In: Criticism

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives strikes me as the kind of book I should be reading in a crowded bar, with people yelling for drinks and spilling tequila everywhere.

The fact that much of the novel is set in dive bars and cafés has a lot to do with this; Bolaño’s Mexico City, filled with prostitutes, violent pimps, and a group of artists known as visceral realists, is richly drawn, and the story is like a film noir, with femme fatales (María and Angélica) and other shady characters who, as usual, always know more than they’re letting on. It’s easy to imagine the sunlight illuminating the creepier parts of city, revealing glorious filth and debauchery, and it makes for a nice contrast to the story’s underlying darkness. García Madero, for all his aloofness, isn’t a very reliable narrator; he relates the story in careful detail, but his tone, and the overall atmosphere of distrust (and misplaced trust) makes me wonder if he’s telling the whole story.

And this, I’m beginning to realize, seems to be one of Bolaño’s trademarks: read The Savage Detectives and 2666 and you wonder what’s going on, who’s the telling the truth, and where, exactly, Bolaño is leading you. The most unsettling aspect of both novels is that even Bolaño himself, hovering in the background, isn’t reliable; there’s more going on than he wants to tell. He reveals his secrets in tiny flashes, and the important question suddenly inverts itself: in both novels, it isn’t whether or not you can trust Bolaño; rather, he seems to be asking whether or not he can trust you.

Last night, I picked up a twelve-pack of Corona and continued reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. And then, after reading this funny passage, la cerveza suddenly seemed warm and unappealing.

…and then I said let’s try this mezcalito and I handed them two glasses and they sat there looking at the bottle as if they were afraid a dragon might come shooting out of it, and I laughed, but I wasn’t laughing at them, I was laughing for sheer glee, it made me so happy just to be there with them, and then one of them asked if they’d heard right, if that was really what the mezcal was called, and I passed them the bottle, still laughing.

I knew the name would impress them, and I stepped back a little to get a better look at them, God bless them, they were so young, with their hair down to their shoulders and carrying all those books–the memories they brought back!–and then one of them said are you sure this won’t kill us, Señor Salvatierra? and I said what do you mean kill you, this is the essence of health, the water of life, drink it without fear, and to set an example, I filled my glass and downed half of it and then I served them, and at first the rascals just wetted their lips, but little by little it grew on them, and they started to drink like men.

Para todo mal, mezcal. Para todo bien, también, as Oaxacans like to say.

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