FEBRUARY 26, 2021
IN THE ACCLAIMED Spanish writer Javier Cercas’s novel Soldiers of Salamis, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño makes a cameo. To the frustrated narrator (Cercas himself) who has not been writing novels because, in his own words, he has no imagination, Bolaño gives his opinion on the matter: “To write novels you don’t need an imagination,” he says. “Just a memory. Novels are written by combining recollections.”
Published 18 years after Bolaño’s untimely death, Cowboy Graves consists of three novellas that anyone familiar with Bolaño’s biographical essays and interviews would testify to the veracity of his advice. The three novellas, each written in a different phase of his life, were “salvaged” from his archives, following the publication of his other “discovered” novels (The Third Reich, Woes of the True Policeman, and most recently, The Spirit of Science Fiction). One suspects that such a cascade of posthumous publications has been greenlit in order to capitalize on his ever-growing reputation. The three novellas in Cowboy Graves seem like a functional draft of his masterpieces such as The Savage Detectives, 2666, Distant Star, and Nazi Literature in the Americas. The prose is not quite Bolañoesque yet. However, it must be said, the blueprint of a masterwork is always worth reading. Cowboy Graves shouldn’t serve as an introduction to Bolaño’s oeuvre; rather, the experienced Bolaño readers can survey it to glimpse into his artistic process, into the fountain of his creativity. Bolaño simply didn’t need any muse besides his readings and his recollections.
It is telling that a critical review of this very collection follows the pages of three novellas, in addition to the notes detailing the provenance of these stories (in a file titled VAKEROS.doc, on a three-and-a-half-inch diskette labeled Cowboy Graves, in a File 9/33 containing a green folio notebook, etc.), as if these three novellas themselves weren’t enough to form a whole book. These supplementary materials render the collection more like a research material than an artwork. Books have been published against the wishes of authors or without their permission for many decades. The most exemplary case is Franz Kafka, whom Bolaño acknowledges in one of his essays as the greatest writer of the 20th century. Kafka left a testamentary direction to his friend Max Brod that his unpublished novels, including The Castle and The Trial, be burned, but his desires were ignored. Brod’s disloyalty greatly benefited literary posterity. The same can be said for the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa and his posthumously published magnum opus The Book of Disquiet. However, the implication may be different for Bolaño’s works as the majority of his great novels were published in his lifetime (at least the original Spanish editions; English translations have come after his death), and his “found” novels, the novels Bolaño plausibly deemed not meeting his standard, may unwittingly prevent some incipient Bolaño enthusiasts from chasing and panting after his “finished” works, which was the case with this reviewer when he read his first Bolaño book, The Savage Detectives.
The first novella titled “Cowboy Graves” clearly mirrors Bolaño’s youth. It begins at the airport, where his mother, his sister, and the narrator Arturo Belano (his alter ego) are waiting for a plane to Mexico. Bolaño’s life, ever since he was in his teens, has always been steeped in capital-L Literature, and this passion pervades the whole narrative. Before Arturo Belano leaves his home country, he decides that he must bid goodbye to his favorite poet, Nicanor Parra, and goes on a search. A book exchange between characters is common: a random person hands Arturo the international public airport manual at the airport; he receives from the attractive daughter of his mother’s friend Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet; and he has the famous actress sign an autograph on the page of his stolen book, Albert Camus’s The Fall. One of Bolaño’s great narrative skills is his ability to casually express the enigma of life, the lacuna between humanity’s capacity for comprehension and the world’s unknowable. Arturo remembers a conversation he had with his father on a day when they went on a horse ride with other Chileans:
Then, after putting out his cigarette, my father said: do you want to hear how cowboys travel in Mexico? Dad, there are no cowboys in Mexico, I said. Of course there are, said my father, I used to be a cowboy and your grandfather was a cowboy, and even your grandmother was a cowboy. Do you know why I’m here, so far from everywhere? The question didn’t seem fair to me, I lived here, so far from everywhere, and he seemed to be constantly forgetting that, but at the same time I imagined he was about to tell me something that would change my life.
To Bolaño, a cowboy is a figure of reverence. He once said that the true poet should abandon the coffeehouse and take the part of “the sharpshooters, the lonesome cowboys […], the spat-upon…” He respected their itinerant and adventurous lifestyle, the prototype of a brave soul, exactly what the poet should be. He must be implicitly referring, through the title, that such a lifestyle and the bravery required to be a true poet are disappearing.
The midsection of the first novella, subtitled “The Grub,” appeared in a slightly different form in Bolaño’s short story collection Last Evenings on Earth. In it, Arturo skips school in Mexico. Instead he steals books, devours them, and watches matinee movies in the theater. A few years later, to his parents: “I told them I was going back to Chile. The Chilean revolution? said my father. I nodded. But you’re Mexican, said my father. No, I’m Chilean, I said, but it doesn’t matter, all Latin Americans should be on their way to Chile to support the revolution.” On the return trip, he has roguish encounters with various personalities. To one character who’s writing a science fiction short story, Arturo lends his ear (the entirety of this short story is presented to the reader, about a horde of alien ants descending upon the earth). Back in Chile, he gets inadvertently involved in the Chilean coup against Pinochet with a bunch of amateur activists, with whom he gets in trouble because he couldn’t remember the password to identify himself as an ally. To the statement “It’s a cold morning,” the correct answer is “looks like it’s going to rain.” However, the scene depicts: “It’s a cold morning, Pancho repeated. I don’t know why, but at that moment I felt a kind of affection for him, for the thug with him, and for myself, not having brought a single book to while away the long wait.” Bolaño fans know that he was jailed during the coup, and one could entertain the idea if this incident had actually taken place and eventually led to his imprisonment. It is the fitting black humor to wrap up the first novella.
The next novella, titled “French Comedy of Horrors,” is a story of a young man named Diodorus Pilon and his initiation into the literary group called Clandestine Surrealist Group, which is a brainchild of the French surrealist writer André Breton. In Bolaño’s essay titled “Eight Seconds with Nicanor Parra,” he writes, “At some point late in his life, Breton talked about the need for surrealism to go underground, to descend into the sewers of cities and libraries.” This novella is a response to and fictional actualization of Breton’s credo. In addition, Bolaño’s lifelong disapproval of writers who seek respectability and recognition is apparent in this story; his group of literary friends reads the cultural section of the newspaper together and laughs at those writers who pander to the political authorities that finance them. Even the surrealism, once it degrades into mainstream, is worthless, as the recruiter says, “Official surrealism is a whorehouse.” The recruitment effort is done entirely via phone while Diodorus is holding the receiver in a phone booth in the middle of the night. And the masterwork of the group? “Preparing the revolution? Laying the foundation for the literature of the future?” This aim sounds a lot like the aim of the Infrarealists from The Savage Detectives.
The third novella, “Fatherland,” is the most incomplete novella of the three; it is merely a compilation of notes and working drafts done in preparation for his short novel Distant Star. All the important motifs and primary characters can be found in these notes: the death of a young promising poetess, the skywriting by the Messerschmitt, “the crown jewel of the Luftwaffe,” and Bibiano, a self-assigned detective who chases after the murderer. Many sentences in “Fatherland” end with an ellipsis, a possible sign that this was a working draft.
Bolaño’s literary reputation catapulted since his publication of The Savage Detectives in 1998 and later accelerated following his sudden death in 2003. Often considered the most important Latin American writer to emerge after Gabriel García Márquez, he rightly deserves all the accolades that have fallen on his tomb. Bolaño’s works have been a gateway drug to literature (and to literary life that embraces risks and adventures) to many young aspiring writers. The readers of his novels seem to learn, in a certain ineffable way, what’s in store for them in this life even before they experience it in reality: the impending adventures (both trivial and immense), the inevitable disappointments, the tenuous nature of human relationship, our yearnings and their tragically unfulfilled ends. Yet, we emerge no longer afraid of the transient nature of things.
His writing is global and encyclopedic, curative and addictive, and vibrant and visceral. The immediacy of the prose is almost palpable. If you’ve got some time to spare, be brave and tackle his 900-page-long 2666 or the 600-page-long The Savage Detectives. Too busy? Then pick up Distant Star or The Nazi Literature in the Americas. But if you’re a Bolaño novitiate, do not start with Cowboy Graves.