I’m writing this, sadly, not while sitting atop floatwood scribbling into the salty breeze of some nameless sea, but rather staring into my computer screen at a metrosexual Budapest café with expensive lamps and wi-fi. It’s exactly the type of café that Roberto Bolaño pleaded his fellow poets to abandon in the 1976 infrarrealist manifesto “Leave it all behind once again, throw yourselves to the roads.”

There is no reason for me to copy and paste Wikipedia’s biography of Bolaño’s life. The man was a wandering poet, a bohemian, a lover of women, a confidant of men. Bolaño was the Spanish-speaking world’s Jack Kerouac. Mario Santiago was Allen Ginsberg, or maybe Neal Cassidy. And the Infrarrealistas were, undoubtedly, the Beats.


Just as Kerouac’s bestsellers On the Road and The Dharma Bums offered a public portrait to the eccentric activities and philosophies of the Beat poets, Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is the accessible, almost addictive, account of a roving group of bohemian Mexico City poets in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. The fictionalized characters based on the poets gave reason for disgruntlement in both groups. In the United States, Gary Snyder will always be known as Japhy Ryder, a character from The Dharma Bums that Kerouac based on Snyder, rather than the Pulitzer prize winning poet of Turtle Island. Similarly, the poet Juan Esteban Harrington will now forever be remembered as Juan García Madero, the character who narrates the first and last 100 pages of The Savage Detectives.

Unlike Kerouac’s relationship with the rest of the Beats, however, were it not for Bolaño, the Infrarrealist poets wouldn’t be known at all. Which, according to Natasha Wimmer’s introduction to The Savage Detectives, seems to be what some of them would have preferred. One of the core tendencies, if not tenets, of Infrarrealismo seems to be fetishizing the obscure.


Imagine writing down your entire life. Not through your eyes, but the eyes of those whose lives have for one reason or another intersected your own. What would they have to say about you? No, wait, that’s not right. What would you choose for them to say about you?

This is fundamentally the exercise that becomes The Savage Detectives. The first 150 pages of the novel is told by Juan García Madero, a narrator who you might not care for – slightly arrogant, but also appealingly honest. The first 150 pages of the novel, they actually annoyed me. Or maybe it’s more honest to say that all of the raving review of the novel annoyed me. Why do we have to celebrate poets who smoke to many cigarettes, have read the Marquis de Sade, and constantly think about sex? What makes them the celebrities of the literary world?

But then the second part of the book, which shares the title of the novel itself, begins and everything transforms. From page 143 to 588 we hear the multiple accounts of over 50 distinct narrators all giving their impressions, relaying their memories, of the novel’s two main protagonists, Arturo Belano (Roberto Bolaño) and Ulises Lima (Mario Santiago). The fact that Bolaño can so convincingly write in over 50 different voices is a feat I’ve never before seen. (Natasha Wimmer should also be applauded for maintaining each narrator’s unique voice so well in her translation.)

There is so much more I could say about The Savage Detectives, about how Bolaño most definitely succumbs to the universal mistake of assuming we are more important and more talked about than we are, about the last drawing of the window on the last page of the book, about how he writes women’s voices compared to men’s, about Octavio Paz and Nestor Parra, and about the sublime search for one Ms. Cesárea Tinajero, but really, when it comes down to it, I most agree with Bolaño’s conviction that literature is meant to be read, not discussed. And this is a book I highly recommend that you read.