The Savage Detectives

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The Savage Detectives
First edition (Spanish)
AuthorRoberto Bolaño
Original titleLos Detectives Salvajes
TranslatorNatasha Wimmer
PublisherAnagrama (Spanish)
Publication date
Published in English

The Savage Detectives (Spanish: Los Detectives Salvajes) is a novel by the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño published in 1998. Natasha Wimmer's English translation was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2007. The novel tells the story of the search for a 1920s Mexican poet, Cesárea Tinajero, by two 1970s poets, the Chilean Arturo Belano (alter ego of Bolaño) and the Mexican Ulises Lima.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel is narrated in first person by several narrators and divided into three parts. The first section, "Mexicans Lost in Mexico", set in late 1975, is told by 17-year-old aspiring poet, Juan García Madero. It centers on his admittance to a roving gang of poets who refer to themselves as the Visceral Realists. He drops out of university and travels around Mexico City, becoming increasingly involved with the adherents of Visceral Realism, although he remains uncertain about Visceral Realism.

The book's second section, "The Savage Detectives," comprises nearly two-thirds of the novel's total length. The section is a polyphonic narrative which features more than forty narrators and spans twenty years, from 1976 to 1996. It consists of interviews with a variety of characters from locations around North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, all of whom have come into contact with the founding leaders of the Visceral Realists, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Each narrator has his or her own opinion of the two, although the consensus is that they are drifters and literary elitists whose behavior often leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those they meet. We learn that the two spent some years in Europe, frequenting bars and camp sites, and generally living a bohemian lifestyle. Lima, the more introverted of the two, serves a short sentence in an Israeli prison, while Belano challenges a literary critic to an absurd sword fight on a Spanish beach.

The third section of the book, "The Deserts of Sonora", is again narrated by Juan García Madero, and chronologically takes place straight after the first section, now in the Sonora Desert in January 1976, with Lima, Belano and a prostitute named Lupe. The section involves the "Savage Detectives" closing in on Cesárea Tinajero, an elusive poet who is the founder of Visceral Realism, while they are chased by a pimp named Alberto and a corrupt Mexican police officer.


A partial character list.

Characters Description Based on
Arturo Belano One of the founders of Visceral Realism. More extroverted. Chilean. (Bolaño's alter ego) Roberto Bolaño
Ulises Lima One of the founders of Visceral Realism. More introverted (Mario Santiago's alter ego) Mario Santiago Papasquiaro
Juan García Madero 17-year-old Visceral Realist. Moved in with the Font family for a while, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of classical and medieval poetic forms. Juan García Ponce[1]
Juan Esteban Harrington
Lupe Young prostitute. Friend of María Font's; dates Quim Font.
Alberto Lupe's pimp. Gangster who measures his penis against his (large) knife every day. Chases Lupe through the Sonoran desert.
Octavio Paz Celebrated Mexican Poet. Nobel Prize Winner. Hated by the Visceral Realists; meets Lima in a park accompanied by assistant. Octavio Paz
María Font Angélica's oldest sister. She's a feminist and free spirited woman. Sleeps with Juan García Madero. Mara Larrosa
Angélica Font Won the Laura Damian poetry prize. Vera Larrosa
Joaquín (Quim) Font The Font sisters' father. Architect. Spends half of the novel in mental institutes. Manolo Larrosa
Julio César Álamo Visceral Realists met in his poetry workshop. Led trip to Nicaragua when Lima was lost. Juan Bañuelos
Cesárea Tinajero Poet considered the 'mother of Visceral Realism', dating from the conception of the Visceral Realist movement in the 1920s. Nearly forgotten. Belano, Lima, Lupe, and García Madero embark on a quest to find her in 1976. Concha Urquiza
Amadeo Salvatierra Old man who drinks Mezcal. Former poet turned scrivener. A member of the original Visceral Realists who is interviewed by Belano and Lima, revealing to them the only published work of Tinajero. Rodolfo Sanabria
Perla Avilés Went horseriding with Arturo in high school.
Laura Jáuregui Ex-lover of Arturo who claims Arturo started Visceral Realism to impress her. Lisa Johnson
César Arriaga Used to date Laura.
Rafael Barrios Another Visceral Realist who is equally bitter about Lima and Belano. Moved to Los Angeles after the disappearance of Ulises and Arturo, where he and his American girlfriend Barbara Patterson are interviewed during the novel's second part. Rubén Medina [es]
Felipe Müller Another of the second generation Visceral Realists. Also Chilean. Took care of Arturo's mother in Barcelona. Bruno Montané
Fabio Ernesto Logiacomo Poet. Won Casa de las Americas competition. Jorge Boccanera [es]
Luis Sebastián Rosado Contemptuous towards the Visceral Realists. An occasional lover of Luscious Skin. José Joaquín Blanco
Alberto Moore Friend of Luis Rosado.
Pancho Rodríguez Second-generation Visceral Realist poet, older brother of Moctezuma and in love with Angélica Font. Ramon Méndez Estrada [es] (Ramón Méndez)
Moctezuma Rodríguez Younger brother of Pancho, also a poet. Cuauhtémoc Méndez (Cuauhtémoc Méndez Estrada)
"Luscious Skin" Bisexual Visceral Realist poet. Jorge Hernández Pieldivina (Jorge Hernández "Piel Divina")
Carlos Monsiváis Respected critic and essayist. Published a collection of work by Visceral Realists, much to his own cost. Carlos Monsiváis
Manuel Maples Arce Respected and self-important poet. Manuel Maples Arce
Barbara Patterson American hippie girl. Dates Rafael. Filthy, funny, and foul-mouthed.
Ernesto San Epifanio Young gay man, associated with the second generation of Visceral Realists. Darío Galicia
Catalina O'Hara Painter. Carla Rippey
Jacinto Requena Dating Xóchitl. Slept with María Font. José Peguero
Xóchitl García Dating Jacinto. Eventually publishes poems and is successful writing essays. (Mother of one Franz.) Guadalupe Ochoa
Auxilio Lacouture Dubbed "the mother of Mexican poetry". Hid in an UNAM bathroom during the 1968 military massacre. (She is also the narrator of Bolaño's spin-off short novel Amulet.) Alcira[2] (Alcira Soust Scaffo)[3]
Joaquín Vázquez Amaral Respected poet. Liked Visceral Realists.
Lisandro Morales Publisher. Published Arturo, among others.
Vargas Pardo Ecuadorean novelist. Miguel Donoso Pareja
Simone Darrieux Frenchwoman who briefly studied anthropology in Mexico City, supporting herself financially by posing for local photographer. Dated Arturo for three months and introduced him to S&M practices; then returned to Paris, where she was visited by Ulises, who often showered at her house. This character almost certainly reappears as the wife of Jacobo Urenda in Ch. 25 (where she is named solely as Simone, but she asks her husband to describe Belano and claims immediately to understand him).
Hipólito Garcés Friend of Ulises in Paris. Cooked for him, but ripped him off.
Roberto Rosas Friend of Ulises in Paris. Hated Hipólito. José Rosas Ribeyro
Sofía Pellegrini Friend of Ulises in Paris.
Michel Bulteau French poet oft-read by Ulises in Mexico. Ulises called him in Paris. Michel Bulteau
Mary Watson English hippie. Slept with Arturo when he was a night watchman at a camp.
Alain Lebert Fisherman in Spain. Friend of Arturo's, along with the pirate, Margarite.
Norman Bolzman Friend in Israel of Ulises. Lived with Claudia and Daniel. Dated Claudia; Ulises was in love with her. Norman Sverdlin
Claudia Lived with Norman. Ulises was in love with her. (in Spanish) Claudia Kerik
Daniel Grossman Friend in Israel with Claudia and Norman. Daniel Goldin
Heimito Künst In jail with Ulises in Israel. Lived with him in Vienna. Paranoid, possibly mad. Heimito von Doderer
José "Zopilote" Colina Publisher. Full of himself. José de la Colina
Verónica Volkow Trotsky's great-granddaughter. Verónica Volkow
Alfonso Pérez Camarga Painter. Bought drugs from Arturo and Ulises.
Hugo Montero Brought Ulises to Nicaragua with Don Pancracio, Labarca, and Mexican poets.
Andrés Ramírez A Chilean stowaway. Goes to Spain, wins the lottery, and much later gives Belano a job.
Susana Puig A nurse who had an affair with a sick Arturo.
Edith Oster A lover who broke Arturo's heart in Barcelona. Edna Lieberman
Xosé Lendoiro Galician lawyer, adventurer, aspiring poet, admirer of classical Greek and Roman literature who offers Belano a job of reviewing a law school journal.
Iñaki Echavarne Spanish literary critic. Challenged to a sabre duel by Belano. Ignacio Echevarría[4]

Critical reception[edit]

Several critics have compared the novel to Rayuela (translated into English as Hopscotch) by Argentinian novelist Julio Cortázar, whom Bolaño greatly respected, both because of its non-linear structure and its portrayal of young, bohemian artists.

James Wood wrote in The New York Times, "A novel all about poetry and poets, one of whose heroes is a lightly disguised version of the author himself: how easily this could be nothing more than a precious lattice of ludic narcissism and unbearably "literary" adventures... 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."[5]

Benjamin Kunkel, writing for London Review of Books, "It’s something close to a miracle that Bolaño can produce such intense narrative interest in a book made up of centrifugal monologues spinning away from two absentee main characters, and the diary entries of its most peripheral figure. And yet, in spite of the book’s apparent (and often real) formlessness, a large part of its distinction is its virtually unprecedented achievement in multiply-voiced narration."[6]

Slate wrote, "The Savage Detectives sings a love song to the grandeur of Latin American literature and to the passions it inspires, and there is no reason to suppose that, in spite of every prediction, these particular grandeurs and passions have reached their appointed end."[7]

Elements in common with 2666[edit]

2666, Bolaño's final, posthumous novel has many points in common with The Savage Detectives.

  • Both conclude in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, in the Mexican state of Sonora, which acts as a stand-in for Ciudad Juárez.
  • In the second part of The Savage Detectives, an author named Arcimboldi is mentioned. In 2666 he will become the central character Benno von Archimboldi.
  • In a dialogue about Cesárea Tinajero, the year 2600 is referred to as "the year of misfortunes".
  • Late in the novel there is a section where, 'Cesárea said something about days to come... and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something.'

According to the Note to the First Edition of 2666, among Bolaño's notes is a line saying that "The narrator of 2666 is Arturo Belano," a character from The Savage Detectives, as well as a line for the end of 2666, "And that's it, friends. I've done it all, I've lived it all. If I had the strength, I'd cry. I bid you all goodbye, Arturo Belano".



  1. ^ a b Berman, Paul (2007), "Mayhem in Mexico: Roberto Bolaño's great Latin American novel", Slate, 10 September 2007: "Bolaño himself, in recounting these literary doings, slyly molds his story around a style that will be familiar to the readers of Paz's circle in Mexico—the style of the writer and critic Juan García Ponce, a lesser member of the Paz entourage, famous in Mexico, though maybe not in many other places, for his priapic mischief. In the novels of the real-life Juan García Ponce, every innocent conversation seems to inspire the conversationalists to doff their clothes; and in the adventures of Bolaño's teenage narrator, Juan García Madero, something similar does seem to occur."
  2. ^ Roberto Ontiveros, "For Bolaño, No Divine Miracles", The Texas Observer, 10 August 2007: "Bolaño must have felt that the story of Auxilio Lacouture, based on real-life Uruguayan poet-exile Alcira who went mad hiding out for 10 days during a 1968 military raid, needed its own plane."
  3. ^ "¿Quién era Auxilio Lacouture?". Retrieved 20 January 2018.
  4. ^ Harvesting Fragments From a Chilean Master Was Bolaño's friend and literary executor
  5. ^ Wood, James (2007-04-15). "The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolaño - Books - Review". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-08-23.
  6. ^ Kunkel, Benjamin (2007-09-06). "In the Sonora". London Review of Books. pp. 5–8. ISSN 0260-9592. Retrieved 2019-08-23.
  7. ^ Berman, Paul (2007-09-10). "The great novel of Mexico City". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2019-08-23.

External links[edit]