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.

So but and anyway: a close reading continued for those inclined.

Our narrator is a ghost, a man who died on the dance floor. Bolaño’s next move is so ridiculous that it almost seems unbelievable at first:

Like just about everyone else, I went to see Ghost, I don’t know if you remember it, a box office hit, with Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, the one where Patrick Swayze gets killed and his body is left lying on a Manhattan street, or in an alley, maybe, on a dirty pavement anyway, while in a special-effects extravaganza (they were special for the time, anyway) his soul comes out of his body and stares at it in astonishment. Well, apart from the special effects, I thought it was idiotic. A typical Hollywood cop-out, inane and unbelievable.

But when my turn came, that’s exactly what happened.

The narrator is quick to accept the conceit—he’s quick to accept a lot in this story. He concedes of Hollywood artifice that there’s “more to American naiveté than meets the eye; it can hide something that we Europeans can’t or don’t want to understand.” This acceptance quickly turns into a new affect: strange joy: “Once I was dead, I felt like bursting out laughing.” (Forgive me, but it’s impossible for me not to note that “The Return” was composed very late in Bolaño’s too-short life, that its composition strikes me as a kind of love letter to his audience, more than a consolation prize: a gift).

Our ghost-narrator, not quite sure what to do, follows his corpse to the morgue: “What a paltry thing it seemed, my body or my ex-body (I’m not sure how to put it), confronted with the labyrinthine bureaucracy of death.” The labyrinthine bureaucracy of death!

The (metaphysical) narrator then starts to reflect on metaphysical matters:

The feeling of dizziness gradually abated, although at one point I got to thinking about heaven and hell, reward and punishment, and I had a panic attack, but that bout of irrational fear was soon over. And, in fact, I was starting to feel better.

Bolaño’s narrator quickly overcomes a religious tradition of “irrational fear” and guilt; here, death–by which I mean ghosthood—is life anew. In his new life|death, the narrator comes to understand the “insomnia and pervasive insecurity” (note here the language of Poe) he once felt over his “being a toy (or less than a toy) for [his lover] Cécile.” The ghost-narrator can find a certain grace in his one-time desire to be desired, his desire for solidity.

So. The plot, yes? Well, Bolaño’s already announced his theme of necrophilia, yes? How do we get there?

Two orderlies from the morgue sneak the body away, transporting it to the most beautiful house (mansion!) that the narrator has ever seen. The orderlies are described variously as hipsters, poseurs, and (significantly) “pseudo-artists.” Despite employing these terms, the narrator is ultimately sympathetic to the orderlies. (As an aside, I can’t help reading the two as figurations of those romantic dogs Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, strivers, would-be greats, youth).

The orderlies deliver the body to a famous fashion designer, Jean-Claude Villeneuve. And:

I didn’t know what his intentions were—I’ve always been an innocent. If I’d known, I would have been nervous. But I didn’t, so I sat down in one of the comfortable leather armchairs in the room and waited.

Our narrator is again identified with innocence and naïveté (one senses that it preceded his rebirth)—but Bolaño lets his tale play out in an unexpected way. The abjection that follows doesn’t corrupt innocence; rather, it allows for empathetic communication.

But, reader, thou art forewarned—Bolaño literalizes the necrophilia that is merely metaphorical in Poe:

…after a quarter of an hour of cuddling in the semi-darkness I noticed that he had an erection. My god, I thought, now he’s going to sodomize me. But that’s not what happened. To my surprise, the designer rubbed himself against one of my thighs till he came. I would have liked to shut my eyes at that point but I couldn’t. My reactions were contradictory; I felt disgusted by what I was seeing, grateful for not having been sodomized, surprised to discover Villeneuve’s secret, angry at the orderlies for having rented out my body, and even flattered to have served, unwillingly, as an object of desire for one of the most famous men in France.

What a paragraph!—shocking, humorous, human. 

Our narrator immediately judges the taboo-breaking that has occurred as abject: “You should be ashamed, I said.”

But then something supernatural happens—the designer responds to the ghost.

I knew at once that he had heard me. It seemed like a miracle. Suddenly I felt so happy that I forgave him his act of depravity.

Human recognition—contact—becomes a “miracle” here (recalling the word “grace” from before), transmuting abject depravity into radical forgiveness. And then the narrator declares aloud:

It’s not a problem, I said in a conciliatory tone, You’re forgiven.

These are the words so many of us long to hear—but maybe most of all we wish to hear them when we are most wrapped up in our private abject sins. It’s as if Bolaño here absolves all the mad aesthetes of the Gothic tradition in one empathetic quip.

But of course, our necrophiliac-designer must worry that he’s going mad, mustn’t he? He searches for speakers, bugs—any physical explanation for that metaphysical voice. Again, our narrator is empathetic; again the language here points to Poe, but also to a reversal of Poe’s abject pain:

From experience I know that trying to wrench yourself out of a nightmare is futile and simply adds pain to pain or terror to terror.

The narrator then sets about proving that he’s real (or if not “real,” then at least that the narrator isn’t insane) by describing the various beautiful objects in the designer’s home. Aesthetic sensation confirms shared perception.

This tour of proof concludes in the style of Poe, in a tomb-space, all aesthetic objects removed, like something from “Usher”:

…we came to a little room, covered inside with a layer of cement, in which there was nothing, not one piece of furniture, not a single light, and we shut ourselves in that room, in the dark. An embarrassing situation, on the face of it, but for me it was like a second or a third birth; that is, it was like hope beginning and with it the desperate awareness of hope.

The abject embarrassment of the human body in close contact with a stranger is converted into rebirth and hope.

As the story ends, the fake-artist orderlies arrive in the morning to retrieve the narrator’s corpse. He realizes that he could continue haunting his body, but makes the choice to let it go:

But I mustn’t give in to sentimentality, I thought, and when the orderlies’ car left the garden and vanished down that elegant, tree-lined street, I didn’t feel the slightest twinge of nostalgia or sadness or melancholy.

In accepting the loss of his body without “nostalgia or sadness or melancholy,” our narrator affirms his new life.

The tale concludes with the narrator returning to the designer’s living room to discover that the man has been talking aloud—to the narrator, whom he believed was still with him. The story ends with this beautiful line:

I let him go on talking as long as he liked.

Reconciliation and acceptance rule in the end. Bolaño turns Gothic horror and abject pain into human empathy here.

Am I reading too much into the tale if I find in it a declaration of Bolaño’s acceptance of his own impending death? Perhaps. In any case, those who’ve formed an opinion of the man’s work based solely on the grisly reputation of 2666 would do well to check out “The Return.”

[Ed. note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in October of 2015].

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