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Our Man in Bohemia

Fin Keegan

The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño, (translated by Natasha Wimmer), Picador, 591 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0330509527
2666, by Roberto Bolaño, (translated by Natasha Wimmer), Picador, 912 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0330447430
Amulet, by Roberto Bolaño, (translated by Natasha Wimmer Picador, 184 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 978-0330510493

If novels could write, they would write Bolaño novels. His work glints with literary likenesses. Rare is the writer who combines the formal cool of Alain Robbe-Grillet with the thrills of Robert Louis Stevenson: Roberto Bolaño is that happy alchemist. Indeed, to describe his work is necessarily to invoke a host of books and writers: he is intrigued by the uncanny and determined to formally accommodate it (Garcia Márquez; Borges); he is fascinated by the poetic vocation and mines its compulsions for deeper human information (Joyce; Cocteau; Proust); he holds the book in quasi-magical esteem (Sterne, Cervantes, Borges); he loves nothing more than to share a tale, frequently unusual or bizarre (Poe; Gogol; Chaucer); he will pursue a theme over hundreds of pages and into the remotest regions of speculation (Melville; Proust); he enjoys practising defamiliarisation of the everyday and disrupting conventions (Buñuel; Breton); he finds a way to yolk high art to the modern street (Joyce; Eliot); he spirits compulsive readability out of what seem to be dispassionate sequences of minor actions (Murakami; McCarthy); and, finally, like the greatest (and the worst), he is impelled to tackle the biggest problem of all: human evil.

Name-checking is an appropriate point of departure in describing the work. Bolaño himself has an intriguing habit of relentlessly referencing names: very often his heroes are formed in a bookish fever of adolescence and dream of literary fame, setting forth in the steps of their heroes in a lifelong odyssey almost bound to come to grief. Indeed, one of his early works took this passion for biography to a creative extreme, producing a biographical dictionary called Nazi Literature in the Americas, detailing a host of all too plausible “lives of the artists” as spent under the aegis of a firmly established Third Reich.

At the same time Roberto Bolaño is, in a way, the kind of writer that Borges, the inhibited librarian, dreamed of being: a man of the world, a modern knight, fighting injustice through engagement, nimbly moving through the currents of Central and South American history. This public life was brief but distinguished: when the government of Salvador Allende was threatened in 1973, the young Bolaño left his relatively comfortable life as a left-wing journalist in Mexico City to protest in Chile (where he had been born and spent his early childhood). Arrested after the Pinochet coup, he spent over a week in prison, hearing the cries of torture victims around him and fully expecting to die. From this pit of despair he was released through the offices of two old schoolmates who were among the guards ‑ bringing us to another feature of his oeuvre, the vitality of fellowship; and perhaps another, personal myth, since there is no conclusive proof that Bolaño actually did what he said he did.

And so the ground shifts beneath our feet, just as it so often does inside his books. (Another dispute revolves about his use, or not, of heroin: he wrote a first person piece on the subject, presented as non-fiction, for a popular newspaper ‑ but his family are adamant that the story was fiction. In the mid-1990s he was diagnosed with liver disease and he died in 2003 while waiting for a transplant.)

 

His protagonists are wanderers, usually bohemian, invariably troubled, following their distant star across oceans, into deserts, through the orbit of violence and evil or madness, then on into the depths of almost certain obscurity. They live, for the most part, in the contemporary world, consuming books and encountering friends and lovers, but their dedication to art seems anachronistic, more of a piece with the romantics, surrealists, or beat poets: these are not the kind of self-branding careerists to show up as writers in residence or guests on Start the Week. As with all great vocations, many are called but few are chosen: suicide, addiction and neurosis are often their lot but, along the way, they partake of a quest which, for Bolaño, is the most interesting thing humans can do.

In Amulet, the poetically charged novella often cited as a good introduction to his world, the protagonist is one Auxilio Lacouture, a “poor Uruguayan poet, but with a love of Mexico as deep as anyone’s” who is living “what you might call a Bohemian life”. Auxilio undergoes an experience she calls a birth, finding herself in a fourth floor washroom when the Mexican army arrives to occupy the national university during the student unrest of 1968 (unrest in which at least forty people died). She resists this assault on the country’s youth by staying in place, effectively on a sit-in hunger strike, within earshot of the troops’ “history-making sound”.

“I knew I had to resist,” she says, but as “a female Don Quixote” this turns out to be a resistance nobody knows about: her occupancy only comes to light when soldiers vacate the campus and she is free to leave. In the meantime, alone and hungry, Auxilio feels time collapsing and sees into her future friendships with “Arturo Belano” (an alter ego for the author) and other troubled souls on the fringe of Mexican society. Prophecy is a familiar element in Bolaño. Such is the intensity with which she imagines (and is imagined) that we share profoundly in her struggle, quixotic though it be. Amulet may not attain the heights of Bolaño’s later work but this heroine, as plucky and resolute in her search for meaning as she is in holding her hidden position, is among his most memorable.

“Arturo Belano” features again in the wildly entertaining Savage Detectives, now as one of the two leading lights in an iconoclastic group of young poets in Mexico City, self-styled as the “Visceral Realists”. Here Bolaño is reflecting, wryly but warmly, on the vanities of his own firebrand youth: he himself co-founded a group (the Infrarealists) dedicated in part to disrupting the progress of officially sanctioned writers. In the novel, the sexual couplings and spiritual searchings of the young poets ‑ never condescended to by the author but observed from an undeniably sceptical perspective ‑ intersect with the violent underworld of Mexico City, culminating in a half-flight, half-quest to the Sonoran Desert in search of an elderly and long-vanished experimental poet. The Savage Detectives is unputdownable and strange and funny with a finale equal parts Tarantino and Queneau.

The basic unit of the Roberto Bolaño novel is the tale: the larger novels could be almost viewed as themed anthologies, with incident heaped upon incident, the whole gleaming with a wonder and strangeness beyond the sum of its substantial parts. Bolaño is a masterful spinner of anecdotes: thus reading his major novels is quite a different matter from following the multiple plot lines of more conventional sagas such as The Corrections or A Suitable Boy. Different narrative trajectories are joined or fall away and may or may not reappear in later pages. And it works: in his masterpiece on the continuing murders of women in Northern Mexico, 2666, the structural motif might be that of the “communicating vessels” described by Mario Vargas Llosa, in which a book presents discrete but subtly connected stories side by side for our judgment. Tolstoy does it in Anna Karenina. Not to be lightly used, the device proves fully congruent to the evil of which Bolaño treats, involving us in moral engagement and judgment: it is not enough for the writer to wring his hands, and this technique grants us that access.

2666 artfully juxtaposes characters and stories from an exhilarating array of times and places (to name a few: Stalinist Russia; contemporary Europe; postwar Germany ‑ often by way of tales within tales) alongside a forensic account of life and frequent death in the nightmare city of Santa Teresa. This is, in all but name, the real city of Ciudad Juárez, on the US border across from El Paso, Texas, and currently experiencing one of the highest murder rates in the world: Ciudad Juárez, as I write, is a more dangerous place to live than either Iraq or Afghanistan. (According to local newspaper El Diario, six thousand people have been murdered there since 2008, with September 2010 yielding three hundred and sixty-three corpses. Its population is 1.3 million, smaller than Dublin’s.)

A striking feature of this bloodbath is the disproportionate violence visited upon the female population, leading some to describe the phenomenon as a “femicide”. For a long time it was suspected that a handful, possibly a pair, of serial killers was on the loose. At the heart of 2666 lie brief, rending accounts of each victim’s last hours, together with a forensic description of the corpses ‑ over a hundred, many of them children, feature in the book. Readers in our part of the world might be reminded of Alan Clarke’s disconcerting film Elephant, set in Northern Ireland, which shows an unmediated succession of cold-blooded murders, one after the other, with no other narrative tissue whatsoever. In this film, there is no speculation over causes whatsoever, no symbol of resurgent order in the shape of dialogue from police or journalists, just a sickening dramatisation of the “teatime bullets” we became all too used to learning about on the nightly news. That contextual narrative is not absent in Bolaño but at a careful remove and dryly rendered: never do we feel we are in the hands of an inferior moral intelligence prepared to violate the dignity of the victims with the tacked-on solutions of a pulp novelist. And so the thread of the tale winds on, gathering up reporters, detectives, gangsters, lawyers, suspects, prostitutes, academics, politicians, and factory workers, and one keeps along this immense and crooked web, unable to let go as the unspoken question amplifies in a thundering crescendo: who or what is committing these terrible crimes?

The novel was unfinished at Bolaño s death but the “answer”, as with Kafka, lies between the lines on every page: life is inscrutable, with roots that go down into the darkest places imaginable and then beyond that again. Yes, there are several places to look in search of the perpetrators: narco-trafficking, yes, acute misogyny, yes, individual psychosis, yes, and corrupt authorities, yes, but also, most pertinently, in the human character itself.

This inference is most forcefully present in the final part of 2666, which follows a German soldier’s wanderings through the wastelands of the Second World War, a deranged theatre of intensified violence and sex, inset with the tale of two doomed writers in Stalin’s Russia. In both settings, the meaning of things pushes its way to the surface and painstakingly provisional conclusions are drawn: “only in chaos are we conceivable” concludes one of the Russians. Ultimately what is most refreshing about Bolaño’s books is the presence of people, found in the most absorbing of circumstances, willing to meditate on the deepest questions.

If there is a fault in all this (and I am hard pressed to find one) it might lie in Bolaño’s inability, or unwillingness, to plumb the depths of the mainstream bourgeoisie. Such was the unsettled cast of his own life that this is perhaps an understandable blindness. He was born in Santiago, Chile in 1953, and moved to Mexico City with his family when he was fifteen, already an outsider. After his brief tangle with the political chaos of his motherland, there began an itinerant life as a poet and journalist across several countries until he finally came to rest in a coastal town in Spain.

There, in the last decade or so of his life, his output reached stupendous proportions: besides the two doorstoppers and novella reviewed here, a host of other novels, stories, and poems issued from his desk, many of which are currently making their way into English to sit alongside the thousands of pages we already have, most especially thanks to the diligent efforts of his translator, Natasha Wimmer. Unlike Artur Belano and his friends, Roberto Bolaño attained his dearest wish, such that any bookshelf without his work must now be deemed incomplete.


Fin Keegan has had work appear in the Las Vegas Fringe Festival (The Last of the Vegas Magicians, a play). His short story, "The Brown Envelope", came second in the 2010 Jonathan Swift Satire Contest. He lives in Westport. Follow his work at finkeegan.com.

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