I almost gave up on this book. After reading the initial section—made up of the journal entries of a precocious and at times dislikable young man recounting his initiation into a group of Mexico City poets—I was nearly ready to abandon the novel. The early chapters of the bulky middle section didn't help.
That middle section is told with a variety of voices—faux interviews, really. The name of the speaker, the place and date of the interview precede each interlude. Some go on for pages and some are just a paragraph. Some of the speakers are characters we've met in the first section, while others are new characters, but all of them have had some contact with our heroes, the leading poets of the visceral realist group, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. They leave Mexico City on a trek to find the original visceral realist poet, a woman who disappeared into the Sonora Desert in the 1920s, Cesarea Tinajero. When some of these interviews became bogged down with lists of obscure Latin American writers and obsessions over defunct (or entirely fictional) Mexican publications, I took a break from The Savage Detectives and read James Wood's How Fiction Works (more on that later perhaps?).
When I returned to the novel, I found myself entranced by the numerous voices that comprise the middle section. Characters began to distinguish themselves. Some were one-timers, others returned repeatedly throughout. I was captivated by Quim Font, the father of two visceral realist daughters who ends up in an asylum, by the Austrian skinhead who befriends Ulises in Israel, the female bodybuilder who lets a room to Arturo in Barcelona. Through this panoply of character portrayals, we follow the two poets across continents by the people they come in contact with. In many ways, we develop a much better picture of the numerous characters than we ever do of the two poets. Bolaño's dense pages of first person narratives, in a variety of first persons, demonstrate his genius for collecting the voices of Latin American and Spanish characters that give an intriguing portrait of an entire generation of artists, writers and scenesters.