Roberto Bolano, an Appreciation by Ron Kolm
So you’re a young poet, and you’ve just heard a pretty good reading at Gathering of Tribes on Third Street, and you had yourself a beer or two during the event, which you didn’t pay for because you’re broke and the amount of rent you pay for your East Village walk-up is exorbitant, but you mean well, you’re not a bad person; you’ll drop some extra change in the hat next time you come. And now you find yourself outside on the sidewalk with a gaggle of your friends, who are also poets, trying to decide which local watering hole you should all head for. Let’s say you end up at the Parkside Lounge on East Houston Street, watching your buddies shoot pool — all the while caging drinks from them; obviously you’re still without cash, and the best strategy here is to get one of the folks who’s better off at this moment to buy a pitcher – and you manage to pull that off – heck, maybe you can get him to buy two pitchers; it’s worth considering. And then your friends who have been shooting pool come back to the table; they’ve all lost to the regulars who have better chops, poolwise.
And now everyone crowds around the table, talking a little too loudly, and getting all excited as the conversation turns, as it always does, to ‘what are you reading? Who are your favorite authors? Who do you think will last?’ And all the usual names come up; Faulkner, Woolf, Joyce; because you and your gang all are college grads; hell, most of you took creative writing courses in school, and there’s even an MFA or two among the group. So someone says, “Umm, I don’t know, maybe Jonathan Franzen?” And everyone shrugs uneasily and looks down at their beers. And then someone else posits, “What about Johathan Safran Foer?” – followed by more uncomfortable shuffling around, as someone to your left replies, “Maybe not so much…”
And then you speak up, the beer making you bold: “Roberto Bolano; he’s the real thing! He’ll last!” And this is followed by a brief silence, some murmurs of assent, and then someone, and there’s always someone, asks, “Who’s that? Never heard of him.” And then you break into your Bolano routine.
“Ah,” you say, “He’s a Kerouac/Joyce smoothie! He was as smart as Joyce, and he travelled as widely and worked enough dead-beat jobs to rival Mister Kerouac!”
Roberto Bolano was born in Chile and then moved to Mexico with his family where he went to school. Supposedly he returned to Chile just before the dictator Pinochet managed, with CIA help, to oust the democratically elected president Salvador Allende. After the coup he was either locked-up with the soon to be disappeared, or not, and if he was he was freed by two of the guards who had gone to school with him; the New York Times now believes that this story is somewhat fabricated; a writerly attempt to control one’s own narrative and make it more interesting. Be that as it may, his story then shifts to Mexico City where he became a rather belligerent poet, badgering presses to publish his work, and the founder of a poetic movement, the Infrarrealismo, a group much like the Unbearables art/lit collective in New York City.
From Wikpedia: Bolaño moved to Europe in 1977, and finally made his way to Spain, where he married and settled on the Mediterranean coast near Barcelona, working as a dishwasher, campground custodian, bellhop, and garbage collector. He worked by day and wrote at night. From the early 1980s he lived in the small Catalan beach town of Blanes.
Bolano wrote poetry mostly until he found himself forced to support a family, at which point he switched to prose. His poetry has, so far, been collected in two books, Tres and The Romantic Dogs, both published by New Directions, and both translated by Laura Healy. The Romantic Dogs saw the light of day here first, and I like it much better than Tres; it simply seems like more of a piece – there is a flow from poem to poem that propels one through the book.
His fiction breaks down into two distinct clumps, each with its own publisher and translator. The Savage Detectives and 2666 (along with an earlier book, perhaps one of his first, The Third Reich) were all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and translated by Natasha Wimmer. These two books are the pillars upon which his reputation rests in the United States; and I guess there is some justification for that. (The Savage Detectives was a New York Times notable book and he got a National Book Award for 2666.)
Personally, I kind of enjoyed the rather longish journey through the bulk of The Savage Detectives; reading about the erratic day to day life of out-of-work poets and their couplings; and the ending really is terrific – but I don’t think the work as a whole is a truly great book – if I can dust off and use a word from the past; it has longueurs, stretches where not a whole lot happens, and that not a whole lot happening is not in the Samuel Beckett sense, where a whole lot not happening is actually weighty stuff (they are two very different writers, but I like them equally), there simply is not a lot going on.
2666 was originally supposed to be published as five separate novels; Roberto Bolano wanted his family to put out one volume a year so they would be taken care of financially after his passing (he knew the end of his life was approaching when he made this decision). After he died, his heirs figured it would make more sense to simply bundle the five ‘sections’ together and bring it out as one magnum opus. The critics seem to agree. The core of the book is the almost too numerous autopsies of the abducted and raped and murdered women of Ciudad Juárez. I read an article years ago in the New York Review of Books about Bolano’s relationship with a Mexican journalist who was trying to get to the bottom of who was behind not only the murders, but the inability of the government to bring anyone to justice for such heinous crimes. The article suggested that the autopsy reports are absolutely authentic and were fed to Roberto by this journalist, whose life was threatened for getting too close to the truth.
Roberto Bolano’s other novels, collections of short stories, and essays are all published by New Directions and translated, for the most part, by Chris Andrews. Among these books are By Night in Chile, Distant Star, Amulet, The Secret of Evil, Last Evenings on Earth, Nazi Literature in the Americas, The Skating Rink and The Return. Last Evenings would be the perfect place to start reading him; it’s probably the best short stories he wrote gathered together in one volume.
My favorites of the New Directions novels are the two short ones; By Night in Chile and Distant Star. By Night in Chile is a dying priest’s last ‘confession,’ and this priest is very much not Bolano – in the course of the book he is sent for by the dictator Pinochet to teach him Marxism! Distant Star is ‘about’ a group of poets, and what happens to them, particularly the women writers, when one of the males makes a deal with the Devil, so to speak, after the coup in Chile. This particular poet, Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, is also a pilot, and he sky-writes his poems in gothic text in the skies over Santiago. As I’m writing this it just now becomes clear to me how much Distant Star is linked with 2666. His oeuvre does break down very much by country; The Savage Detectives and 2666 take place in México, mostly, and By Night in Chile and Distant Star are set in his native country. Me, I like the Chilean ones better.
You take a deep breath, and another mouthful of suds, and lapse into a sort of reverie as you remember how much you enjoyed reading Distant Star, and figure that you might pull it off the bookshelf when you get home and give it another go round. You look up and see that almost all of your friends have left; the only person still hanging out has returned to the pool table to see if he can perhaps not lose, a notion that Bolano might have appreciated.