What is a summary of Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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If one wanted to select a novel that is particularly difficult to summarize or categorize, it could be Chilean author Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, originally published in 1998 and later translated into English.  Divided into three sections, with sections one and three a continuation of the narration provided by 17-year-old Juan Garcia Madero, an aspiring poet and quasi-orphan (his aunt and uncle are very much a part of his young life and, a classic display of indifference to his wishes, try and force him to abandon his dreams and attend law school) enlisted into a mysterious group known as the Visceral Realists, and the main, middle section comprised of the story of the Visceral Realists in the persons of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima (get the similarities to real life figures, like the novel’s author himself and the protagonist from Homer’s The Odyssey) and their wanderings around Europe, the Middle East and North America, Bolano’s novel is not a work of historical fiction, or a thinly-veiled depiction of real-life.  It is way too surrealistic for that.  The Savage Detectives does, however, incorporate numerous real figures into the text (including, as noted, the author himself, portrayed in the story by Arturo Belano, and Mexican poet Octavio Paz). 

Presented in the form of first-person narration, with Juan Madero narrated parts one and three and everyone else narrating part two, young Juan’s contributions are presented in the form of a daily journal, complete with dates denoting the date of journal entries.  Perhaps no entry more captures the surrealist spirit of Bolano’s novel than Juan’s entry for December 23, in which he writes,

"Nothing happened today. And if anything did, I’d rather not talk about it, because I didn’t understand it.” 

Bolano was part of a loosely-defined school of Latin American poets who called themselves “visceral realists,” which was perhaps best defined early in the The Savage Detectives by Juan when he states,

“If I’m remembering right (though I wouldn’t stake my life on it) it so happens that one of the visceral realists’ basic poetry-writing tenets is a momentary disconnection from a certain kind of reality.”

This nebulous concept forms the basis for much of what transpires in Bolano’s novel.  It’s a real movement; it simply can’t really articulate for what it stands.  In any event, The Savage Detectives can probably best be summarized by suggesting that, if Samuel Beckett’s hobos had passports and traveled the world instead of standing in one place waiting for Godot, and consumed dangerous quantities of hallucinogenic narcotics, they would have been at-home in Bolano’s story.

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