Allow me to tell you about my experience so far of the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. For only the second time in my life, this is an author whose incredible work demands to be read, all of it, as soon as I can get my hands on it (or as soon as it comes out). The first was J.K. Rowling.
I remember how I first encountered the name Roberto Bolaño. In spring 2008, before I interned at Open Letter that summer, I was meeting with the other interns and Chad Post once a week for conversations about the publishing industry. Chad talked about Amazon’s revolutionary system of click-tracking by which it logs what books you view, buy, or add to your wish list, and sends you recommendations based on those histories. Later, he forwarded us an email: “Here’s an example of a recommendation from Amazon.” I get them all the time, so this was nothing new for me. The book was Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. “The book is worth checking out, too,” said Chad.
During my internship that summer, Bolaño’s name kept popping up here and there. The release of his magnum opus, 2666, was due that November, and the “meteoric ascent” of his “reputation and legend” (according to a New York Times review) was already underway on the basis of The Savage Detectives (first published by FSG, 2007) and the four or five of his titles by then already published in the U.S. by New Directions.
Still, I did not read him until after Christmas, 2008, when I received a copy of 2666. It is his last book, finished, more or less, just before his death in 2003 at the age of 50. There is some debate as to whether the book is really finished and the consensus is that while Bolaño may have gone over it a few more times if he’d had more time, the “final” product would not have looked much different than the text we have. The book had been a very long time in the planning and drafting stages.
I started reading the gigantic novel a week after Christmas, and, as too often happens, I was only halfway through when classes started in January. Thus having neither time to read it regularly nor space in my bag to carry it around, 2666 went back on the shelf. But unlike The Brothers Karamazov, the last massive novel I failed to finish before the end of a vacation (and have yet to return to), I was actually eager to start over and read those first 450 pages a second time before having read the rest. Bolaño’s prose is just so much fun to read. An aside: My mom is reading 2666 now, and the other day she called me simply to tell me (gleefully) that she’d just read this paragraph, from page 111:
In Pelletier’s bathroom the toilet bowl was missing a chunk. It wasn’t visible at first glance, but when the toilet seat was lifted, the missing piece suddenly leaped into sight, almost like a bark. How the hell did no one notice this? Wondered Pelletier. Norton had never seen a toilet in such bad shape. Some eight inches were missing. Under the white porcelain was a red substance, like brick wafers spread with plaster. The missing piece was in the shape of a half-moon. It looked as if someone had ripped it off with a hammer. Or as if someone had picked up another person who was already on the floor and smashed that person’s head against the toilet, thought Norton.
In March, I had secured my present internship with New Directions and I traveled to New York City to visit the office and meet my future co-workers. While I was there, the assistant editor Michael Barron took me into the room where they keep the shelves of publicity copies and asked me what I was reading, and what I liked. I told him I had recently become very interested in Bolaño but hadn’t been able to finish 2666 because I was too busy. He gave me a copy of Last Evenings on Earth, a collection of short stories, so that I might find a moment here and there to read a story. I did so throughout the rest of the semester, and finished the collection during finals. Not all of the stories were nearly as good as what I had read of 2666, but some, like “A Literary Adventure,” “Phone Calls,” and “Last Evenings on Earth,” were endlessly gripping and strange. From the latter story:
Then the lull comes to an end, the forty-eight hours of grace in the course of which B and his father have visited various bars in Acapulco, lain on the beach and slept, eaten, even laughed, and an icy phase begins, a phase which appears to be normal but is ruled by deities of ice (who do not, however, offer any relief from the heat that reigns in Acapulco), hours of what, in former days, when he was an adolescent, perhaps, B would have called boredom, although he would certainly not use that word now, disaster he would say, a private disaster whose main effect is to drive a wedge between B and his father: part of the price they must pay for existing.
Bolaño is simultaneously a purely literary writer, writing stories about writers and writing, and a crime or “noir” writer, as well as a war history writer. The fifth section of 2666, for example, follows a WWII private, a German, through the course of the Eastern advance and defeat by the Russians; others of his books, such as By Night in Chile and Amulet, are primarily set during Pinochet’s 1973 military coup to depose Chilean President Salvador Allende. What is most wonderful to me about Bolaño, however, and perhaps most unique, for I’ve never encountered any writer like this, is the way his writing ranges all over the world as a single place. Not to say that he pretends to ideals of world unity and understanding; his characters are usually realistically self-centered and stereotyping, even racist and chauvinist (see Nazi Literature in the Americas) in their attitudes, but his eye is undiscerning and unprejudiced in its views. 2666 especially is a global work of fiction. The many protagonists come from such various lands as Sonora, New York City, Argentina, Texas, Paris, Madrid, Romania, The Black Forest, London, Milan, and others. Bolaño’s knowledge and portrayal of the world, its people, and its history, is astounding.
The other most wonderful thing about Bolaño is the way his stories branch and layer like the multifoliate rose. Characters tell their own stories which contain further stories, on into infinity. Each of his novels is its own compendium of short and long stories that weave off in all directions. It makes each of his short novels—By Night in Chile and Amulet especially—expand in the mind to epic proportions, while 2666, epic to begin with, seems like an infinite novel.
I have read seven of his books: Last Evenings on Earth; the poetry collection The Romantic Dogs; and the novels 2666, By Night in Chile, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Distant Star, and Amulet. I am about to begin The Savage Detectives. If you want to read him and aren’t sure where to start, I would recommend 2666 as one of the best books I’ve ever read. If you are daunted by its sheer weight in pounds, you might try the much lighter (in mass, not tone or subject matter) Amulet or Last Evenings on Earth. Since I haven’t read it yet I can’t justly recommend The Savage Detectives but as far as I know that is where most people start.
This blog is already running to epic proportions itself, so I’ll leave it there. There’s still lots to say about Bolaño’s very interesting life, the story of his first publication in the U.S., and about his books themselves. I’ll save those topics for later.
until tomorrow or the next day,