I used to think that the diagram* was everything I had to say about Roberto Bolaño. I was very careful when I drew it, three years ago. I had just finished reading 2666 and was completely overwhelmed by its force. I remember sitting at my wife’s desk, in her rat-smelling lab, thinking about a way of representing the Bolañian Universe. I tried lots of intricate geometrical shapes. After a while, however, I realized that—surprise!—it was just a triangle. How simple! The configuration had always been there, I could see it then, I almost had its vertices and rough proportions, and now I just had to find the way to fit the rest inside those three points. “Good!” I thought. I have always liked puzzles.
What unites all these novels is that they deal with the pain of parents failing their children and children without parents. With this in mind, Bolaño’s interests in By Night in Chile begin to look different. The story of one guilt-ridden priest bemoaning his part in Pinochet’s regime begins to look like the story of a man who realizes he has not only failed his country, but has also failed the generation of writers that follows him. As we begin to see the priest as a “father” who has failed his children, his miserable pain becomes the natural extension of this realization. The terror unleashed by the coup becomes something intimately related to art, politics, and parenting, a crucible for forging the parents who would groom the next generation of authors and citizens.
I first met Roberto Bolaño through Andersen Tepper in The Village Voice. It was back in 2006, I was in Tehran, and Bolaño, who was by then already dead and a ghost, was standing on the page with two other authors from Latin America, Martinez and Galeano. The meeting so excited me that I had a friend who was traveling to Tehran buy me their books and bring them to me, because as you might or might not know, in Iran there are no bookstores selling books of literature in foreign languages (except one or two that sometimes get orders), and you can’t go online on Amazon or any other site and order the books, because either you don’t have a credit card, or if you have one, sanctions and regulations might prevent you from using it in the country of the Axis of Evil, or even if you can pass through all these obstacles, there are still others.
Bolaño’s final, posthumously published novel, 2666, is dominated by the void. It most frequently manifests the void in the form of madness, madness that is often masked, as Bolaño puts it near the end, “under a suit of armor.” This is a book mad with madness: mad artists, mad writers, mad poets, mad professors, mad murderers, mad cops, mad prisoners. Its characters are not so much fully realized individuals as searchers single-mindedly in pursuit of that one thing that will, momentarily, sate their madness.
Monsieur Pain, precise and dramatic yet suffused with a dreamy suggestiveness, is a real discovery and a substantial addition to the growing Bolaño library in English. Many of Bolaño’s central themes appear: the hovering shadow of fascism, and its complicated relationships with art; conspiracies, cults, and secret societies; loneliness, illness, and exile; and the errant lives of men who think they are going to be artists but drift into mediocrity, eccentricity, or complicity with dictatorship.
The Skating Rink is a detective novel—the knife does get used—although it is one that continually shrinks from the duties of its genre. When the body is found, about two-thirds of the way through the book, it is not a climactic moment so much as a protracted, mundane affair suffused with more angst than tension. Moreover, there’s no detective in this book; the solving of the crime occurs vaguely in the background by some nameless authorities while the three men concern themselves not with justice with how being implicated in the incident affects their lives.
Reading The Romantic Dogs, it’s hard not to imagine that this is the poetry that is elided in the novels, the ghostly work that both drives and justifies the rackety lives recounted therein. The 43 poems collected in this slender bilingual volume are all unrhymed free verse, most of them set in short, even fragmented lines. Not unexpectedly, they reveal the influence of the Romantic movement as refurbished by the Beats, but at the same time they are idiosyncratic and individual, shot through with both a Borgesian cosmopolitanism—Bolaño’s locations and references span the globe—and a peculiar air of dread common to all of Bolaño’s work.
Amulet is a slim book, though that should not confuse it with “slight” or “minor.” It’s a major accomplishment, narrated by and the story of one of his greatest characters: a woman named Auxilio Lacouture, a Uruguayan living illegally in Mexico. She finds herself in the bathroom during the Mexican army’s occupation of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in the days preceding the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, the incident in which Mexican president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz brutally suppressed a growing student rebellion by ordering police to fire wildly into a large protest in Mexico City’s Plaza of Three Cultures.
Assuming the format of an Everyman’s dictionary of writers, Robert Bolaño’s novel Nazi Literature in the Americas, consists of a series of short profiles, 30 brief fictitious lives of pan-American fascist novelists and poets, depicted with such straightforward urbanity and good humor that one almost misses the sick joke behind the pretense. I’m reminded of the dark abuse that kneels beneath the dazzling surface of Nabokov’s Lolita.
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