On Bolaño

Just as the ’90s witnessed the American canonization of one important foreign writer—W. G. Sebald—the current decade have seen the same happen to the wandering novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño, who spent his boyhood in Chile, his youth mostly in Mexico, and who died in Spain in 2003, at the age of 50, after a decade of Stakhanovite productivity. His massive novel 2666, unrevised at his death, is only now appearing in translation, earlier books like the monologue By Night in Chile, the tragic mockumentary The Savage Detectives, and that vicious counterfactual lark Nazi Literature in the Americas having already secured the highest praise. Bolaño’s canonization has taken place so rapidly and completely, and with so little demurral, that one can only reluctantly pile aboard the bandwagon. But Bolaño is the real thing, as urgent, various, imaginative, and new as any writer active in the last decade. The question is: why not canonize anyone else? Why reserve for him the once-in-a-decade beatification?

In the ’90s, it didn’t matter to most American readers that Sebald had taken the hoariest tropes of German romanticism (the solitary wandering, the unnamable sorrow) and renovated a totally discredited literary tradition by employing it to honor the victims of that variety of German romanticism known as Nazism. What mattered was simply that these were literary books about the Holocaust. Bolaño, of course, was not Jewish or German, and was released from Pinochet’s prisons after a few days. He returned to Mexico to read books and smoke weed. (Later on, he took heroin.) Nevertheless, if you can only take your serious literature with a lump of state terror, eventually you run out of authentic Nazis and have to make do with the next best thing: South American generals of the ’70s. Foreign writers are like our own candidates for President: it helps to have been a prisoner of war or at least to have grown up poor. (Poor Mario Vargas Llosa, preppy and smooth with excellent hair, is the John Kerry of Latin American letters.)

Fortunately, it’s possible to appreciate books for better reasons than we know. Back-story carries you only so far as a reader, and if you’ve made it through The Savage Detectives or 2666 it must be because this writer is doing something to you that the mere mention of Pinochet or heroin can’t. As with Sebald, Bolaño is always referred to in terms of his singularity or strangeness; people who think he’s a big deal, including professional critics, mostly can’t say why. Still, an attempt may as well be made.

Bolaño’s reputation among Spanish speakers is secure, but his significance to us can’t be what it is to them. The same goes for Borges, the model Bolaño most often invoked. For Spanish speakers the importance of Borges is not confined to the black metaphysical jokes purveyed in his mind-bending fables. Hispanophone readers often describe a sense of their language as dripping with high-flown inclinations; literary Spanish tends to become humid with rhetoric and profuse with metaphors, something easy to see in modern poetry from Lorca onward. So Borges in his own language counts as a champion dessicator; he pushes Spanish toward the hard, cold, and dry. Even so, he strikes us as rhetorical enough. It fell to writers like Bolaño to complete the drying-out of literary prose already accomplished in other languages by writers like Hemingway and Camus. Bolaño can write page after page without indulging in a single metaphor, or adding a dab of rhetorical color to the account of a dinner party or a murder. Of course you can find perfect sentences in Bolaño, and crazy metaphors too, but for the most part he proceeds as if literature were too desperate an enterprise to bother with being well written. The rationale for his anti-eloquence belongs to the internal dynamic of any modern language: an idiom encrusted with poeticisms needs a solvent bath. But for Latin Americans of Bolaño’s generation there may also be political grounds for preferring writing degree zero to purple haze. One more disgusting feature of the Argentine junta (it is Argentines who predominate in Bolaño’s gallery of imaginary Nazi writers) was the generals’ magniloquence.

Our problem in America is hardly that our worst politicians speak too well, or that we lack for plain stylists. What is our problem, then—to which Bolaño seems a solution? American critics and regular readers alike usually don’t care for sweeping literary-historical arguments. And yet in recent years we have been celebrating Sebald and Bolaño as if we really do believe in some big metanarrative about the novel—one that proclaims that, even post postmodernism, the form remains in crisis. Sure, Sebald and Bolaño deal with fascism, and both died at the height of their powers. More decisive is that neither fiction writer writes as if he believes in fiction. Our canonization of these writers implies a sense, even a conviction, that you can’t be a really important novelist anymore unless you can’t really write novels.

Both writers are striking for the documentary or testimonial, as opposed to fictional, feel of their productions. Sebald assembled his material from interviews (especially in The Emigrants) and library-burrowing (The Rings of Saturn), and from his own life. He also interlards his texts with snapshots, ticket stubs, archival photographs: documentary proof. He makes no effort to write convincing scenes or dialogue: a character stands silent and motionless as an old Victrola, then the needle drops and the aria commences. Sebald’s fiction consists of facts and reworked testimony, and constantly points to their opposite: what we’ll never know about what really happened. Whereas ordinary novels, epistemologically unruffled for two centuries, have mostly delivered unimpeachable accounts of events that never took place.

The case of Bolaño is more complex. Where Sebald perfected a single deep and narrow mode, Bolaño was an experimenter. The impression you get from the short stories is that nothing at all has been made up, and nothing comprehended. There is a virtually Seinfeldian ban on moral growth or learning. These stories’ conclusions are by no means the poetic or pregnant endings we know from magazine fiction; they are the flat conclusions we know better from life: Then he died. Or: We lost touch. Or: That’s all I know. And yet Bolaño boasts tremendous powers of invention; especially in his long­er novels, truly fictional characters, with no originals in life, proliferate alongside the personages à clef. Curiously, he treats the pure inventions as he does the lightly fictionalized acquaintances. Some facts are known about them, most not. Some literary work of dubious merit may have been left behind. There is rarely any pretense to psychological insight (though this begins to change in 2666), or characterological summing-up. Bolaño behaves toward his characters as if he were a court stenographer or deputized witness rather than a profiler or portraitist. He and his heroes care only for literature—but can’t seem to produce it in any way we recognize (except by reading Bolaño). Opaque fictional persons replace transparent fictional characters, and, instead of plots, you get one damn thing after another.

Why then, you begin to wonder, are you reading these books? What for, if they are each going to eschew psychology, characterization, pretty language, and neat conclusions, and if the narratives are all to devolve into shaggy-dog Iditarods mushing after some fugitive poet or novelist about whom—even if he ever turns up—we learn next to nothing? Why read and write at all if these empty Chinese boxes constitute the only goods ultimately in receipt?

In Bolaño, literature is a helpless, undignified, and not especially pleasant compulsion, like smoking. At one point you started and now you can’t stop; it’s become a habit and an identity. Nothing is so consistent across Bolaño’s work as the suspicion that literature is chiefly bullshit, rationalizing the misery, delusions, and/or narcissism of various careerists, flakes, and losers. Yet Bolaño somehow also treats literature as his and his characters’ sole excuse for existing. This basic Bolaño aporia—literature is all that matters, literature doesn’t matter at all—can be a glib paradox for others. He seems to have meant it sincerely, even desperately, something one would feel without knowing the first thing about his life.

Bolaño’s incoherence—books mean everything and nothing; the writer is hero and jerk—has come to seem one of the few plausible literary attitudes these days. Considered simply as a job, writing is erratically paid but with flexible hours: potentially not so bad, especially with the hedge funds laying everybody off. But as a vocation? Look around, and all you see is literature and publishing faltering in tandem. People read less and less; worse yet, they’re right to. It’s clear that, besides the occasional small or large check, most writers—ourselves included—write out of vanity and compulsion. One believes in being a writer more, it seems, than in writing. What is it, again, you once had to say? And who, supposedly, wanted to hear it? Still, Bolaño-like, you can’t conceive any redemption for you and your friends except through the production of masterpieces. Masterpieces, however, are always unlikely, and redemption impossible.

The whole thing’s hopeless and pathetic, not less so for being a reason to live. And this, finally, must be what literary people like so much about Bolaño: his career illustrates for the novel Gramsci’s famous slogan: Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

We have pressed our barbarous Spanish into service to translate one of Bolaño’s poems. (It is not by Bertolt Brecht.)

Los Neochilenos

The trip began one happy November day
But in some way the trip was already over
When we set out.
All times live at once, said Pancho Ferri,
Our singer. Or flow to the same place,
Who knows.
The prologues, in any case,
Were simple:
With resigned gestures we climb aboard
The pickup truck
That our manager in a fit
Of lunacy
Has presented us
And take off for the north,
The north that is magnetic north to the dreams
And the apparently
Meaningless songs
Of us Neochilenos,
A north—how can I put this?—
Foreseen in a white handkerchief
That sometimes would cover
My face
Like a shroud.
A spotless white handkerchief
Or, no,
One where I saw projected
My nomadic nightmares
And my sedentary nightmares.
And Pancho Ferri
Grasping with both hands
The steering wheel
And making the pickup truck vibrate
While we searched for the exit
Out of Santiago
If we knew the story
Of these guys Caraculo
And Jetachanco,
Making the pickup truck vibrate as if it were
The breast
Of Caraculo
Who carried a burden terrible
For anyone to bear.
And I remembered then that the day
Before our departure
We had gone
To the Parque Forestal
To visit the monument
To Rubén Darío.
Goodbye, Rubén, we said drunkenly
And on drugs.
Now banal deeds
Are confounded
With the annunciatory cries
Of true dreams.
But that’s how we Neochilenos were,
Pure inspiration
And no method.
And the next day we rolled out
Toward Pilpilco and Lay Lay
And passed La Ligua and Los Vilos
Without stopping
And we crossed the Petorca river
And the Quilimari
And the Choapa until we came
To La Serena
And the Elqui river
And finally Copiapó
And the river Copiapó
Where we stopped
To eat fried
And Pancho Ferri
Returned to the intercontinental
Of Caraculo and Jetachancho,
Two musicians from Valparaíso
In Barcelona’s Chinatown.
And poor Caraculo, said
The singer,
He was married and such was his need
To make some money
For his wife and the heirs
To the Caraculo lineage
That he started dealing
And a little cocaine
And on Fridays some Ecstasy
For the subjects of Venus.
And little by little, obstinately,
He began to succeed.
And while Jetachancho
Hung out with Aldo di Pietro
Remember him?
At the Café Puerto Rico,
Caraculo observed the growth
Of his bank account
And his self-esteem.
And what lesson can
We Neochilenos take
From the criminal life
Of these two South American
None, except that limits
Are tenuous, lines
Are fine lines: faces
Of a reality minted
In the void.
The same void
As horrified Pascal.
This dark
And cold
Geometrical horror
Said Pancho Ferri
To the steering wheel of our racecar,
Forever pointing
North, until
At Toco
We unloaded
The PA
And two hours later
Were ready to go on:
Pancho Relámpago
Y Los Neochilenos.
A minor fiasco
In a nutshell,
Even if some adolescents
Helped us
Put our instruments
Back in the pickup truck: children
Of Toco
Transparent like
The geometrical figures
Of Blaise Pascal.
And after Toco, Quillagua,
Hillarico, Soleded, Ramaditas,
Pintados and Humberstone,
Appearing in empty halls
And brothels made over
Into Lilliputian hospitals,
Something very weird, very few had
Electricity, very
Weird that the walls
Were semisolid, in short,
Places that gave us
A slight sensation of fear
And where the clients
Were devotees of
Fist-fucking (as they say in English)
And feet-fucking
And the cries that flew
From the windows and
Circulated among the cement patio
And the open air latrines,
And corner shops full
Of rusty tools
And sheds that appeared
To soak up all the moonlight
Made our hair
Stand on end.
How can such evil
In such a new country,
Such a minor entity?
Could this be
The Inferno of Whores?
Pancho Ferri
Wondered aloud.
And we Neochilenos
Didn’t know
How to reply.
I was more interested in the question
Of how such New York sexual fetishes
Could have reached
Those provincial
And with empty pockets
We continued on up:
Mapocho, Negreiros, Santa
Catalina, Tana,
Cuya and
Where we found
A little rest—and insults.
And three nights of work
In the Camafeo run by
Don Luis Sánchez Morales, retired
A place full of little round tables
And portly little lamps
Painted by the hand
Of Don Luis’s mother,
I suppose.
And the only thing
Truly pleasant
That we saw in Arica
Was the sun of Arica:
A sun like a cloud of
A sun like sand
Subtly displacing
The motionless air.
The rest: routine.
Killers and converts
Mixed in the same discussion
Of deaf-mutes,
Of idiots undone
By purgatory.
And the lawyer Vivanco,
A friend of Don Luis Sánchez,
Asked what kind of crap we were trying to pull
With this Neochilenos bullshit.
Neo-patriots, said Pancho
Getting up
From the table
And shutting himself in the bathroom.
And the lawyer Vivanco
Returned his pistol
To his underarm holster
Made of Italian leather,
Exquisite gift from the boys
Of the Ordine Nuovo,
Embossed with skill and care.
That moon-white
Night the group of us
Had to put
Pancho Ferri in bed.
Running a fever of 104
He became delirious:
Now he would prefer our group
To be called not Pancho Relámpago
Y Los Neochilenos,
But rather Pancho Misterio
Y Los Neochilenos:
The terror of Pascal.
The terror of singers.
The terror of travelers,
But never the terror
Of children.
And at dawn,
Like a band of thieves,
We left from Arica
And crossed the frontier
Of the Republic.
To see our faces
You would have said we were crossing
The frontier of Reason.
And legendary Peru
Opened up before our pickup truck
Covered with dust
And filthiness,
Like a fruit with no skin,
Like a chimerical fruit
Exposed to inclement weather
And affronts.
A peeled fruit
Like a teenager skinned alive.
And Pancho Ferri, from
Then on called Pancho
Misterio, didn’t escape
From his fever,
Musing like a priest
In the back
Of the pickup truck
On the avatars—Sanskrit word—
Of Caraculo and Jetachancho.
A life slender and hard
Like the noose and porridge of a hanged man,
That life of Jetachancho and his
Unfortunate Siamese twin:
A life or mere investigation
Of the capricious wind.
And the Neochilenos
Appeared in Tacna,
In Mollendo and Arequipa,
Under the sponsorship of the Society
For the Promotion of Art
And Youth.
Without a singer, humming
The songs ourselves
Or just going mmm, mmm, mmmmmh,
While Pancho sank further
Into the back of the truck,
Devoured by chimeras
And by teenagers skinned alive.
Nadir and zenith of a longing
That Caraculo knew
By way of the moons
Above the drug dealers
Of Barcelona: a deceitful
Flash of light,
A small and vacant space
Signifying nothing,
Worth nothing, and
Nevertheless offered to you
For free.
And if we weren’t
In Peru? we
Wondered one night.
And if this immense
That is our instructor
And our boundary
Were an intergalactic spaceship,
An unidentified
Flying object?
And if the fever
Of Pancho Misterio
Were our fuel
Or our navigation system?
And after work
We went out walking
Along the Peruvian streets,
Among military patrols, and unemployed
Door-to-door salesmen ,
Searching the hills
For the bonfires of the Shining Path,
But we saw nothing.
The darkness that surrounded the
The city centers
Was complete.
This is like a dust cloud
Escaped from the Second
World War
Said Pancho laid out
In the back of the truck.
He said: fibers
Of Nazi generals like
Richenau or Model
Escaped in involuntary
Spiritual form
Toward the Virgin Lands
Of Latin America:
A hinterland of ghosts
And phantoms.
Our own home
Established in the geometry
Of impossible enormities.
And at night we usually
Picked up some girls from the bars:
The 15 year old whores
Descended from the heroes
Of the War of the Pacific
Liked to hear us rattle on
Like machine guns.
But above all
They liked seeing Pancho
Buried in many-colored blankets
And wearing a wool hat
From the highlands
Pulled down so low his eyebrows
Appeared and disappeared,
Helmeted like the knight
He always was,
A guy blessed with good luck,
A great sick lover from the south of Chile,
Father of the Neochilenos
And mother to Caraculo and Jetachanco,
Two poor musicians from Valparaíso,
As everybody knows.
And dawn always found us
Gathered around a backroom table
Talking about the kilogram and a half of gray matter
That forms the brain of an adult
Chemical messages, Pancho Misterio
Would say, burning with fever,
Excitatory neurons
And inhibitory neurons
Inside the vastnesses of a longing.
And the little whores would say
That a kilo and a half of gray
Was enough, was plenty, because who
Could ask for more.
And tears would fall from Pancho’s
Eyes when he listened to them.
And then the rainstorm came
And the rain drew silence
Across the streets of Mollendo,
And across the hills,
And across the streets of the barrio
Of whores,
And the rain was the only
Strange phenomenon: the Neochilenos
Continued talking to themselves
And each on his own
We explored the trash heaps of
Philosophy, the arks, the
American colors, the unmistakable style
Of birth and rebirth.
And one night our pickup truck
Headed straight toward Lima, with Pancho
Ferri at the wheel, just like
Old times,
Except that now a whore
Was by his side.
A thin young whore
Named Margarita,
Adolescent nonpareil,
Habituated to permanent
She could equally well have been
called Nimble
That dark shelter
Where Pancho could
Let his wounds heal.
And in Lima we read about the Peruvian
Vallejo, Martín Adán and Jorge Pimentel,
And Pancho Misterio went out
On stage and was convincing
And versatile.
And then, however shaky
And sweaty we may have been
He recounted to us the story
Of a novel
By a great Chilean writer.
One swallowed by oblivion.
A nec spes nec metus
We Neochilenos said
and Margarita said:
A novelist.
And the ghost,
The grieving pit
That all his efforts
Turned into,
Wrote—so it seemed—
A novel called Kundalini,
And Pancho hardly remembered it,
He made an effort, his words
Rummaged around his atrocious childhood
Filled with amnesia, with gymnastic
Competitions and lies,
And thus the tale was told to us,
In fragments,
The cry Kundalini,
The name of a racehorse, a mare,
And mass murder in the hippodrome.
A hippodrome that no longer existed.
An empty space left behind
In a Chile nonexistent
And happy.
And this story had
The virtue of illuminating
Like an English landscape painter
Our fear and our dreams
That marched from east to west
And from west to east,
While we real-life
Traveled from the south
To the north.
And so slowly
That it seemed we didn’t move.
And Lima was an instant
Of happiness,
Brief but effective.
And what relationship obtains, said Pancho,
Between Morpheus, god
Of dreams
And “munch,” vulgar term
For eating?
Yes, that’s what he said,
Clasping by the waist
His beautiful Margarita,
Skinny and almost naked
In a bar in Lince, on a night
Deciphered and divided and
By lightning flashes
From the chimera.
Our need.
Our mouth that opens
So that potatoes
Can come in
And dreams
Can come out: fossilized
Dust clouds
Employing the color palette
Of the apocalypse.
We’re survivors, said Pancho
Latin Americans blessed with good luck.
That’s all.
And one night before leaving
We saw Pancho
And Margarita
Standing in the middle of an infinite
And then we knew
That the Neochilenos
Would always be
By chance.
The coin
Jumped like a metallic
From between his fingers:
Heads, to the south,
Tails, to the north,
And then we all climbed aboard
The pickup truck
And the city
Of legends
And fear
Fell behind.
One happy January day
We crossed
Like children of Cold,
Of Changeable Cold,
Or of Ecce Homo,
The Ecuadorian frontier.
By then Pancho was
28 or 29 years old
And would shortly die.
And Margarita was 17.
And none of the Neochilenos
Made it past 22.

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