Swans Commentary » swans.com September 20, 2010  



Roberto Bolaño's Poetic Justice


by Peter Byrne





"The problem is, once among the Trotskyites, I didn't like their clerical unanimity either, so I ended up being an anarchist. I was the only anarchist I knew and thank God, because otherwise I would have stopped being an anarchist."

—Roberto Bolaño
"His books are political but in a way that is more personal than militant or demagogic, that is closer to the mystique of the beatniks than the Boom. [The Boom was a literary movement including Cortázar, Fuentes, Vargas Losa and García Márquez.]"

—Rodrigo Fresán


(Swans - September 20, 2010)   Roberto Bolaño comes to the reader of English like a night ablaze with so many fireworks the eye doesn't know where to look first. Few had heard of the Chilean writer and not much of his work had been translated. When the news finally broke of Bolaño's originality, readers grabbed at what was handy. More translations began to appear but not in the sequence the books had been written.

There was something glorious in this rich confusion. But it was still confusion. We read our own novelists linearly, growing old with them. Bolaño came to us like scrambled pages torn from his family album. In 2003 he died in Spain before we knew of him as a youth in Chile, where he was born in 1953. In 1968 he left with his family and went to live in Mexico City. Abandoning school, he worked on newspapers and took up left-wing causes. In 1973 he returned alone to Chile to support the Allende government. At the time of the Pinochet coup he was arrested as a terrorist. After a few days in custody friends got him released and he resumed life in Mexico City.

His brief return to Chile comes up again and again in Bolaño's writing. But the details have been called in question, and it ought to be underlined straightaway that Bolaño was only an autobiographical writer in the widest sense. He never meant to give an exact account of events. He sought instead to tell stories that touched the marrow of the places and years he'd known. As a writer he was a fantasist, but one who had death always on his mind.

On a visit to El Salvador Bolaño met the revolutionary and poet Roque Dalton. Thenceforth he considered himself a follower of Trotsky, at least until 1977 and his definitive departure from Mexico City for Europe. For the rest of his life he lived and wrote in Spain.

Bolaño began as a poet, but finished his life a great prose writer, apparently still under the illusion that he was a sidetracked poet. From teen years he lived among aspiring poets, fought with them, and came to manhood alongside them. He saw poets as constituting a clan, almost a race apart. They could be stupid, untalented, and naïve but nevertheless existed on another plane. The coup and regime change in Chile simply increased the uniqueness of poets. Moving to Mexico City, Bolaño felt himself as still part of the same sui generis category.

But at length his cruel irony began to alter the picture. He knew full well that even good poets were not Shelley's "unacknowledged legislators of the world." As a force in the history he'd lived through, they were nil. Attributing a supreme value to a form of words simply removed poets from "real life" as exemplified by the basement torture chambers of Santiago.

But if Bolaño was going to construct an alternative world in prose he would need a point of view. For this, in a strange maneuver, he went back to the wannabe poets of his youth and their innocent posturing. He would observe the second half of the 20th century in Latin America through the eyes of its perfect failures, those who never even got into the game. He would exaggerate their presence till they seem at least as plentiful as a large minority, say, the blue-eyed or the left-handed. So it happens that from first to last Bolaño's stories are not so much strewn with poetry as overrun by poets.

The productive Spanish years of Bolaño are marked by a detachment from politics. It could hardly be otherwise given his exile status and struggle simply to make a living. However, carefully considered, his storytelling, short on journalistic fact but rife with imaginative flights, reveals as much as any political memoir. Distant Star of 1996 is a case in point. It's a fragmented short novel that if more tightly wrought would pass as a novella. Its connecting tissue as always is the vocation of poet.

The author goes back once again to provincial Chile and the earnest young poets thrashing about in aesthetic controversy. One of them, Wieder, stands apart by his cool spectator's posture and secretiveness. His poems are third rate but he has penetrated all the arty milieux of the left. Comes the Pinochet putsch, he turns up as a pilot in the air force. He's even the regime's star aviator and demonstrates his skills on a flight to Antarctica. Poetry, moreover, he has not abandoned and arouses general admiration by his skywriting of traditional texts, some in Latin. He also favors mottos of a fascist bravado that glorify death.

Wieder becomes something of a loose canon for the colonels. His heroic antics have a reckless swagger that has always made the bureaucrats of fascist regimes tremble, reminding them to beware of individuals who actually believe party rhetoric. In fact Wieder has his own agenda that's facilitated by the militarist climate. He's a sadistic serial killer who has already murdered a number of fledgling poets. At the height of his fame, he organizes an exhibition of his photographs in his own home. (Photography being an escape route for failed poets.) He controls access to his photos so that each viewer is left alone with them for maximum impact. What they picture are torture and bloodletting, death up close.

Bolaño doesn't waste words depicting the gory preliminaries. He concentrates on the reactions of the viewers. The thrusting young army officers are flabbergasted by what they see, but even more so by the unthinkable that's implied. Wieder's arrogance proves that the Pinochet regime provides the perfect terrain for a serial killer. Officialdom gathers protectively around the killer, saving the honor of a comrade in arms who simply took a step too far. A whitewash of forgetfulness follows.

Bolaño takes the story further after Pinochet's fall. Wieder wanders in Europe, a kind of Naziskin still writing bad poems until the day retribution finds him. Ironically the hit man trailing Wieder has to call on a littérateur, (a Bolaño alter ego), to be sure of Wieder's identity. The moral is clear: In the case of failed poets, it takes one to know one.

The reader can only marvel at how the novelist Bolaño clings to his view of poets as a family and makes it bear fruit. Poets, innocent and unaware, are continually thrust into the embrace of the worst evils. In the slim novel By Night in Chile of 2000, we are treated to the monologue of a dying priest. Urrutia Lacroix is a member of Opus Dei and an ecclesiastic who over a lifetime has never said no to power and so arrived in the upper echelons of his calling. He is also, it goes without saying, a mediocre poet.

His innocence is a function of his prudence never to dig too deep. His youthful love of books takes on flesh when he becomes the sycophant of a famous and worldly literary critic. Urrutia in turn becomes a prominent critic. As far as his own poetry goes he shelters it from the turmoil and drama around him and lets it float on a cloud of classicism. When the Pinochet regime takes power, he assumes the age-old stance of the Church, staying above the fray, averting his eyes. Two prominent business figures send him on a long trip to Europe, which is nothing more than a paid vacation meant to keep him out of the way, and he embarks gratefully, asking no questions.

Father Urrutia becomes the habitué of a fashionable literary salon that, surprisingly, flourishes while all the left-wing cenacles have been decimated. He notes the slight whiff of a rat but his discretion keeps him from holding his nose. Post-Pinochet it's revealed that the mansion where a Chilean socialite presided over book chat served her American husband, a CIA operative, as a center of interrogation. His silence is the sin that makes the priest sweat and squirm on his deathbed.

One day the benefactors who made possible his European sojourn return for payback. They oblige the good Father to undertake an ultra secret mission that will shatter his pretense of detachment. Pinochet and his closest military associates want to know about Marxism. The priest, a veteran teacher, will give them personal tuition. Bolaño's dark humor burns like acid as he portrays the conscientious but dull pupil Pinochet at grips with Hegel and Engels.

Father Urrutia found repose -- and escape -- only in writing stodgy, neoclassical poetry. If we turn to Bolaño's major works we find poets much more burdened, literally driven out of their minds by an attempt to live a parallel life of poetry above the hell spread over the earth. The Savage Detectives of 1998, 557 pages, follows this endeavor in all its naïve recklessness. In the end, while the poets may not have shed their delusions, the reader finds the parallel lives have come together in a shared horror.

At first perusal The Savage Detectives seems like a many-voiced chaos. It's told in the first person, but there are countless speakers. Bolaño's ability to populate his world would seem to have no limit. Many of the characters have some basis in real people that Bolaño knew, but it soon becomes clear that following this path to seek factual truth is a dead end. The significant "reality" of the characters is their meaning in the author's mind and their function in his story.

The action of this capacious novel takes place in 1975-76 in Mexico. It ravels, never unraveling the connections between a horde of bookish youth. They fight, divide, realign, drop by the wayside, disappear forever, or jog our memories by returning to the scene. Narrative proceeds by individual reports, and these continue right up to 1996 when the novel was prepared for publication. The staccato delivery of testimony from a multitude of witnesses seems obsessive. Bolaño here shares a trait with many North American writers that leads them to resort to lists, inventories, and various repetitive structures. It's as if the continental space cries out to be filled by whatever means and that the writer has an urgent need to move in furniture to make a living room.

Bolaño's strategies as a storyteller are as manifold as his characters are numerous. Distant Star and By Night in Chile are familiar in their form, a witness telling his story, a few interesting loose ends left flapping. The Savage Detectives quickly reveals that it takes detecting seriously. The novel is a series of communiqués about two poets recorded by a raft of informers. The poets are the Chilean Arturo Belano and the Mexican Ulises Lima, who are none other than the alter egos of the poets Roberto Bolaño and his best friend.

Belano and Lima give backbone to this straggling cavalcade of poets that stretches eventually from Mexico City to Barcelona, Israel, Liberia, and back to Mexico's Sonora desert. Yet despite all eyes being fixed on the twosome, we never really know them intimately. Which seems to be the point the novelist wants to make about the sketchiness of the poets' knowledge of what's really going on and preparing their downfall.

Nor do the two characters, Belano and Lima, waste time probing the brutal events around them, which are in fact destroying them. Instead they too are devoted to detective work. Their literary quest is absurd because the result can never justify the means expended. They are on the trail of an obscure, scarcely published female poet, whom they consider the fountainhead of their school of choice. She has fallen on hard times and the novel ends with their arriving only in time to get her shot dead in an incident over a whore, a revengeful pimp, and a corrupt policeman in the desert near Ciudad Juárez, Mexico's most desperate city.

With 2666, his sprawling, posthumous novel, Bolaño leaves behind his gabbling poets, their willful blindness, and stillborn careers. They survive only in a gaggle of European academics that could have been hatched in a New Yorker story. These kick off the 893-page epic by heading for the Mexican City of Santa Teresa. "Their man," the object of their research, an elusive German author, has been sighted in the border town. A Chilean professor on the rebound from Barcelona teaches philosophy in the local university. A black journalist from New York has also washed up in this ill-favored city in the Sonora desert. All these people are writers. Like Bolaño himself, now a Sunday poet, they write prose. Even here in his least playful, grimmest novel, where malevolence has the last laugh, the wordsmiths still jostle to have their say. It's typical of Bolaño's storytelling that all these people pass unknown to one another or barely touch.

The German author will indeed make an anonymous and undetected visit to Santa Teresa for family reasons. A broad swath of the novel will be devoted to his past. It's a harrowing retelling of the worst moments of the 20th Century. We follow him from his beginnings in a remote village, to his youth as a misfit, his brutal experience as a soldier on the Eastern Front, his postwar apprenticeship as a writer, and his eventual fame.

However, the focal point of 2666 isn't Europe but the sinister Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez, which Bolaño calls Santa Teresa. The place is known for "las muertas de Juárez," the estimated 5000 women who have been murdered there since the early 1990s without any plausible explanation being offered. Bolaño will make us endure the examination of their bodies in forensic detail. He will describe with the precision of a police reporter the terrain where the victims, often raped and tortured, were found. For a while the reader fears he has been caught up again in the author's obsession with lists, in his trance-like enumerations. Not so. The fact that these were poor factory girls going back and forth on shift-work to the sweatshops at the city's edge is important. The poisoned wasteland around Santa Teresa, one huge garbage dump, is the center of the novel and for Bolaño, the high altar of modern evil. It's also the heartland of globalization. One of his characters calls Santa Teresa "the sad American mirror of wealth and poverty, and constant, useless metamorphosis." And Bolaño himself, in his last days, saw the murders of Ciudad Juárez as "our curse and our mirror." A character in The Savage Detectives says, "Everything that begins as comedy ends as a comic monologue, but we aren't laughing anymore."


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published September 20, 2010