How Bolaño became Bolaño

His collection "Antwerp" shows the young poet about to transform into the great novelist who wrote "2666"

Topics: 2666, Roberto Bolaño, The Listener, The Savage Detectives, Antwerp, ,

How Bolaño became Bolaño

When Roberto Bolaño died in 2003, he left behind the 15 books he had published in Spanish, plus “2666,” a massive and possibly unfinished masterpiece of a novel. None of his books had yet appeared in English translation, but with the critical and commercial success of “The Savage Detectives,” in 2007, the rush was on to see all of them into print. The following year, when “2666” became possibly the most talked about literary novel of the 21stcentury — its reception rivaled the fanfare that greeted David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” 12 years earlier — other books began to appear in English that had not been published in Spanish in Bolaño’s lifetime.

The audiobook editions have been slower to appear, but in the last three weeks, 10 of these books were quietly released in audio editions. They range from crucial foundational volumes such as “Distant Star” and “Amulet,” novels that are very much in conversation with the other major works of fiction (“By Night in Chile,” “Nazi Literature in the Americas,” “The Savage Detectives” and “2666”), to strange outliers including “The Skating Rink,” a relatively weak early novel, and two slight and previously unknown novels, “The Third Reich” and “Woes of the True Policeman,” which were discovered and published posthumously by Bolaño’s estate in the wake of the success of “2666.”

Listeners new to Bolaño would probably be wise to begin with “By Night in Chile,” a short novel set in the midst of the repression and brutality of the early years of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a Milton Friedman disciple responsible for the murder of political enemies at home and abroad and a policy of extreme economic austerity and privatization that by 1982 had left nearly 40 percent of the Chilean population vulnerable to starvation.

But for experienced Bolaño readers, the most interesting of the new audiobook editions might be “Antwerp,” a collection of brief vignettes and monologues and observations, which isn’t readily classifiable as a novel or a collection of stories or poems.

“Antwerp” was first published in Spanish the year before Bolaño’s death, but he wrote most of the early version that served as the book’s core 22 years earlier, at age 27, a time in his life in which he was primarily a rabble-rousing poet who hadn’t previously shown much interest in reading or writing fiction.

In a brief memoir that serves as an introduction, an older Bolaño explained: “I wrote this book for myself, and even that I can’t be sure of. For a long time these were just loose pages that I reread and maybe tinkered with, convinced I had no time. But time for what? I couldn’t say exactly. I wrote this book for the ghosts, who, because they’re outside of time, are the only ones with time. After the last rereading (just now), I realize that time isn’t the only thing that matters, time isn’t the only source of terror. Pleasure can be terrifying too, and so can courage.”

We will never know if this talk might have served as an ars poetica for “2666,” but it is true that around the same time “Antwerp” finally appeared in print, Bolaño would have been laboring over his great novel, a book that dwells in the shadow of the rapes and killings that have become the most salient feature of the ongoing drug wars in Cuidad Juárez, a book that really does often feel as though it were written for the ghosts — perhaps even by a ghost — who have a skewed relationship with time, and for whom there are greater horrors even than death, on mortal terms the end of time.

Antwerp finds Bolaño making the transition from poet to story writer — a transition he never fully completed, even in the almost 900 pages of “2666.” Always in his fiction the reader senses a discomfort with information revealed any way but indirectly. There is always a hole in the middle of the book, a mystery that the reader might never do better than sense and speculate upon without surety. Sometimes it seems that the mystery might even be metaphysical, an impersonal force akin to the old-fashioned idea of capital-E Evil, but perhaps this is something that the reader can’t know because understanding might be unavailable to the narrator, and perhaps to the writer, as well.

This impulse — the lyricism of the poet rather than the narrative drive more common to the fiction writer — is part of the appeal of Bolaño’s work, and also what makes it sometimes a challenge to the reader. At best, the parts imply something that seems to exceed even the grand ambition announced by the books’ strange structures. At worst, the reader feels frustrated, jerked around to no apparent end that might offset the effort.

Sometimes, though, when all of Bolaño’s books are considered side-by-side, patterns begin to emerge that imply an interconnection among all the parts, a career-long building of a single massive and unruly novel, a collision of many competing and sometimes contradictory voices whose pushings at whatever is at the near-opaque center of Bolaño’s world will begin, slowly, to reveal its shape in three dimensions.

The reader or the listener begins to believe that this is the key to the whole enterprise, this conversation among all the ill-fit parts. (“2666,” Bolaño’s most unified work, operates as a microcosm of this principle. It is made of five books that don’t interlock in a shapely way, which aren’t themselves shapely, which demand much from the reader — including a grueling book-long gauntlet of rapes and murders cataloged in the novel’s fourth movement — and which ultimately reward the reader’s effort, but only incompletely, which seems to be part of the point of the whole enterprise.)

This interconnection among the parts — and the place of honor “Antwerp” holds among the parts, being perhaps the place the other parts originated — make this otherwise slight audiobook required listening for those upon whom Bolaño has cast his dark spell. And its ending reads like a prophecy uttered in the direction of the older self who would labor to complete “2666” in the face of impending death:

“Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength …”

* * *

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Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

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