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The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño


by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 898 pp., $30.00

The Romantic Dogs

by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Laura Healy
New Directions, 143 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Well beyond his sometimes nomadic life, Roberto Bolaño was an exemplary literary rebel. To drag fiction toward the unknown he had to go there himself, and then invent a method with which to represent it. Since the unknown place was reality, the results of his work are multi-dimensional, in a way that runs ahead of a critic’s one-at-a-time powers of description. Highlight Bolaño’s conceptual play and you risk missing the sex and viscera in his work. Stress his ambition and his many references and you conjure up threats of exclusive high-modernist obscurity, or literature as a sterile game, when the truth is it’s hard to think of a writer who is less of a snob, or—in the double sense of exposing us to unsavory things and carrying seeds for the future—less sterile.

The contours of his life are becoming well known. Bolaño died of liver failure in 2003 in Spain, where he had long resided. He was born in southern Chile in 1953—a wrenchingly different place and era. His father had been a champion amateur boxer and his mother was a teacher who encouraged her dyslexic son’s love of poetry. In 1968, the family moved to Mexico City, where Bolaño began to acquire a cosmopolitan self-education through the happily random method of shoplifting books. (As an adult his taste was wide enough to appreciate Paracelsus, Max Beerbohm, and Philip K. Dick.)

In 1973, playing his small part in the political fever of the day, he returned to Chile to support the embattled socialist cause of Salvador Allende. What happened next seems to live on in his fiction’s patterns of abrupt cessation. After Augusto Pinochet’s coup, Bolaño was detained and could have joined the thousands who were jailed, killed, or sent into official dramatic exile. Instead, he was spotted by old classmates who worked for the new regime, and let go.

He went back to Mexico and co-founded a Surrealist-influenced, anti-status-quo school of poetry. After that fizzled he went to Europe, where he took a series of low-paying but intellectually uncompromised jobs. He had a heroin habit, which he would later find out had damaged his health. But eventually he cleaned up, settled down on Spain’s Costa Brava, had a child, and by the 1990s felt the imperative to provide. He had begun to enter provincial story contests and collect modest prize money. Increasingly aware of his fragile health, he filled a shelf with compact, fresh, and potent books that might have taken decades to write: among them Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996), a funny and disturbing catalog of imaginary writers ; Amulet (1999), the tale of a woman who sits in the bathroom during the army raid on Mexico’s UNAM university in 1968; Distant Star (1996), the tale of an airman for the Pinochet regime who scribbles disturbing poems in the sky and is also a freelance murderer of women; and By Night in Chile (2000), the deathbed confession of a corrupted Chilean literary critic and priest, half-comprehending the horror of his own career.

Bolaño had a deep skepticism about national feeling, and it has been said that his work starts to point the way to a kind of post-national fiction. But some of his insights still seem rooted in particular, not transcendent, experience. In Bolaño’s youth, well before the arrival of Pinochet, Chile was a country of profound inequality and social conservatism, with power held in the Church and by elites aspiring to a faraway dream of refinement. To some degree, it must have been here that Bolaño’s hatred of pretension, at times of the very idea of culture, as the mask for a power fantasy, started to be forged. Yet it was a land of poets. One entry in The Romantic Dogs, the first gathering in English of Bolaño’s wonderfully unreserved poems, pays homage to Nicanor Parra, who swam against the Chilean tide with his poetry of defancified directness.

And then there was Mexico, which Bolaño never again saw after he left in 1977. Here he found a more creative, vivid, and generous chaos, though one hardly free from corruption or violence. Mexico City in the 1970s is the beautifully drawn scene of The Savage Detectives (1998),1 the first book by Bolaño to be longer than a novella, and the most acclaimed work to come out while he was alive. The opening section’s narrator, an excited young would-be poet, describes his thrilling (to him) involvement with a haphazard bunch of literary rebels. They’re presided over by a melancholy Mexican, Ulises Lima, and a restless Chilean named Arturo Belano—partial stand-ins for Bolaño and his Mexican best friend. Abruptly, the story breaks off, switching to a parade of testimonials by people who encountered Belano and Lima in the subsequent decades. The arc that their memories trace is heavy and sad with unfulfilled promise, even as the novel’s methods make it feel full of distracted life.

The final section plants us back where we left off in the 1970s. The hopeful narrator and a young prostitute have tagged along with Belano and Lima to the desert state of Sonora, in northern Mexico. They are on a quixotic double mission. Gallantly, they’re trying to protect the girl from a Mexico City pimp. And they’ve been researching a long-forgotten figure from Mexico’s poetry avant-garde in the 1920s. Of her surviving output, Belano and Lima have been able to find no more than a paper with mysterious, squiggly lines. But they are determined to track her down in the area near a town called Santa Teresa.

Like Borges—whom he loved and from whom he learned much—Bolaño was attracted to the idea of literature that could speak to the Americas.2 He introduced a Spanish edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and elsewhere suggested that The Savage Detectives had been his stab at an adventure tale in the spirit of Twain. He hinted at another model worth thinking about: Melville, tackling the overwhelming subject of evil in Moby-Dick. Writing a brief note on a book by the Mexican reporter Sergio González Rodríguez, Bolaño sounded a similar theme. In 2002, González Rodríguez published his reportage on hundreds of unsolved murders of women and girls in Ciudad Juárez, just south of the Texas border. The murders had begun to accelerate in the early 1990s, in tandem with the drug trade and a proliferation of new assembly plants for exports.

As it happened, Bolaño wrote, the novel he was currently working on dealt in part with the murders, and he had struck up a correspondence with González Rodríguez, frequently seeking his grisly expertise. To the novelist, the story González Rodríguez was reporting on was becoming “a metaphor for Mexico, for its past, and for the uncertain future of all Latin America.” It belonged not to the adventure tradition but to the opposite pole of stories of the Americas, the apocalyptic—“these being the only two traditions that remain alive on our continent, perhaps because they’re the only two to get close to the abyss that surrounds us.”

2666 was published in Spanish in 2004, a year after Bolaño’s death. It runs to 898 pages in English and was not quite finished—yet one doesn’t really feel the lack of final revisions doing much to diminish its power. At many points, one feels about to be able to compare the book to something else. When a former Black Panther reminiscent in a few details of Bobby Seale gives a sermon on such topics as “danger” and “stars,” it feels like a nod to the sermon scene in Moby-Dick. Elsewhere there is an ominousness reminiscent of David Lynch, whose method of digging into his unconscious—whatever may come spilling out—seems an inspiration. Bolaño liked detective pulp, and once claimed he would have liked to be a homicide detective, facing the worst, with access to the scene of the crime. The grimy atmosphere of unsolved mystery should, to most readers, feel utterly familiar. Yet despite all the signposts, we quickly discover that we’re no good at guessing what comes next.

We follow Bolaño into digressions, and with the weak intuition of a dream we sense him playing with the tools of genre: halfway through, a scene might vaguely take on a quality of thriller, porn, or fable. Every so often a character might start to discuss the problems of semblances and metaphors that reveal or conceal. This is the doubt-raising problem of representation itself. Yet there are scenes that feel like they could be there for no other reason than to memorialize a vivid incident Bolaño might have witnessed, and which arrive in the novel like assertive, physically present ambassadors from life. Because there are many references to painting, and because the plot seems at times to move invisibly, as if unable to break out of stasis, the visual starts to take on great importance. It would help if we could somehow assign new characters their place in the growing mural in our mind. But we wonder how to deal with women whom we meet only as corpses. And we aren’t sure how to sort out characters who, in a way we can’t remember encountering before in fiction, seem to be made of different densities—some seeming solid and all there, and others like a hologram you could stick a hand through.

The novel is divided into five sections. Once we have made it through to the finish, the opening feels like a thin memory. But it does its own curious work to disorient us. Set in the mid-1990s, the first section brings us a quartet of young European academics. At conferences, they have bonded like musketeers over their shared line of argument about the work of a writer named Benno von Archimboldi, a German who everyone guesses is still living—he may even be a Nobel contender—but who for decades hasn’t been seen by anyone except his publisher.

The critics hail from different European countries, with traits that occasionally suggest that Bolaño is teasing national types. There’s a Parisian, smooth in his self-presentation; and an Italian, less ambitious because he is passive, ill, and stuck in a wheelchair. A Spanish critic has arrived at his Archimboldi phase after a prior, dubious literary infatuation and a period of concern over the national literature of Spain (not the highest recommendation in Bolaño’s universe). And a woman from London is sharp, with a catlike detachment and honesty. She sleeps with both the Frenchman and the Spaniard, and for a while lets them compete for her with adolescent grandiosity.

To describe the satire makes it sound crueler than it feels in the reading. What comes through in the critics’ lives is a poignant barrenness. The novel’s never-specified narrating voice describes two critics out for a walk, sharing “their innermost feelings.” At one point, in London, the frustrated suitors achieve displaced catharsis by beating up a Pakistani cabdriver, whose illiberalism has tried their tolerance. The joke is schematic, but still bracing. We realize a couple of things. First, despite the strangeness of their presentation, the quartet are in many ways typical European liberals, with the usual contradictions. Second, Bolaño has been directing us to observe them along fairly specific lines: their relation to sexual expression, curiosity, goals, and waiting, the size of their assumptions, their comfort with violence—all factors in their mastery or nonmastery of self.

  1. 1

    The Savage Detectives is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The other books cited above are published by New Directions.

  2. 2

    In a wonderful 2006 essay, the critic Aura Estrada began to explain how it is the chaotic Bolaño could be compared to the cerebral Borges, who rarely wrote more than two thousand words at a time: Bolaño had begun to enact an idea suggested by Borges, of the return of the epic in a novel. 2666 has a couple of additional Borgesian undercurrents: history as a sequence of forgotten dates; and history as a survey of metaphors.

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