“The Return,” the title story of a collection of Roberto Bolaño’s short fiction published in English in 2010, can be read, in light of the author’s prolific and variable posthumous output, as an ambiguous parable about losing control of one’s selfhood (authorial or otherwise) in death. In a tone that hovers between abject horror and bemused disbelief, the narrator describes what happens to both his body and, for lack of a better word, his soul after his sudden death from a heart attack in a Paris nightclub. “The first minutes of ghosthood are minutes of imminent knockout,” he explains:
You’re like a punch-drunk boxer staggering around the ring in the drawn-out moment of the ring’s evaporation. But then you calm down and what generally happens is that you follow the people who were there when you died—your girlfriend, your friends—or you follow your own body.
The narrator chooses the last option, hovering near his body as it makes its way from an ambulance to the morgue to, with the intercession of a pair of “hipster orderlies,” the home of the prominent fashion designer Jean-Claude Villeneuve, who proceeds to enact a surprisingly tender sexual encounter with the narrator’s corpse. “My reactions were contradictory,” the deceased tells us:
I felt disgusted by what I was seeing, grateful for not having been sodomized, surprised to discover Villeneuve’s secret, angry at the orderlies for having rented out my body, and even flattered to have served, unwillingly, as an object of desire for one of the most famous men in France.
What might, in other hands, have been simply an exercise in shocking bourgeois sensibilities becomes something more complex as the story develops. The narrator manages (the ghostly metaphysics are a little hazy) to communicate with Villeneuve, first chastising him for his actions and then forgiving him. Once the designer is convinced of his interlocutor’s existence, he confesses to a lifetime of sexual and emotional insecurity, and to a “morbid dread of harming anyone which may have been a screen to hide his dread of being harmed.” A connection has been forged; when the orderlies come to take away his body, the ghost decides to stay behind and keep Villeneuve company. The final image is of an unconventional domestic arrangement, the designer finally having found someone to whom he can speak freely, the ghost with nothing but time to listen.
After his initial incredulity at becoming a postmortem sex object has passed, the narrator strikes a pose of flexibility, even accommodation. Why not make the best of his situation? As with much of Bolaño’s work, the story resists one’s attempts to draw a straightforward meaning from it—the narrator is just as baffled by the choices he makes as the reader is, struggling to find purchase in a shifting landscape. What seems to matter to Bolaño is the movement of the story itself, the way its gothic plot is made to sprawl unexpectedly in an ambiguous, psychologically realistic direction.
This is, in miniature, what Bolaño does across his vast, cryptic body of work: he opens up formal possibilities with sheer energy and a sense of improvisation, creating new designs for stories and novels through unexpected combinations and juxtapositions. Darkness is omnipresent in his writing—the shadow of Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile, the country of Bolaño’s birth, is the fulcrum on which everything pivots, with past and future right-wing violence lurking across countries and continents—but sex, literature, and conversation can be deployed against it. His work tends to follow the logic of accretion—the protagonist of a story might inspire a novel of his or her own, or a side character in a novel might later appear, transformed, in stories or episodes.
As with the border between life and death in “The Return,” or in the many other stories in which the lives of long-dead or missing figures from books or photographs are sought out or reconstructed, Bolaño troubles the boundaries between discrete works. One often turns a corner in Bolaño’s world and ends up in a shadowy, though familiar, neighborhood that one has visited in a previous book. His methods invite obsession, the uncanny feeling that if one reads enough and draws enough connections, one might arrive at some grand revelation. “The Secret of Evil” is promised by the title story of one of his posthumous collections, but the story itself is a short fragment about a journalist in Paris meeting a mysterious source in the middle of the night to…eat fresh croissants. If the secret of evil is hidden in the story, it is (appropriately enough) beyond the reader’s comprehension.
One of the signal pleasures of reading Bolaño is tracing the hopscotching connections across the major novels and stories he published between Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996), his first great book, and his death in 2003. Reading him this way, though, has grown more fraught with the regular appearance of previously unpublished work in the years since the apex of his popular acclaim in the late Aughts. Alongside the posthumously “discovered” works, there has also been a deluge of earlier books, published in Spanish in some form, that began to make their way into English following the popularity of the English translation of The Savage Detectives in 2007. The most recently published stories, novels, and fragments provide many new routes through the teeming metropolis that Bolaño created, but inevitably they leave the reader with questions about the writer’s intentions, and about how to incorporate these new pieces into a broader understanding of Bolaño’s work.
An illustrative example is the treatment of Óscar Amalfitano, a Chilean literature professor who is a main character in both 2666, the epic novel Bolaño was furiously working on at the time of his death (and which was published to enormous hype and acclaim in the US in 2008), and the even less finished Woes of the True Policeman, published four years later. Amalfitano becomes a much more sympathetic figure in the later book, which seems to be, in part, an early or alternative version of its monumental cousin.
In 2666, Amalfitano is the central figure of a novella-length episode in which, seemingly in the midst of a breakdown, he recreates a Duchamp project by hanging a geometry book from a clothesline and argues with a voice, claiming to be the ghost of either his father or his grandfather, that coarsely needles him about whether or not he’s a homosexual. Toward the end of the section, he befriends, or at least tolerates the company of, the son of the dean of his department, a voluble young man given to unsettling monologues, including one about going out to gay bars only, in his telling, to fight the men who try to pick him up. As in much of 2666, the bad vibes of these passages are so thick as to be claustrophobic. Every digression leads to a further revelation of violence and violation, climaxing, famously, in a section that elaborately chronicles the murders of hundreds of women in northern Mexico.
In Woes of the True Policeman, Amalfitano, following the death of his wife in middle age, embraces his homosexuality and embarks on an affair with Padilla, a brash and outspoken student in one of his classes at the University of Barcelona. The relationship leads to his being forced to resign, and he takes a job at the far less prestigious University of Santa Teresa in the bleak Sonora Desert. In contrast to the haunted and ravaged Amalfitano of 2666, the one we meet in Woes of the True Policeman is gently melancholic, comparing himself to Thomas Mann and the “languid, innocent fairyhood with which he was afflicted in his old age.” (The homophobia is unmissable even in this more self-accepting version of the professor; there is, throughout Bolaño’s writing, a kind of macho anxiety about homosexuality even when he writes with sympathy about gay characters.)
Amalfitano and Padilla continue to exchange heartfelt letters after they are separated; in the novel’s final pages, Padilla recounts his AIDS diagnosis and the fellowship he has found with a fellow sufferer, a young drug dealer named Elisa who has moved in with him. Though hardly a conventional happy ending, the vision of life in Woes of the True Policeman allows for the possibility of change and transformation, in contrast to the hopeless, apocalyptic finality of 2666.
Bolaño’s work, as should be clear, tends to make a gleeful mockery of the question of what “really happens”—what counts as “canon,” in the lingo of the science-fiction and fantasy fan communities to which some of his characters belong. There are callbacks and cameos sprinkled throughout. Arturo Belano, last seen in Liberia in The Savage Detectives, stars in a brief episode set there in the story “Photographs,” published in Bolaño’s lifetime; he appears again in the story “Death of Ulises,” published posthumously, in which he returns to Mexico City twenty years after his last visit there and is informed by a group of overweight rock musicians that his old comrade Lima has died (like his real-life model, the poet Mario Santiago) after being struck by a car. Perhaps the most consequential example of the reader’s dilemma provoked by Bolaño’s multitude comes in a note appended by the critic Ignacio Echevarría to 2666, in which we learn that one of the author’s notes for the novel states that “the narrator of 2666 is Arturo Belano.” Does this change anything? Everything?
At their best, the posthumous books collectively expand our sense of Bolaño’s network of novels and stories as a living system, as illogical and abrupt as the world we inhabit. Cowboy Graves, the most recently published, is, like The Secret of Evil and Woes of the True Policeman (both translated into English in 2012), a harvesting of drafts and fragments that, despite their often sketchy and incomplete nature, shed light on Bolaño’s creative process and fill in spaces that were previously underexplored in his published oeuvre.
The new book consists of three prose pieces of differing lengths and degrees of finish. It doesn’t seem quite right to describe them all as novellas, as the publisher does, though the title piece, with its chapter breaks and (more or less) intelligible through line just about qualifies. The narrator of “Cowboy Graves” is the fifteen-year-old Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s regular alter-ego. The novella’s preoccupation with the dynamics of a nuclear family is fairly rare in Bolaño’s fiction, though the deadpan narration bears some resemblance to that of the teenage Bianca in A Little Lumpen Novelita, a bleak, overlooked gem that was the final work Bolaño saw published in his lifetime. As in that book, the voice in “Cowboy Graves” is direct and authoritative: “My name is Arturo and the first time I saw an airport was in 1968.” He, his mother, and his sister are moving from Chile to Mexico to be with his Mexican father, a process that is delayed at the airport by obscure adult machinations.
Bolaño perfectly captures the dread that descends when one’s name (or, in this case, one’s mother’s name) is called over the airport loudspeakers. “She pretended not to know what was going on,” he writes, “and she looked around too, as if searching for the same person everyone else was, but not as eagerly as the other passengers on the Santiago–Lima–Quito–Mexico City flight.” Eventually, the family is escorted out of the boarding line by Interpol, apparently because of an unpaid bill.
They have no choice but to return to the house of a friend in Santiago with whom they’ve been staying, and whose Rilke-reading sister Arturo dreams of seducing. In high Bolaño style, the “Airport” section digresses associatively, moving from a horseback ride Arturo took with his father to the narrator’s attempt, as an aspiring poet, to meet the famed Chilean anti-poet (and Bolaño hero) Nicanor Parra, illuminating the character’s stifled yearning through action and juxtaposition rather than explanation. The section ends, like many of Bolaño’s best stories, with an abrupt plunge into the abyss, without further elaboration. “And when everything seemed most hopeless,” he writes, “my mother had an asthma attack.”
What follows is a series of stories about Belano—his desolate afternoons skipping class to furtively masturbate in movie theaters, his journey by ship to Chile to “join the revolution” (i.e., support Allende’s socialist government), and his minor, farcical role in a neighborhood group attempting to defend against the military coup of September 11, 1973. This last section, “The Coup,” expands on a much shorter account of the same episode in the story “Dance Card,” a seemingly autobiographical piece in Last Evenings on Earth that reads, with its short, numbered sections, like Bolaño’s riff on Joe Brainard’s I Remember project. In that earlier story, the narrator reduces his experience down to the bare essentials: “I kept watch in an empty street. I forgot my password. My comrades were fifteen years old, retired, or out of work.”
The version in “Cowboy Graves” is more detailed, recounting the chaos and confusion of the day—for example, the head of the local Communist cell, a “fat little guy,” bicycles off on a mission “to get concrete orders and trustworthy information,” having found no volunteers for the job, and never comes back. Bolaño turns the forgotten password into a comedy routine out of Beckett. After waiting on a street corner for two hours, watching out for only vaguely perceived “right-wing radicals,” Belano spots one of his comrades and tells him he hasn’t seen anything. The comrade insists on speaking in the agreed-on code and Belano, unable to remember the response, continues to speak plainly. The piece ends on this moment of forced miscommunication, the minor players haplessly fumbling their lines in the bright glare of history.
“The Grub,” one of the sections of “Cowboy Graves,” goes further than the usual expansion/contraction of the Bolaño system, reproducing verbatim a story in Last Evenings on Earth. Regardless of whether there’s artistic merit in republishing the story in this different context and sequence, it perhaps serves as the editor’s subtle argument for the worthiness of publishing the other unfinished stories. “The Grub” might appear unfinished if one didn’t know better, so why not imagine that the unpublished stories might, in fact, have been finished in the author’s idiosyncratic fashion?
This line of reasoning, of course, ignores the many choices that most writers make before deciding that something is ready for publication. Joan Didion, in her 1998 essay “Last Words,” recently collected in her book Let Me Tell You What I Mean, argues strongly against this kind of thinking, specifically making the case against the posthumous publication of novels edited by Ernest Hemingway’s executors. “You care about the punctuation or you don’t, and Hemingway did,” Didion writes. “You care about the ‘ands’ and the ‘buts’ or you don’t, and Hemingway did. You think something is in shape to be published or you don’t, and Hemingway didn’t.”
It doesn’t seem that Bolaño was quite so exacting. He wrote fast and his prose can be careless, sometimes skirting incoherence or bad taste. He cut a characteristically paradoxical figure, both in life and death, with regard to the relationship between art and commerce. By many accounts, he started writing fiction at least in part to support his family, ramping up production after being diagnosed with a terminal liver disease and even going so far, according to Echevarría’s note at the end of 2666, as to suggest that his long final book be divided into five separate novels in order to maximize sales after his death. Though Echevarría makes a convincing case for the artistic merit of publishing the book in one volume, he leaves unsaid what now seems the obvious fact that its commercial prospects were improved by its status as a totemic, even forbidding, work.
The last segment of Cowboy Graves, after the noirishly entertaining but inessential return to the world of underground poetry movements in “French Comedy of Horrors,” is “Fatherland,” a disjointed collection of drafts and notes for fictions that were later realized in Distant Star and other works of the 1990s. We are in the world of young poets at the time of Pinochet’s coup. As in Nazi Literature in the Americas and Distant Star, a young woman disappears, and a poet skywrites cryptic poetry using a vintage Third Reich Messerschmitt plane while the narrator watches, imprisoned. Near the end, there is a section entitled “Family Plot” that could be a photonegative of the first part of “Cowboy Graves.” Prefaced with the sentence fragment “Effects of the coup on the family unit,” the section reads like a series of notes toward a more expansive meditation on family life and politics than Bolaño ever completed.
This version of the Belano family lives in Chile during the coup, and in this universe Arturo (now named Rigoberto) has a brother named David who is arrested, beaten, and returned to the family a month later. Arturo’s mother loses her teaching job; David takes up martial arts and becomes a Trotskyite. Arturo’s separated parents reconcile briefly, until the stress of the political situation leads his mother to take his brother and sister out of the country. Belano stays behind with his father and begins receiving cryptic postcards from his siblings (“I could never figure out the clues, if there were any”). The section is promising, a design for something like Ways of Going Home (2011), Alejandro Zambra’s poignant, elliptical novel about family life under the dictatorship. The rest of “Fatherland” sweeps us back into the familiar Bolaño territory of shadowy killers and oblique dream sequences, seemingly arranged at random. Much of this echoes material in other books and might, with clearer explanation, make more sense as addenda or appendixes to them.
In a concluding note on source material for this book, Carolina López Hernández, Bolaño’s widow and literary executor, attempts to provide some sense of the methods used in putting the collection together, but ultimately, in focusing on physical materials rather than editorial logic, her note obscures more than it illuminates. She explains that “the full resources of the Bolaño Archive have been consulted” to identify the provenance of each piece, noting that this archive “consists of loose papers, notebooks, newspaper clippings, magazines, and—in the case of the later work—computer files.” What follows are brief summaries of where the works were found—on the hard drives, in folders, etc.—and educated guesses, based on these clues, as to when they were composed. If the goal is to inspire confidence in readers that the author organized these pieces to indicate how they were meant to be published, it does not succeed. (A fellow Bolaño reader went so far as to suggest, conspiratorially, that, in Bolaño-esque fashion, there was someone quietly churning out “lost” manuscripts and passing them off as the real thing. Surely, I replied, if that was the case, they would do a better job of making them into cohesive works? Ah, but that’s exactly what would give them away, my friend replied.)
The collection contains an essay by the Spanish critic Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas that posits, contrary to the clearly contingent and disorganized nature of the texts presented, that Bolaño’s scattered works should be seen less as fragments than as “puzzle pieces” because “they always lead us back to the larger body of his work.” “Like a painter in his studio,” he goes on, “Bolaño works simultaneously on several pieces, and if he abandons one to start another, he never forgets what’s come before.” He might not have forgotten, but the haphazard “remembering” as represented in these books wouldn’t pass a concussion protocol.
On the whole, I’m in favor of having more access to the working processes of great writers (even, contra Didion, the perfectionist Hemingway), and the nature of Bolaño’s work and the circumstances of his death seem to more or less encourage the pillaging of his (unsurprisingly disheveled) archives. But with that choice comes a responsibility to present the work clearly, to give readers an accurate sense of what considerations went into choosing to publish. The high-flown language of Ródenas’s essay is an obvious example of protesting too much. It doesn’t seem right to claim that this is all part of the author’s grand design when he didn’t live to make those decisions.
Presenting the work this way threatens to damage the author’s legacy: it’s been long enough since Bolaño’s ascent to international fame that a reader only glancingly familiar with his name could well pick up Cowboy Graves as a first exposure to his work and decide to give the rest a pass. It seems fairer to the artist’s legacy to read these pieces as alternatives, as possibilities for what could have been. My hope is that, once the commercial impetus to publish these books as “indispensable” additions to the writer’s corpus passes, they might be organized in a way that helps readers better understand their relationship to the books Bolaño finished.
It’s helpful to remember, in that spirit, what a significant impact the “discovery” of Bolaño had when The Savage Detectives and 2666 were published in the US within a span of eighteen months, in 2007 and 2008. The excitement they generated felt, at the time, like an isolated phenomenon—dense, difficult books, translated from Spanish, full of grueling violence and inside jokes about Latin American literary culture. They were extraordinarily well-marketed and publicized, but that doesn’t quite explain the feverishness surrounding their appearance. In his excellent study Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews, who has translated many of Bolaño’s books, analyzes some of the causes of the boom, noting the “translatability” of his prose, the myths surrounding his life and early death, his particular appeal to male readers, and the canniness of 2666’s release in English soon after the success of The Savage Detectives. Ultimately, however, Andrews places the most credit on Bolaño’s “singularity as a writer”—he really was so exceptional, Andrews writes, as to create “a new position in the literary field.”
If this is true, it feels, from the distance of more than a decade, like a position that has now been filled by a succession of international literary phenomena, most notably Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, whose books and personae spark fierce devotion through their intermingling of mystery and candor. What gives me confidence in Bolaño’s surviving the vagaries of long-term literary reputation is his ability to capture, even in fragmentary or hallucinatory form, the hard edge of reality. I think of the final segment of The Spirit of Science Fiction, a sixteen-page piece called “Mexican Manifesto” that vibrates at an entirely different frequency from the rest of this early and otherwise undistinguished novel.
The narrator, Remo, describes his and his girlfriend Laura’s adventures frequenting the public bathhouses of Mexico City, locations that represent “the hidden face” of the city. He describes the ultimate fiction writer’s high, “wandering the hallways, feeding one’s indiscreet curiosity in small doses,” the half-open doors presenting
vivid tableaux to the lucky observer: groups of naked men where any movement or action was courtesy of the steam; adolescents lost like jaguars in a labyrinth of showers; the tiny but terrifying gestures of athletes, weightlifters, and lone men.
One night at a bathhouse, Remo and Laura let an old man and two boys, who are known to present “private shows,” into their steam room, and what follows next…well, I won’t say. Perhaps the secret of evil is finally revealed. I wouldn’t count on it.