Friday, 30 July 2021

The Savage Detectives

Contrary to popular belief, I do actually own some physical books. They're pretty hard to come by, and often quite expensive, but, occasionally, people leave and let me peruse their bookshelves, or in the case of my neighbour, Didier, simply deliver a large bag of books to my door. 

These books are precious, but also usually a few decades old. 

One such book was The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano. 

New Year's Eve, 1975: Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, founders of the visceral realist movement in poetry, leave Mexico City in a borrowed white Impala. Their quest: to track down the obscure, vanished poet Cesárea Tinajero. A violent showdown in the Sonora desert turns search to flight; twenty years later Belano and Lima are still on the run.

Well. What a read.

It's very rare that I'm confused by a book, but I struggled to follow this one. It totally stumped me for a moment.

It's written in three distinctly different parts:

  1. First person, single character. A really believable story of a young poet, Arturo Belano, breaking into the Visceral Realist scene and having lots of sex. Told as diary entries.
  2. First person, multiple-character tellings of sightings of the two poets, Belano and Ulises, on the run. told in numbered chapters.
  3. Back to Arturo's diary entries, as an old man, explaining what happened that night in the desert.

Quite an undertaking, and not a traditional narrative structure. For that reason, it should be praised. I do enjoy it when a book trashes tradition and tries something new.

However, I can heartily advise you not to buy this on audio, as I did. I have a paper copy of the book, but I rarely have time to read, so I prefer to get things on Audible and listen in the shower, whilst cooking, and before bed. 

The reason I say 'read it yourself,' is because the audiobook is read by two men: Eddie Lopez and Armando Durán. They do a fantastic job, however, half the male characters are queer. Because there wasn't a female narrator, I couldn't tell the female characters from the gay men. When it switched to the eye-witness accounts in the middle, it confused the hell out of me. I'm usually pretty good at distinguishing the difference between a man and a woman on sight (not always, but most of the time). However, when two people are having sex - and they both have male voices, and all the characters were male before... you just assume... 

So, yeah. I became suspicious when one of the men kept referring to himself as another man's 'girlfriend' or 'woman,' but, nowadays, that in itself isn't a complete decider. When one of them began talking about her smelly fanny (in the UK sense) I definitely twigged. Although I got the general gist, it certainly added an extra layer of mystery that I don't think the author intended.

Two other good reasons to read the tree version are:

1. There are illustrations at the back. In the audio version, you get the text without the illustrations. There's also four pages of jokes about Mexicans that include illustrations. Though, these don't make a whole lot of sense either with or without the illustrations. 

2. It's an encyclopaedia of poetic form. Arturo reels off obscure word after obscure word for poetics. It's quite fascinating, but you'd never know how to spell half of them if you didn’t have it written down: asclepiad, spondee, archilochian, zejel, syncope, tetrastich, and the list goes on. Interesting for poetry buffs and pub quizzes.

So... by the time I got to the end, I appreciated it because I understood what was going on. I didn't enjoy the switch from part one to part two, partly because of the aforementioned confusion over the gender and sexuality of the characters, and partly because I found the first part really engaging. I was fully invested in the main narrator when it suddenly switched to loads of stories from other people. I felt a bit detached, which I think was the point - set adrift in the world. Still, I did lose interest a bit.

There was randomly some mention of Kigali and Angola in there, but it felt more like adding the names to sound exotic, rather than giving a real sense of place. I also wonder, as it's about poets, whether he chose those places simply because Rwanda rhymes with Luanda. Probably not, but it was confusing to listen to. 

One thing I couldn't help thinking about was how much it reminded me of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's work (The Shadow of the Wind quartet). There was something about respect for poetry and authors in the theme, and about the writer deconstructing himself, that felt similar in style. Although, Zafon's work is much easier to follow. 

All in all, I'm glad I read this as it was a lesson in alternative structure. However, it also highlighted the pitfalls of this when translated to audiobook. I think authors have to be a bit more mindful nowadays of how their work might translate to other media, as audiobooks are becoming increasingly popular. I also think it was an interesting point that, nowadays, it does help to have a female narrator narrating female parts if they're written in first person. Just to avoid any confusion.

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