OCTOBER 19, 2011
ROBERTO BOLANO’S BETWEEN PARENTHESES, his latest book to be translated into English, is a collection of essays, speeches, and nonfiction curiosities written between 1998 and 2003. These were the years just after the publication of The Savage Detectives, the book which propelled Bolaño from regional obscurity to international renown. It was also the period when the Chilean novelist was writing his posthumously published masterpiece, 2666. (He died of liver failure at the age of 50 in 2003.)
Between Parentheses is the closest Bolaño came to writing an autobiography, although he loathed the genre:
I’ve always thought autobiographies were odious. What a waste of time trying to pass a cat off as a rabbit, when what a real writer should do is snare dragons and dress them up as rabbits. I take it for granted that in literature a cat is never a cat, as Lewis Carroll made clear once and for all.
However Bolaño may have distrusted self-revelation, Between Parentheses is an intriguing time capsule of the novelist’s thought in his final years, just as international fame knocked on his door and he recognized that his life was almost over. The writer’s ill health colors his ruminations and a personal map appears, not unlike the wayward maps followed by the characters in his novels: crumpled, illuminated with a vagabond’s cigarette lighter, better consulted on a park bench than a sofa, and at times purposefully deceptive.
It is here we read, for instance, the hotly contested assertions that he was a heroin addict, and that he was imprisoned in Chile in 1973, during the military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power. In 2009, the writer’s widow denied that he had ever used heroin. More recently, fellow poets who knew him in the seventies cast doubt that he was in Chile during the pivotal months surrounding Pinochet’s coup.
By its very nature, the life of an exile — and Bolaño may be remembered as the consummate exile — is fraught with jarring shifts that play havoc with memory. What’s interesting is that he embraced his sense of displacement as if it were the ultimate source of strength. He seemed less interested in his (and his characters’) past, in verifiable dates and events aired out for analysis, than he was in the experiential portfolio derived from mental and physical peregrination.
Probably all of us, writers and readers alike, set out into exile, or at least into a certain kind of exile, when we leave childhood behind. Which would lead to the conclusion that the exiled person or the category of exile doesn’t exist, especially in regards to literature. The immigrant, the nomad, the traveler, the sleepwalker all exist, but not the exile, since every writer becomes an exile simply by venturing into literature, and every reader becomes an exile simply by opening a book.
Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile in 1953, the son of a truck driver. His childhood, as he remembered it, was one of not belonging: He was dyslexic, an indifferent student, and a weakling targeted by school bullies. The writer seldom revisits his childhood in Between Parentheses, but when he does it is usually in the form of snapshots presented with the utmost detachment, as if remoteness itself were the salient point:
I remembered the wooden walls of the [Santiago] house where we lived. And how the walls (and the floorboards) were soaked during the endless southern rains. I also remembered a dwarf lady who lived five houses away. A dwarf lady from Germany, teacher of something at some school, who was the living image of exile … For a while I thought this woman was actually an extraterrestrial.
His family moved to Mexico when Bolaño was 15 years old. Soon after, he dropped out of school, joined several left-wing political movements, and tried his hand at journalism. Mexican writers and editors from that period remember him as talented but combative: an impoverished Trotskyite, a founding member of a minor poetic movement called “infrarealismo,” and a provocateur, fond of barging in on politely assembled literary readings. A voracious reader, he stole unapologetically from unsuspecting book dealers. “The good thing about stealing books (as opposed to safes),” he comments in Between Parentheses, “is that one can carefully examine their contents before perpetrating the crime.”
At 24, Bolaño left Latin America and backpacked through Europe, writing poetry and juggling odd jobs along the way. Eventually, he settled in Spain, in the small, working-class, Catalan beach resort of Blanes, where he earned money as a bellhop, a watchman at a campground, a garbage collector, and a dishwasher. From the beginning, he embraced Blanes as a backwater setting for fellow wanderers:
Blanes is like its beaches, where each summer Europe’s bravest come to lie in the sun, people from here and from the other side of the Pyrenees, the fat, the ugly, the skeletal, the prettiest girls in Barcelona, children of all kinds, the old, the terminally ill, the hung over, all half naked, all exposed to the Mediterranean sun … and the smell that rises from the beaches (it’s nice to remember this now, in the dead of winter) is the smell of body lotion, of tanning cream, of sunscreen a smell that is what it is, of course, but that is also the smell of democracy, history, civilization.
The author remained there for the rest of his life. (The Skating Rink, a seldom-mentioned novel by Bolaño, is set in “Z,” Blanes’s carelessly disguised twin. It’s a haunting murder mystery about love stated poorly.) In a 1999 speech that he gave in the resort town, he offered another reason for calling Blanes home:
I’ve learned [in Blanes] not to be embarrassed about being poor … and this is important, because in Catalonia one is ashamed of not working, not of being poor. For a writer like me, who hasn’t accumulated wealth or possessions … it’s very important.
Bolaño worried increasingly about money. By 1990, he had a wife and son to support, and came to the conclusion that publishing fiction would be a better way to provide for his family than poetry. A flurry of novels ensued. Financial success remained elusive, but with each passing publication, Bolaño garnered more fans within the Spanish-speaking literati, advocates who would eventually recognize him as the most important writer to emerge from Latin America since Gabriel García Márquez.
But the comparison with Márquez is misleading. Bolaño did not conform to the paradigm of magical realism in any way. Quite the opposite: he wrote about Latin America as if he were a beatnik from another planet, landed on assignment for an investigative report, an alien who was a voracious observer, subversively aroused by what he saw. This singularly unperturbed yet disturbing voice of otherness, always seduced without ever belonging, undermined what a Latin American writer was supposed to sound like. It caught Spanish-speaking readers off guard and left them turning the page for more.
With the English translation of The Savage Detectives, Bolaño became the darling of English and American critics. Praise from key “opinion makers” such as Susan Sontag, who wrote in theTimes Literary Supplement that Bolaño was “the most influential and admired novelist of his generation,” cleared the way for canonization. (“Opinion makers” is Bolaño’s own term: “Today plagiarists aren’t hanged. In fact, they’re given scholarships, prizes, public office, and if very lucky, they become bestsellers and opinion makers. What a strange and ugly term: opinion makers. I suppose it means the same thing as shepherd, or spiritual guide of slaves, or poet laureate.”) Many American readers felt as if their telescope had been pointed for many years in the wrong direction, when all along, on the other side of the sky, blazed a thrilling, unknown galaxy of work. Why hadn’t they noticed it before? The writer’s previous novels and short stories were quickly tapped for translation, a process that continues today.
Bolaño was distrustful of the attention. By 1998, he had survived 25 years of relative anonymity and had long since come to believe that lack of recognition was, in all probability, a writer’s best friend:
I never had a patron. No one ever hooked me up with anyone so I could get a grant. No government or institution ever offered me money, no elegant gentleman ever pulled out his checkbook for me … Behind this crowd, however, hides the one true patron. If you have patience enough to search, maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of what you’re looking for … It isn’t the devil. It isn’t the State. It isn’t a magical child. It’s the void.
And, of course, by 2003 he was dying. In his last interview, published in Playboy the same month of his death, Bolaño was asked how he had been changed by his illness. “Nothing changed,” he replied. “I discovered that I wasn’t immortal, which — at the age of thirty-eight — it was about time I discovered.” “What things would you like to do before you die?” the interviewer asked, to which he responded:
Nothing in particular. Well, I’d rather not die, of course. But sooner or later the great lady makes her entrance. The problem is that sometimes she’s no lady, let alone great. Instead, as Nicanor Parra says in a poem, she’s a cheap whore, which is enough to make anyone’s teeth chatter.
And when the interviewer asked him, “What do you have to say about those who think The Savage Detectives is the great contemporary Mexican novel?” he replied:
They say it because they feel sorry for me, they see me looking depressed or as if I’m on my last legs and the best they can come up with is a white lie, which, in fact, is only appropriate in cases like this and isn’t even a venial sin.
He seems to be having a bit of fun here, turning his dragons into rabbits, downplaying his impending death as well as the obvious impact of his book.
The Savage Detectives is a deviously composed requiem, which begins simply enough. The first section is titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico (1975).” In it, a 17-year-old male narrator is invited to join a group of Mexico City poets who call themselves visceral realists. Together they create a quest: to locate and meet an obscure, long-lost poet who, in the twenties, founded an avant-garde literary movement. By joining the group, the narrator, who is studying law to please his uncle, throws away the guarantee of a respectable future in favor of a life without safety nets. Fueled by dreams of artistic conquests, oblivious to mortality, enamored by radical politics and (what was then called) free love, he is seduced by his acquaintances’ lifestyle and adopts them as his family. Eventually, it becomes apparent that less savory elements — drug dealers, pimps, and other criminals — are also part of the narrator’s new family. The first section ends with a street fight, echoing gunshots, and a car peeling away from imminent danger.
“Mexicans Lost in Mexico (1975)” has a story line that is easily reconstructed. The narration is presented in the form of diary entries dated from November 2 to December 31, 1975. But in the second section, “The Savage Detectives (1976-1996),” the reader is driven off a metaphorical cliff. It is, by far, the largest of the novel’s three sections and the title, itself, is slightly discomfiting. Why the redundancy? Wasn’t the first section also part of The Savage Detectives? There are no reassuring diary entries here. All apparent order has been hurled out the window. The reader goes into a long free fall, encountering a total of 52 narrators, some of whom may know one another but all of whom are intent on making their life stories more urgent and compelling than their competitors. Decades of love and hope and disappointment are shuffled and recounted as if the narrators’ very existences depend on the reader knowing their most intimate secrets. With each additional voice, the volume increases, adding weight and velocity to our plunge until, ultimately, a surreal slow-motion sets in, a stupefaction because, in addition to the vertigo, we are also pulled horizontally: We’re yanked to Liberia, then Paris, then the United States, then Vienna, then Israel, then Barcelona. The compass spins out of control while the contrapuntal narrations reach a thundering yet unstated refrain: “Yes, this is and was and will be the life lived without a safety net. It makes love to you and flattens you and, if you’re lucky, somewhere in the dance swirls honor.”
The novel’s third and final section is titled “The Sonora Desert (1976).” A car is fleeing Mexico City at 80 miles per hour. Our first narrator has returned, along with his two poet friends, and so has the orderly diary format. The opening entry is dated January 1, the day after the last entry of the first section. It’s almost as if the treachery of the second section never happened. But, of course, it did. And lest the reader get too comfortable, the January 1 entry begins with: “Today I realized that what I wrote yesterday I really wrote today.”
The section is brief, only 50 pages long. To relieve the boredom of the long hours during the first few days on the road, the three poets test themselves on the meaning of obscure, arcane literary terms. It begins as a game, but as the contestants compete, it becomes apparent that the survival of words is more important to them than their own well being. And although they don’t talk about it, gangsters from Mexico City are hot on their trail.
And then a chilling thing happens: The nearer they get to the unremitting emptiness of Sonora, the more their voices become stifled. The diary entries become shorter, the sentences truncated. Time blurs:
I don’t know whether today is February 2nd or 3rd. It might be the 4th, or even the 5th or 6th. But it’s all the same to me. This is our threnody.
Rudimentary line drawings — variations on concentric circles and empty rectangles — begin to augment the narrator’s lament. In the diary’s final week, verbs disappear. Even the simple shapes of the line drawings begin to feel conditional. The final illustrative rectangle, on the last page of the book, is created with dotted lines. The resultant silence is both deafening and triumphant: a void made bearable only by Bolaño’s sheer mastery of the accumulative orchestrations that have preceded it.
Bolaño has little to say about The Savage Detectives in Between Parentheses, at least directly, except that he saw it as a response to Huckleberry Finn:
The Mississippi of The Savage Detectives is the flow of voices in the second part of the novel. It’s also the more or less faithful transcription of a segment of the life of the Mexican poet Mario Santiago, whose friend I was lucky enough to be. In this sense the novel tries to reflect a kind of generational defeat and also the happiness of a generation, a happiness that at times delineated courage and the limits of courage. To say that I’m permanently indebted to the work of Borges and Cortázar is obvious. I believe there are as many ways to read my novel as there are voices in it. It can be read as a deathbed lament. It can also be read as a game.
But if Bolaño generally avoided writing about himself and his fiction, he is generous with his praise for his favorite novelists. Here, for example, is what he has to say about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a novel set in Sonora, Mexico, which serves as backdrop not only for the final section of The Savage Detectives but for the bulk of 2666 as well:
[It is] a kind of anti-pastoral novel in which the landscape [takes the] leading role, imposingly — truly the new world, silent and paradigmatic and hideous, with room for everything except human beings … a landscape out of de Sade, a thirsty and indifferent landscape ruled by strange laws involving pain and anesthesia …
In discussing 2666, which focuses on the more than 300 women who were raped and killed in Sonora between 1993 and 2002, Bolaño tips his hat to Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez’s Huesos en el desierto (Bones in the Desert), which
breaks the rules of journalism as soon as it gets the chance in order to venture into the anti-novel, into first-person narrative, into open wounds, and even, in the last part, into lament. Thus instead of being just an imperfect snapshot of wrongdoing and corruption, as of course it must be, Huesos en el desierto becomes a metaphor for Mexico and the Mexican past and the uncertain future of all of Latin America. It’s a book not in the adventure tradition but in the apocalyptic tradition, which are the only two traditions still alive on our continent, maybe because they’re the only ones that draw us closer to the abyss that surrounds us.
The writers Bolaño chooses to address in Between Parentheses are an eclectic group. He identifies Philip K. Dick, for instance, as “a kind of Kafka steeped in LSD and rage” and then, in the same paragraph describes him as “Thoreau plus the death of the American dream.” Juan Rodolfo Wilcock’s The Temple of the Iconoclasts, which partially inspired his own Nazi Literature in the Americas, is “without a doubt one of the funniest, most joyful, irreverent, and most corrosive books of the twentieth century.” He admires Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, observing that, in the final analysis, Thompson was far wilder than the motorcycle gang he immortalized. William S. Burroughs was “a saint who attracted all the sinners in the world because he was gracious and unwise enough never to shut his door.” Although Thomas Harris is not a great writer, Bolaño writes, his Hannibal Lecter is a great character, whose “views on pain and the brevity of life can be magnificent … The secondary characters are at once believable and implausible: in other words, they’re literature.” Isabelle Allende is the “politically correct version of the author of The Valley of the Dolls.” His entire generation fell in love with Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch because, despite what they expected, they “didn’t emerge unscathed.” There’s a marvelous essay on Herman Melville and Mark Twain, arguing that all important American writers (both north and south of the border) must first drink from the “two galloping streams” of Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn: the magic rivers of evil and survival in the first instance, and friendship and happiness in the second.
But Bolaño’s greatest praise is reserved for Jorge Luis Borges, who “forged deepest into the mystery of language.” He even admits to having purchased (rather than stolen) Borges’s Obra poetica:
I bought it in Madrid in 1977 … I started to read it that night and didn’t stop until eight the next morning, as if there was nothing in the world worth reading except those poems, nothing else that could change the course of the wild life that I’d lived up until then, nothing else that could lead me to reflect (because Borges’ poetry possesses a natural intelligence and also bravery and despair — in other words, the only things that inspire reflection and that keep poetry alive).
The parade of authors either sneered at or saluted is as long as it is varied: Mario Vargas Llosa, Neruda, Grass, Swift, Turgenev, Amis, Ellroy, and Hemingway march by, as well as a regiment of other Latin American poets and novelists. But, with the exception of Roberto Brodsky and a few other favorites, Bolaño seems loath to waste his time on his fellow Chileans. In a spectacularly brief, one-paragraph piece called “Chilean Literature” he writes:
This is what Chilean literature taught me. Ask for nothing, because you’ll be given nothing. Don’t get sick because no one will help you. Don’t ask to be included in any anthology because your name will always be omitted. Don’t fight because you’ll always be defeated. Don’t turn your back on power because power is everything. Don’t be stinting in your praise for idiots, the dogmatic, the mediocre, if you don’t want to live a season in hell. Life here goes on more or less unchanged.
There is only one Chilean artist whose work unclenches Bolaño’s fist, and interestingly it is not a writer but a photographer: Sergio Larrain. In particular, he is seduced by Larrain’s bookLondon, 1958-59 (1998):
I’d like to say that I’ve lived in one of his photographs. Maybe I have. What I know for certain is that I’ve strolled through one … I have the feeling that Larrain is the perfect tourist, the Medusa tourist who, as the result of years buried in the only corridor-country in the world and of generations of misspent, squandered, or forgotten Chilean lives, has been granted a gaze that is also a way of moving. Swift, agile, young and vulnerable, Larrain scans a labyrinthine city and as he does so he scans us.
Is he really talking about Larrain? The author could be describing the movement and street settings, the peripheral atmosphere and narrative voyeurism that one so readily identifies with Bolaño’s own novels. A great deal of his fiction takes place on the streets, on foot in foreign cities: At times, his narrators serve as guides for urban walking tours, showing us how alien the familiar can be. Certainly Larrain’s photographs — both personal and documentary at the same time — could double as stills from one of Bolaño’s stories. Indeed, the writer is so entranced by one photograph, of people walking in Hyde Park, that he creates a narrative, a storyboard that transforms the still image into a (very Chilean) mini-movie:
[O]n the right side I spot a parochial native of Santiago de Chile, a government or bank official, clerk or bureaucrat, a good man who has never left Chile, his little hat says as much, startled as he walks through Hyde Park with a stern look on his face (though his sternness is of the most helpless variety), as if he were thinking abstruse thoughts. On the left side of the picture a girl, possibly a nanny, pushes a baby carriage that isn’t seen: only the handle appears in the frame. This girl is English: her eyes gaze at the carriage that I can’t see and the child who I can’t see, but by the expression on her face it’s clear that she’s elsewhere, a much warmer place, the tropic of geometric forms, the tropic of geometric exiles. The photograph doesn’t end with these two figures, who actually only frame it and thereby give it a twist: between the Luciferian nanny and the parochial Chilean from Santiago, but further in the distance, a couple stroll arm in arm toward the photographer and foreground, which thus becomes a promise of the future, as if the fate of that ideal (and eminently British) couple were the peripatetic Chilean and the baby we can’t see and the baby’s questionable caretaker. But even here the photograph doesn’t end (because this photograph and maybe all photographs have a beginning and an end, though as a general rule we never know for sure what they are), or the staging of the scene doesn’t end: in the background there are three tiny silhouettes, this time in the exact center of the lens, three silhouettes poised at the point where the placid Hyde Park path merges with the horizon, silhouettes that may either be approaching Larrain’s camera or moving away from it, probably approaching, three silhouettes that are like three black holes or like three tiny scratches in the fateful serenity (and clarity) of this photograph.
A lot of Chilean miles are covered on that tamped down London footpath. Bolaño transforms it into the intersection of two hemispheres. All the world is adrift in his universe, and the essays in Between Parentheses make it clear why departure was always Bolaño’s real homecoming, and exile the only literary option. “A writer outside his native country seems to grow wings,” he asserted. The brilliant flights of his novels lend credence to the theory.