Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction reviewed in the The New Yorker 

There’s an interesting review of Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous novel The Spirit of Science Fiction in the The New Yorker  The review’s author, editor and translator Valerie Miles, read Bolaño’s novel through/against the work of the American Beats—William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, specifically. From Miles’ review:

From 2008 to 2014, during the charged emergence of Bolaño in translation, I worked behind the scenes with the writer’s estate, reading through roughly fourteen thousand six hundred papers in his archive and helping to prepare his posthumous work. Bolaño, it should be said, saved everything. His archive includes notebooks, diaries, letters, magazines, war games, postcards, photos, typescripts, newspaper clippings, and an extensive library. (“I even found one of those paper napkins from a bar in Mexico,” his widow, Carolina López, has said, at a press conference.) The wealth of material makes it easy to locate Bolaño’s fixations at a given time, and much of my efforts involved establishing a chronology of when his work was written—a chronology that became a central part of the first exhibition dedicated to his papers, which I curated together with the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, in 2013.

That chronology also shed light on just how much “The Spirit of Science Fiction” was informed by poetry, and specifically by Bolaño’s reading of the Beats. In 1978, around the time Bolaño first began writing fiction in earnest, he wrote in his diary, “I write verses, dream of a novel.” During that time, he read William S. Burroughs daily and often commented on the writer’s work. (Burroughs was the “ice shard that would never melt,” he writes in his essay collection “Between Parentheses,” “the eye that never closes.”) In an early version of “The Spirit of Science Fiction,” Burroughs was the contact person for the young Chileans. Bolaño was also influenced by Burroughs’s approach to structure; he was fascinated by “Naked Lunch” and by the collage-like experimentation of “Nova Express.” He even borrowed some of Burroughs’s methods, riffing on Burroughs’s “cut-up” technique in his own verse.

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More Bolaño: A review of Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction

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Roberto Bolaño died at the young age of 50 in 2003, just as his work was beginning to gain a wider audience and broader critical acclaim. It wasn’t until after his death that his work was published in English. Just a few months after Bolaño died, New Directions published By Night in Chile in translation by Chris Andrews. A year later, they published Andrews’ translation of Distant Star, and completed the loose trilogy of these short novels with the publication of Amulet in early 2007. A few months after the publication of Amulet, FS&G published Natasha Wimmer’s translation of The Savage Detectives, which had been originally published in Spain a decade earlier. By the time Wimmer’s translation of 2666 hit the shelves in 2008, Bolaño had become a literary sensation in the U.S., only half a decade after his death.

2666 is arguably Bolaño’s masterpiece, and certainly one of the defining books of the first decade of the 21st century. I read the book in a fevered rush, and then read it again, and then again. As far as I can tell, there are more essays and reviews about 2666 on Biblioklept than any other book. It was the second book I read by Bolaño—admittedly, a first reading of The Savage Detectives left me a perplexed and cold, but I’ve since returned to that novel with a broader understanding and appreciation of Bolaño’s project, a project that seemed to expand yearly after Bolaño’s demise.

Indeed, it became something of a joke in literary circles, What, another Bolaño? He drops books from beyond the grave like Tupac drops albums! There are the short story collections (translated by Andrews) that trickled out between 2007 and 2012, along with harder to classify collections, like The Secret of Evil (Andrews, 2012) and Nazi Literature in the Americas (Andrews, 2008), a jangling set of keys to the Bolañoverse. Another set of keys came in the wonderful collection The Unknown University, a compendium of Bolaño’s poetry in translation by Laura Healy published by New Directions in 2013.

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Then there are the novels that seemed to arrive every year or so: The Skating Rink (Andrews, 2009), Monsieur Pain (Andrews, 2010), Antwerp (Wimmer, 2010), The Third Reich (Wimmer, 2011), A Little Lumpen Novelita (Wimmer, 2014). Bolaño composed these pieces primarily in the 1980s, when he still thought of himself as a poet. These novels lack the vitality and vibrancy of his later work—the short story collections, the trilogy of short novels that began with Distant Star, and his big books, The Savage Detectives and 2666.

Indeed, for many Bolaño fans, reading these early novels feels like its own project—winnowing for seeds, pulling at the threads that will cohere into something grander in the Bolaño’s future (which, from a readerly perspective, is the past). So when FS&G published Wimmer’s translation of Woes of the True Policeman in 2012, it was hard for many readers to see the novel as anything but ancillary materials for 2666—it was hard to read the novel as a discrete work, on its own. Instead, the question Woes asked Bolaño fans was, Where does this fit in the Bolañoverse?

The same question is in play for the latest posthumous Bolaño release, The Spirit of Science Fiction (Penguin, Wimmer). A simple read, and one that is not incorrect, is that The Spirit of Science Fiction feels like a trial run at The Savage Detectives. In particular, Spirit blueprints the first and third sections of The Savage Detectives, sections that revolve around the immature adventures of two would-be poets in Mexico City in the 1970s. Instead of Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima though, we get Jan Schrella (“alias Roberto Bolaño”) and Remo. These two heroes divide Bolaño’s literary ambitions into poetry and prose, posterity and potboiler pulp fiction. In The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima will synthesize these ambitions more grandly in their literary quest.

Jan and Remo’s questing in Spirit isn’t quite as grand. Remo wants to figure out why there are so many literary magazines in Mexico City; Jan spends his days writing to American science fiction writers. They manage to get mixed up with a set of sisters and their friend—poets of course. (Everyone in the novel is a poet, even—especially—a skinny motorcycle mechanic). The sisters prefigure the Font sisters of The Savage Detectives, and much of their plot feels like a sketch for that richer work.

Their friend Laura is a more interesting figure—a bit sinister, a cipher really, an iteration of the Lisas and Lupes that we find elsewhere in Bolaño’s fiction—in particular in some of the poetry collected in The Unknown Univeristy. Indeed, the final section of The Spirit of Science Fiction, “Mexican Manifesto,” was originally published in a different form in that collection. Some of the best parts of Spirit feel like failed poems, poems that want to be prose, unpoetical, mad, howling, jolly poems. Like 2666 or The Savage Detectives, the plot of Spirit careens, splinters, dares the reader to put the fragments together.

There is structure though: The main of the novel is told in first-person perspective by Remo. He’s seventeen, and has come from Chile to Mexico City with his friend Jan to live destitute in a garret and write bad articles under a pseudonym while he pursues his poetry. He gets sidetrack by love and other matters.

Running counter to this narrative are the letters that Jan writes to American sci-fi authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and Alice Sheldon. In a metatextual nod, Jan (“alias Roberto Bolaño”) also writes to Sheldon’s alias James Tiptree, Jr. Jan’s letters are a highlight of the novel, setting youthful arrogance and romantic idealism against a kind of quasi-tragic pathos. In a letter to Philip José Farmer, Jan (alias Roberto) suggests that a literary sci-fi anthology called American Orgasms in Space be published as a means to end war and cultivate brotherhood between Latin Americans and North Americans. The punchline to the letter is hilarious. Before signing off (“Warmly”), Jan informs the author of the Riverworld series that, “A week ago, I lost my virginity.”

A third strand runs throughout Spirit. In a series of segments set in some presumable future, a female journalist interviews Jan in the middle of a bizarre drunken party somewhere in the dark woods. Jan has won a prize for a sci-fi novel that he summarizes for the journalist who listens, downing vodka after vodka. Jan’s prize-winning sci-fi novel meshes elements that will be familiar to Bolaño’s readers—apocalyptic desolation, failed communication, esoteric histories of Latin America, mystery authors. Etc. It’s even partially set in the Unknown University. The interview segments seem perched on the edge of their own sinister apocalypse, a typically-Bolañoesque move, as if a seemingly-normal situation might topple over into malevolence at any moment. Unfortunately though, these sections seem to have been abandoned.

Indeed, much of Spirit reads like a patchwork of abandoned drafts, riddled with material and ideas that will pop up in later novels—the tabletop gaming of The Third Reich, the fascination of Nazi iconography we see in Nazi Literature in the Americas, the reckoning of post-colonialism which belongs to The Savage Detectives in particular, as well as the Bolañoverse as a whole. Too, Spirit shares the ominous swells and sinister reverberations that we identify with both Bolaño’s prose and poetry—the book shows the joyful optimism of youth poised on the cusp of unnameable disaster.

And there are plenty of great sections in The Spirit of Science Fiction: Jan desribing the entirety of a Gene Wolfe space novella to his friend, but mashing it into a vision of the screenwriter Thea von Harbou and her Nazi sympathies; the story of a Belgian-occupied village in the Congo that falls into a madness of woodworking, a madness that leads to general slaughter; a nervous late-night ride on a stolen motorcycle named the Aztec Princess; “the story of how Georges Perec, as a boy, prevented a duel to the death between Isidore Isou and Altagor in an old neighborhood in Paris”; a grotesque and enthralling final sequence in a semi-legal Mexico City bathhouse that channels the dark ghost of William S. Burroughs.

In short, there’s a lot of great writing in The Spirit of Science Fiction—plenty of moments that satisfy, if only temporarily, our cravings for more Bolaño. And yet the novel is clearly unfinished, which, if you’ve read Bolaño—and I’m assuming if you’ve hung out this far into this review, you’ve read Bolaño, and like, if you haven’t read Bolaño, I think he’s great, and a great starting point for reading him would be Distant Star or the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth—and, where was I? Okay: The Spirit of Science Fiction is clearly an unfinished piece, which, if you’ve read Bolaño, may seem like a Bolañoesque feature—his works point to an indeterminancy, an oblique, inconclusive, resolutely unfinishedness. (Think of the final lines/images of The Savage Detectives, for example).

And yet Spirit’s unfinishedness is not of a piece with the general aporia that belongs to Bolaño’s finished unfinished works—it seems, rather, an abandoned project, a draft to be repurposed later. Which, of course, it was—we already got the material that Spirit helped inspirit—in The Savage Detectives, in Nazi Literature, in 2666—in Bolaño’s best materials.

Paradoxically then, The Spirit of Science Fiction leaves the reader—by which I mean the Bolaño fan—by which I mean, let’s be honest, this Bolaño fan—Spirit leaves this reader hungry for more, for the pages to gallop on and on, to careen into more dread and manic joy and bad poetry and good poetry and pilfered stories and excessive metaphors. More: More Bolaño.

And then how could this review be a complaint? Well it isn’t. I enjoyed The Spirit of Science Fiction, was hungry for it before I even touched it, and then left hungry, wanting more: More Bolaño.

American Orgasms in Space | Warmly, Jan Schrella, alias Roberto Bolaño

Dear Philip José Farmer:

Wars can be ended with sex or religion. Everything seems to indicate that there are no other citizen alternatives; these are dark days, heaven knows. We can set aside religion for now. That leaves sex. Let’s try to put it to good use. First question: what can you in particular and American science fiction writers in general do about it? I propose the immediate creation of a committee to centralize and coordinate all efforts. As a first step—call it preparing the terrain—the committee must select ten or twenty authors for inclusion in an anthology, choosing those who have written most radically and enthusiastically about carnal relations and the future. (The committee should be free to select who they like, but I would presume to suggest the indispensable inclusion of entries by Joanna Russ and Anne McCaffrey; maybe later I’ll explain why, in another letter.) This anthology, to be titled something like American Orgasms in Space or A Radiant Future, should focus the reader’s attention on pleasure and make frequent use of flashbacks—to our times, I mean—to chart the path of hard work and peace that it has been necessary to travel to reach this no-man’s-land of love. In each story, there should be at least one sexual act (or, lacking that, one episode of ardent and devoted camaraderie) between Latin Americans and North Americans. For example: legendary space pilot Jack Higgins, commander of the Fidel Castro, participates in interesting physical and spiritual encounters with Gloria Díaz, a navigation engineer from Colombia. Or: shipwrecked on Asteroid BM101, Demetrio Aguilar and Jennifer Brown spend ten years practicing the Kama Sutra. Stories with a happy ending. Desperate socialist realism in the service of alluring, mind-blowing happiness. Every ship with a mixed crew and every ship with its requisite overdose of amatory activity! At the same time, the committee should establish contact with the rest of American science fiction writers, those who’re left cold by sex or who won’t touch it for reasons of style, ethics, market appeal, personal preference, plot, aesthetics, philosophy, etc. They must be taught to see the importance of writing about the orgies that future citizens of Latin America and the U.S. can take part in if we take action now. If they flatly refuse, they must be convinced, at the very least, to write to the White House to ask for a cease in hostilities. Or to pray along with the bishops of Washington. To pray for peace. But that’s our backup plan, and we’ll keep it in under wraps for now. In closing, let me tell you how much I admire your work. I don’t read your novels; I devour them. I’m seventeen, and maybe someday I’ll write decent science fiction stories. A week ago, I lost my virginity.

Warmly,

Jan Schrella, alias Roberto Bolaño

From Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction. English translation by Natasha Wimmer.

It’s the story of a spaceship that for a long time has been looking for a planet habitable by the human race | Roberto Bolaño

“Yesterday I dreamed about Thea von Harbou. . . . It woke me right up. . . . But then, thinking about it, I realized that I dreamed about her because of a novel I read recently. . . . It’s not that it was such a strange book, but I got the idea that the author was hiding something. . . . And after the dream, I figured it out . . .”

“What novel?”

Silhouette, by Gene Wolfe.”

“. . .”

“Want me to tell you what it’s about?”

“All right, while I’m making breakfast.”

“I had some tea before, when you were asleep.”

“I’ve got a headache. Are you going to want another cup of tea?”

“Yes.”

“Go on. I’m listening, even if my back is turned.”

“It’s the story of a spaceship that for a long time has been looking for a planet habitable by the human race. At last they find one, but it’s been many years since they set off on the voyage, and the crew has changed; they’ve all gotten older, but you have to realize that they were very young when they set off. . . . What’s changed are their beliefs: sects, secret societies, covens have sprung up. . . . The ship has also fallen into disrepair—there are computers that don’t work, blown-out lights that no one bothers to fix, wrecked sleeping compartments. . . . Then, when they find the new planet, the mission is completed and they’re supposed to return to Earth with the news, but no one wants to go back. . . . The voyage will consume the rest of their youth, and they’ll return to an unknown world, because meanwhile several centuries have gone by on Earth, since they’ve been traveling at close to light speed. . . . It’s just a starving, overpopulated planet. . . . And there are even those who believe that there is no life left on Earth. . . . Among them is Johann, the protagonist. . . . Johann is a quiet man, one of the few who love the ship. . . . He’s of average height. . . . There’s a hierarchy of height; the woman who’s captain of the ship, for example, is the tallest, and the privates are the shortest. . . . Johann is a lieutenant; he goes about his duties without making too many friends. Like nearly everyone, he’s set in his ways; he’s bored . . . until they reach the strange planet. . . . Then Johann discovers that his shadow has grown darker. . . . Black as outer space and dense . . . As you probably guessed, it’s not his shadow but a separate being that’s taken over there, mimicking the movements of his shadow. . . . Where has it come from? The planet? Space? We’ll never know, and it doesn’t really matter. . . . The Shadow is powerful, as we’ll see, but as silent as Johann. . . . Meanwhile the sects are preparing to mutiny. . . . A group tries to convince Johann to join them; they tell him that he’s one of the chosen, that their common fate is to create something new on this planet. . . . Some seem pretty loony, others dangerous. . . . Johann commits to nothing. . . . Then the Shadow transports him to the planet. . . . It’s a vast jungle, a vast desert, a vast beach. . . . Johann, dressed only in shorts and sandals, almost like a Tyrolean, walks through the undergrowth. . . . He moves his right leg when he feels the Shadow push against his right leg, then the left, slowly, waiting. . . . The darkness is total. . . . But the Shadow looks after him as if he’s a child. . . . When he returns, rebellion breaks out. . . . It’s total chaos. . . . Johann, as a precaution, takes off his officer’s stripes. . . . Suddenly he runs into Helmuth, the captain’s favorite and one of the heads of the rebellion, who tries to kill him, but the Shadow overpowers him, choking him to death. . . . Johann realizes what’s happening and makes his way to the bridge; the captain and some of the other officers are there, and on the screens of the central computer they see Helmuth and the mutineers readying a laser cannon. . . . Johann convinces them that all is lost, that they must flee to the planet. . . . But at the last minute, he stays behind. . . . He returns to the bridge, disconnects the fake video feed that the computer operators have manipulated, and sends an ultimatum to the rebels. . . . Whoever lays down arms this very instant will be pardoned; the rest will die. . . . Johann is well acquainted with the tools of falsehood and propaganda. . . . Then, too, he has the police and the marines on his side, who’ve spent the voyage in hibernation, and he knows that no one can snatch victory from him. . . . He finishes his communiqué with the announcement that he is the new captain. . . . Then he plots another route and abandons the planet. . . . And that’s all. . . . But then I dreamed about Thea von Harbou, and I realized that it was a Millennial Reich ship. . . . They were all Germans . . . all trapped in entropy. . . . Though there are a few weird things, strange things. . . . Under the effects of some drug, one of the girls—the one who sleeps most often with Johann—remembers something painful, and, weeping, she says that her name is Joan. . . . The girl’s real name is Grit, and Johann thinks that maybe her mother called her Joan when she was a baby. . . . Old-fangled and unfashionable names, banned by the psychologists, too . . .”

“Maybe the girl was trying to say that her name was Johann.”

“Possibly. The truth is, Johann is a serious fucking opportunist.”

“So why doesn’t he stay on the planet?”

“I don’t know. Leaving the planet, and not going back to Earth, is like choosing death, isn’t it? Or maybe the Shadow convinced him that he shouldn’t colonize the planet. Either way, the captain and a bunch of people are stuck there. Listen, read the novel, it’s really good. . . . And now I think the swastika came from the dream, not Gene Wolfe. . . . Though who knows . . . ?”

“So you dreamed about Thea von Harbou . . .”

“Yes, it was a blond girl.”

“But have you ever seen a picture of her?”

“No.”

“How did you know it was Thea von Harbou?”

“I don’t know, I guessed it. She was like Marlene Dietrich singing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ the Dylan song, you know? Weird stuff, spooky, but very up-close and personal—it’s hard to explain, but personal.”

“So the Nazis take over the Earth and send ships in search of new worlds.”

“Yes. In Thea von Harbou’s version.”

“And they find the Shadow. Isn’t that a German story?”

“The story of the Shadow or the man who loses his shadow? I don’t know.”

“And it was Thea von Harbou who told yo all this?”

“Johann believes that inhabited planets, or habitable planets, are the exception in the universe. . . . As he tells it, Guderian’s tanks lay waste to Moscow . . .”

From Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction. English translation by Natasha Wimmer.

Gene Wolfe’s 1975 novella Silhouette was originally published in The New Atlantis, an anthology of sci-fi edited by Robert Silverberg, and later collected in Endangered Species (1989). Silhouette begins with an epigraph culled from Ambrose Bierce’s short story “A Psychological Shipwreck” (1879):

To sundry it is given to be drawn away, and to be apart from the body for a season; for, as concerning rills which would flow across each other the weaker is borne along by the stronger, so there be certain of kin whose paths intersecting, their souls do bear company, the while their bodies go foreappointed ways, unknowing.

In Bierce’s story, this passage is itself quoted from “that rare and curious work, Denneker’s Meditations.”

Thea von Harbou wrote many novels and screenplays, including numerous screenplays for her husband director Fritz Lang, including the classic sci-fi film Metropolis. After its ascendance to power, von Harbou remained loyal to the Nazi party.

Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction will debut in English translation in 2019

Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction will be published in English translation next year. The translation is by Natasha Wimmer (who translated 2666 and The Savage Detectives, among other Bolaño works). Bolaño began The Spirit of Science Fiction in 1984 but apparently never finished it. The novel was first published in 2016 by the Spanish publishing house Alfaguara. Based on the blurb, The Spirit of Science Fiction sounds like a prototype for The Savage Detectives (much as Woes of the True Policeman is a prototype of 2666).

Here is the blurb from the publisher, Penguin Random House—