Mosaic / Reviews / October 19, 2011

Bolaño a new experience in Spanish literature

If you haven’t heard of Roberto Bolaño, you have either been living under a rock or in the United States, which in the end comes to essentially the same thing.

What you have missed is this: the man who has infused the Spanish language (perpetually suffocated by the Borgesian shadow) with new breath, a breath that is as tinged with the rot of the millennial world as it is with the toothpastes of poetry, adventure and nostalgia.

His most famous novels are “The Savage Detectives,” which plays out like a Latin American “Huckleberry Finn,” and “2666,” a novel filled with apocalypse and dread that has sent even the bravest of readers to bed with their pants wet and their eyes damp with bloody tears.

Melodrama aside, you’ll be happy to hear that it is not too late for you, though technically Bolaño is “late” (he died in 2003 due to a liver illness that was no doubt well-earned, vaya con Dios). Yet as any literary executor will tell you, the death of an author is only the beginning of his career.

So it is with Bolaño, who will see (from the starry heavens?) his posthumous novel “The Third Reich” hit shelves next month. But as we await this newest work, it is time to catch up on another posthumous work that you might have missed from this summer: Bolaño’s “Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003,” translated by the ever faithful Natasha Wimmer and edited by Ignacio Echevarría.

The book, which is divided into six sections, begins with “Three Insufferable Speeches,” in which Bolaño is delectably insufferable. This is to say that his broad, comic and sweeping generalizations have something of the sword to their style — the way they slice and scar traditional notions of the Argentine literary canon in “The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom” or the way they carve at Latin America’s harmful habit of regionalizing its literature.

True, those unacquainted with Latin American and Spanish literatures might find this material somewhat esoteric — but what shines through is Bolaño’s love of the word and the way of the word, his sheer life force and his desperation, which brings everyone to literature in the first place.

All this continues in the middle, bulkiest section of the book, “Between Parentheses,” which includes most of the columns Bolaño wrote for the Chilean newspaper Las Últimas Noticias and for the Catalan paper Diari de Girona.

Their subjects vary from reviews of contemporary novels to brief prose sketches of half-nude women on beaches. For now, it is the closest we will get to reading Bolaño’s journal.

The book’s most poignant moments come when Bolaño turns to the topic of literature and exile. Bolaño, who left Chile at the age of 20, knows well the life of a wanderer. But in this he takes great joy, avoiding the maudlin homesickness seen in the eyes of other exiles.

In his essay “Exiles” Bolaño even questions whether anyone can be called an exile: “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 said.

Doubtless, Bolaño offers the sweetest of exiles in this posthumously released collection. As with his other works, one is allowed to leave their home country, the country of their living, and wander within a mind as spacious and intricate as any political state.

Christopher Poore

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