The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natalie Wimmer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 576 pages. $27.00
In 1959, the comedian and musician Steve Allen played a classic joke on music critics. On the assumption that they didn’t know good jazz from bad, Allen made a deliberately awful record and released it as the first and last work of the late, great jazz pianist Buck Hammer. The name itself was a clue -- a “buck hammer” is what doctors use to test your reflexes -- but critics didn’t notice; instead, they fell right in line. They hailed the pianist's extraordinary style, (“Hammer plays with both hands and has the elements of vital blues attack in either of them,” wrote Downbeat) and mourned his abrupt departure. (“...a tragic loss...a great album,” wept the New York World Telegram & Sun.) Allen was still laughing about it decades later. It was proof, he told David Letterman, that critics would automatically praise any jazz musician who was “black and dead.”
Nearly fifty years later, I find myself wondering if something similar isn’t going on with the widely-praised The Savage Detectives, which seems like the work of a bright grad student bent on proving that nothing warms the critical tundra like the magnum opus of a dead Chilean poet. Certainly, it has the earmarks of a sting operation, as it's very multi, or very meta, depending on your prefix: a multi-voiced, multi-national multi-narrative. Serious, playful, innovative, literary, and as dull as a bag of buck hammers. A wild goose chase through contemporary Mexican poetry and world politics, it is literally all talk, as some fifty narrators string together a wearying account of a charismatic pair of poets as they wander worldwide, charming or screwing or dueling with everyone they meet.
The story is told in three parts. The first, beginning in Mexico in 1975, is comprised of the daily journal of 17-year-old Juan Garcia Madero, a pedantic but naive student -- part Candide, part Ferris Bueller -- who ditches his law studies when he discovers the "visceral realists," a literary style as enigmatic as its professed leaders, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Juan's involvement with these two ultimately puts him on a journey with them to the Sonora Desert, where his journal abruptly stops.
What happens in the desert? You'll have to wait to Part Three, which doubles back in time to pick up Juan's journal, to find out. Until then, you can doze through Part Two, which lets slip the dogs of babble: several dozen narrators who recount the 20-year odyssey of Ulises (get it?) and Belano (see author) which take the pair through Germany, France, Israel, Liberia, America and a lot of other places I've forgotten, where they fall in and out of beds, jobs, and local skirmishes. The two, we discover, are also motivated by a vague sense of mission that has something to do with a vanished poet who left behind an abstract "poem" -- or what used to be called a "droodle," in which lines and squiggles suggest a silly picture -- the solution to which appears, dead on arrival, on the novel's last page.
For a novel about poetry, The Savage Detectives never catches fire lyrically, which makes it difficult to connect with emotionally or intellectually. The narrators are a drag, and the pages of type seemed machine-generated.
Which brings me back to my fanciful, reactionary and no doubt counter-revolutionary theory about the author, which I admit is totally unsupported by evidence. Indeed, the scientific method of investigation is weighted rather heavily toward the former existence of one Roberto Bolaño, who lived from 1953 to 2003, and was at the time of his death writing another massive tome titled 2666, a thousand-some page multi-narrative novel scheduled for publication next year. Forewarned is forearmed.