A review of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction by Chris Andrews (Columbia University Press, 2014), Bolaño, A Biography in Conversations by Mónica Maristain, translated by Kit Maude (Melville House, 2014) and A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions, 2014)
Some readers turn to fiction to find not a mirror of the world they live in with all its ambiguity and ugliness, but a comfortable construct where beginnings are followed by middles and conclude with at least moderately-happy ends. The bad earn their comeuppance, while the good get the girl/win the man/score the job/enter heaven. It’s a version of the Elizabethan worldview, where a society riven with murder and incest and terror always rights itself in the end. “The time is out of joint,” Hamlet says early on the play, and at the end young Fortinbras will ride in to reset the clock. A broken world always ended up mended, all its gears and springs put back in place. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the wayward quality of our lives. We tell stories to soften the painful edges and pull the sting out of the bad moments we wish had never happened. We tell stories because we always want everything to end happily ever after, just like we were taught as kids, when the big people read to us. Even our memories get a little soft and rounded over time, just to shine a kinder glow on ourselves. But the twentieth century also made vividly clear just how chaotic and uncertain life is. Evil can rise up in the pathetic guise of a nondescript German corporal, or of a skinny disaffected ex-Marine in his Texas backyard with a mail-order rifle, not to mention—going back a few centuries—the pious crucifixed footmen of the Spanish Insurrection who promised you heaven and then broke your legs. It’s the smiling soldier who marches you under the sign that claims Arbeit macht frei, or the man who calls you out of the dark doorway and draws you into the Mexican desert with his guarantee of mercy and salvation. This is the world of Roberto Bolaño; this is the carnival of wandering troubadours and lost souls.
It’s difficult to define, really, what makes Roberto Bolaño’s works so compelling. His writing isn’t especially beautiful, in the sense of the word often used by reviewers, who sometimes write of the seductive poetry of a line of prose, the gemlike paragraph, the moving description, the image that falls limpidly from the page into your mind. His sentences aren’t worked in the way that Updike or Nabokov crocheted their words into such elegant and mellifluous patterns. With Bolaño there are none of the neat patterns of fiction, even fewer straight lines from cause to effect, and the symmetry of his stories and novels is skewed, bent and broken, just like life. He doesn’t cozy up to you; he makes you come to him. True to his times, Bolaño guides us like a Chilean coyote through miles and tunnels of pandemonium and disarray. Stories begin and end without consequence. Time slips by; people in one city suddenly appear, a paragraph and years later, in another. They hide behind false names, write the words of others, vanish into the night. Famously disdainful of magical realism, he shows us a face-to-the-roadway view of life. No talking trees, flying horses, wizardly grandmothers. If there is salvation at all, it’s what you find within yourself, not in the sugary declarations of earthly avatars. It’s fiction of consequence that touches on the indefinable thing that lies behind the painted ponies and the cotton candy and the sweet nothings they keep telling us. It’s the boardwalk at midnight, when the grown-ups, hopped up on speed and too much cheap whisky, rolling dice with Mistress Chaos and rubbing shoulders with Mr. Death, have taken over the rides and the shooting galleries. He gives us a world most of us refuse to look at head-on, but reading him we feel compelled to keep turning the pages. His work is dynamic, never stopping to pose for admiring looks: it has the shape not of art, but of life.
As Ricardo Piglia, whose interview is included in Mónica Maristain’s oral biography, Bolaño A Biography in Conversations, states, “…he has made reading into an adventure, often featuring intrigue, pursuits, and quests,” suggesting that Bolaño (like one of his idols, Georges Perec, who spoke of spending much of his boyhood reading and rereading Jules Verne “couché à plat ventre sur mon lit”), has never lost touch with what makes narrative fiction so compelling. “One of the reasons Bolaño’s fiction matters to so many readers,” Chris Andrews, translator and author of the first full-length critical work on the writer to appear in English, writes, “is that it is underpinned by a strong, distinctive, and relatively simple sense of what matters in life.” Perhaps because of this, there’s a sense of improvisation in both his poetry and his prose, the whiff of willful whatthefuckness one sometimes gets with a mid-sixties Dylan lyric before, as we grow accustomed to its baroque logic, it begins to make a kind of occult sense, as though it were written in a secret language that only reveals itself in time. As Nora Catelli writes, cited in Chris Andrews’s study, “Bolaño seems to have no difficulty finding and developing plots. And the way in which he does this is so fluid it might be mistaken for natural. Yet…his skill is not naïve, and his use of narrative resources is not complacent. Indeed it could be said that Bolaño has constructed a fiction-making system that is as a simple as it is rigorous.” Argentinian writer Rodrigo Fresán says in Maristain’s biography, “His literature, like that of Thomas Pynchon, fed on curious information and international strangeness…. To my generation, Bolaño was and always will be the more talented, crazier, and essentially more honest elder brother. [He] wrote without limitations, without a safety net, and without stopping.”
Every story seems a seed that will later be developed, whether into a half-page in a larger work, or into a novel unto itself. Andrews calls this “Expansion,” and it’s a key idea in his work on the author, subtitled An Expanding Universe. Whether enlarging upon an image, or in recycling characters (Arturo Belano being a prime example as one who appears all over the author’s body of work), his world is all of a piece, though it’s less of a planet than a star, ever roiling into a state of collapse, turning black, sucking in all the light in the universe. As Bolaño writes of Santa Teresa—where the bodies were found—in 2666, “Some of these streets were completely dark, like black holes, and the laughter that came from who knows where was the only sign, the only beacon that kept residents and strangers from getting lost.” Klaus Haas, nephew of the writer Benno von Archimboldi and prime suspect in the killings, says, “No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” It’s what all of Bolaño’s work leads to, this boneyard of horrors, this enigma that refuses to be defined.
When by critical opinion his greatest novel, 2666, was published in English, we really didn’t know what to expect. Here in the U.S. we already had a string of books by him, volumes of short stories, novels such as Distant Star and By Night in Chile. While The Savage Detectives led some to expect something akin to, say, True Detective with anguished Marty and metaphysical Rust wandering around the haunted wonderland that is the deep, hidden South (transplanted to Mexico it would have been prime material for Bolaño), there must have been dismay in some quarters that we were reading a long novel about a couple of young poets on a mission in Mexico. As publisher Jonathan Galassi told the Washington Post by way of a pre-emptive warning, “The Savage Detectives is about poetic temperament in the world. It’s romantic. It’s about young idealists coming up against corruption and tragedy.” It was the breakthrough work, but everyone was anticipating the monster that is 2666, a novel unlike any other, and whose fourth section, The Part About the Crimes, detailing the unearthing of the corpses of young women and girls in Santa Teresa and the Sonoran Desert, has earned the book its notoriety among some readers. It is to Chris Andrews’s credit that, as an appendix to his study, he provides a correspondence between the bodies found in The Part About the Crimes and those actually exhumed. Fiction becomes reality; horror is given a name, actually 109 of them. 2666 is like the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001. We have no easy answers as to what it means. It’s the crater around a black hole of death and destruction and evil, concepts that run through Bolaño’s work, that find their true home in this huge book in which, Ignacio Echevarría, considered by some to be Bolaño’s literary executor (a sticky issue covered in a chapter in the Maristain volume), states, “[he] discovered a new language, a new narrative syntax…. After Roberto Bolaño the public figure of the writer exemplified by Gabriel García Márquez or Jorge Luis Borges was made to seem obsolete, antiquated.”
The fiction that is Roberto Bolaño—that he was incarcerated during the overthrow of Salvador Allende (the works of whose cousin, the novelist Isabel Allende, Bolaño famously detested; considering her and those like her as escribidora, scribblers)—is lightly, though not definitively, debunked in Maristain’s biography, the first on the author to be published in English, and composed of interviews with those who knew Bolaño, who loved him, who learned from him, who followed him, and who may have helped create the myth surrounding him. It’s valuable for the vivid impression one takes away of Bolaño the man, the friend, the writer, the husband, the lover, the father. Sort of. We hear nothing from his widow, but primarily from his literary friends and outliers. This isn’t a biography in the usual sense of the term; this is testimony, and as such is interesting, but only up to a point. He shimmers into a kind of life—one that remains to some degree mythical—before once again fading into the pages of his own prose. We learn that his hepatitis C was not due, as some had claimed, to a heroin addiction, but to a disorder of his immune system. (And there’s always the possibility that even this is a myth to cover a darker reality.) We learn of his work habits and how, as a founder of the Infrarealist movement, he disrupted poetry readings like some renegade Surrealist in early 20th century Paris. Yet, as Maristain (best known for having conducted Bolaño’s final interview for the Mexican Playboy) writes in her introduction, “He remains to those who didn’t know him, and some that did, a mystery.” In an age when everybody knows everything about everybody else, when Facebook and Twitter stream our daily this and hourly that, being something of an enigma, especially for a writer, is something of a novelty, lending him or her a certain unstated value: no longer an author, but an enigma. Consider Shakespeare, or Beckett. Not to mention Pynchon. Bolaño “continued to see himself throughout his life as a literary character,” Maristain writes, “a fictional person.” He vanishes at the turn of a page. And in a way he’s not here either, not entirely in these sometimes gossipy pages. We sense a man who was someone different to everyone he knew. It’s fascinating reading, but we have to return to his work to know him best.
Yet the myth of Roberto Bolaño serves an important purpose, which is what drives us back to the work. “Of course,” Mario Vargas Llosa says in the Maristain book, “the myth that now surrounds him helped, the one created by his dramatic life, his early death, those last years on his deathbed, writing with one foot in the grave, all that created a myth…but the myth has in this respect served to help garner recognition for an original body of work, one of real quality.” Myth with no depth is mere showbiz, the fizz and buzz of a publicity campaign. In our days, with something actually to show for itself, myth is a rare thing. We are open books, not the blank spaces between chapters. What lies behind the myth, or many myths, of Bolaño is the inescapable fact that he was living under a sentence of death in his last years. He’s writing because that’s all that’s left. He’s writing to become his work.
Alongside Natasha Wimmer and Laura Healy, as translator Chris Andrews is responsible for ten of the author’s titles published in English by New Directions. What is valuable about Andrews’s study is his approach to Bolaño’s work, which plunges into the writing and wisely leaves the biography to the side. Nor does he rely on plot summary or the kind of sketchy noncommittal overview that all too often passes for criticism. In any event, trying to summarize a work by Bolaño is difficult, if not impossible. It’s the detours and byways, the tunnel approaches and the rope bridges that make it so interesting; things that would be overlooked in a simple précis. Yet Andrews can’t help but touch upon the man himself and makes an excellent point, one alluded to by many of the interviewees in Maristain’s book: “Bolaño’s work insistently invites us to construct a figure of the author, which we should distinguish conceptually from the writer Roberto Bolaño.” There is myth, there is identity, and there is the writer behind both. Just as Proust has (as Gérard Genette has pointed out in his book Narrative Discourse) established some seven different “I” ’s in his great work, so has Bolaño created versions of himself that always keep slipping away. Like Proust, he creates versions of himself, cocoons himself in rumor and disguise. Is Arturo Belano really Roberto Bolaño? Or is he merely a surrogate slipping in and out of his body of fiction. It’s book as smoke and mirrors: if you look too hard for the writer the book slips out of your view; and if you look, as you should, at the work itself, the writer disappears.
Ignacio Echevarría states that “everything that has been published after 2666 is just an accessory…. [It] puts the finishing touches to the cathedral that Bolaño built. It’s completed. We can add chapels, altars, and flourishes, but nothing by Roberto that has or will be published now will, I think, reconfigure his work.” So Bolaño’s “final” work (I use quotation marks, because when I reviewed Tres for this publication, I claimed that volume was final, as well), A Little Lumpen Novelita, came to me as something of a revelation.
But A Little Lumpen Novelita, apparently the last thing he wrote, isn’t just a throwaway novel, something dug out of a bottom drawer. It’s brief, barely over 100 pages, but the story it tells carries the emotional weight of a novel three times its size. In the hands of a lesser writer this would have become an extended soap opera with all the usual setpieces. Instead, you open the volume and the epigraph hits you square in the face:
All writing is garbage.
People who come out of nowhere and try and put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs.
All writers are pigs. Especially writers today.
On the surface (and perhaps beneath it), the quote has no bearing on the story we’re about to read, other than to remind us that, if I’m reading Artaud correctly, most writing is created to generate buzz, to cut royalty checks, to get our pretty photos attached to the reviews, to allow us to sign books and accept the applause of those who come to hear us read, and then to be remaindered, at which point we have to start all over again. As Maristain and Andrews remind us, Bolaño wrote, in a way, to save his life and the lives of his wife and children. He wrote not to please the critics or the readers of Isabel Allende, but to make us see and feel and imagine the life that isn’t on parade in the best-seller lists. He wrote because his life depended on it. In A Little Lumpen Novelita he gives us a story of a disenfranchised young Italian woman, orphaned and adrift, who with her brother lives in Rome. Bianca begins her story in a precarious state, and once her brother invites two men, one from Libya, the other a Bolognese, to fill out the household, life becomes lumpen indeed for her, a life that really isn’t hers to live, playing a role for which she’s hardly suited. A former movie star and Mr. Universe, Maciste (as he is known), lives nearby in solitude: sightless, overweight, a man who shuffles through never-ending darkness. But he’s reputedly a man rolling in the wealth he earned from his acting talents and his muscles, who keeps his fortune in a safe in his home. Bianca is sent by the males in her household to Maciste, to be available to him whenever he’s in the mood, and to learn where the riches are stowed.
This is a story of a young woman, barely out of adolescence, with no future, no hope, on whom much is expected. It’s no fairy-tale. But we know from the very first sentence what her future will be, for that’s where she’s narrating this story. She was the kind of lost young woman who might have been found in a shallow grave in the Sonoran desert, leaving nothing behind but fragments of memory and the shreds of the clothing she’d worn on her last day on earth. But this is a novella that ends in a totally different place. And though it’s something that can easily be read in one sitting, it surprises by haunting the reader for days afterwards.
In the Spanish town of Girona, north of Blanes, where Bolaño lived out his days, a street was named after him in 2011. During the naming ceremony for Carrer de Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean poet and writer Jorge Morales says, “Ignacio Echevarría invited those present to ‘laugh hard at all this, as he would have done,’ especially when he found out that the street to be named in his honor would, in fact, be an empty one.
Like something the author himself would have thought up.