Tracking the True Roberto Bolaño

Those of us who read Roberto Bolaño do so because he wrote amazing fiction, but also because he cuts quite the figure. Bolaño has become a bona fide literary celebrity with the smash hits The Savage Detectives and 2666, and even though the Chilean exile died years ago, he has nonetheless developed a robust public image. The Bolaño we've come to know is a mop-headed intellectual with a smoldering cigarette always at hand. A habitual café-haunter, he loves coffee but stopped drinking it because he'd worn down his liver with a lifetime of hardcore drugs and alcohol. The liver actually caused him to die before his time, but fortunately for us this lifelong rebel cheated death by racing to complete his masterpiece -- the aforementioned 2666 -- just before his wildly romantic lifestyle did him in.

 

Certain parts of the Roberto Bolaño described above are no doubt true to life, but those few resemblances don't alter the reality that we English-language readers have paradoxically come to believe we know a man that we have very few hard facts about. Virtually none of the author's personal essays are available in English translation, and despite the strong interest in his fiction there's been very little journalism published in English on Bolaño's life. The mythic image of Bolaño as the great bohemian intellectual is largely based on autobiographical readings of his fiction and the work of savvy marketers -- two fraught sources.

 

Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview goes a long way toward filling out our picture of the Chilean. The book collects four interviews he gave between 1999 and 2005, plus one of the best pieces of Bolaño-journalism currently available in English: Marcela Valdes' essay on 2666, originally published in The Nation in late 2008. The slender book is a fun read; it doesn't so much kill any of the myths that have grown up around Bolaño as take the novelist down from his pedestal so we can see him as more of a rounded human being.

 

What kind of a person is on display as a result? One who chooses his words carefully but who nonetheless seems like he's forthcoming. Describing his "sexual education," he says: "I knew many positions, but positions are positions and sex is sex." That tells you everything you need to know without actually revealing anything intimate, and it's also quite witty. Appropriately, it also resembles nothing so much as the kind of ironic communication that so often defines Bolaño's prose as a novelist.

 

Although Bolaño generally speaks from behind a veneer of irony in these interviews as well, his frequent forays into the world of literature are more direct. He's not afraid to make his veneration for books clear, at one point remarking, "A library is a metaphor for human beings or what's best about human beings," and the central place books hold in Bolaño's imagination is everywhere apparent.

 

His musings on literature are never less than interesting, and watching the author opine on the great Spanish-language writers of the 20th century is a distinct pleasure. Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa come in for high praise, but others don't fare as well. Pablo Neruda receives some harsh, if not quite demeaning words: "Neruda is what I pretended to be at age twenty: living like a poet without writing. Neruda wrote three very good books; the rest -- the great majority -- are very bad, some truly infected." Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz, the two Mexican colossi of the 20th century, don't get off nearly so easily: "I would guess that Fuentes loved Paz, if it's possible for Fuentes to love someone, which is another topic; and Paz probably loved Fuentes, if Paz has ever loved anyone, which is again another topic. Evidently, I don't side with either of them."

 

Strong opinions on standard-bearers like Neruda, Paz, and Fuentes are of course intriguing, but this is Bolaño -- a man who supposedly had read everything -- so it's nice to see these interviews ranging beyond the usual suspects. Due respect is paid to Macedonio Fernández, the early 20th-century Argentine author little known in the English-speaking world but widely held elsewhere to be the mentor of Jorge Luis Borges. [Editor's note: A new translation of Fernández ‘s The Museum of Eterna's Novel is forthcoming in February from Open Letter.] Bolaño also offers praise to scores of novelists that he names as peers and literary ancestors. Among them are the enigmatic Mexican author Juan Rulfo -- who penned two classics of Mexican literature  -- Pedro Páramo and The Burning Plain and Other Stories -- and then abruptly stopped writing), the Spaniard Javier Marías (said to be the Spanish heir to Proust), and lesser-known contemporary writers like Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Juan Villoro. Helpfully, Melville House includes short notes in the margins of the interview that summarize who each writer is and what of their work is available in English translation.

 

To a confirmed Bolaño-maniac, Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview feels both familiar and foreign, as it finds the author talking insightfully about the same subjects he relentlessly pursues in his novels, yet approaching them from different angles, as in the following reminiscence, in which Bolaño recalls being a Chilean immigrant in a Mexican high school. It almost might be something ripped from the pages of The Savage Detectives, yet there's an element to it that eludes Bolaño's fictive narrators:

On the first day of school in Mexico, some guy challenged me to a fight just because I happened to be Chilean: we hadn't said a word to each other. He was a Mexican kid who didn't know how to fight well and was short besides. I was certain that with two punches I could knock him to the ground, but I realized that if I knocked him down all the others would come after me and that's when I got smart: I grasped the situation in the act and I directed the fight to a tie. I came off very well and he made good friends with me and no one ever wanted to fight me again. It was like a baptism in Aztec thought.

On one level, this anecdote is a fine indication of the survivor's instincts that would serve Bolaño well through the wastrel's existence he lived for much of his life. But given the central place that Mexico would hold in some of Bolaño's best fiction, that last sentence about the "baptism in Aztec thought" gives this memory an added dimension: situated at the juncture between the personal and the literary, it suggests how the author came to understand a civilization that would become crucial to some of his best fiction. The Last Interview is an engrossing book full of these small, personal moments that cast new light on the author and his works. 

 

The interviews under discussion were all given as the author penned his very last work, 2666; now readers have a chance to pair them with a novel that comes from the very beginning of Bolaño's career. Just published in English translation by New Directions, Monsieur Pain was originally written in the early 1980s -- back when legend tells us that Bolaño eked out a living by submitting the same stories over and over to various writing contests in Spain. A branching, ultimately inscrutable labyrinth, it demonstrates that from the very beginning of his career Bolaño was out to subvert and manhandle the detective genre.

 

Monsieur Pain is an occult healer living in inter-war Paris. One day a woman he's smitten with asks him to cure the great Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo's life-threatening case of the hiccups. Pain is, of course, only too happy to comply, except that he soon finds himself shadowed by two mysterious Spaniards who confront him and offer him thousands of francs to desist. With some misgivings, Pain accepts the bribe, only to be drawn back to Vallejo and offer his services.

 

An intriguing opening but, typically for Bolaño, it turns out to be a red herring: the Spaniards vanish, the woman Pain was falling in love with suddenly leaves town, and Pain's access to Vallejo is cut off. At first it appears that Bolaño has just wasted 50 pages setting up a plot that goes nowhere, but as Monsieur Pain unfolds the eerie traces of this odd setup resonate in tune to the increasingly bizarre happenings.

 

Where exactly does the book go after Pain's detective story comes to naught? In search of illumination, Pain wanders through an assortment of vaguely menacing, enigmatic settings of the sort that would become Bolaño's stock-in-trade. Paris becomes a nightscape of harsh shadows and shimmering light populated by odd men who swill liquor, chase women, and gamble. Throughout, Bolaño's prose is elusive, hinting at meaning but then slipping back before anything definitive is revealed. To abet this sensation, he often joins two images that are ostensibly in conflict but actually united by an underlying imaginative logic: "A calm, inexorable sadness clambered onto my shoulders and clung there, like a hump or a younger but infinitely wiser brother."

 

One of the novel's most memorable scenes comes during a chance encounter in a bar where Pain happens upon two brothers that make "aquarium cemeteries" -- constructions that feature various "disasters simultaneously frozen in an artificial moment, beneath indifferent goldfish swimming back and forth." Pain gets to view an example of this strange art on display, and in it he finds a hellish world of catastrophe populated by human figures trapped within the violent tableaux but curiously disconnected from them:

And there, indeed, next to one of the trains, beside the last carriage, half buried in the sand, was a little man-shaped figure. It was not the only one: near a single-seater airplane, leaning against a pumice stone, another figure surveyed the almanac of calamities, a figure made of dark gray, unpainted metal, standing tall, although, had the stone been removed, it would in all likelihood have toppled irrevocably.

In these strange figures, the reader recognizes Monsieur Pain himself. The occult doctor is a typical Bolaño narrator in that, like the men in the aquarium, he is surrounded by calamities but is impotent to do anything other than observe them. The ghosts of World War I and the Spanish Civil War waft through this novel, as do notions of fascism, insanity, and suicide, but Pain's life is peaceful; all his brushes with danger turn out to be nothing but the passage of looming shadows and misunderstandings. Even when Pain was fatally injured on the battlefield during World War I, we learn, he astonished the doctors and lived. It is his lot -- and ours as his readers -- to be aware of the horrors that lurk below everyday life, but to remain unable to connect with them in any meaningful way.

 

The story concludes with all the loose ends tied up but nothing resolved, and an odd epilogue narrates the deaths of several characters in a collection of disparate voices. Suitably, Pain's end is delivered last of all: in the book's closing pages we learn that as the Nazis occupied France, Pain attempted to join the Resistance but failed. Instead he continued to practice his occult science, "conscientiously reading palms, palms stained with blood, the palms of killers and sinister whores, of spongers and black marketeers."

 

It is a fitting emblem for Monsieur Pain, to see its protagonist winding up his days by calling on the supernatural to read the lives of people dealing in the dirtiest kind of reality. Pain is as close as ever to villainy and adventure, yet the truth behind any of it continues to elude him. As Pain goes so do his readers: Monsieur Pain goads us to guess at the truth behind its dreamlike series of events, but to get any further than Pain did we would surely need divination. Nevertheless, this taut, entrancing novel joins Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview and the fine murder mystery The Skating Rink (published last August by New Directions) in proving that for fans of this great author there is life after 2666. Several more novels remain to be translated, not to mention the rest of Bolaño's stories, essays, and interviews. Judging by these recent books, we are in for prolonged literary feast.

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