Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 27, 2010

The Savage Detectives (1998), by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer, read by Eddie Lopez and Armando Duran

What an interesting book The Savage Detectives  turned out to be!  I couldn’t believe my luck when I found it when I was browsing the audio books at the library – Bolaño is an author I have been meaning to read for a while.   I have 2666 on the TBR, but that is a very long book and it’s taking me a while to get to it.  So coming across The Savage Detectives to get me through the daily commute was a real find…

It seems to be a book that polarises people.  Reading reviews on Good Reads and elsewhere I see that some readers are peeved at being taken in by the hype, others are clearly mystified by its picaresque style and digressions, and others think that the multiple narrator technique has been done much better by other authors.  A lot of these critics cite Faulkner.  (Well, I’ve read Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August) but so long ago I don’t dare comment.)

I’m handicapped in writing about The Savage Detectives because there are multiple characters and because I listened to rather than read it, I mostly don’t know how to spell their Mexican names.  That may not matter however, because the novel is not really about them, it’s about them describing  the adventures and travels of two characters,  Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima – and I can spell their names because they are mentioned in Bolaño’s entry on Wikpedia!

The beginning is very funny, a sort of spoof of literary movements.  The narrator 17-year-old Juan García Madero fancies himself as a poet (although he’s supposed to be studying law).  He reminded me a bit of the narrator in At Swim – Two Birds  because he too has to evade interrogations by his parents who want to know if he’s doing any study.  He’s not, because he’s in search of the elusive Visceral Realists, an avant-garde poetry movement, and he’d rather show off his knowledge of obscure academic poetry terms at every opportunity.  Still, I liked him, and was pleased when after much angst and embarrassment he finally lost his virginity to the indefatigable Maria Font.

But, I admit it, before long, I had lost the plot entirely.  By halfway through the 24 CDs in the set, I was just enjoying listening to a varied and interesting bunch of people waffling on about this-and-that, sometimes confidently, sometimes handicapped by lapses in memory.  Some of them were more forthcoming about their sexual activities than I cared for; a lot of them used rather frank language.  None of them seemed to link this activity with ideas about love and loyalty.  I didn’t like the casual references to violence as if to normalise it.   Apart from my distaste about this aspect of the book (and there’s a lot of it) it was often mildly amusing or else  simply a relaxing soundtrack in the traffic on my way to work.  (I even got used to the very long lists e.g. of Mexican poets that so irritated my fellow readers on GoodReads.)

Every now and again I thought I knew what Bolaño was on about, as (for example) when Ulises Lima went missing and I thought he had become one of The Missing in Nicaragua, but then his friends seemed to think that he had just temporarily disappeared as itinerant poets sometimes do.

And itinerant they certainly were.  With no apparent means of support they meandered from Mexico to Israel, Paris, Barcelona, LA, San Francisco, Vienna and Liberia.  Just as there were no rational reasons for Don Quixote’s travels, so too with Bolaño and Lima; they just wandered around, perhaps as a Latin-American version of troubadours?

Having read Don Quixote fairy recently, I can see some correspondences in these travel adventures with lots of different characters and thematic threads persisting through them.  In Don Quixote the threads are Don Quixote’s madness, his absurd love for Dulcinea, and Sancho’s ambivalent loyalty.  In The Savage Detectives, the persisting threads are the absurdity of the Visceral Realists Movement, the inversion of the notion of loyalty to friends or lovers and the anarchic attitudes to corrupt forms of authority (parents, , police, governments).   But do not be fooled: I did not succeed in making proper sense of this book and consider that the real triumph is in finishing it!

Author : Roberto Bolaño
Title: The Savage Detectives
Translator : Natasha Wimmer
Read by : Eddie Lopez and Armando Duran
Publisher Imprint: Blackstone Audiobooks, 2009
Format: 24 CDs
Abridgement: Unabridged
Running Time: 27 hours
ISBN-13: 9781433292620
Source: Kingston Library

Availability: A print edition is available from Fishpond: The Savage Detectives (Picador 40th Anniversary Edition).


  1. Someone who knows my tastes well is convinced that I’d like this book. I’m still on the fence about whether or not to read it. I read another Bolano I liked, but on the other side of the argument, I don’t like Faulkner….


  2. Ah, now I liked Faulkner when I was at uni, though that was a long time ago and I haven’t read him since. (I think there’s something of his that I haven’t read on 1001 Books You Must Read so I’ll get back to him in due course).
    Reading between your lines, are you one who must finish a book even if it doesn’t appeal much? I am…I have to really dislike a book to cast it aside, so taking on a long one is a bit of a leap of faith…
    I’m a bit torn about 2666. It is *very* long, and on the strength of this one I suspect I may not like it enough. On the other hand, maybe *reading* Bolano rather than listening could be a very different experience…


    • Yes I find it difficult to abandon a book. It used to be virtually impossible for me, but now I find it a bit easier. This past year, I gave up and then decided to give a book a second go a month or so later. The second time around was no problem. You know how it is, sometimes reading one book impacts your reception of the next one that follows.


      • I find my book acquisitions are much better than they used to be because I have so much more info about the books (mainly from blogs) so my choices are usually pretty good anyway. It’s mainly when I get sucked into reading award shortlists or over-hyped books that I have the problem.


  3. I have this book on my shelf and so I am glad to hear you liked it. I’m currently reading 2666 and enjoying it very much even though I have no idea what it is about!


    • *chuckle* I look forward to reading your thoughts about that on your blog!


  4. Great review! I’m currently reading The Savage Detectives and agree with nearly everything you’ve said. Although hard to follow, Bolaño has such an engaging writing style. I recently read 2666 and was very impressed! I posted an basic overview and review if you’re interested:


    • Thanks, Erin, that’s a very impressive review you’ve written of 2666, so I’d love to see what you make of The Savage Detectives when you get to it. Keep in touch!


  5. […] that have a kind of crazy logic to them.  But Bolano writes very long books: I’ve only read The Savage Detectives so far but 2666 is waiting at home for me, taking up an inordinate amount of shelf room on the TBR. […]


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