It wouldn’t be Spanish Lit Month without at least one Roberto Bolano, and luckily, despite his death in 2003, English translations are still appearing faster than I can read them. I always feel a little intimidated discussing Bolano as there is a sense that the sum of his works is greater than its parts. By that I mean, that even with a partial knowledge of his writing, it is clear that certain ideas, themes and characters reoccur as if they were part of some larger plan. For that reason I thought it would be best to read a volume of his short stories, The Return, translated, as always, by Chris Andrews. Confusingly this volume contains stories from both a 1997 and a 2001 collection – the same collections that were plundered for Last Evenings on Earth (presumably these are the ‘leftover’ stories).
Despite this precaution, there are still stories which clearly form part of the ‘bigger picture.’ ‘Photos’, for example, features Bolano’s fictional alter-ego Arturo Belano and (of course) an anthology of poetry. The more accomplished ‘Detectives’, written entirely in dialogue, relates the tale of Arturo’s time in prison from the point of view of two of his guards, former classmates.
“So I looked in the mirror again and saw two old classmates, a twenty-year-old cop with a loose tie, and a dirty looking guy with long hair and a beard, all skin and bone, and I thought: Jesus, we really have fucked up, haven’t we…”
Many of the stories are about a different kind of dysfunctional relationship: those between men and women. All are set on the edges of society. In ‘Cell Mates’ the narrator begins a relationship with the revolutionary Sofia – they discover that they were both in prison at the same time, though in different continents. The relationship fades with Sofia:
“By then Sofia had become a ghost; she appeared without a sound, shut herself in her room or the bathroom and disappeared again after a few hours.”
The narrator, however, does not give up on her, even when subsequent meetings suggest she is both unwell and in an abusive relationship. There is something similar in the story ‘Joanna Silvestri’, one of a number told by a female narrator, the titular porn star. While shooting in LA she looks up an old friend who is dying from AIDs and moves in with him while she is there:
“It was almost like saying, It’s OK if you never come back, I knew that, but I decided that Jack needed me and that I needed him too.”
The recollection is told to a detective, emphasising its existence on the margins, and ghosts also feature (“I know a lot about ghosts”). Perhaps my favourite story in the collection, ‘The Return’, is actually narrated by a ghost:
“I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villleneuve is a necrophiliac.”
Death is commonplace in many of the stories. In ‘Prefiguration of Lalo Cura’ the narrator begins, “I’ve had people killed.” ‘Murdering Whores’ is, as its title suggests, about a female killer. In ‘William Burns’ a man kills someone he believes to be a threat on what seem in retrospect unconvincing reasons. Bolano’s world is one of unglamorous criminals, unexceptional non-comformists, the weary and the stateless. Here he effortlessly inhabits their attitudes and voices, neither sympathetic nor uncaring. He also shows a technical variety that suggests someone as comfortable with short story as with the novel. It seems there is not escape from the feeling that Bolano is a writer where you must read everything – because everything is worth reading.