Bolaño, Mi Amor

I started reading Roberto Bolaño's work last year, beginning with his short story collection Last Evenings on Earth, and it was love at first sight. Actually, no. I think I had to read a couple of stories before I was entranced -- I remember reading the first story and wondering what all the fuss over Bolaño was about, but by the end of the second I was developing a crush, and by the end of the third I was head-over-heels. From there, it was on to Distant Star and By Night in Chile -- the last a bittersweet experience, because some bastard had written in the Dartmouth Library copy, defacing it with underlining and marginal notes, inserting their own dull presence between me and the words of mi novio. (I have since gotten a fresh copy of my own, but still, the pain lingers.) (I've not yet read Amulet, but soon, soon... ) (I've been reading the translations, though I've glanced at the Spanish-language originals. My Spanish is, unfortunately, at best functional -- enough to let me get the gist of most newspaper articles, but not much more than that. I keep practicing, though.)

A copy of the latest book of Bolaño's to appear in the U.S., The Savage Detectives, is, I hear, on its way to me, and I am preparing to put all the other books in my life aside so that I can spend some quality time with it and it alone. After the short assignations that are Bolaño's other books in English, The Savage Detectives will (I hope, I expect, I dream) allow a longer-term relationship.

What is the nature of this passion of mine? Any love is difficult to explain fully, to analyze or dissect, but I have some idea of what it is about Bolaño's writing that makes it so attractive to me. His diction (in Chris Andrews's translations, at least) is disarmingly colloquial, creating a poetic effect that heightens ordinary speech and expression without churning it into lyrical goo. This is, to be honest, my favorite sort of style, but one I am wary of, because most of the time it is used by writers who don't know what else to do. Bolaño's stories drift around, often as monologues -- and since I was once an aspiring playwright, I have a weakness for monologues. I am happiest when hearing characters talk. His characters talk, and they talk about each other talking, and their talk is the substance of their stories.

But this is not all that attracts me -- such writing might be enough to spark a crush, but it is not, on its own, enough to fuel a passion. I am also enraptured by Bolaño's mix of the odd and the ordinary, the easy movement he makes between the logic of modernity and the logic of dreams, the willingness he has to indulge in goofiness and absurdity, and the general refusal in all of his work (that I have read) to turn terror and evil into simple melodrama. And I adore his allusions -- no literary geek like me could fail to fall in love with all the names dropped through the pages like confetti from The Reader's Encyclopedia. No-one with a sweet tooth for metafiction could fail to be charmed by the twists and turns of Bolaño's fictive realities, their palimpsests and funhouse mirrors, their chuckles and winks.

I do not suffer passionate love for the critic James Wood, whose spleen sometimes bursts with ridiculous generalities about What Fiction Should Do And Be, but when he writes in praise of a writer (as Carrie just said, too) he's at his best, and able to isolate many of the elements that make a particular piece of writing work. Thus, I was pleased to see he likes Bolaño, whom he calls a "wonderfully strange Chilean imaginer, at once a grounded realist and a lyricist of the speculative" and so has named my love in exactly the words I would have used, had I been less love-struck and more concise. He quotes a sentence from By Night in Chile and then follows it with a marvelous array of insights -- the sentence is about a pigeon-killing falcon named Ta Gueule:

"Ta Gueule appeared again like a lightning bolt, or the abstract idea of a lightning bolt, and stooped on the huge flocks of starlings coming out of the west like swarms of flies, darkening the sky with their erratic fluttering, and after a few minutes the fluttering of the starlings was bloodied, scattered and bloodied, and afternoon on the outskirts of Avignon took on a deep red hue, like the color of sunsets seen from an airplane, or the color of dawns, when the passenger is woken gently by the engines whistling in his ears and lifts up the little blind and sees the horizon marked with a red line, like the planet's femoral artery, or the planet's aorta, gradually swelling, and I saw that swelling blood vessel in the sky over Avignon, the blood-stained flight of the starlings, Ta Guele splashing color like an Abstract Expressionist painter."

Much of the most successfully daring postwar fiction has been by writers committed to the long dramatic sentence (Bohumil Hrabal, Thomas Bernhard, W. G. Sebald, José Saramago). Bolaño is in their company: the quotation here is broken off of a phrase that takes about a page in the book. The musical control is impeccable, and one is struck by Bolaño's ability to nudge on his long, light, ethereal sentence -- impossibly, like someone punting a leaf -- image by image: the falcon, the red hue, the sunset, the dawn, the dawn seen from a plane, the femoral artery, the blood vessel, the abstract painter. It could so easily be too much, and somehow isn't, the flight of fancy anchored by precision and a just-suppressed comedy. (In Spain, amusingly, the falcons are too old or docile for killing, and the priests have none of the dangerous elegance of their French or Italian counterparts.) Likewise, this fantasia about falcons in every European city might have been thuddingly allegorical or irritatingly whimsical, and isn't. It is comically plausible, and concretely evoked; the surrealism lies in the systematic elaboration of the image. The Catholic Church is likened to a bird of prey, murderous and blood-red in its second capital, Avignon, and we are free to link this, without coercion, to the Chilean situation and the ethical somnolence of Father Urrutia.

Here Wood starts from one of the other things that inevitably makes my heart go pitter-pat, the wonder of long sentences, and continues on to show just what is so marvelous about this particular one. I'm also glad he writes about this because it brings out just how skilled Bolaño was, a fact that is sometimes easy to forget when we don't read with all the care we should, when we miss the complexity of his structures and think they're lackadaisical. That's where the art lies: in the indirection.

When it comes to literary loves, I like to share, and so here, for those of you who may not have fallen under Bolaño's particular spell yet (or who have and seek more, more, more), are a few links...

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