The OF Blog: The many faces of Roberto Bolaño: Poet

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The many faces of Roberto Bolaño: Poet

For the past 11 years or so, or shortly after the debut of one of his two "major" novels, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives), in the Hispanophone markets in 1998, the late Chilean writer/poet Roberto Bolaño has had an aura about him that is more akin to that reserved for dead musicians such as Jim Morrison than what most authors, dead or alive, ever experience (this is ironic, considering that Bolaño's first novel, co-written with A.G. Porta in 1984, was Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce - Advice of a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic).  For those who are only familiar with Bolaño through his English language translations, particularly his two large novels published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one might have this romantic image of this heroin-addicted exile from Pinochet's Chile (who, according to some of the stories, in large part based on fictionalized autobiographical stories told by Bolaño himself, was on the verge of being killed as part of the first wave of violence against Salvador Allende's supporters by Pinchochet's junta, before being released by guards who were old friends of Bolaño's) who destroyed his liver while writing sprawling, sometimes apocalyptic screeds that deconstructed the 20th century and cast Latin American political and social life in a way that hadn't been as vivid and "important" since the days of the Boom Generation.

It is a lovely myth, but it is only a myth, as several of Bolaño's friends, family, and fellow writers have stated for the past seven years, ever since Bolaño's death in 2003 from liver failure.  Plenty has been written elsewhere, in various languages, about how much Bolaño the person is a constructed myth, but not as much attention has been devoted to Bolaño's works in various narrative forms, at least not in English.  In a large part, this is due to the incompleteness of the translation efforts from Bolaño's English language publishers (although New Directions is making strides in filling in the gaps with a new series of translations due out this year and next).  But gaps still remain for English-language monolinguals to bridge if they want to be able to judge accurately Bolaño's work.

With three exceptions (La pista de hielo, Una novelita lumpen,  and the forthcoming El Tercer Reich, each of which I expect to acquire and read in the next four weeks), I have read all of Bolaño's to-date published works in Spanish.  Over the next few weeks I'm planning to write a series of essays on Bolaño's writing, starting with his poetry and then covering his short fiction, his shorter novels, his non-fiction, and then his major novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, before I review El Tercer Reich in mid-March.  This is a project I've been contemplating for almost a year now, but it was only recently that I was mentally ready to embark upon this grueling endeavor.

It is fitting that I begin with Bolaño's poetry, as he often expressed his desire to be as known for his poetry as for his prose.  In many ways, Bolaño's poetry, to date only available in two collections, Tres and Los perros románticos (only the latter, as the bilingual The Romantic Dogs, is currently available in English), serves as a sort of précis for his other writings.  Influenced in part by poets such as the Salvadorean Roque Dalton, whom Bolaño met in El Salvador in the early 1970s before Dalton's assassination, Bolaño's poetry, sometimes expressed in a prose poem format, is often visceral, direct, and devoid of flowery prose or treacly sentiments.  Below is a passage from Tres that underscores Bolaño's tendency to rip out any sense of elevated language from his prose poems:

La situación real:  estaba solo en mi casa, tenia veintiocho años, acababa de regresar después de pasar el verano fuera de la provincia, trabajando, y las habitaciones estaban llenas de telerañas.  Ya no tenía trabajo y el dinero, a cuentagotas, me alcanzaría para cuatro meses.  Tampoco había esperanzas de encontrar otro trabajo.  En la policía me habían renovado la permanencia por tres meses.  No autorizado para trabajar en España.  No sabía qué hacer.  Era un otoño benigno. (p. 23)
(The real situation:  I was alone in my house, was 28 years old, just returned after passing the summer outside the province, working, and the rooms were full of spiderwebs.  Since I didn't have a job and the money, bit by bit, would reach me for four months.  Neither did I have hopes of finding another job.  The police had renewed my residency for three months.  Not authorized to work in Spain.  Didn't know what to do.  It was a benign autumn.)
This sample, taken from "Prosa del otoño en Gerona," is written in el estilo infrarealismo, a 1970s poetry movement that Bolaño co-founded with Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, which had as its focus a quotidian description of life in prose/poem form, often dissonant in feel and with several elements borrowed from the surrealists.  This hybridization of realism and surrealism was later utilized by Bolaño in his longer prose works, but its genesis is seen in his poetry.  In several of his compositions, such as "Un paseo por la literatura," also published in Tres, Bolaño would mix in references to his favorite writers (Philip K. Dick is referred to repeatedly in several of his prose works) in ways that appeared to make what was "real" seem simultaneously hyperreal, or edged with a feverish, surrealist quality that adds extra dimensions to what Bolaño is describing.  Below are excerpts from "Un paseo por la literatura" that illustrates these elements:

1.  Soñé que Georges Perec tenía tres años y visitaba mi casa.  Lo abrazaba, lo besaba, le decía que era un niño precioso. (p. 77)
(1.  I dreamed that Georges Perec was three years old and visited my house.  I hugged him, kissed him, and said to him that he was a precious child.)
4.  En estas desolaciones, padre, donde de tu risa sólo quedaban restos arqueológicos. (p. 78)

(4.  In these desolations, father, where of your laughter only remained archaeological remains.)
9.  Soñé que Macedonio Fernández aparecía en el cielo de Nueva York en forma de nube:  una nube sin nariz ni orejas, pero con ojos y boca. (p. 81)

(9.  I dreamed that Macedonio Fernández appeared in the skies over New York in the form of a cloud:  a cloud without nose or ears, but with eyes and mouth.)
24.  Soñé que Philip K. Dick paseaba por la Estación Nuclear de Civitavecchia. (p. 89)

(24.  I dreamed that Philip K. Dick passed by the Civitavecchia Nuclear Station.)
To a large extent, several of Bolaño's literary motifs (the melding of the everyday with the unreal, the direct, uncompromising language that he employed in his latter prose works, etc.) are present in his poetry.  But for those who may be impatient, may be wondering why I have not yet raised the issue of the use of detectives as a literary device in Bolaño's work, I will simply note that I plan on discussing this more at length in future installments.  But yes, there are references to detectives, such as this poem taken from The Romantic Dogs:

I dreamt of frozen detectives, Latin American detectives
who were trying to keep their eyes open
in the middle of the dream.
I dreamt of hideous crimes
and of careful guys
who were wary not to step in pools of blood
while taking in the crime scene
with a single sweeping glance.
I dreamt of lost detectives
in the convex mirror of the Arnolfinis:
our generation, our perspectives,
our models of Fear. 

(p. 49)
It may not be flashy (the English translation I quoted above does not really highlight the clash between the floridness of much of contemporary Spanish-language poetry and what Bolaño preferred to compose), but there is something in this poem and others in these two poetry collections that feels like double-distilled shots of the themes that Bolaño later explored as a prose writer.  In a way, to understand Bolaño the writer better, it is perhaps best to start with Bolaño the poet and to read these poems, inelegant as they may be, for the visceral rawness that he wanted to convey in each of his compositions.  It is, after all, as a poet that Bolaño wanted to be remembered and perhaps it is as a poet where his literary visions are most neatly described, if not completely realized.

Edit: I was reminded that the posthumous 2007 book, La Universidad Desconocida (The Unknown University) is another poetry book.  In my defense, it had been two years since I had read it and I had planned on discussing it with a few other books published after 2004, but since it's virtually all poetry and since it contains all of Tres and Los perros románticos as well as dozens of previously-uncollected poems, I feel I ought to add a brief note here mentioning this.  No English translation is available at this time.  Nothing else really to add, other than the poems found here for the first time match the style and feel of the ones I quoted from the previous two collections.


Unknown said...

Thanks for doing this! I'm excited to read your insights.

When you say "In a large part, this is due to the incompleteness of the translation efforts from Bolaño's English language publishers (although New Directions is making strides in filling in the gaps with a new series of translations due out this year and next)" are you just saying that not all of Bolaño's books have been translated into English yet? Or that some of the already translated books are going to be re-translated? Nope, I'm pretty sure you mean the former.

Best of luck to you in your project!

Larry Nolen said...

Yes, I mean the former, as I believe only slightly over half of his works have been translated to date. There will be one more novel, The Third Reich, that doubtless will come out in the next 1-2 years, but I don't know the publisher (betting on FS&G for the English translation, but Random House released the US Spanish editions of his works) yet.

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