Archive for the ‘Roberto Bolano’ Category

The Return

July 21, 2014

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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.

Nazi Literature in the Americas

January 15, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Roberto Bolano

Nazi Literature in the Americas is not Roberto Bolano’s most famous or admired novel, but it seemed the ideal place to continue my efforts to read only what it is unusual and challenging. The book takes the form of an encyclopaedia of writers from the Americas, all of whom have fascist political leanings. Each writer is covered in a biographical entry of between two and twenty pages, focusing mainly on their literary output. In doing this, Bolano highlights perhaps more starkly than anywhere else the two obsessions which run through all his work: literature and politics. Here the title itself arrests our attention: surely ‘Nazi literature’ is an oxymoron? However, it does not take long to think of real (and American) writers who have been influenced by fascism. And anyway, Bolano has said that in writing the book he was thinking about the left as much as the right. Bolano is not positing the theory that all writing is political, he is pointing out that many writers are, and that being writers does not automatically put them on the side of the angels.

So what do we learn from reading the thirty biographies (and the appendix of secondary figures, publishers and books)? We learn that writers can be as unpleasant and petty as anyone else; that their lives can be tawdry and empty; and that their work often comes second to the need for publication and recognition. While Bolano frequently presents a realistic view of the writer’s life and writers in his work, rarely has it seemed so unappealing. However, these are not writers united in political belief. All are right wing to some degree (and sometimes to an extreme degree) but many seem politically immature or opportunist and Hitler, Nazism, Jews are not frequently mentioned. When they are – one writer treasures a photograph of Hitler holding her as a baby – the connection is not always entirely political.

Bolano has fun not only with the writers’ lives but with their work, with many summaries of books never written scattered throughout. However, the book’s conception remains more amusing than its execution. For me, its final entry, on Carlos Ramirez Hoffmann, is its most effective. Here Bolano’s style of writing changes completely, from the mock-factual to a much more personal, first-person narrative:

“Why did the Venegas sisters get mixed up with him? It’s a trivial mystery, and everyday accident. The man known as Stevens was, I suppose, handsome, intelligent, sensitive.”

Part of the effectiveness of this voice is its contrast with what has come before, as if the writer has broken free of his own rules. Going further, Bolano himself appears in the story, helping a detective track Hoffmann down. Bolano’s appearance (common in his work) is not a literary trick but a link between the lives he has described and his own.

Presumably Bolano had some idea that this particular fictitious writer stood out among all the others, not only from his refusal to neuter his story by adapting it to the encyclopaedia format, but also from his decision to develop it further into the novella Distant Star. Unfortunately this means that Distant Star is a much better place to begun reading Bolano.

Danger rating: A bit like reading the obituaries – amusing and tedious by turns, but the final chapter has the power of suddenly coming across your own.


November 14, 2009


I’ve already written in my review of Distant Star about some of the reoccuring aspects of Bolano’s writing – the autobiographical characters, the almost obsessive focus on poetry and poets, and the background of Latin American violence – all of which are to be found in this equally short novel, Amulet. This time the setting is Mexico, and Bolano has chosen as a locus the suppression of student protests in 1968. This is literally the centre of the novel, the conceit of which is that the narrator, Auxilio Lacouture, becomes trapped in the toilets of the university during its occupation by the army and is therefore the only individual not to be removed from the campus. From this point, she views memories from both her past and future. Clearly this moment of captivity – where she is trapped or hiding rather than imprisoned – is important. As with Distant Star, much of the violence is kept in the background:

“I was at the university on the eighteenth of September when the army occupied the campus and went around arresting and killing indiscriminately. No. Not many people were killed at the university. That was in Tlatlelolco.”

In Tlatlelolco possibly hundreds of students were killed at a protest rally – the exact death toll has never been established. This is perhaps the “horror story” which Auxilio refers to while at the same time saying, “Told by me, it won’t seem like that.”

Though the novel is largely about the writers and artists in Mexico at that time, the vantage point from which the story is told creates a context that is emblematic of the oppression which has been frequently experienced in Latin America. Auxilio refers to it as:

“From my watchtower, my bloody subway carriage, from my gigantic rainy day.”

This collection of metaphors is a good example of the way Bolano resists schematic symbolism and instead achieves something more impressionistic. The turmoil in the continent is again apparent when Arturo Belano, another of those characters who seem to represent a facet of Bolano, decides in 1973 to return to Chile to take part in the revolution. When Arturo returns to Mexico he is a changed man, no longer “a shy seventeen-year-old who wrote poems and plays and couldn’t hold his liquor.” On behalf of a friend he confronts a local gangster, rescuing a young man in the process.

However, for the most part the heroism of the novel is the heroism of writers, continuing to write in the face of not only oppression, but poverty and obscurity. Auxilio calls herself more than once the “mother of Mexican poetry”, a reference both to her maternal relationship with the younger generation of writers and also a hint at the link between that poetry and the oppression she has witnessed. This link is not an obvious one – these poets do not write protest poems – it is the opposition of violence with aesthetics. We have a glimpse of this when Auxilio’s vision of the future is a list of dates relating to when writers will be read, forgotten or reincarnated. Even art is not the answer, however. Belano leaves Mexico for Europe and instead we are left with the artist Coffeen Serpas, a recluse, who draws “thin and sickly-looking” figures which his mother hawks around the bars.

The impressionistic nature of the novel makes it possible that Auxilio does not, in fact, survive her ordeal at the university, and that the novel is the hallucinatory vision resulting from her hunger. This would explain the constant returning to “the reflection of the waning moon on the tiles of the fourth-floor woman’s bathroom”, and the feeling she has of “being wheeled into an operating room” at one point. Her tiredness towards the end of the novel (“Not long afterwards I started sleeping a lot”) may well reflect approaching death. The novel certainly ends with a vision, one she has referred to earlier, “ an enormous uninhabited valley”, which she remember having dreamed about when trapped in the bathroom. Looking more closely she sees a shadow advancing from the other end of the valley,

“an interminable legion of young people on the march to somewhere…I don’t know if they were creatures of flesh and blood or ghosts.”

They are “walking unstoppably toward the abyss”, singing. They are simultaneously the massacred students of Tlatlelolco, the young poets she has mothered, and the “prettiest children of Latin America.” A novel, which at times has seemed to meander, has come to a powerful and moving conclusion.

Distant Star

October 22, 2009

distant star

When this translation was first published in 2004 (a year after his death), Roberto Bolano was largely unknown to an English-speaking audience; now, his two epic novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, are easily available in paperback, his back catalogue is being steadily brought into print, and he is being spoken of as “one of the greatest and most influential modern writers” (James Wood) and “the most influential and admired novelist of his generation in the Spanish-speaking world” (Susan Sontag). Which begs the question: what is all the fuss about? Distant Star may be an early novel (1996) but it is one in which aspects of his style are already apparent.

Firstly, he writes almost obsessively about writing, particularly poetry. Most of his characters are poets and they talk and think about poetry a lot – though not, as you might expect, about writing or reading it. Poetry, instead, becomes a way of identifying individuals and their loyalties. Here is a typical introduction to a character, Juan Stein, a poet who runs the narrator’s poetry workshop:

“Like most of the poets of his generation he was influenced by Nicanor Parra and Ernesto Cardinal, but also by Jorge Tellier’s home-grown imagism, although Stein recommended we read Lihn rather than Tellier.”

This discussion of what amounts to little more than Stein’s likes and dislikes goes on for two pages, mentioning twenty-one poets. Typically, no reasons are given why one poet might be regarded as superior to another, and poems or lines of poetry are rarely quoted in his work. We can assume that these are real writers as occasionally a more widely recognised name will appear; on the other hand, this may be naïve. This is a writer, after all, who frequently uses a pseudonymous character to represent himself (Arturo B, or sometimes just B). Perhaps, for those in a know, these lists do define a character, but they also have point to make for the general reader (and here ‘general’ means anyone without a Ph.D. in Latin American poetry): poetry is a serious matter in his novels, at least for the characters – it is a life choice and a lifestyle – something that no doubt reflects the turbulent political situation Bolano experienced in Chile where writing could lead to imprisonment, torture and death.

The poetry, then, is linked to the political background, with frequent references to the “doomed revolutions” of Latin America and elsewhere. However, unlike other Latin American writers Bolano does not seek to explain or understand the continent, but simply presents it. Here is a description of Stein again, making that connection:

“He didn’t tale part in the triumphal entry into Managua…. He was rumoured to be among the members of the commando that assassinated Somaza in Paraguay.”

Again, this is part of a longer passage describing Stein’s adventures around the continent and the globe. Again, there is no concession made to the reader. Far from distancing the reader, though, this surfeit of incidental information draws the reader in by creating two illusions: firstly, that these characters exist within a very real world that therefore contains many names we do not recognise; secondly, that, in fact, we do know these names and their meaning because why else would the narrator, in such a confidential tone, use them if we were not actually part of this world?

Distant Star provides a perfect example of the way in which Bolano links the political with the poetic, and does so in both directions. The novel is about the poet and pilot Carlos Wieder (known at the beginning as Alberto Ruiz-Tagle). When Wieder joins the narrator’s poetry workshop, he doesn’t quite fit in; worse still, he gains the affection of the Garmendia sisters, identical twins and “the undisputed stars of the poetry workshop.” He is “affable but distant”, and when a member of the workshop visits his flat he feels:

“…the flat seemed to have been prepared, its contents arranged for the eye of the imminent visitor.”

And so the first chapter goes on rather inconsequentially until the government falls and the arm seizes power. The group splits up with some, including the Garmendia sisters, leaving town. Wieder goes to visit them and stays the night. What happens next is genuinely shocking as Bolano suddenly brings the brutality of politics into the lives of these young poets.

In the second chapter Bolano reverses the procedure as poetry is married to political power, initially when Wieder, an air force pilot, sky-writes poems across the sky in his Messerschmitt 109 – surely deliberately reminding us of the links between South America and Nazi Germany. This “New Poetry” culminates in an exhibition in Wieder’s flat where he shows pictures of his victims:

“The women looked like mannequins, broken, dismembered mannequins…”

It is assumed this brings to an end his career in the air force, and from this point the novel is as much about the search for Wieder as the man himself. This includes attempting to track him by identifying his work in obscure literary magazines, and involves a retired policeman aided by the narrator – linking together literary analysis with detection.

The novel is not a coherent attack on Chile after Allende, nor is it about poetry, except perhaps that it works like poetry, creating powerful images that stay with you, resonant with meaning but remote from interpretation. The British writer Bolano most reminds me of is J. G. Ballard, creating his own worlds, each an echo of what has gone before. Bolano’s are more rooted in the life he lived, but have that same quality of visionary otherness: the kind of writing that demands not just attention, but acceptance.