The Savage Detectives Summary
by Roberto Bolano

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The Savage Detectives Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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The Savage Detectives recounts the history of avant-garde poets from 1975 in Mexico City until 1996 in Africa. Their literary movement, visceral realism, begins with a mischievous revolutionary fervor but later spins apart through jealousy, murder, flight, despair, insanity, and, in a very few cases, self-discovery. Although the underlying plotline is straightforward, the narrative structure and multiple points of view belong uniquely to this novel. It is divided into three sections that present the story out of chronological order.

“Mexicans Lost in Mexico” concerns the last two months of 1975 and takes place wholly in Mexico City. It is told through the diary entries of Juan García Madero, a seventeen-year-old whose ambition is to study literature and become a poet. He encounters two older poets, Arturo Belano and Ulysses Lima. Belano and Lima are poètes maudits, the founders of visceral realism, which is defined mostly by its vigorous opposition to mainstream Mexican literature. They gather about them a variety of younger poets, painters, and dancers, publish magazines, organize or invade poetry readings, and migrate from one dive to another in endless discussion. To finance their literary work they peddle marijuana. By chance, the pair discovers that a previous poet also used the term visceral realism to describe a literary movement. This poet is Cesárea Tinajero, a shadowy figure from the 1920’s known for a single published poem. Belano and Lima decide to track her down.

Meanwhile, García Madero helps rescue a young prostitute, Lupe, from her pimp. As the section draws to a close, the pimp threatens violence if Lupe is not returned to him. With the timely help of Belano and Lima, García Madero and Lupe barely escape a shootout. The four flee Mexico City, heading for Sonora and the last known location of Tinajero

The long middle section, “The Savage Detectives,” leaps forward in time. Belano and Lima have fled to Europe; no mention of García Madero or Lupe occurs until the last pages. The section comprises a series of testimonies about Lima and Belano told by former visceral realists and some others whom the pair interviewed about Tinajero. Although there is much humor (often bitterly ironical), sex, emotional and situational drama, literary and political quarreling, and historical anecdotes, the tone of these testimonies is curiously flat, as if they are legal depositions. With occasional exceptions they are presented in chronological order from 1976 until 1996. As each person tells a story, the reader gradually accumulates information about Belano and Lima. The reader learns that something bad has happened to them, and they live like lost souls, bouncing from one place to another in Nicaragua, France, Spain, Austria, and Israel. Lima eventually turns up in Mexico City again, years later, a broken man. Belano continues to write, makes a modest living for himself in Barcelona, marries, has a son, divorces, falls desperately sick with pancreatitis, and slides into despair. Knowing that he is dying, he goes to Africa as a correspondent, hoping to be killed in action. He is last seen near Monrovia, Liberia, trying to evade a rebel army.

“The Sonora Desert” reverts to García...

(The entire section is 814 words.)