Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Savage Detectives (by Roberto Bolaño)

Thank god this is done. Our book club book, 650 pages long, and it felt neverending. It's broken into three parts, and the first and the last are narrated by this 17-year-old boy. Then the middle is narrated by something like 50 people over the course of 30 years.

I had two main issues with it, both relating to the long central section narrated by a bunch of different characters. The narrative thread that links it all together is the story of these two guys, Ulises Lima and Arturo Bolano, founders of the "visceral realist" poetry movement. Tons of other characters are either heard from or introduced, just name after name after name. But these are the two main ones.

My first issue is that in spite of 650 pages ostensibly about these two guys, I never got a real feel for their characters. Perhaps that was the point--all these people interact with them in different circumstances, so their characters shift. But it was difficult to care about them, because they're ciphers. And the one character you really do care about after the beginning, the narrator of the first and last section, isn't mentioned in the middle part. I think maybe there's one reference to him at the end.

Also it's unclear who the middle stories are being told to--at one point it's clearly Belano, but then elsewhere Belano is being referred to in the third person. Of course now that I think about it, I bet it's Garcia Madero, the character who disappears from the first part. I feel like I ruled that out at some point though. I'll have to see what my book club thought. Anyway. Issue one: I don't get a clear sense of these characters.

Issue two is that some of the stories in the middle section are legitimately gripping and moving and interesting, and Bolaño does a great job of getting us to care about them, but they mostly all disappear. So again, it's hard to invest emotion in the stories when we know they will likely never be heard from again, and they're only important in how they illuminate the two central characters, who we don't care about...

The more I write about this the more I think Roberto Bolaño knew exactly what he was doing. I guess I just wish it had been edited down by about 200 pages. It was a big investment of time, that central section. But I liked the payoff; I liked the ambiguity of the ending, and I felt like enough mysteries were solved in the end for me to be overall happy with it. But in the middle, trying to keep track of something like 50 characters who disappear and sometimes reappear but mostly disappear... it was frustrating.


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