The Shaping of Roberto Bolaño

By Mary South

This past week, the Selected Shorts program, hosted by Symphony Space, featured an evening of South American writing. The long-standing Shorts program regularly brings in highly regarded actors to perform the work of both established and emerging writers. Wednesday’s lineup was centered around the theme of “Roberto Bolaño and the Writers He Admired,” and included fiction and poetry by Javier Marías, Jorge Luis Borges, Nicanor Parra, and, of course, Roberto Bolaño. Each reading was also followed by a brief interlude to inform the audience a little further on the late Bolaño’s biography and literary influences.

The theatre was nearly full when the lights dimmed and the first reading began of Javier Marías’s short story, “On the Honeymoon,” as translated by Margaret Jull Costa. The story was performed by actor Ivan Hernandez, who has starred in leading roles of many plays and musicals, the most recent being the Public Theater’s staging of The Capeman. Following Hernandez’ sonorous rendition of Marías’ words, the audience was treated to Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Shape of the Sword,” as translated by David A. Yates, and Chilean poet Nicanor Parra’s “Something Like That,” as translated by Liz Werner. Both were read by actor Charles Keating, winner of an Emmy for his role in Another World and a Tony for his role in Loot. The final story of the night, Roberto Bolaño’s “William Burns,” as translated by Chris Andrews, was performed by actor Michael Stuhlbarg. He has many film and television credits to his name, including the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, appearances on Law & Order, Ugly Betty, and The American Experience, as well as a Tony nomination for his role in The Pillowman in 2005.

Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous introduction to the American literary exploded with 2666, his 900-page opus. In many ways, Bolaño’s life was just as mysterious as the worlds of his novels, as Isaiah Sheffer, host and director of the reading series, informed the audience between readings. Born to a teacher and an amateur boxer, Bolaño battled dyslexia and had a penchant for stealing books. In 1973, he returned to Chile from Mexico City to aid the socialist revolutionary cause of Salvador Allende. He was arrested on suspicion of terrorism and held for eight days, a period which he chronicled in his stories “Dance Card” and “Detectives.” Since his death, however, suspicion has been raised as to whether he was even present in Chile in 1973. He lived an itinerant life, not only in Chile and Mexico, but El Salvador, France, and eventually Spain. His death in 2003 of liver failure was rumored to be the cause of contracting Hepatitis C from a heroin habit in his early life, but this has also been called into question.

Bolaño was an admirer of many writers and he was almost unparalleled in his literary knowledge, as Sheffer told us. He was particularly enamored of Borges and Marías, and said of the latter, “[he] speaks for the entire Latin American culture.” He also loved North American writing, including the work of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Indeed, Bolaño’s influences appear to have been intensely international. As Sheffer quoted from his last interview, Bolaño said that the books that have most influenced his life were:

Don Quixote by Cervantes, Moby Dick by Melville. The complete works of Borges, Hopscotch by Cortázar, A Confederacy of Dunces by Toole. I should also cite Nadja by Breton, the letters of Jacques Vaché. AnythingUbu by Jarry, Life: A User’s Manual by Perec. The Castle and The Trial by Kafka. Aphorisms by Lichtenberg. The Tractatus by Wittgenstein. The Invention of Morel by Bioy Casares. The Satyricon by Petronius. The History of Rome by Tito Livio. Pensées by Pascal.

But even more than becoming an author, Bolaño would have liked, he said, to have been a detective, someone who “could go back to the scene of the crime and not be afraid of ghosts.”

It is possible to see the imprint of Bolaño most beloved writers on his novels and stories. The elements of his influence were certainly put to best display on Wednesday. Both Bolaño’s elements of mystery and comedy were visible in the poem and two stories that were chosen for the evening. In Marías’ “On the Honeymoon,” the narrator describes watching a woman walking down the street “adjusting the elastic on a recalcitrant pair of panties.” When later, she gestures up toward the balcony where he is sitting and screams, “You’re mine, or I’ll kill you!” it is easy to recall scenes from his oeuvre. I thought of the three academics in the first section of 2666, who, at first trivially arguing in a taxicab, end up assaulting their driver. We get a sense that, at any moment, the comic banal can descend into violence. In his story, Marías has created a world that is chilling and mesmerizing. The reader is made squirmishly uncomfortable, and yet feels completely at ease. Bolaño’s humorous meditations on writers and literature within his novels was also evidenced in the Parra’s poem “Something Like That,” when the speaker muses: “The true problem of philosophy is who does the dishes.” And in Borges’s “The Shape of the Sword,” a story of an Irishman’s betrayal by a friend who turns out to be the narrator himself, we see where Bolaño found his playfulness with form.

These stories were, at Symphony Space, like introductory musical motifs that were brought back brilliantly with Michael Stuhlbarg’s reading of Bolaño’s story, “William Burns.” As the narrator and his two women companions shut all the windows and doors inside their country house while a killer runs around exterior, the narrator takes a moment to muse about the dogs who have been left outside:

One of the dogs was pregnant, I think, I’m not sure—there’d been some talk about it. Anyway, just at that moment, while I was still running around, I heard one of the women say, ‘Jesus, the bitch, the bitch,’ and I thought of telepathy, I thought of happiness, and I was afraid that the woman who had spoken, whichever one it was, would go out to look for the dog.

The audience, silently spellbound until this moment, at once burst into laughter. Like with Marías’s story, the conflation of comedy and terror both intensifies the drama and lulls the reader into a sense of safety. According to the narrator, the windows in the house of the story, placed haphazardly on the walls, had a “dizzying, exhilarating, maddening effect,” and at this description, one can’t help but recall Borges’s vertiginous library of Babel.

I was fortunate to talk briefly with Isaiah Sheffer after the event. I asked on what basis they chose the authors and readings for the evening. “We tried to pick at distinct aspects of Bolaño’s influence,” he said. “We thought, for example, that the scene in Marías’s story where the woman is gesturing was particularly striking in relation to Bolaño’s work. We almost chose a story by Poe, as Bolaño also read him widely in his youth, but in the end, limited it to these three.” That Bolaño would be influenced by Poe feels fitting and speaks again to the international scope of his work. Indeed, from the large crowd assembled at Symphony Space, it is clear that while Bolaño mania may have lost some of its fervor, he will remain an author of enduring influence. He has earned his place to be read on stage alongside Jorge Luis Borges, the writer he admired most.


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