Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction (Book Acquired, 07.24.2014)

So of course I’ve been eating up Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, a new critical study by Bolaño’s translator Chris Andrews. I’ve read the introduction and the first three chapters so far, and the study, far from being dry and academic, compels me to dig deeper.

The book really starts with the second chapter, with Andrews simply trying to situate Bolaño-as-publishing-phenomenon in the first chapter. The introduction—which you can read at publisher Columbia UP’s site—offers a clear overview of what Andrews aims to do.

Andrews writes that:

…the interconnected series of narratives that begins with Nazi Literatures in the Americas (originally published in 1996) and ends with the stories that appeared posthumously in The Secret of Evil … can be regarded as forming a single, openly structured edifice whose two sustaining pillars are The Savage Detectives and 2666, and for which Woes of the True Policeman served as a preparatory model.

Andrews’s description recalls Javier Moreno’s geometry of Bolaño’s fictions:


This model has greatly influenced my own reading of Bolaño over the years, leading to my conceptualization of Bolaño’s later work existing in a self-creating, self-deconstructing Bolañoverse.

Andrews’s description of the Bolañoverse (he doesn’t use the term):

Bolaño expanded or “exploded” his own published texts, blowing them up by adding new characters and episodes as well as circumstantial details. He also allowed characters to circulate or migrate from text to text, sometimes altering their names and properties. Within his novels and stories, he inclded representations of imagined texts and artworks, that is, metarepresentations. Finally, some of his characters and narrators are over-interpreters: they seize on details, invest them with significance, and invent stories to connect and explain them. 

More to come; for now, the publisher’s blurb:

Since the publication of The Savage Detectives in 2007, the work of Roberto Bolaño (1953–2003) has achieved an acclaim rarely enjoyed by literature in translation. Chris Andrews, a leading translator of Bolaño’s work into English, explores the singular achievements of the author’s oeuvre, engaging with its distinct style and key thematic concerns, incorporating his novels and stories into the larger history of Latin American and global literary fiction.

Andrews provides new readings and interpretations of Bolaño’s novels, including 2666, The Savage Detectives, and By Night in Chile, while at the same time examining the ideas and narrative strategies that unify his work. He begins with a consideration of the reception of Bolaño’s fiction in English translation, examining the reasons behind its popularity. Subsequent chapters explore aspects of Bolaño’s fictional universe and the political, ethical, and aesthetic values that shape it. Bolaño emerges as the inventor of a prodigiously effective “fiction-making system,” a subtle handler of suspense, a chronicler of aimlessness, a celebrator of courage, an anatomist of evil, and a proponent of youthful openness. Written in a clear and engaging style, Roberto Bolano’s Fiction offers an invaluable understanding of one of the most important authors of the last thirty years.

“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

“We Never Saw the Shooters” — A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s Novel The Savage Detectives

A late passage from our favorite section of Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives–

It was then, when there was nothing left to do, when we had already written and photographed everything imaginable, that someone proposed that a few of us take a trip to the interior. Most, of course, turned down the offer. A Frenchman from Paris Match accepted. So did an Italian from Reuters, and me. The trip was organized by one of the guys who worked in the kitchen at the Center and who, besides making a few bucks, wanted to have a look at his town, which he hadn’t been back to in six months, even though it was only fifteen or twenty miles from Monrovia. During the trip (we were in a dilapidated Chevy driven by a friend of the cook, armed with an assault rifle and two grenades) the cook told us that he was ethnic Mano and his wife was ethnic Gio, friends of the Mandingo (the driver was Mandingo) and enemies of the Krahn, whom he accused of being cannibals, and that he didn’t know whether his family was dead or alive. Shit, said the Frenchman, we should go back. But we were already halfway there and the Italian and I were happy, using up the last of our film.
And so, without crossing a single checkpoint, we passed through the town of Summers and the hamlet of Thomas Creek, the Saint Paul River occasionally appearing to our left and other times lost from sight. The road was bad. At times it ran through the forest, what may have been old rubber plantations, and at times along the plain. From the plain one could guess at more than see the gently sloping hills rising in the south. Only once did we cross a river, a tributary of the Saint Paul, over a wooden bridge in perfect condition, and the only thing presenting itself to the camera’s eye was nature, nothing I would call lush, or even exotic, so I don’t know why it reminded me of a trip I made as a boy to Corrientes, but I even said as much, I said to Luigi: this looks like Argentina, saying it in French, which was the language in which the three of us communicated, and the guy from Paris Match looked at me and said that he hoped it only looked like Argentina, which frankly disconcerted me, because I wasn’t even talking to him, was I? and what did he mean? that Argentina was even wilder and more dangerous than Liberia? that if the Liberians were Argentinians we would’ve been dead by now? I don’t know. In any case his remark completely broke the spell for me and I would have liked to have it out with him then and there, but I know from experience that kind of argument gets you nowhere, and anyway the Frenchman was already annoyed by our majority decision not to go back and he had to let off steam somehow, not being satisfied by his constant grumbling about the poor black guys who just wanted to make a few dollars and see their families again. So I pretended not to have heard him, although mentally I wished him a monkey fucking, and I kept talking to Luigi, explaining things that until that moment I thought I’d forgotten, I don’t know, the names of the trees, for example, which to me looked like the old Corrientes trees and had the same names as the Corrientes trees, although they obviously weren’t the Corrientes trees. And I guess my enthusiasm made me seem brilliant, or in any case much more brilliant than I am, and even funny, to judge by Luigi’s laughter and the occasional laughter of our companions, and it was in an atmosphere of relaxed camaraderie, excluding the Frenchman Jean-Pierre, of course, who was increasingly sulky, that we left behind those ever so Corrienteslike trees and entered a treeless stretch, only brush, bushes that were somehow sickly, and a silence split from time to time by the call of a solitary bird, a bird that called and called and received no answer, and then we started to get nervous, Luigi and I, but by then we were too close to our goal to turn back, and we kept going.
The shots began soon after the village came into sight. It all happened very fast. We never saw the shooters and the firing didn’t last longer than a minute, but by the time we came around the bend and were in Black Creek proper, my friend Luigi was dead and the arm of the guy who worked at the center was bleeding and he was whimpering quietly, crouched under the passenger seat.
We too had automatically dropped to the floor of the Chevy.
Continue reading ““We Never Saw the Shooters” — A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s Novel The Savage Detectives”

“Twain Is the Day, Melville the Night” — Roberto Bolaño on U.S. Writers

The following excerpt comes from Raul Schenardi’s 2003 interview with Roberto Bolaño, conducted at the Turin Book Fair just months before the author’s death. The interview is written in Italian (although I’m not sure if it was conducted in Italian). The translation work is the result of two programs (Google Translate and Babel Fish) and a few dictionaries; I also used this Spanish translation as a second source for comparison.

. . .  in all Latin American writers is an influence that comes from two main lines of the American novel, Melville and Twain. [The Savage] Detectives no doubt owes much to Mark Twain. Belano and Lima are a transposition of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. It’s a novel that follows the constant movement of the Mississippi. . . . I also read a lot of Melville, which fascinates me. Indeed, I flirt with the belief that I have a greater debt to Melville than Twain, but unfortunately I owe more to Mark Twain. Melville is an apocalyptic author. Twain is the day, Melville  the night — and always much more impressive at night. In regard to modern American literature, I know it poorly. I know just up to the generation previous to Bellow. I have read enough of Updike, but do not know why; surely it was a masochistic act, as each page Updike brings me to the edge of hysteria. Mailer I like better than Updike, but I think as a writer, a prose writer, Updike is more solid. The last American writers I’ve read thoroughly and I know well are those of the “Lost Generation,” Hemingway, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolff.

The Savage Detectives — Roberto Bolaño


I give up. I don’t know how to review The Savage Detectives.

Everyone told me I was supposed to love this book, but I didn’t. There, that’s a review. Not a good review, but there. I can’t remember a book ever taking me so long to finish or a book that I put down so often. When I truly love a book, I am moved. Often physically. Sometimes I have to stand up to read a book, I’m so moved. That’s a good book. (I never had to stand up during The Savage Detectives, although I often had to force myself to read thoroughly and not just skim). When I truly love a book, I’m a little sad and deflated when it’s over. I know a book is great if I’m compelled to go back and immediately reread sections. (Again, with Detectives, this didn’t happen). But it looks like I’m trashing the book. I shouldn’t. It has a lot going for it.

I read the first 140 pages, the journal entries of young Garcia Madero, in a blur. Funny and passionate, Madero’s voice explodes with the immediacy and intensity of youth. He joins up with the visceral realists, a group of anti-establishment poets (who no one cares about). Led by two enigmatic outsiders, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the visceral realists gripe about the state of Mexican and Latin American literature, screw around, and argue with each other (no one else will listen to them). Madero paints Mexico City in the mid-1970s as vibrant, a place full of poetry and art. He becomes a biblioklept, God bless him (yet he ethically agrees not to steal from a poor old blind bookseller). He writes poems. He has sex. He runs away from home, sort of. There’s a breathless energy to Madero’s narrative that makes the book hard to put down, and the first section of The Savage Detectives, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico” culminates in one of the book’s most exciting events. Madero, Lima, and Belano help a young girl named Lupe escape from her belligerent pimp. Then, that portion of the story unresolved, the narrative shifts dramatically.

In the second section, “The Savage Detectives,” we are treated to, or subjected to, or made to endure, or made to navigate–pick your verb, please–over 450 pages of (one-sided) interviews spanning 20 years. Some of the interviewees appear consistently throughout this section, like Amadeo Salvatierra, who helps Lima and Belano in their quest to find the lost original visceral realist, Cesárea Tinajero. Other voices only pop up once to tell a weird story about Lima or Belano–or more accurately, a weird story about themselves with Lima or Belano playing bit parts. Some of these stories, like Lima’s strange time in a Tel Aviv prison, or Belano’s tenure as a national park guard in France are great; other times they are painfully tedious or repetitive (you know, like real life).

Technically, The Savage Detectives is quite an achievement. The myriad stories in the book’s main section represent the fragmented narratives that might compose a person’s life–a series of perspectives that others have about us, views that can never add up to a unified truth. The bulk of these stories are very much about poetry, art, and travel. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Detectives is a peripatetic novel, full of specific locations and very, very explicit directions (Joyce famously claimed that were Dublin destroyed in a catastrophe, it could be rebuilt based on his novel; the same seems true for Bolaño’s Mexico City). Also like Ulysses, Detectives is an epic about the banal, ordinary things that fill our lives: jobs and eating and getting to places and having one’s friendships sour and being disappointed and so on. Lots and lots of “and so on.” This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of heroism and adventure–saving kids from satanic caves, stow-away sea voyages, and dodging bullets from Liberian rebels make for interesting narrative peaks. However, most of the novel remains rooted in a realism that is often dreadfully visceral in its painstaking replication of just how depressing a life could be. As the seventies and eighties turn into the nineties, things get more bleak and more depressing for Lima and Belano. And it all adds up to an incomplete picture (literally; check out the last page of the book if you don’t believe me).


By the time we return to Madero’s journals in the third and final part of the novel, “The Sonora Desert,” the sadness and deflation of the previous section infects and tints every aspect of the narrative. Lima and Belano, with Madero and Lupe in tow, search desperately for the forgotten poet Cesárea Tinajero. Their search works as a pitiful parallel to “The Savage Detectives” section, a comment on the elusive nature of identity, and the strange disappointments that punctuate our expectations. Even the novel’s climactic ending seems understated after the monolithic middle section. And while this deflationary technique is undoubtedly a carefully considered conceit on Bolaño’s part, the payoff for the reader–this reader anyway–did not merit the effort and concentration that the book required. Or, to put it another way, after hours of time invested, I was unmoved.

As rave reviews of the English translation of his last novel 2666 begin seeping out of the critical woodwork (this month’s Harper’s has devoted a full four pages to the book), it seems that Bolaño will top most critics’ lists again this year. At over 900 pages and reportedly full of grim, bleak violence, it’s hard to imagine 2666 will be any easier to get through, and as FS&G summarily ignored our requests for a review copy, there’s no pressing obligation, I suppose. The critical praise heaped on 2666 this year will surely lead interested readers to The Savage Detectives. I think Mark Twain’s infamous note at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would provide the best warning to these potential readers: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” While no serious critic could dismiss Bolaño’s lyrical skill and complex control of the many voices that populate Detectives, I think a number of readers–serious readers–would not be wrong for considering the tome a bit overrated.