The OF Blog: The many faces of Roberto Bolaño: Short Story Writer

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The many faces of Roberto Bolaño: Short Story Writer

In my first essay on the late Roberto Bolaño, I discussed his role in the 1970s Mexican poetry movement, the infrarealistos.  In particular, I noted the hybridization of realist and surrealist elements to create a poetry that was simultaneously intensely real and yet so "real" in some aspects as to create a sort of otherworldly ambiance in the midst of stories that were so vividly told that one might imagine that s/he smelled the cigarettes and coital fluids that so copiously flowed in many of Bolaño's compositions.  Although this is not anything unique to Bolaño's works (if anything, this conscious move away from the metaphor-laden magic realism associated with the Boom Generation was reflected in the Mexican Crack Manifesto and the Southern Cone McOndo groups, whose works, like Bolaño's, began to become prominent in the Latin American writing communities of the 1990s.  I plan on discussing this at length in another essay in the near future), Bolaño's prolific publishing history between 1996 (the short novel, Nazi Literature in the Americas, being the first of two books published that year) and his death in 2003 (10 books in total being published in the final seven years of his lifetime), plus his rather widely-repeated condemnations of older Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, garnered him critical and popular attention above that of almost all other post-Boom Latin American and Spanish writers.

During this feverish time, where Bolaño doubtless wrote against the ticking time bomb of his now-discovered liver condition, he published two short story collections, Llamadas telefónicas (Telephone Calls, 1997) and Putas asesinas (Assassin Whores, 2001).  Later, two posthumous collections, El gaucho insufrible (The Insufferable Gaucho, 2004) and El secreto del mal (The Secret of Evil, 2007) were published, with the first containing five completed stories not collected in the previous two volumes, while the latter consists of story fragments that Bolaño never completed before his 2003 death.  In some respects, Bolaño the short story writer has been overshadowed by Bolaño the novelist.  This is a shame, for several of his short fictions deserve greater attention from readers and critics alike. 

One characteristic of much of his short fiction is the use of literary hopefuls, authors and poets alike, as protagonists.  One early example is found in "Una Aventura Literaria" ("A Literary Adventure"), collected in Llamadas telefónicas.  Here, the protagonist is a satirical author who, as the direct, almost terse opening paragraph states, "writes a book where he mocks, under diverse masks, certain writers, although it would be more just to say certain archetypes of writers." (translation of "escribe un libro en donde se burla, bajo máscaras diversas, de ciertos escritores, aunque más ajustado sería decir de ciertos arquetipos de escritores.", p. 52)  In this story, as in several others found in these volumes, Bolaño the fiction writer utilizes several of the techniques that Bolaño the infrarealisto employed to critique, if not outright attack, the perceived literary establishment of the time. Fact is blended with fiction to create novel situations where the writer as a character appears, not always under the guise of truth, to break the "fourth wall" equivalent of the story and to speak as much to the reader as to the imagined fictional audience.

First-person or limited third-person points of view dominate these stories.  The protagonists are often young, callow, disillusioned idealists.  They are often portrayed as living in situations that run counter to their aspirations.  If the protagonist is a writer, there is an enemy or establishment to attack. If the main character is seeking some sort of understanding, s/he often does not achieve this.  In the title story for the first collection, "Llamadas telefónicas," Bolaño creates an impersonal situation out of what is normally the story most designed to create an emphatic connection, the love story.  Instead of utilizing names to create a sense of connection, Bolaño uses initials to create a distance, one that is necessary for relating the story that follows.  Below is the opening paragraph:

B está enamorado de X.  Por supuesto, se trata de un amor desdichado.  B, en una época de su vida, estuvo dispuesto a hacer todo por X, más o menos lo mismo que piensan y dicen todos los enamorados. X rompe con él.  X rompe con él por teléfono.  Al principio, por supuesto, B sufre, pero a la larga, como es usual, se repone.  La vida, como dicen en las telenovelas, continúa.  Pasan los años. (p. 63)
(B is enamored with X.  Of course, it is a matter of an wretched love.  B, en a period of his life, was disposed to do anything for X, more or less the same which all the besotted think and say.  X broke up with him.  X broke up with him by telephone. In the beginning, of course, B suffers, but after a while, as is usual, he recovers.  Life, as the soap operas say, continues.  Years pass.)

There is at once something cold and distant about B and X's past relationship, highlighted by the method of their breakup.  In setting up this story, Bolaño utilizes a sarcastic, cynical approach to love to set up a tale in which the reader perhaps may find him/herself wondering just what happened to B or X, if X would receive her comeuppance, or if there might be something else in store for these characters.  Perhaps some readers might imagine him or herself in the role of such characters. 

This is what I suspect lies at the heart of several of Bolaño's fictions, particularly his shorter fictions.  Characters are developed and placed in vivid situations, perhaps ones similar to what his readers might have experienced in their lives.  While some may be busy puzzling over the numerous detectives that appear within these tales or questioning whether or not the occasional appearances of Arturo Belano, who as a Chilean writer who has been imprisoned in Pinochet's Chile and who has wandered through 1970s Latin America before arriving in Spain, might signal an accurate stand-in for the author himself, I believe that taking those narrative conceits as being the meat of the story rather than viewing them as being a narrative enhancement would be a major mistake.

Instead, what I would argue would be the most important reason to read Bolaño's short stories (and indeed, most of his shorter novels as well) is to see how well he develops characters and places them in intriguing situations that although they may at times seem beyond the immediate experiences of most of his readers, they end up being attractive, exciting reads just because of the novelty of the situation.  Take for instance the titular vagabond in "Vagabundo en francia y bélgica" ("Vagabond in France and Belgium," Putas asesinas). The protagonist, again named B, is an author who has entered France after receiving a royalty advance for a novel he hasn't even yet begun.  He is in France because it interests him and he wants a break from the more dangerous Spain from which he has come.  Why is it "dangerous" there?  Why is this protagonist a writer who is late with a story?  It is a testament to Bolaño's imagination and skill as a writer that he can make assassins out of whores and detectives out of writers and poets.

It is for this ability of his to craft short, smart, snappy stories that often contain memorable characters and surprising situations that I believe Bolaño is relatively underrated as a short fiction writer. While he certainly is not an elegant writer nor one who crafts each plot and character arc with precision, there is a vibrant, raw energy in his prose that make his stories, even the unfinished ones collected in his most recent posthumous releases, appealing to readers.  And for those who perhaps grew tired of the literary digressions present in his longer novels, at least in his short fiction Bolaño reined in those tendencies enough to create stories that were interesting on their own account and not necessarily because of the digressions.  The end result is a raw, bleeding heap of tales that will stick in the craws of most readers.

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