A brief survey of the short story part 46:
Invested with a rare belief in literature's importance, his enigmatic stories encompass deep feeling and extreme violenceChris Power
Thursday 24 January 2013 11.38 GMT
When he died of liver failure in Spain in 2003, aged 50, Chilean author Roberto Bolaño had published 13 books in just 10 years, and his third short-story collection was with his publisher. He also left behind several works in various stages of completion, including the enormous, engulfing novel 2666. His fame was burgeoning around the world at the time of his death, and posthumous publications continue to appear: remains of "a supernova of creativity," in Giles Harvey's description, "whose light is still arriving at our shores."
It is impossible to write about any one strand of Bolaño's work in isolation, because nearly all of it inhabits one sprawling intertextual territory. Speaking in 1998 he said, "I consider, in a very humble way, all my prose, and even some of my poetry, to be a whole. Not only stylistically, but also as a narrative." Enjoying contrariness, Bolaño rowed back from this statement elsewhere, but the recurrence of characters, themes and incidents in his work is undeniable. His alter ego Arturo Belano, for example, features in or narrates many of the short stories, as well as being a lead character in the novel The Savage Detectives, and the narrator of the novels Distant Star and – according to a note in Bolaño's papers – 2666.
Bolaño's stories take the form of fragments of memoir ("Sensini", "The Grub"), unsolvable detective stories ("Phone Calls"), or anxious transmissions from a region between dream and reality ("The Dentist"). Sometimes, as in "Gómez Palacio", they feel like all three at once. An account of a writer going to a remote town in northern Mexico to interview for a teaching post, the story establishes its strange air of lassitude and dread at once: "I went to Gómez Palacio during one of the worst periods of my life. I was twenty-three years old and I knew that my days in Mexico were numbered." The narrator discusses poetry with the director of the art school, has bad dreams (Bolaño's work is clotted with dreams), and stands in the room of his isolated motel "looking at the desert stretching off into the dark". Parked at dusk in the desert in the director's car, a situation with a vague sexual potential that perhaps neither party wants to realise, a man pulls in a few metres ahead of them. "It's my husband, the director said with her eyes fixed on the stationary car, as if she were talking to herself." The cars sit in silence. When the writer drives away the man in the other car "turned his back to us and I couldn't see his face." The director then tells the writer she was joking, that it wasn't her husband after all.
This admission at first works to defuse the tension, but as the scene lingers the anonymity of the faceless driver becomes more menacing. His identity and motives tantalise. Bolaño once said that if he hadn't been a writer he would have been a homicide detective, "the sort of person who comes back alone to the scene of a crime by night, unafraid of ghosts", and his stories make us detectives at the scene, too, although the culprit and often even the crime remain shrouded. This roadside scene is consummate Bolaño: an event suspended between mundanity and threat that endures in the memory.
In "Mauricio 'The Eye' Silva", Bolaño writes, "violence, real violence, is unavoidable, at least for those of us who were born in Latin America during the 50s and were about 20 years old at the time of Salvador Allende's death. That's just the way it goes." Violence, implied or actual, is an unbroken bass tone running through his work. "The Part About the Crimes", the longest section of 2666, is the most bluntly violent piece of writing I've ever read. Given this, his irony, the intertextual games that connect one distant corner of his fiction to another, and the recurring themes that form the churning centres of his work (exile, idealism, power relations, art), it's surprising to note how moving his writing can be. In "Last Evenings on Earth", B (presumably Belano) goes on a disastrous holiday to Acapulco with his father. They haven't been getting on, but when B looks down from his hotel window one night,
"he makes out his father's silhouette climbing the stairs. First his head, then his broad shoulders, then the rest of his body, and finally the shoes, a pair of white moccasins that B, as a rule, finds profoundly disgusting, but the feeling they provoke in him now is something like tenderness."
In the unfinished story "Colonia Lindavista", the narrator remembers the period when his family moved from Chile to Mexico City: "When I think back to that time, I see my parents and my sister, and then I see myself, and the little group we compose looks overwhelmingly desolate." These moments of tenderness and lament, so simply declared, arrive with an uncommon force, a function of Bolaño's ability to invest his stories with palpable significance, even though what is at stake may remain mysterious.
This is true even, or perhaps especially, when in summary they sound ridiculous. For example, in "Enrique Martín Arturo", Belano and the eponymous poet fall out over poetry. At some point Martín renounces it and goes to work reporting UFO sightings for a paranormal magazine. He re-establishes contact by sending Belano cryptic postcards, pays him a paranoid visit in the middle of the night to entrust him with a box of papers, and hangs himself. The reader is primed for conspiracy. But when, at the story's end, Belano opens the box and reads the papers, "There were no maps or coded messages on any of them, just poems, mainly in the style of Miguel Hernández, but there were also some imitations of León Felipe, Blas de Otero, and Gabriel Celaya. That night I couldn't get to sleep. Now it was my turn to escape." Yet in Bolaño's hands, what might have been a sardonic punchline is instead desperately mournful, a thing of beauty.
Bolaño can pull this off because of the conviction, universal in his work, that literature is as much about ethics as aesthetics: "It goes beyond the page," he told an Argentinian journalist, "… and establishes itself in the area of risk". In a short, playful essay about writing short stories he states, "the short-story writer should be brave. It's a sad fact to acknowledge, but that's the way it is." Beyond that, Bolaño exemplified the truth of every writer being a reader first: "Reading is always more important than writing", he said. His influences and idols included Poe, Perec, Nicanor Parra, Roque Dalton and Enrique Lihn, Kafka, Carver, Chekhov and Borges ("I could live under a table reading Borges"). "Basically," he once said, "I'm interested in western literature and I'm fairly familiar with all of it." Or, as Javier Cercas has him say in the novel Soldiers of Salamis, in which he appears as a character, "I read everything, even bits of paper I find blowing down the street."