For an American reader, the strangest thing about Roberto Bolaño's novels is the way they combine politics and poetry. I don't just mean that he is a poet who writes about politics, though that happens to be true (but not predictably true: his sharp tone will not be at all what you are expecting if you have read earnest political poets like his compatriot Pablo Neruda). No, the strangeness comes from the fact that in Bolaño's novels, and to a certain extent in the short stories, virtually all the characters, whether good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, care passionately about both poetry and politics in ways that turn out to be curiously connected.
Consider, for instance, By Night in Chile, the first of Bolaño's books to be translated into English. Its central character is a conservative priest, a pillar of the Catholic hierarchy in Chile, who is also, under a pseudonym, one of the most famous and influential literary critics of his day. He dines with the great and the near-great, travels through Europe to investigate falconry techniques among the priesthood, and otherwise engages with the world, though sometimes he also holes up in his study reading St. Augustine, Robert Burton, and the more obscure Greeks. Shortly after the 1973 coup, he is approached by two mysterious men (their names spell "hate" and "fear" backwards) who ask him to teach a short course in Marxism to some very private clientsnamely, Pinochet and a few of his generals. Midway through the ten-week course, Pinochet takes the priest aside and boasts that he himself is really much more of an intellectual and a much better writer than Salvador Allende ever was. During the same post-coup period, the priest-critic also begins attending a private literary salon run by a well-to-do aspiring writer named María Canales, whobecause the curfews have pretty much eliminated Chile's vibrant café lifeis able to attract a good number of poets, novelists, and journalists to her house. Yet even as her guests are swilling her wine upstairs, her husband, a wholesome-seeming American secretly affiliated with the regime, is torturing political prisoners in their basement.
Or take Distant Star, an earlier Bolaño novel that was translated in 2004, a year after By Night in Chile. Here the plot centers on a poet-aviator, Carlos Wieder, initially known as Alberto Ruiz-Tagle. When we first meet him, during the Allende presidency, he is attending the sessions of a weekly poetry workshop whose other young participants include the talented and beautiful Garmendia sisters as well as the unnamed narrator and his best friend, Bibiano O'Ryan. Later, after the coup, Alberto insinuates himself into the Garmendia twins' rural retreat and has them brutally killednot so much for political reasons, we are led to feel, as out of some crazed combination of sexual self-loathing and poetic envy. Alberto Ruiz-Tagle then transforms himself into Carlos Wieder, a darling of the Pinochet regime, a glamorous aviator who sky-writes his version of the New Chilean Poetry. Among his publicly presented "poems" are the opening lines of the Bible in Latin, the names of various dead young female poets, and a series of ominous phrases such as "Death is cleansing," "Death is responsibility," and "Death is Chile." Eventually Wieder is forced into hiding (he turns out to be too crazy even for the generals), and those who remain interested in his new antics and old crimes can only track him down through the work he publishes in obscure literary magazines throughout the world.
A third Bolaño novel, Amulet, came out in English this past January, and it too features a poetry-obsessed narrator (the "mother of Mexican poetry," she calls herself, though she appears on the face of things to be a half-mad and often homeless cleaning lady), whose memories revolve around the two weeks in September of 1968 when Mexican soldiers were rounding up and killing university students. And then there is The Savage Detectives, a loose, baggy monster of a novel that will be published in America this spring. Written in a more meandering, multi-voiced fashion than the shorter books, and covering the whole last quarter of the twentieth century, it focuses on a cluster of young and older Mexican poets, one of whom comments: "I can't help thinking that poets and politicians, especially in Mexico, are one and the same, or at least I'd say that they drink from the same trough."
Roberto Bolaño acquired his fictional material the honest, old-fashioned waythat is, by living through much of it himself. Born in Chile in 1953, he moved with his family to Mexico in 1968, the year of the campus violence. He then went back to Chile as a twenty-year-old to help with Allende's socialist revolution, but once again his timing was unfortunate: a month after he arrived, the military coup took place. Bolaño, like many other politically active young people of his generation, was thrown in jail; unlike many of them, he was eventually released, at which point he moved, by way of Mexico City and Paris, to Barcelona. Asked later in life whether he considered himself Chilean, Mexican, or Spanish, he would admit only to a generalized "Latin American."
Superficially, his plots may sound a bit like garden-variety Latin American magical realism, but Bolaño couldn't be farther from those roots. For one thing, he is wittily terse. Not for him the flowering metaphors, the myths exploding over centuries, the volcanic sentences exuding local color and earthy vitality. Most of his novels are less than two hundred pages long. (The two major exceptions are the six-hundred-page Savage Detectives and the as-yet-untranslated 2666, which comes to eleven-hundred pages in the Spanish edition.)
Both the novels and the stories-about half of which have so far been collected in an English-language edition called Last Evenings on Earth frequently feature characters who sound a lot like Roberto Bolaño, or even are Bolaño, sometimes in propria persona and sometimes thinly disguised as his alter ego, Arturo Belano. In many of the short stories, he is further abbreviated to B (often portrayed in conjunction with another letter, like A, a famous writer, or U, a fellow Chilean exile). This authorial playfulness lends Borgesian overtones to his work, and certainly the Argentine master is one of his most powerful and deeply acknowledged influences. But it is as if Borges had influenced John Dos Passos, say, or Joseph Conradsomeone whose overriding interest in the world as it is, in all its ugliness and horror, dominates the otherwise playful aesthetic.
Bolaño's weirdest novelistic inventions tend to come off as the flat truth, often because they are the truth. The literary salon in By Night in Chile, for instance, will remind Chileans of "the Townley affair," since the character María Canales is so clearly modeled on a real-life 1970s saloniste who was married to an American named Michael Townley, a man later exposed as one of the regime's secret torturers. Similarly, the violent incidents at the center of Amulet (the shooting of Mexican students by soldiers) and Distant Star (the murders of young poets by Pinochet henchmen) did indeed take place. Such events are an all-too-realistic aspect of Latin America's history, but it takes a realist of Bolaño's peculiarly ironic turn of mind to render these stories in a way that makes them neither pornographic nor piously instructive.
Irony, the heaviest weapon in the Latin American literary arsenal, becomes something much lighter and more attenuated in Bolaño's hands. His sentences simultaneously pierce and float, refusing to settle on a single fixed emotion even as they skewer our sensibilities. (He has been excellently served, in this respect, by his primary translator, Chris Andrews, who performs miracles in the preservation of tone.) Here, for example, is a passage from Distant Star, in which the narrator and his fellow prisoner, the crazy Norberto, are witnessing the aviator's initial flights of "poetry" from the stadium in which they are being held:
Did you enjoy that? asked Norberto. I shrugged. All I know is I'll never forget it, I said. Did you see it was a Messerschmidt? If you say so, I believe you, I said. It was a Messerschmidt, said Norberto, and I think it came from the other world. I slapped him on the back and said, Of course it did. The line was beginning to move; we were going back into the gymnasium. And it wrote in Latin, said Norberto. Yes, I said, but I didn't understand anything. I did, said Norberto, I wasn't a master typesetter for nothing you know. It was about the beginning of the world, about will, light and darkness. Lux is light. Tenebrae is darkness. Fiat is let there be. Let there be light, get it? Sounds more like an Italian car to me, I said. Well, you're mistaken, brother. And at the end he wished us all good luck. You think so? I said. Yes, all of us, every one. A poet, I said. Polite, anyway, said Norberto.
That is our narrator in his reportorial mode, early on in the novel. Elsewhere we see him in a more reflective vein, as he comments on the literary criticism that, many years later, his friend Bibiano wrote about Carlos Wieder in a book called The Warlocks Return:
In the chapter devoted to Wieder (the longest in the book), entitled "Exploring the Limits," Bibiano relinquishes his generally measured and objective tone...as if the presence of the aviator-poet had disturbed and disoriented him. Oddly, although he is quite at ease with Argentine or Brazilian torturers and even makes fun of them, when faced with Wieder, he becomes tense, accumulates adjectives ineptly and indulges in scatology, as if he were trying not to blink, not to let his subject (Carlos Wieder the pilot, Ruiz-Tagle the autodidact) disappear over the horizon. But everyone blinks in the end, even writers, especially writers, and, as always, Wieder vanishes.
Perhaps the most improbable element is the very idea of a book like The Warlocks Return, described as "a highly readable study of fascist literary movements in South America from 1972 to 1989." It is only when we examine the prefatory note at the front of Distant Star that we learn that Bolaño himself claims to be (and in fact is) the author of a novel called Nazi Literature in the Americas.
At some point in the process of devouring Roberto Bolaño's fictions, every reader will long to know more about the man himself. Whether this impulse comes sooner or later, it will already be too late: Bolaño died in 2003, at the age of fifty. A few biographical factsbasically the ones I've given above, plus a mention of his early deathare sparingly doled out on each of the book jackets. Sometimes, but not always, the publisher's summary offers "liver failure" as the cause of death.
Frustrated by this dearth of information, one may resort to scrutinizing the two extant author photos. The more frequently used picture shows Bolaño in his prime, a cigarette held to his lips, his other arm draped casually over the back of his chair, round-rimmed glasses perched prominently in the center of a roundish face, his curly hair the same dark shade as his jacket-covered T-shirta boulevardier, in short. The other, rarer photo is obviously taken later, closer to the time of his death: the hair, though still dark, has receded slightly, the cigarette is gone, and the face, now much thinner, looks vulnerable without its glasses. In neither picture is he smiling, but there is a slight quirk to the lips, or perhaps a lift to the eyebrows, that suggests a sharp sense of humor.
"Bolaño sort of smiled; he almost never smiled but he never seemed quite to be entirely serious either." This sentence comes from a Spanish novel called Soldiers of Salamis, written by Javier Cercas, published in Spain in 2001, and translated into English in 2004. Though he doesn't appear until the last third of the book, Bolaño is a major figure from that point onward, and he gives the plot its necessary push toward an ending. Something about Cercas's dogged pursuit of the facts (this is partly what his novel is about), and something about the utter consistency between this portrayal and the person who comes through in Bolaño's own writings and interviews, persuades me that in Cercas's "fiction" we are getting as true a portrait of Bolaño the man as we are ever likely to receive.
At the beginning of the novel's final section, Cercas calls on Roberto Bolaño to interview him for the regional paper he works on. Bolaño who lives with his wife and son in the coastal town of Blanes, not far from Barcelonahas, after many years of poverty and obscurity, recently won a huge literary prize and become something of a celebrity. Yet success seems not to have gone to his head. The first thing Bolaño says after answering the door is that he recognizes Javier Cercas's name; he then rushes into the back room and returns carrying Cercas's two published novels.
"You read them," the hapless Cercas comments with surprise, noting that both books look worn.
"Of course," Bolaño answers. "I read everything, even bits of paper I find blowing down the street." He is complimentary about the novels, and goes on to endear himself to Cercas by giving him a wonderful story about a Spanish Civil War veteran that can be used to fill out Cercas's own unfinished book. Bolaño's discriminating generosity toward other writers is evident throughout the encounter, as is his sardonic wit. When Cercas asks him what it was like to live through Pinochet's coup (a self-evidently stupid question, since most of Bolaño's fiction deals with the subject), Bolaño pauses a moment and then answers, "Like a Marx Brothers movie, but with corpses."
Cercas describes Bolaño at age forty-seven as having "that unmistakable air of a hippy peddler that afflicted so many Latin Americans of his generation exiled in Europe," but he has nothing to say about his general physical health. Yet their meeting took place only three years before Bolaño's death, and the liver disease that was to kill him had been diagnosed in 1992, so Bolaño had been living with the imminent possibility of his own death for at least eight years at that point.
Not every member of the press was as reticent as Cercas. In the final interview Bolaño gave, published a week after his death in the Mexican edition of Playboy, the female interviewer peppered him with questions about his illness. When did you learn that you were gravely ill? What things would you like to do before you die? Have you ever considered suicide? Who would you like to meet in the afterlife? ("I don't believe in the afterlife," Bolaño answered. "If it turns out there is one, will I be surprised! I would enroll in a course given by Pascal.")
If Cercas is a warm and bumbling interviewer, the Playboy woman is as cold and sharp as hard steel. She presses Bolaño to define his nationality, and when he fends her off with "Latin American," she presses harder. But what does fatherland mean to you? she asks, using the Spanish word patria. "My only fatherland is my two children, Lautaro and Alexandra," he insists, and then modifies his answer: "And perhaps, secondarily, certain moments, certain streets, certain faces or scenes or books that are inside me and that someday I will forget, which is the best thing that can be done with a fatherland."
But the talk is not all of death and fatherland. Asked about his favorite writers, Bolaño lists the ones we might expect: Cervantes, Melville, Borges, Cortázar, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Perec, Jarry, Breton... When the interviewer wonders which world-famous figures he would have liked to resemble, he answers mainly with fictional characters: "Sherlock Holmes. Captain Nemo. Julian Sorel, our father, Prince Myshkin, our uncle, Alice, our teacher. Houdini, who is a mixture of Alice, Sorel, and Myshkin." The list is instructive, and not just because of its internationalism. It gives method and antecedents to Bolaño's own peculiar vision, which is at once scrupulously logical and certifiably crazy, childlike and adult, fantastic and at the same time completely realistic. He did not spring from nowhere, as he sometimes seems to have done, but was instead nurtured and shaped, by his reading as much as by the incidents of his own eventful life. No wonder his characters care equally about politics and poetry.
If I had to name a single quality that makes Roberto Bolaño's fiction compelling, it would be his capacity for stringent, hard-nosed sympathy. This is not the same as universal empathy or divinely inspired forgiveness or any of that softheaded crap. Bolaño is never blind to the crimes of humanity and of particular humans; they are, after all, his major subject. But he is able to create fictional works that enter equally into his own mind and the minds of others, even when those others are killers, or hypocrites, or madmen, or literary critics. It is not that he utterly leaves behind notions of good and evil, but that he makes them seem inadequate as categories.
Of one of the minor characters in Distant Star, Bolaño comments that "like a true North American he had a firm and militant belief in the existence of evil, absolute evil." One knows the type. Still, if anything ever justified such a belief, it would be the events recounted in Distant Star: the torture and murder of innocents, the cruel satisfactions of power, the overall insanity of Pinochet's Chile. Bolaño, however, disdains to rest on such easy distinctions. There is a continuum that links his monsters and killers, on the one hand, and his writers and dreamers, on the other or, better yet, a mirror rather than a continuum, with those on opposite sides twinned in the reflective surface.
Overtly and covertly, the idea of twins and other paired figures pervades Distant Star; and at the novel's end, when the Bolañoesque narrator is sitting in a café in Blanes, reading Bruno Schulz, the image comes home to roost:
Then Carlos Wieder came in and sat down by the front window, three tables away. For a nauseating moment I could see myself almost joined to him, like a vile Siamese twin, looking over his shoulder at the book he had opened... He was staring at the sea and smoking and glancing at his book now and then. Just like me, I realized with a fright, stubbing out my cigarette and trying to merge into the pages of my book.
Sympathy is too paltry and flaccid a word for the state of mind this describes. It is a powerful and unwilled form of identification, a Houdini-like vanishing act that allows Bolaño to merge with his scariest and most repellent creations as much as with his likable ones. This self-submersion is evident in both the stories and the novels, but in the best stories which are also the stories that are warmest in feeling, like "Sensini" and "Mauricio 'The Eye' Silva"Bolaño is more likely to pair himself with appealing characters; it is only in the novels, with their greater room for distance, that he seems able to embrace the monsters fully.
Nowhere in his work is this strategy clearer than in By Night in Chile, which he published in 2000, shortly after winning all the awards for The Savage Detectives. This brief novel (which he had wanted to call Storms of Shit, until his publishers talked him out of it) was better than the bulky prizewinner, he felt. Why? "For a simple reason," he told one interviewer. "The novel is an imperfect art formperhaps, in literature, the most imperfect of all. And the more pages there are, the more opportunity there is for those imperfections to come to light." Bolaño's characteristic wryness does not disguise the fact that he knew he had accomplished something special in By Night in Chile.
The whole novel is a rant, or contemplation, or act of memory taking place in the mind of its main character, Father Urrutia Lacroix, also known as the literary critic H. Ibacache (he is his own twin, in other words, like all the other double-named villains in Bolaño's work). Now on his deathbed, Father Urrutia is recalling his experiences as a Chilean literary figure before and after the coup. He thinks back on an encounter with Pablo Neruda; he remembers various figures of the left and (mostly) right; and he recountsnot just once, but three timeshis glimpsed or imagined vision of the basement torture chamber where María Canales's American husband interrogated suspects during her salons. All of this is done in a vibrantly alive yet hushed voice that floats somewhere between willed stupidity and luminous knowledge, between self-communion and self-justification, between exhilaration and despair.
That there is indeed a hidden connection between despair and exhilaration is made explicit by a character in another novel, the female narrator of Amulet:
And when I heard the news it left me shrunken and shivering, but also amazed, because although it was bad news, without a doubt, the worst, it was also, in a way, exhilarating, as if reality were whispering in your ear: I can still do great things; I can still take you by surprise, silly girl, you and everyone else...
Amulet, which was written immediately before By Night in Chile, was like a dry run leading up to the greater work. Bolaño made two advances in the later novel: he put the narrative into the mouth of a dislikable character, and he eliminated himself entirely from the book. There is no Arturo Belano in By Night in Chile, as there was in both Amulet and The Savage Detectives; there is no Bolaño figure of any kind, unless we count that "wizened young man" of whom the priest seems so afraid but he could be anybody, including Death. In By Night in Chile, the author has finally done exactly what he feared so greatly in Distant Star: that is, merged bodily with his most despicable character. Without even the separateness of "vile Siamese twins," they have become a single person, a frightened and dying man living off the memories of his Chilean past, dreading the annihilation of himself and all his writings. There could be no character less like the real Roberto Bolaño than Father Urrutia: a member of Opus Dei, a smarmy literary careerist, a right-wing snob, a religious hypocrite, a worm in the service of Pinochet. And yet for the duration of By Night in Chile we are horribly and, yes, exhilaratingly inside him.
It is rightly said of W. G. Sebald, a writer with whom Bolaño is sometimes compared, that all his characters are essentially versions of their author, and this, I think, is a flaw in his novelsparticularly Austerlitz, which purports to be about someone else. A similar flaw afflicts an even greater writer, Franz Kafka, whose strongest works are almost unbearable because of the airlessness of their self-enclosure. Roberto Bolaño is an author who risks exactly this charge and then triumphs over it. Finally, it is not that all his creations are projections of himself, but the opposite: in his novels, he becomes a mere figment of his characters' reality, a shadow in their dreams. Like the French surrealist poets he so admires, he carefully sets up the trick mirrors, constructs all the cunning aesthetic parallels, assures us that he is playing with usand then smashes the whole construction to bits. When the dust clears, all that's left (but it is more than enough) is a moment of true feeling.
Wendy Lesser, the founding editor of The Threepenny Review, is the author of seven books of nonfiction and a novel. Her latest book is Room for Doubt, published in early 2007 by Pantheon.