At the time of his death in Barcelona in July 2003, from liver failure, Roberto Bolaño had not seen a word of his work translated into English, though his stature in the Spanish-reading world was pretty much assured. The first English translation of his work – by Chris Andrews, of By Night in Chile – would come later that same year, but it was not until 2007, with the publication of The Savage Detectives, in a translation by Natasha Wimmer, that the anglophone world really woke up to him.
And when it woke up, it woke up with a bang. Over the next three years the number of Bolaño’s books available in English jumped from four to eleven. There were obvious standouts – The Savage Detectives itself, and the monumental 2666 – but these were carried in on a tidal wave of other titles, a mix of that previously published in Spanish and other work – retrieved, it seemed, from the writer’s bottom drawer. Now, that tide having receded, it feels safe to look again at this writer’s work.
Bolaño’s fiction is characterised by a defiantly anti-literary narrative style that seems both off-hand and compulsive. No fancy words, no careful shaping of the material, just the onward-rolling relation of a series of events that range from the mundane to the noirishly threatening. It rattles along, discarding much of what it invents as it proceeds. And when it ends, it often ends very abruptly. His characters are usually penniless poets, or feckless drifters, or both – it can be hard to tell the difference. Violence haunts the stories, either the political violence of the European and Latin American dictatorships, or the more localised violence of dangerous men – often, though not always, against women.
But where to start? Those two big books still demand reading. 2666 is a kind of masterpiece, but one to be approached with caution. Consider its nine hundred pages, and its five sections, which Bolaño wanted published separately (to maximise income for his wife and children) but that his family, rightly, kept together, and consider also how thinly and belatedly those sections are connected. It moves through literary satire, boredom, nervous tension, and Lynchian nightmare before arriving, after 350 pages, at its hellish centre: ‘The Part about the Crimes’ is a catalogue of murderous violence against women in the fictional Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, based on Ciudad Juárez, at one point the most violent city in the world. The reader who successfully makes their way through this seemingly endless expanse of horror finds a still more weird conclusion in an account of the life of a mysterious German novelist, Benno von Archimboldi, which begins in Nazi Germany and somehow ends up back in Santa Teresa. The book as a whole is baroque, phantasmagorical, relentlessly and sometimes pointlessly inventive, and not the best place for a new reader to start.
Why not start, then, as many of us did, with The Savage Detectives? Well, again, it’s long, at nearly six hundred pages, and, like 2666, over-long –and deliberately so. But it showcases the author’s themes in a warmer light: his ironic-romantic view of the artistic life (all those randy young poets staying up all night talking about poetry before going home and having ridiculous sex all day), and his love-hate affair with Latin America: its political violence that breeds revolt, that revolt that breeds art, and that art that breeds joy. Bolaño himself said about the novel: ‘it reflects a kind of generational defeat, and the happiness of a generation.’ Hold on to that paradox as you read it, and the book still glows.
No other books by Bolaño reached the same lengths as this pair, and they certainly benefit from the cumulative effect of all that weirdness stacking up. Of his other, shorter books, the one that best achieves the same power is By Night in Chile, a dramatic monologue by a dying Chilean priest-cum-man-of-letters that slides from literary soirees to the terrors of Nazism and the Pinochet dictatorship, and shows how closely these things can be entwined. Its desperate, climactic statement – ‘This is how literature is made’ – will have you looking at the books on your shelves with unaccustomed disquiet.
The short stories are another way in. The Last Evenings on Earth collection admirably ticks most of Bolaño’s boxes. The title story is a brilliant, grimy tale of sex, alcohol and mounting dread that reads like it could slot perfectly into 2666, while ‘Sensini’ showcases his dedication to the world of minor and marginal writers, and ‘Anne Moore’s Life’ his appetite for perpetual narrative motion. It’s all here, but parcelled out. The novels benefit from having all these elements thrown into the same, baggy mix.
The other titles available should probably be left for further exploration after you’ve tried these central works. Bolaño reworked and reused characters, themes and situations – as he didn’t consider himself a true novelist, you are free to interpret his literary blind spots and failings as either radical integrity, or frustrating and negligent. Thus Amulet successfully expands a section from The Savage Detectives to give a fuller account of Auxilio Lacouture, the ‘Mother of Mexican Poetry’, who hides out in a university-building bathroom in 1968 while outside student protestors face down the Mexican army. Likewise, Distant Star is based on an entry from Nazi Literature in the Americas, a Borgesian biographical dictionary of invented fascistic American writers.
The noirish prose poem-novella Antwerp is as fragmentary as 2666, but far more opaque, while the The Skating Rink, his first published novel, is a sometimes charmingly low-key murder mystery played out around a Costa Brava campsite. It’s fair to say that anyone choosing one of these books – or Monsieur Pain or The Third Reich – as their first experience of Bolaño would wonder what all the fuss was about. In response, Bolaño would probably offer a defiant shrug. He doesn’t make it easy, but taking up that challenge can make for a hugely rewarding reading experience.
by Jonathan Gibbs
LASR EVENINGS ON EARTH, translated by Chris Andrews, published by Vintage (2008);
BY NIGHT IN CHILE, translated by Chris Andrews, published by Vintage (2009);
THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES, translated by Natasha Wimmer, published by Picador (2009);
2666, translated by Natasha Wimmer, published by Picador (2009);
NAZI LITERATURE IN AMERICAS, translated by Natasha Wimmer, published by Picador (2010);
THE THIRD REICH, translated by Natasha Wimmer, published by Picador (2012);
MONSIEUR PAIN, translated by Chris Andrews, published by Picador (2016);
DISTANT STAR, translated by Chris Andrews, published by Vintage (2014).
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