of the Chilean left at the hands of Pinochet. Scenes like this, and especially the brilliantly hellish Liberian episode near the section's end, ultimately lift the book beyond the level of comic literary roman a clef to an examination of the tragedy that life has become in the modern world. This is post-magic realist, anti-utopian dissident fiction, and it's marvelous.