David Kurnick. The Savage Detectives Reread. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022. 224 pp.
Review by Bécquer Seguín
2 November 2023
“It’s my stubborn sense that this endlessly lauded writer is in fact underappreciated” (p. 28). So announces David Kurnick early on in his book The Savage Detectives Reread, an elegantly written meditation on a single novel by one of the most mythologized writers in contemporary fiction. The writer is Roberto Bolaño, and the novel is The Savage Detectives (2007), which catapulted the late-blooming Chilean writer to global literary fame. Kurnick’s book is not a scholarly one, but it is also not a nonscholarly one. Published in a new series of in-depth readings of contemporary classics, it is part of a wave of short, essayistic books—think Object Lessons or 33 1/3—that aim to usher scholars, as well as their unique capacity for sustained reflection on a single object, into the public sphere.
Many of these kinds of books are hit or miss. Some veer into fanboyism, while others rehearse half-baked ideas. Still others pursue the misguided vision of dumbing down scholarship for the masses. Kurnick’s book falls into none of these traps. His “reread” is literary criticism through and through. Although the book might wear its critical approach lightly compared to its scholarly counterparts, its analytical precision is surgical, and it often cuts deep. For instance, there’s the time when Kurnick takes Bolaño’s readers to task for praising what they see as the author’s vivid account of Mexico City; yet that account, it turns out, is little more than a catalogue of street names (see pp. 45–47). Or there’s the time when he takes issue with the novel’s translation, getting knee-deep into the semantic differences between marica and maricón in a way that is raucously funny (see pp. 76–78). Or even the time when he gently advises critics against parroting Bolaño’s foreboding language, which reproduces rather than reveals his literary mythmaking (see pp. 160–62).
As Kurnick himself warns in the introduction, Latin Americanist scholars may furrow their brow at his approach. The book eschews the kind of strong theoretical readings that are today everywhere present in Latin American literary studies. In fact, his references to 1980s criticism, from Doris Sommer to Ángel Rama, might seem outdated or uninspired. Yet what might rankle scholars most is that, even if the book is critical, it is also enthusiastic. And to be enthusiastic about Bolaño is, well, to invite myriad suspicions: about one’s literary taste, one’s critical faculties, or even one’s political commitments. And nothing today is worse than having suspect politics.
But suspicions of this sort are misguided and unhelpful. And scholars, moreover, should be reminded that Kurnick’s book is not exactly a work of scholarship, and Latin Americanists are not exactly its intended audience. Its sophistication lies elsewhere. Kurnick’s criticism is as sensitive as any to questions of politics, sexuality, and history, just as it remains attuned to the more technical aspects of metaphor, character development, and narrative theory. Its meaningful contribution to Latin American literary studies is to analyze Bolaño from the outside: outside of the commercial fetish with world literature and the critical fetish with challenging it. Ultimately, the joy of reading Kurnick’s book is that, unlike a sizeable portion of today’s literary criticism, it never forgets its object of study.