Bolaño’s Abysses

Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño

Originally published in Stonecutter Issue 2

Roberto Bolaño’s introduction to a 1999 Spanish edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn begins with one of those great and flagrant generalizations for which, among many other things, his writing is remarkable. “All American novelists,” he announces, “including those who write in Spanish, at some point get a glimpse of two books looming on the horizon. These books represent two paths, two structures, and above all two plots. Even sometimes: two fates. One is Moby-Dick and the other is the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The fact that the piece, which is included towards the end of Between Parentheses, is entitled “Our Guide to the Abyss” is only the first clue to Bolaño’s readers that he is writing at least as much about his own fiction here as he is about Mark Twain’s (the abyss, the empty presence of absence itself, is a symbol as central to Bolaño’s work as the labyrinth is to that of his great hero Borges). Bolaño goes on to outline precisely what these oppositional pillars of the American novel represent:

The first is the key to those realms that by convention or for the sake of convenience we call the realms of evil, those places where man struggles with himself and with the unknown and is generally defeated in the end; the second is the key to adventure and happiness, a lesser-known land, modest and unassuming, in which the character or characters set the quotidian in motion, start it rolling, and the results are unpredictable and at the same time recognizable and close at hand.

It is one of the measures of Bolaño’s sheer expansiveness as a writer that, in his own fiction, he followed both of these paths to their wildest, strangest conclusions. The Savage Detectives, with its crazy exuberance and successive celebration and lamentation of youth, freedom, friendship and poetry, is—as he himself once pointed out—a kind of Latin American Huckleberry Finn. His blood-dark posthumous masterpiece 2666, meanwhile, channels the death-seeking obsessions of Melville’s masterwork. And that is the curious, crossbred beauty of Bolaño’s work: he is both Huck and Ahab, as sure a pilot of a riverboat as he is of a whaler on black and bottomless waters.

Between Parentheses collects Bolaño’s essays, criticism, speeches and miscellaneous sketches from between 1998 and 2003, and all are translated by Natasha Wimmer, whose part in the crusade to bring the whole of this writer’s sizeable oeuvre to English-speaking readers is nothing less than heroic. In these pieces, it is primarily the Huck Finn side of his persona we meet; only rarely do we glimpse the visionary Ahab of 2666. The bulk of the collection is composed of a huge number of Bolaño’s columns, written first for a regional paper in his adopted home of Catalonia, Diari de Girona, and then for Las Úlitimas Noticias in Chile, the country of his birth. These columns begin in 1998, which was a watershed moment in Bolaño’s tragically truncated life. The Savage Detectives was published in Spain that year, and Bolaño quickly went from being a relatively obscure Latin American immigrant writer to being one of the most celebrated novelists in the hispanophone world. Bolaño was a very big deal by the time he started publishing these articles, and it’s pretty clear that he was given editorial carte blanche to write about whatever the hell he felt like writing about. The pieces are extremely short—around five or six hundred words each—and Bolaño flits, from one installment to the next, between any number of topics. Sometimes he’ll review a new book, sometimes he’ll go off on a whimsical reverie about an old friend or acquaintance, and sometimes he’ll grab his readers by the lapels and tell them they absolutely have to get themselves a book by some or other novelist or poet he’s just been re-reading.

The result is fragmentary, disjointed, capricious, and yet absolutely compelling (an observation that could just as accurately be made of his fiction). It’s a bit like reading an unusually interesting and well-written blog, where there’s no obvious thematic thread linking one entry with the next, but where the writer’s persona, the magnetism of his or her style, keeps you pushing on through the pages. In a strange sort of way, reading the columns is reminiscent of reading the fiction (though the visionary intensity of the latter is replaced in the former by an easygoing chattiness). A kind of cumulative fragmentariness, after all, is one of the chief formal characteristics of Bolaño’s work. Think of the long, harrowing middle section of 2666, in which one short and flatly descriptive account of a raped and murdered woman’s corpse is piled mercilessly on top of another, and then another (and then another), for a full 300 pages. Or the extraordinary middle section of The Savage Detectives, in which glimpses of the lost years of poets Arturo Belano and Ulysses Lima (based on the author and his friend Mario Santiago) are provided via snatches of recorded interviews with a vast array of friends and acquaintances. Or the brief, Borgesian portraits of imaginary writers in Nazi Literature in the Americas. Bolaño’s best work exploits the peculiar potency of the partial, the frustrated, the disconnected. After all, 2666, which is perhaps his most powerful and haunting work, not only resolutely refuses to cohere in terms of its disparate sections, but remains literally incomplete in the sense that its author died before he was able to finish it.

One of the main pleasures of reading the book is in spotting the raw anecdotes and various preoccupations that were later to be transfigured into fiction. The second of Between Parentheses’ssix sections is entitled “Fragments of a Return to the Native Land”, and it contains a number of reflections, written for various newspapers and journals, on Bolaño’s first return to Chile following a 23-year absence in the wake of the Pinochet coup. There’s a relatively long piece here called “The Corridor with No Apparent Way Out” that relates a bizarre and horrifying incident which happened at a gathering of literary types in Santiago during the Pinochet dictatorship. The evening is hosted by the intellectual wife of a right-wing American who is working for the Chilean National Intelligence Directorate and is “possibly also a CIA agent.” In the cellars beneath their massive suburban house, the American interrogates and tortures left-wing political prisoners before they are removed to other detention centres, or “added to the list of disappeared.” The literature-loving wife holds frequent meetings for writers in her living room, there being few other places to go at night due to the curfew. At one of these meetings, a guest who has had too much to drink goes looking for the bathroom and gets lost in the vastness of the house. He ends up descending a flight of stairs to find a door at the end of a hallway (“long like Chile”). He opens the door. “The room is dark,” we are told, “but even so he can make out a bound figure, in pain or possibly drugged. He knows what he’s seeing. He closes the door and returns to the party. He isn’t drunk anymore. He’s terrified, but he doesn’t say anything.” This story appears more or less unchanged in By Night in Chile, Bolaño’s stunning satirical novella about the complicity of a Catholic priest and literary critic (and the intellectual establishment embodied by him) in the Pinochet terror. In an oeuvre scattered with moments of silence and terror, this is possibly the most chilling, and it is fascinating for readers of Bolaño to see its factual, or at least anecdotal, origins.

Among the many other modes it occupies, Bolaño’s fiction is characterized by a recurring strain of the elegiac. The Savage Detectives is about poetry, but it is, more specifically, about how poetry gets lost, how it subsides without trace into the void of time. The novel starts out as an exuberant celebration of life and literature, but devolves into a sort of lament for lost and forgotten things, for vanished people and their works. This melancholy assessment of the fate of two Latin American writers of Belano and Lima’s generation is given by one of the tragic chorus of voices toward the end of the novel:

They discovered their literary callings early on, of course: the Peruvian wrote poems and the Cuban wrote stories. Both believed in the revolution and freedom, like pretty much every Latin American writer born in the fifties. Then they grew up and experienced the full flush of success: their books were published, all the critics unanimously praised them, they were hailed as the continent’s top young writers, one in poetry and the other in fiction, and although it was never spoken everyone began to await their definitive works. But then the same thing happened to them that almost always happens to the best Latin American writers born in the fifties: the trinity of youth, love, and death was revealed to them, like an epiphany. How did this vision affect their works? At first, in a scarcely perceptible way: as if a sheet of glass lying on top of another sheet of glass were shifted slightly. Only a few friends noticed. Then, inescapably, they headed for catastrophe or the abyss.

The key word there isn’t so much “abyss” as it is “inescapably”: everything and everyone in Bolaño’s world winds up sinking, sooner or later, into an unavoidable void. Literature itself is a reaction against oblivion—a triumphantly futile shout into an endless emptiness—but it can’t ever provide an escape.

Throughout Between Parentheses, though, a much more cheerful Bolaño goes about bolstering and resurrecting reputations left, right and centre. Any number of Spanish and Latin American novelists and poets are declared pivotal figures of their generations. Most Anglophone readers will have to take his word for it on a lot of these. He is a hugely generous and indefatigable praiser of other peoples’ books—an admirable quality in a friend and a distinguished novelist, naturally, but not necessarily something you look for in a literary critic. An awful lot of the columns begin with an announcement that some or other cherished old friend or colleague has just published a new book, and end by telling the reader to buy, borrow, or steal it as soon as they can. Many more of them are impromptu commendations of writers he just decided to bang out a few hundred words on. If he’s not up to much as a rigorous literary critic—and to be fair the form doesn’t really permit proper criticism anyway—his wild eloquence and enthusiasm for the books he loves makes up for it. In the ten or so days during which I was reading the collection, I bought two books on Bolaño’s recommendation—Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke (very good call) and Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis (too soon to say).

One of the aspects of Bolaño’s character that comes across most clearly through this collection is his tremendous loyalty to old friends, his tireless championing of literary underdogs that is often revealed as a curious compound of stoic resignation and staunch belief, a kind of passionate fatalism. It’s worth remembering that Bolaño was terminally ill with a liver disorder during the time when he was writing many of these pieces—a period that roughly coincided with his working on the gargantuan and thanatocentric 2666—and so the various iterations of the consciousness of the abyss have their origins very close to home. In the probing and playful interview with which the collection closes (published in the Mexican edition of Playboy in July 2003, the month of Bolaño’s death, and previously included in Melville House’s Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview) this comes across in interesting and even amusing ways. When asked what his favourite soccer team is, Bolano replies that he no longer has one. Then he slightly revises the statement: “The teams that drop quickly through the divisions down to the regionals, and then are gone. The ghost teams.” And when asked what he thinks paradise is like, he replies that it is “Like Venice, I hope, somewhere full of Italians. Somewhere that’s used well and used up and that knows that nothing lasts, not even paradise, and in the end it doesn’t matter.” That is a terribly sad and lovely and witty thing for a person to say in the last days of his own life, to suggest that even paradise itself might be a sinking city, beautiful and condemned, and that that abyss might be something worth hoping for.

As exuberant as Bolaño can sometimes be, he seems to me to be essentially a tragic writer, or at least an elegiac one. Even when he is at his most enthusiastic, his most effulgent with passion for poetry and life, he is never far from reminding us that everything will be lost, and that nothing will matter. Whether he has his back to it or whether he is staring straight into it, in other words, he is always on the verge of the abyss. In a piece on the young Argentine poet Neuman, entitled “Neuman, touched by grace,” Bolaño is at once richly approving and typically despairing:

When I come across these young writers it makes me want to cry. I don’t know what the future holds for them. I don’t know whether a drunk driver will run them down some night or whether all of a sudden they’ll stop writing. If nothing like that happens, the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers.

This is obviously poignant but, whether it wants to be or not, it is also funny. (At least for me it is: I couldn’t help thinking of, say, Ian McEwan or Julian Barnes praising Zadie Smith or some other youngish writer by saying that she was certain to grow into an extraordinarily important figure as long as she didn’t get knocked down by a bus first, or give up writing out of despair or futility.) Like a lot of funny things, though, it’s only funny until you think about it properly, and then you wonder how you ever laughed at it in the first place.

Between Parentheses is a series of fascinating glimpses into the enthusiasms and preoccupations of one of the most compelling figures in contemporary literature. Above all, it’s a pleasure to witness Bolaño holding court, like the smartest and most garrulous drunk at the bar, on whatever he feels like talking about. It contains, too, one of the most memorable definitions of writing—or descriptions of what it should be— that I have ever come across. “So what,” he asks, “is top-notch writing? The same thing it’s always been: the ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces you love, the smiling faces you love, and books and friends and food. And the ability to accept what you find, even though it may be heavier than the stones over the graves of all the dead writers.” As with many authors, when Bolaño appears to be offering thoughts about literature in general, he is nearly always also referring to his own work. He wrote from the edge of the precipice without ever sinking into the ethical and aesthetic void of nihilism. In his fiction, he stared death––physical death, moral death––straight in its impassively grinning face, but always with the warmth of life at his back. This was the nature of his own peculiar greatness.

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