The Savage Detectives A Novel

Roberto Bolaño; Translated by Natasha Wimmer




Trade Paperback

656 Pages



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One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the YearA Washington Post Top 10 Book of the YearA New York Magazine Top 10 Book of the YearA Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of the YearA San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the YearA Kirkus Reviews Top 10 Book of the Year

In the novel that established his international reputation, Roberto Bolaño tells the story of two modern-day Quixotes—the last survivors of an underground literary movement, perhaps of literature itself—on a tragicomic quest through a darkening, entropic universe: our own. The Savage Detectives is an exuberant, raunchy, wildly inventive, and ambitious novel from one of the greatest Latin American authors of our age.


Praise for The Savage Detectives

"Over the last few years, Roberto Bolaño’s reputation, in English at least, has been spreading in a quiet contagion; the loud arrival of a long novel, The Savage Detectives, will ensure that few are now untouched . . . The novel is wildly enjoyable (as well as, finally, full of lament), in part because Bolaño, despite all the game-playing, has a worldly literal, sensibility . . . The Savage Detectives is both melancholy and fortifying; and it is both narrowly about poetry and broadly about the difficulty of sustaining the hopes of youth. Bolaño beautifully manages to keep his comedy and his pathos in the same family."—James Woods, The New York Times Book Review

"Bolaño's fiction is, in large part, an ironic mythologization of his personal history, and The Savage Detectives hews closest to what Latin-American writers call the Bolaño legend. The novel, which has been given a bracingly idiomatic translation by Natasha Wimmer, is a teeming, 'Manhattan Transfer'-like collage featuring more than fifty narrators . . . When The Savage Detectives was published, Ignacio Echevarría, Spain's most prominent literary critic, praised it as 'the kind of novel that Borges could have written.' He got it half right. Borges, whose longest work of fiction is fifteen pages, would likely have admired the way Bolaño's novel emerges from a branching tree of stories. But what would he have made of the delirious road trip, the frenzied sex, the sloppy displays of male ego? Bolaño fills his canvas with messy Lawrencian emotions but places them within a coolly cerebral frame. It's a style worthy of its own name: visceral modernism."—Daniel Zalewski, The New Yorker

"A magnum opus of serial narration and collective testimony . . . A work that established Bolaño's reputation in the Spanish-speaking world as a successor to Borges, García Márquez, and Julio Cortazar, this 600-page novel has finally been published in English in a translation by Natasha Wimmer . . . It is an extraordinary work; obsessive, uneven, and magnificent, The Savage Detectives is a picaresque of late capitalism that demands utter submission from the reader as it presents an account in multiple voices of the adventures of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, founders of a short-lived poetry movement called 'visceral realism.' Ostensibly about a quest by Belano and Lima for a mythical woman poet from the 1920s, The Savage Detectives is a hustler of a book."—Siddhartha Deb, Harper's Magazine

"The fifth of Bolaño's books to appear in English, and the first in a translation by Natasha Wimmer (who is best known for her work on Mario Vargas Llosa), The Savage Detectives was published in Spanish in 1998, under the title Los detectives salvajes. An outsized, autobiographical travelogue—in the course of which Bolaño and his friend Mario Santiago appear as the 'visercal realist' poets, pot dealer, drifters, and literary detectives Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, respectively—it was Bolaño’s most ambitious work to date. That it works quite well as a mystery is the least of this novel’s many surprises . . . But the bulk of The Savage Detectives is montage: an oral history narrated by male hustlers, female bodybuilders, mad architects, shell-shocked war correspondents, and Octavio Paz's personal secretary. There are fifty-two voices in all—jokers in the pack, Belano and Lima are not given speaking roles, appearing only in the recollections of others—and the stories they tell shade into one another, encompass historical forces and personages, and allude to specifics of the author’s own biography . . . The savagery of the title is the savagery of youth—poetry, poverty, fiery idealism, quick fucks, blind drive, the threat of violence, and violence itself . . . The Savage Detectives can be read as a love letter to the Mexico they knew in the '70s, but much of the book sees Belano and Lima in Europe, and one, climatic chapter takes place in Liberia’s killing fields. Like the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Savage Detectives is kaleidoscopic and antiprovincial—and the world it describes is recognizably our own . . . The Savage Detectives is good art. When it is dark, it is very dark. At other times, it is very funny, thrilling, tender, and erotic. At its best, it is dark, funny, thrilling, tender, and erotic at one and the same time, in a way few novels before it have been . . . Natasha Wimmer's translation, too, is lucid."—Alex Abramovich, Bookforum

"While norteamericanos were rereading dog-eared copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, a dyslexic, globe-trotting high school dropout and ex-heroin addict was publishing the most celebrated Latin American novels in three decades . . . But the reputation of Chilean-born Roberto Bolaño, whose old pictures make him look like the guitar for a psychedelic garage band, continued to grow: Young Latin writers in particular sang his praises, and he became, in the Spanish-speaking world, the most admired author of his generation . . . Bolaño's mystique in Latin America combines Allen Ginsburg's (lusty, nomadic poet), Thomas Pynchon (difficult postmodern polymath) and Norman Mailer's (macho media provocateur)."—Scott Timburg, Los Angeles Times

"Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is a deeply satisfying, yet overwhelming reading experience . . . Bolaño's book throws down a great, clunking, formal gauntlet to his readers’ conventional expectations . . . Is it worth our time? Is it a good novel? Time alone will supply the adjective 'great,' but what I can say now is: The Savage Detectives is a very good novel."—Thomas McGonigle, The Nation

"When I began reading The Savage Detectives last month, I had already devoured the first three of Bolaño's books to arrive in English—two short novels, By Night in Chile and Distant Star, and the story collection Last Evenings on Earth—and become a devoted fan. But I was still unprepared for The Savage Detectives, the work that made his reputation when it first appeared in 1998, and for which he was awarded the Rómulo Gallegos Prize. Available now in a seamless translation by Natasha Wimmer, this novel is an utterly unique achievement—a modern epic rich in character and event, suffused in every sentence with Bolaño's unsettling mix of precision and mystery. It's a lens through which the strange becomes ordinary and the ordinary is often very strange."—Vinnie Wilhelm, San Francisco Chronicle

“‘God bless them, they were so young, with their hair down to their shoulders and carrying all those books.’ This wistful observation comes from an aging, drunken, failed poet in The Savage Detectives, the grand novel that made Roberto Bolaño famous in Latin America when it was published in 1998. The tension between vitality and its erosion—between youth’s gorgeous recklessness and its inevitable decay—fuels this remarkable book and fills it with an aching sadness."—Emily Bobrow, The New York Observer

“Roberto Bolaño’s first full-length novel translated into English, The Savage Detectives, extends and vindicates the weird vision of his shorter volumes . . . In previous works, I worried that Mr. Bolaño could only keep up his bibliographic romance, with its undertow of dread, for the duration of a novella. But in the exhaustive reaches of The Savage Detectives, it becomes clear that the romance is meant to be limited. The real story, in Mr. Bolaño’s fiction, is the nerve of the poets, electing to believe in one another’s genius . . . For Mr. Bolaño, belief in ragtag literature becomes a belief in apocryphal history, ignorant and powerful. Although the intimation of an exciting negative climax to world history pervades youth culture, no one but Mr. Bolaño has painted the sociological sadness behind this sentiment so convincingly. Entropy beats explosion every time.”—Benjamin Lytal, The Sun

“Bolaño’s ambition is huge; his capacity to tell stories, never-ending . . . What impresses us is the fine ear of Bolaño, who can masterfully create so many different voices, each of them telling a story. At the same time, he conjures at given moments those adventures shared with Belano, Lima or both, so that the reader sees a wide-ranging and fascinating portrait of both characters and the times they live in . . . Seven years ago, when I read The Savage Detectives for the first time, the vibrant rhythm of its prose made a deep impression on me (a rhythm very well translated into English), as did the intensity with which desperate characters living on the edge express themselves.”—Horacio Castellanos Moya, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“It’s a massive, sprawling, romantic cauldron of a book: a self-portrait of the artist (refracted through dozens of literary mirrors), a history of his times, a cultural and political manifesto, a mystery novel and a game . . . This is a brilliant book.”—Michael Redhill, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“In terms of every aspect of its consistent brilliance, The Savage Detectives immediately makes one rethink Hopscotch and One Hundred Years of Solitude. A work of genius, superior in scope and conception to the masterpieces of magical realism and the varieties of postmodern novels that followed them, Roberto Bolaño’s bittersweet epic is the result of combining Borgesian long narratives with Musil’s essayistic and fragmentary style. Add to that mix the counsel of a humorous John Le Carré abetted by Camusian ideas. Bolaño also easily anticipates Kundera’s injunctions in The Curtain against kitschy or ideological dogmas in novel making. A calculated autobiographical tour de force, this encyclopedic novel runs rings around novelistic conventions and traditions, forcing us to find patterns in the chaos of the nomadic cosmos its characters cannot escape. Structured around a quest of heroic proportions as related by scores of restless narrators drunken with literature and the need to testify—in Natasha Wimmer’s persuasive and painstakingly careful translation of the 1998 original—The Savage Detectives engages any desire for endlessly satisfying prose . . . The Savage Detectives is a radical generational and paradigmatic turn in Latin American letters, and its publication in English is a momentous occasion, a necessary awakening from the slumber of continental exoticism and best-sellers. Just as the great ‘boom’ novels of forty years ago made sense of words and things at that time, Bolaño’s aesthetics of astonishment allows us to decipher the full nature of the purported disarray in which we found ourselves between centuries. It is illuminating to watch his, well, bewitched, bothered, and bewildered detectives (the narrators) with the irreverence and iconoclasm that characterized their maker’s boundless talent. Everything is new in and about The Savage Detectives, as Roberto Bolaño, our newly minted Joyce, has already shown to legions of Latin American readers.”—Will H. Corral, World Literature in Review

"An event . . . The Savage Detectives [is] a brutal and lyrical vision of the last thirty years of the millennium."—Fabienne Dumontet, Le Monde des Livres

"The great Mexican novel of its generation . . . By turns sublime and sinister, The Savage Detectives is a magnificent portrait of an era—and of every era in which people experience literature as passionately as life itself."—J. A. Masoliver Ródenas, La Vanguardia

"The Savage Detectives gave us the first real signs that the parade of Amazonian roosters was coming to an end: it marked the beginning of the end for the high priests of the Boom and all their local color . . . It also introduced us to an astonishing writer who reminded us how much deep joy there was in the passion of reading and, at the same time, spent his days on the edge of an abyss that no one else had ever noticed. What was he doing there? He was writing, on a ledge overlooking the void. In retrospect, The Savage Detectives must be considered—along with his giant, posthumous 2666—one of the two major axes of Bolaño’s extraordinary, already legendary work."—Enrique Vila-Matas, Le Magazine Littéraire

"The search for a missing poet is the nominal subject of the late expatriate Chilean author's blazingly original 1998 masterpiece. This almost aggressively literary novel, which won major Latin American literary prizes . . . evolves around the professional friendship of poet intellectuals Arturo Belano (an obvious authorial surrogate) and Ulises Lima. In the course of founding a literary movement they label 'visceral realism,' the pair undertake a quixotic journey hoping to find their predecessor, Mexican poet Cesárea Tinajero, known to have disappeared into the Sonoran Desert decades earlier. But before we learn of their progress, Bolano introduces the ardent figure of 17-year-old hopeful poet Juan García Madero, offering a wonderful account of the fledgling artist's plunge into Mexico City's artistic world, energetic discovery of the multitudinous pleasures of sex and hard-won solidarity with the visceral realists, once he has learned (through tireless networking) that unqualified poets are being rigorously purged from the movement. Juan García breathless narrative then yields to a 400-page sequence in which various involved observers relate and comment on the shared and separate odysseys endured by Ulises (an adventurer prone to miscalculations and missed travel connections), Arturo (who becomes a war correspondent, as the novel travels to Europe and North Africa) and faithful Juan García. In a brief final sequence set in the desert, Juan García  resumes the narration, treating the by-now brain-teased reader to a contest in which the poets display their knowledge of arcane literary trivia. The sad, surprising result of their quest for the elusive Cesárea is also revealed. One of the most entertaining books about writers and their discontents since Boswell's Life of Johnson. A brilliant novel, fully deserving of its high international reputation."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"This is the posthumously published English translation of the prize-winning novel that made celebrated Chilean Roberto Bolaño famous. This highly stylized novel is ostensibly about two poets, leaders of the Mexican visceral realist literary movement, and their search for an obscure icon of the movement and its repercussions. The book spans a decade and follows the poets from Mexico City to the Sonoran Desert, Guatemala, Barcelona, Paris, Israel, Congo, Liberia, and the U.S. The narrative becomes secondary to the voices of the people who meet these poets as this long novel told through the personal stories—some humorous, some inscrutable, some tragic—of the eclectic assortment of characters they encounter on the way becomes less about the search and more about literature and language. For readers interested in a straight narrative, this book will disappoint, but those who enjoy voice and character will find much to satisfy them. As one of the characters notes, ‘Well, in Latin America these things happen and there's no point giving yourself a headache trying to come up with a logical answer when there is none.'"—Booklist

"This novel—the major work from Chilean-born novelist Bolaño (1953–2003) here beautifully translated by Wimmer—will allow English speaking readers to discover a truly great writer. In early 1970s Mexico City, young poets Arturo Belano (Bolaño's alter ego and a regular in his fiction) and Ulises Lima start a small, erratically militant literary movement, the Visceral Realists, named for another, semimythical group started in the 1920s by the nearly forgotten poet Cesárea Tinajero. The book opens with 17 year-old Juan García Madero's precocious, deadpan notebook entries, dated 1975, chronicling his initiation into the movement. The long middle section—written, like George Plimpton's Edie, as a set of anxiously vivid testimonies from friends, lovers, bystanders and a great many enemies—tracks Belano and Lima as they travel the globe from 1975 to the mid-1990s. There are copious, and acidly hilarious, references to the Latin American literary scene, and one needn't be an insider to get the jokes: they're all in Bolaño's masterful shifts in tone, captured with precision by Wimmer. The book's moving final section flashes back to 1976, as Belano, Lima and García Madero search for Cesárea Tinajero, with a young hooker named Lupe in tow. Bolaño fashions an engrossing lost world of youth and utopian ambition, as particular and vivid as it is sad and uncontainable."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1953. He grew up in Chile and Mexico City, where he was a founder of the Infrarealist poetry movement. His first full-length novel, The Savage Detectives, received the Herralde Prize and the Rómulo Gallegos Prize when it appeared in 1998. Roberto Bolaño died in Blanes, Spain, at the age of fifty.

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  • Roberto Bolaño; Translated by Natasha Wimmer

  • Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1953. He grew up in Chile and Mexico City, where he was a founder of the Infrarealist poetry movement. His first full-length novel, The Savage Detectives, received the Herralde Prize and the Rómulo Gallegos Prize when it appeared in 1998. Roberto Bolaño died in Blanes, Spain, at the age of fifty.

  • Roberto Bolaño