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  1. Poets, pimps and prostitutes
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  4. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

A violent showdown in the Sonora desert turns search to flight; twenty years later Belano and Lima are still on the run.

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This chorus includes the muses of visceral realism, the beautiful Font sisters; their father, an architect interned in a Mexico City asylum; a sensitive young follower of Octavio Paz; a foul-mouthed American graduate student; a French girl with a taste for the Marquis de Sade; the great-granddaughter of Leon Trotsky; a Chilean stowaway with a mystical gift for numbers; the anorexic heiress to a Mexican underwear empire; an Argentinian photojournalist in Angola; and assorted hangers-on, detractors, critics, lovers, employers, vagabonds, real-life literary figures, and random acquaintances.

The Savage Detectives is a dazzling original, the first great Latin American novel of the twenty-first century. These neo-surrealists meet in bars, steal books, sell drugs, have lovers, run a magazine, excommunicate members and feud with Mexican poets.

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Among all these nonentities, Belano and Lima stand out. The novel pieces together their lives on the run. A reader unaware of these minor poets may miss the deadly humour about literary self-satisfaction and oblivion. We do not read Belano's or Lima's poems. Instead, we have reports on their activities, their readings, and lovers' accounts of them in bed and on the road. The Savage Detectives is an oral novel, broken up into a brilliant opening diary about sexual and poetic initiation, and then accounts by fellow travellers who bump into the pair.

It's as if he has tape-recorded them.

Poets, pimps and prostitutes

The translator heroically follows. We do not enter their minds; all is hearsay. Like Rimbaud, Belano renounces art to become an adventurer and criminal, and self-destructs. The minimal plot, fragmented through the witnesses, leads him to Europe, then Portuguese Africa and finally into the mad civil war in Liberia where he disappears upriver in Conrad country, just as Rimbaud had done in North Africa and Aden.

Book Review: The Savage Detectives

The final section reverts to the Sonora desert and the fate of the woman avant-gardist as the two poets, a whore and her lover flee a pimp and drive in circles in the labyrinth of dusty villages until the gruesome conclusion. This novel is an elegy for a generation of Latin American would-be poets fed on extremists like Rimbaud and Marx a couple make love with Sade as a manual. But they did not take these mentors to the conclusions Belano and Lima do, by giving up art for something never defined that seems to be willed failure and uprootedness.

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Roberto Bolaño and his fractured masterpiece.

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Find your bookmarks in your Independent Premium section, under my profile. Subscribe Now Subscribe Now. Final Say. Long reads. Lib Dems. US Politics. Theresa May. Jeremy Corbyn. Robert Fisk. Mark Steel. The juvenile diarist who is our guide can write things that made this reader, at least, wince in painful recognition: "Depressed all day, but writing and reading like a steam engine. And if anything did, I'd rather not talk about it, because I didn't understand it. The visceral realists conduct "purges," steal books I particularly liked the sound of the Rebbeca Nodier Bookstore, whose owner is conveniently blind , write and read and have sex and attitudinize.

Life is a heaven's kitchen, with everything simultaneously on the boil. Her work is revered by other writers from that period, but is nowhere to be found. She herself seems to have disappeared into the Sonoran Desert. Lima and Belano, accompanied by the young diarist and a prostitute, set out on a quixotic hunt for their equivalent of Quixote's Dulcinea. We are pages in, and suddenly the book alters its form.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

The next pages feature first-person interviews with scores of witnesses, friends, lovers, acquaintances and enemies of Lima and Belano. These are all people whose lives intersected, however briefly, with the two visceral realists, from to It is as if the novelist has taken a tape recorder and journeyed around the world, from Mexico City to San Diego to Barcelona to Tel Aviv, desperate to find out what became of the young, optimistic, but perhaps now doomed poets. Where did they go after the Sonoran Desert? What jobs did they have? What did they write?

What became of all that ambition? Page by page, the novel begins to darken. An editor who met Lima and Belano before they set off for the desert says "it was as if they were there but at the same time they weren't there," and the novel precisely mimics this poignant presence and absence. Again, it should be stressed that this is not just a postmodern game about the fictionality of novelistic characters though it is that, too. Movingly, no one seems quite able to get the two young poets in focus; Lima and Belano flicker in and out of other people's lives, and the news is not good.

They are dealing in drugs, they are often high, they drift from job to job. Lima is living in Paris for a while, desperately poor. He once found a 5,franc note on the sidewalk and now always walks with his head down. Belano is spotted near Perpignan, looking for a "friend" who has disappeared and who is about to commit suicide. A painter, interviewed in Mexico City in , says that Belano and Lima weren't revolutionaries: "They weren't writers.

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