Completed: The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives [Los detectives salvajes]
Roberto Bolaño
Natasha Wimmer, translator

I feel I am a poor reader really, a bad reader. I read for plot, for the story—not so bad except I read quickly, skipping over lines, sentences, words, going back because I lost the strand of meaning. Shakespeare corrects me in this; I cannot go so fast, a forced lesson in close reading, in slowing down. I do not know what makes some books great, why they are praised. I enjoy books, I am predisposed to enjoy them, always expecting  to enjoy them, so I am not bothered, usually, by the “great” books or “difficult” books; they are books, I will like them, and then I will move on.

Sometimes I think I am becoming a better reader. I read recently a book, one I should have enjoyed, would have enjoyed in the past, but I couldn’t, not thoroughly, I couldn’t let go and engage myself in its world, its place, I could only see the flaws, the errors. So perhaps I am becoming a better reader. But I still don’t know what makes books great, what makes a story grab ahold of me so it won’t let go, so I can’t escape it. I don’t know why I can read one of these books and feel like I’ve been struck by a bus, left dazed, why it is so satisfying and overwhelming and engaging, why I can’t let it go, no, why it won’t let me escape, its talons firmly grasp me. I sense these books, feel them; I don’t apply to them a critical criteria that tells me “this is great.” It simply is. But this is bad criteria, emotional criteria. It has no logic, no reason. Yet I know it must be so, the great books won’t let me go, they trap me, they engage me.

I can’t say why The Savage Detectives is so. It doesn’t seem to engage me as does Dante, Dante whose Divine Comedy I could not escape for weeks, a month (more?). It is a crash, a daze. Maybe I am wrong, maybe I will not escape it. I cannot explain it, no more than I could understand in those early days of reading it (so long ago, it took me nearly two months to read, slowly, interrupted by other books, lesser books, books I could rush through, not this one, it must be savored) why it is so beloved, so adored. It was good, well-written, that I could see, yes. But I didn’t like it. Perhaps I still don’t. I’m not sure. I find it depressing. Too realistic perhaps, but then I remember that there are many stories here, not everyone has the same ending, some are good: I remember Xóchitl. So not bad, realistic, and I’m not sure realistic is good right now. And I see all this, that I’m not sure about it, not sure I like it, yet it is good, I am sure of that, but I can’t say why. I can’t point to a passage and say, “See, here, the writing, isn’t it wonderful, lovely?” I can’t discuss technique, or theme. I just know that the critical appreciation seems right, that perhaps I love it even if I don’t like it.

This is why I keep reading, why I keep pushing myself. I know there must be a reason, a way to articulate the appreciation I have for some books, but not others. I can look at some already and show why they don’t work, but I cannot invert it. I just know but knowing is not convincing, is not knowledge.

But what is The Savage Detectives? I have more questions than answers as I finish it, perhaps that is a mark of its merit, but only when well done. It is well named, it seems to me, the title of the book, the titles of its three parts, all well chosen. The characters, so many that populate its pages, all savages in some way, youths at first, growing, searching—everyone searching for something—and so perhaps it touches us all because we are all searching. (Perhaps this is why I find it depressing.) It is a tale spread over time and space, not a linear narrative, the reader must divine the plot, the line of the story. The narration—so many narrators!—is always first person, often unreliable. Always unreliable? Can we any of us ever tell the tale accurately, or is it always colored by ourselves, our hopes, our dreams, our experiences, our bruisings? So there are more questions than answers, the structure, the end, the endings all hang in question. Do I read it badly, is there more there, how much do I miss?

I originally intended to read this for Richard’s and Rise’s readalong in January, but time escaped me, as it has so often this year. Thank you, however, to Richard and Rise for inspiring me to actually read this!

12 thoughts on “Completed: The Savage Detectives

  1. So glad to be able to read your reaction to this, Amanda, esp. since I don’t think there’s anything wrong or unusual with having “emotional reactions” to books (or people for that matter–but then, what happens after you get beyond the first emotional reaction to a person you’ve just met and aren’t quite sure about? Interesting things sometimes happen/become clear…) Anyway, I hope you’re still interested enough in the question about what makes a book great to check out a few of the posts from the other people in the group read; most but not everybody loved the book, but the experience did prompt an abundance of wonderful posts from all involved. As for The Savage Detectives being “depressing,” I think in a way you’re right given its trajectory of multiple storylines; however, many of the novel’s biggest fans love it in spite of that because of its energy, its honesty, and its storytelling verve: when’s the last time you’ve seen that many first person narrators in one place? Cheers! 😀

    because it’s so well told and in such a

    1. Oh, I will definitely be checking out all the various posts! I’ve been saving them until I was finished with this, because I didn’t want to “influence” my own reaction.

      I guess I wouldn’t say I have a problem with emotional reactions—it’s impossible, I think, to explain “love,” after all. My reading, however, is a constant struggle towards learning to define my reactions towards books and the whys and wherefores of them, and perhaps the logic-side of my brain wants to quantify the emotion…

      I will say, I think the novel is more “depressing” to me right this instant based on events in my own life and that of my family than it might have been had I read it several years ago, and likely in the future. That, I think is one of the magical things about books—it is impossible for them to be constant, really, because we ourselves aren’t. (So there I’m arguing in favor of emotional reactions. Inconsistent, aren’t I?) And I should hasten to add, I love it despite the downward trajectory of many (but not all!) of the storylines.

  2. P.S. Sorry about the floating line at the end of my comment–the message box kept dancing around on me while I was typing!

  3. A fine personal reflection on the book’s qualities. I guess the self is the best standard to measure a book’s worth, and since the self is always growing, our responses are also enriched.

    1. I like this. It lines up with the idea of a classic as a book that never stops speaking. As we grow as a reader, we always hear more of what it has to say.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. When I first read The Savage Detectives, I think I felt very similarly about it. I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t post about it at all, except for a few quotes that had caught my attention. It definitely left me with so many more questions than answers. When I re-read (parts of) it for Rise and Richard’s group read, I could appreciate it much better and some of my questions got cleared up – although so many still remain and I have a sneak suspicion that I’ll be re-reading it again at some point, perhaps closing more gaps but at the same time opening new ones. Thank you for this great “impact analysis”!

    1. Thank you, Bettina! I’m sure I will be rereading this one again sometime. I know I didn’t do it justice on the first read: I let other books get in the way, leaving it sit for days at a time untouched, so I know there is much that I missed.

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