“The Desperate Reader” — Roberto Bolaño

Joaquín Font, El Reposo Mental Health Clinic, Camino Desierto de los Leones, on the outskirts of Mexico City DF, January 1977.

There are books for when you’re bored. Plenty of them. There are books for when you’re calm. The best kind, in my opinion. There are also books for when you’re sad. And there are books for when you’re happy. There are books for when you’re thirsty for knowledge. And there are books for when you’re desperate. The latter are the kind of books Ulises Lima and Belano wanted to write. A serious mistake, as we’ll soon see. Let’s take, for example, an average reader, a cool-headed, mature, educated man leading a more or less healthy life. A man who buys books and literary magazines. So there you have him. This man can read things that are written for when you’re calm, but he can also read any other kind of book with a critical eye, dispassionately, without absurd or regrettable complicity. That’s how I see it. I hope I’m not offending anyone. Now let’s take the desperate reader, who is presumably the audience for the literature of desperation. What do we see? First: the reader is an adolescent or an immature adult, insecure, all nerves. He’s the kind of fucking   idiot (pardon my language) who committed suicide after reading Werther. Second: he’s a limited reader. Why limited? That’s easy: because he can only read the literature of desperation, or books for the desperate, which amounts to the same thing, the kind of person or freak who’s unable to read all the way through In Search of Lost Time, for example, or The Magic Mountain (a paradigm of calm, serene, complete literature, in my humble opinion), or for that matter, Les Misérables or War and Peace. Am I making myself clear? Good. So I talked to them, told them, warned them, alerted them to the dangers they were facing. It was like talking to a wall. Furthermore: desperate readers are like the California gold mines. Soon- er or later they’re exhausted! Why? It’s obvious! One can’t live one’s whole life in desperation. In the end the body rebels, the pain becomes unbearable, lucidity gushes out in great cold spurts. The desperate reader (and especially the desperate poetry reader, who is insuffer- able, believe me) ends up by turning away from books. Inevitably he ends up becoming just plain desperate. Or he’s cured! And then, as part of the regenerative process, he returns slowly—as if wrapped in swaddling cloths, as if under a rain of dissolved sedatives—he re- turns, as I was saying, to a literature written for cool, serene readers, with their heads set firmly on their shoulders. This is what’s called (by me, if nobody else) the passage from ad- olescence to adulthood. And by that I don’t mean that once someone has become a cool- headed reader he no longer reads books written for desperate readers. Of course he reads them! Especially if they’re good or decent or recommended by a friend. But ultimately, they bore him! Ultimately, that literature of resentment, full of sharp instruments and lynched messiahs, doesn’t pierce his heart the way a calm page, a carefully thought-out page, a technic- ally perfect page does. I told them so. I warned them. I showed them the technically perfect page. I alerted them to the dangers. Don’t exhaust the vein! Humility! Seek oneself, lose one- self in strange lands! But with a guiding line, with bread crumbs or white pebbles! And yet I was mad, driven mad by them, by my daughters, by Laura Damián, and so they didn’t listen.

From The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

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