A riff on my favorite ghost story, Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return”

Roberto Bolaño’s short story “The Return” is so good that it has two perfect opening paragraphs:

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 Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.

That’s a hell of a way to start a story! Bolaño lays out his two themes—the afterlife and necrophilia—in a jovial, almost cavalier, but dare I say sweet, even charming way. And then this paragraph:

Death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning. My doctor had warned me, but some things are stronger than reason. I was convinced, mistakenly (and even now it’s something I regret), that drinking and dancing were not the most hazardous of my passions. Another reason I kept going out every night to the fashionable places in Paris was my routine as a middle manager at Fracsa; I was after what I couldn’t find at work or in what people call the inner life: the buzz that you get from a certain excess.

Those are the first two paragraphs, and maybe they’ll entice you to read the story. However, the following riff includes what some people might consider spoilers; my hope is that if you’ve never read it before, you’ll take it on faith that “The Return” is a great, great story and you’ll go read it and stop reading this riff now. (Maybe come back later though after you’ve read it).

“The Return” is a ghost story that transmutes the horror of death and the abjection of the corpse into love, empathy, and communication—and art. It’s a beautiful ghost tale in the Romantic, Gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, from whom Bolaño drew heavily. However, while Poe’s tales of necrophilia (like the poem “Annabel Lee,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Berenice” to name just a few) obsess over repression, loss, burial, and imperfect and violent attempts at restoration, Bolaño’s “The Return” offers its readers a peaceful reconciliation with death. It’s collected in The Return (New Directions, English translation by Chris Andrews), which is a perfect introduction to Bolaño—so many great stories there (“Buba,” “Clara,” “William Burns,” etc.). So go read it.

Continue reading “A riff on my favorite ghost story, Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return””

“July Stories” — Roberto Bolaño

July has been a strange month. The other day I went to the beach and I saw a woman of about thirty, pretty, wearing a black bikini, who was reading standing up. At first I thought she was about to lie down on her towel, but when I looked again she was still standing, and after that I didn’t take my eyes off her. For two hours, more or less, she read standing up, walked over to the water, didn’t go in, let the waves lap her shins, went back to her spot, kept reading, occasionally put the book down while still standing, leaned over a few times and took a big bottle of Pepsi out of a bag and drank, then picked up the book again, and, finally, without ever bending a knee, put her things away and left. Earlier the same day, I saw three girls, all in thongs, gorgeous, one of them had a tattoo on one buttock, they were having a lively conversation, and every once in a while they got in the water and swam and then they would lie down again on their mats, basically a completely normal scene, until all of a sudden, a cell phone rang, I heard it and thought it was mine until I realized it had been a while since I had a cell phone, and then I knew the phone belonged to one of them. I heard them talking. All I can say is that they weren’t speaking Catalan or Spanish. But they sounded deadly serious. Then I watched two of them get up, like zombies, and walk toward some rocks. I got up too and pretended to brush the sand off my trunks. On the rocks, I watched them talk to a huge, hideously ugly man covered in hair, in fact one of the hairiest men I’ve ever seen in my life. They knelt before him and listened attentively without saying a word, and then they went back to where their friend was waiting for them and everything went on as before, as if nothing had happened. Who are these women? I asked myself once it was dark and I had showered and dressed. One drank Pepsi. The others bowed down to a bear. I know who they are. But I don’t really know.

From Roberto Bolaño’s Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

[Editorial note: Today is Roberto Bolaño’s birthday–he would’ve turned 62. The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of his masterpiece 2666. To be clear, I am a huge fan of 2666—I’ve written about it extensively on this site. But I never posted a review on Amazon. More one-star Amazon reviews.].





No Point.

No Story.

No characters.

This is not a story.

Felt it was too dark.

endless culs-de-sac

There is no premise

Numbing dumbness.

As a Literature major,

incoherent and rambling

Disconnected and tedious.

The joke is on me, I guess.

written in a type of journalese

this novel (if it can be called that)

an obtuse novel with no real point.

I would rather stick forks in my eyes

stilted, awkward, and difficult to read

I would prefer to be boiled alive in oil.

900 pages of words that mean nothing.

multiple pages are spent describing dreams

delivers little if any enjoyment to the reader.

900 pages of distinctly non-literary masochism

I hated the spewing of authors I’d never heard of.

The writing or words are geared towards intellectuals.

Imagine this: you’re dreaming a dream that never ends.

it’s one of those pretentious books for pretentious people

a sprawling, formless, utterly pretentious bloated drudge

bloated streams of consciousness which negate themselves

no subtle meassage that is worthy of discussion or thought

I can see how this might have been written by a very ill man.

boring, repetitive, pointless, misogynistic, indulgent blather

I’ve never experienced a book which was so devoid of reward.

little or no substance in terms of an overall message or theme

a pointless study of odd obsessions and the meaningless of life

On xx date, the body of xxx was found, mutilated in the dumps.

I spent most of my time looking up defintions to 100’s of words.

this book is a GRUESOME and HORRIFICALLY VIOLENT book.

Bolano could not care less what the general public thinks of his book

has little of note to say about the meaning of life or the human condition

I am hard pressed to believe that the other reviewers even read this book.

The largest section of the book is basically 300+ pages of autopsy reports.

You will read the words “vaginally and anally raped” over and over and over

This book would make a great table leg, coaster, or booster seat for a small child. Continue reading “Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666”

Roberto Bolaño’s manuscript map for his novel The Third Reich



“Rain” — Roberto Bolaño

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

All of this is basically reading around/between/over Gravity’s Rainbow:

Rereading Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas again. (I reviewed it here on this blog over five goddamn years ago). I want to read 2666 (yet) again, so this is…I don’t know…a staving off against that urge?

Yuri Herrera’s excellent novella Signs Preceding the End of the World also makes me want to read 2666. You should read this book (Signs, but also 2666). I will write a Full Goddamn Review—but excellent. Get it from And Other Stories.

Reading GR interspersed with short (often very short) stories from the collection Africa 39—two hits, a miss, and a shrug so far. More thoughts to come.

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis. Like a palate cleanser. Wait. Not the right term. I mean, like, a sorbet—tasteful, tasty, snappy, bright. There are some longer pieces at the end, I see, that I will not get to for awhile. More to come—but let’s get real, you either like what Davis does or you don’t and your indifference, like all indifference, is uninteresting, but not boring or damning, let alone an indictment of your beautiful character. Chill.

David Winters’s collection Infinite Fictions. Damn him! Not really. This book is great—the book I wish that I had written.

I have tried and failed to write about Jason Schwartz’s first book A German Picturesque four goddamn times now.

I don’t think I will even try to write about Gravity’s Rainbow. (Unless I do try).

Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp (Book acquired, 12.04.2014)


Bolaño’s Antwerp. Found it today at the bookstore. I was there picking up a book I’d ordered as a present for someone else. Honest.
Antwerp is Bolaño’s first novel and it’s not particularly great, but I didn’t own it up until now, and I guess I’m a completist nerd, and this New Directions clothbound edition is beautiful, so…

“Self-Portrait” — Roberto Bolaño


“Titian Paints a Sick Man” — Roberto Bolaño

“Titian Paints a Sick Man”


Roberto Bolaño

At the Uffizi, in Florence, is this odd painting by Titian. For a while, no one knew who the artist was. First the work was attributed to Leonardo and then to Sebastiano del Piombo. Though there’s still no absolute proof, today the critics are inclined to credit it to Titian. In the painting we see a man, still young, with long dark curly hair and a beard and mustache perhaps slightly tinged with red, who, as he poses, gazes off toward the right, probably toward a window that we can’t see, but still a window that somehow one imagines is closed, yet with curtains open or parted enough to allow a yellow light to filter into the room, a light that in time will become indistinguishable from the varnish on the painting.


The young man’s face is beautiful and deeply thoughtful. He’s looking toward the window, if he’s looking anywhere, though probably all he sees is what’s happening inside his head. But he’s not contemplating escape. Perhaps Titian told him to turn like that, to turn his face into the light, and the young man is simply obeying him. At the same time, one might say that all the time in the world stretches out before him. By this I don’t mean that the young man thinks he’s immortal. On the contrary. The young man knows that life renews itself and that the art of renewal is often death. Intelligence is visible in his face and his eyes, and his lips are turned down in an expression of sadness, or maybe it’s something else, maybe apathy, none of which excludes the possibility that at some point he might feel himself to be master of all the time in the world, because true as it is that man is a creature of time, theoretically (or artistically, if I can put it that way) time is also a creature of man.


In fact, in this painting, time — sketched in invisible strokes — is a kitten perched on the young man’s hands, his gloved hands, or rather his gloved right hand which rests on a book: and this right hand is the perfect measure of the sick man, more than his coat with a fur collar, more than his loose shirt, perhaps of silk, more than his pose for the painter and for posterity (or fragile memory), which the book promises or sells. I don’t know where his left hand is.

How would a medieval painter have painted this sick man? How would a non-figurative artist of the twentieth century have painted this sick man? Probably howling or wailing in fear. Judged under the eye of an incomprehensible God or trapped in the labyrinth of an incomprehensible society. But Titian gives him to us, the spectators of the future, clothed in the garb of compassion and understanding. That young man might be God or he might be me. The laughter of a few drunks might be my laughter or my poem. That sweet Virgin is my friend. That sad-faced Virgin is the long march of my people. The boy who runs with his eyes closed through a lonely garden is us.

From Between Parentheses.

Reviving Álvaro Mutis, Who Died One Year Ago Today


The Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis died one year ago today.

Mutis wasn’t on my radar until a few years ago, when a friend of mine, Dave Cianci, urged me to read the author’s opus, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, a collection of seven novellas that speak to each other in a loose, rich, intertextual poetics of adventure, romance, and loss. My friend Cianci was so enthusiastic about the book that he reviewed it for this blog (the review convinced me to read it). I’ll crib from that review:

The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is difficult to categorize. It’s an outlaw adventure story populated by men and women who live where and how they must; these are the people who work near shipyards and the banks of unexplored river tributaries, people who value candor and honesty but for whom strict adherence to the law is often inconvenient. The book is a philosophical rumination on friendship and creation, romance and deception, obstinance and poverty.

Later in his review, Cianci characterizes the titular Maqroll—the Gaviero, the “lookout” —as “who we all dream of being when we contemplate throwing everything away.” In one of my own pieces on Maqroll, I described the world that Mutis offers, part fantasy, part nightmare, as

a life of picaresque adventures (and titular misadventures), of loss and gain, of love and despair, drinking, sailing, scheming and plotting—a life full of allusions and hints and digressions. Mutis’s technique is marvelous (literally; he made this reader marvel): he gives us an aging (anti-)hero, a hero whose life is overstuffed with stories and mishaps and feats and enterprises and hazards; he gives us one strand of that life at a time in each novella—but then he points to the other adventures, the other serials of Maqroll that we would love to tune into if only we could.


John Updike explained the attraction to Mutis and Maqroll in his 2003 New Yorker review of NYRB’s Maqroll collection:

The problem of energy, in this enervated postmodern era, keeps arising in Mutis’s pursuit of a footloose, offhandedly erudite, inexplicably attractive shady character. A lowly seaman with some high-flying acquaintances on land, Maqroll is a drifter who tends to lose interest in his adventures before the dénouement is reached. Readers even slightly acquainted with Latin-American modernism will hear echoes of Borges’s cosmic portentousness, of Julio Cortázar’s fragmenting ingenuities, of Machado De Assis’s crisp pessimism, and of the something perversely hearty in Mutis’s fellow-Colombian and good friend Gabriel García Márquez—a sense of genial amplitude, as when a ceremonious host sits us down to a lunch provisioned to stretch into evening. Descriptions of food consumed and of drinks drunk, amid flourishes of cosmopolitan connoisseurship, are frequent in Mutis, even as the ascetic Maqroll goes hungry. North Americans may be reminded of Melville—more a matter, perhaps, of affinity than of influence.

Updike’s review is one of the only prominent and long English-language pieces about Álvaro Mutis that I’ve come across. There’s a good 2001 interview with Mutis in Bomb by Francisco Goldman (who wrote the NYRB edition’s introduction), and a few translated poems of Mutis’s can be found online, but on the whole, despite accolades throughout the Spanish-reading world, his reputation among English-readers seems relegated to “friend of Gabriel Garcia Marquez” (who called Mutis “one of the greatest writers of our time”).

Álvaro Mutis deserves a bigger English-reading audience. NYRB’s collection of his novellas in Edith Grossman’s translation bristles with energy. At once accessible and confounding, these tales that ask us to read them again, like Borges’s puzzles Bolaño’s labyrinths.

Is it tactless to name Bolaño here? Maybe—he’s perhaps too-easy an example: A Spanish-language author whose readership radically expanded after his death. Anyone who follows literary trends (ach!) will see how quickly a writer’s currency elevates after his or her death. (Ach! again). But I think that Mutis should attract fans of Bolaño, whose currency still spends (and will spend in the future, I think). Another comparison I would like to be able to make though would be John Williams’s sad novel Stoner, which, as any one who follows literary trends (ach!) could tell you became an unexpected best seller last yearStoner—also published by the good people at NYRB—had to wait half a century to get its due. I don’t see why the English-reading world should wait that long to embrace Mutis.

Read Roberto Bolaño’s short story “William Burns”

Untitled (Two Dogs Fighting), Bill Traylor

I could no longer hold out on reading Roberto Bolaño’s collection The Return. I’ve been saving the book for two years now, but reading Chris Andrews’s new study Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe prompted me to dive in the other night. (I also maybe abandoned Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, which nags at me like a duty, a chore, and not a joy). 

I had, of course, read a few of the stories collected in The Return over the years (and shared them on this site); they were published by The New Yorker, including one of my favorites, “William Burns,” (translated, like all the stories in The Return, by Andrews. 

“William Burns” is one of Bolaño’s rare stories set in the U.S. It’s about a “laid-back guy who never lost his cool,” a private investigator hired to protect two women who believe they are being stalked by a killer. The story is suffused with sinister malice that burns into fated violence, made all the more ominous by the Bolaño’s typically atypical moments of banality. (The story reads almost as Bolaño’s riff on Raymond Carver). 

Anyway, a favorite passage; read the whole thing here:

If I were a dog, I thought resentfully, these women would show me a bit more consideration. Later, after I realized that none of us were feeling sleepy, they started talking about children, and their voices made my heart recoil. I have seen terrible, evil things, sights to make a hard man flinch, but, listening to the women that night, my heart recoiled so violently it almost disappeared. I tried to butt in, I tried to find out if they were recalling scenes from childhood or talking about real children in the present, but I couldn’t. My throat felt as if it were packed with bandages and cotton swabs.