Travel Journals for Sleepwalkers: The Stories of Roberto Bolaño

By David Varno

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Ever since Last Evenings on Earth was released in paperback, I have developed the habit, which has become a mission, of reading each Bolaño book as it appears in English translation. There have been nine since then, and two were pretty large. Now that they’ve been consumed, and the two flashy covers are seen less frequently in New York City Subway cars, people question why I keep reading. “Why give in to the hype,” they say, or, “Tell me, why should I like Bolaño?” Someone just told me that he’s saving the remaining unread book by a favorite author because after he reads it, it will all be over. Fortunately for the fanatic, there are still books in the Bolaño archive that haven’t even been published, let alone translated.

Over the summer, two more translated collections appeared. The Return (June, New Directions), was put together from story collections that appeared during Bolaño’s lifetime, and The Insufferable Gaucho (August, New Directions) was first published posthumously. It contains longer stories, plus a lecture and an essay, and though it is slight, it is unlike anything that has appeared from Bolaño yet. There is a retelling of Borges’s “The South” and a story called “Police Rat,” which follows a sensitive sewer rat named Pepe the Cop, who fights evil and corruption. Much of Bolaño’s work makes reference to his favorite fiction writers and poets, but “The Insufferable Gaucho” goes further because it doesn’t merely summarize the Borges; Bolaño paints in an entirely new set of circumstances for Borges’s classic narrative of a doomed man who fantasizes a romantic and violent death.

Bolaño’s Dahlmann is a lawyer named Pereda who must leave the comforts of Buenos Aires amidst the crash of 2001 for his ranch in the pampas of Capitan Jourdan. The ending of Borges’s story, in Andrew Hurley’s translation, reads “he sensed that had he had been able to choose or dream his death that night, this is the death he would have chosen.” When Pereda thinks of the story [the Borges story? Or death?], he is deeply saddened. He thinks of his uncertain fate, and looks glumly at the train’s other passengers, a mass that reminds him of of a scene in Dr. Zhivago. From the train window he watches a series of vicious rabbits, who chase down and gnaw one another. He realizes that he is not ready to die. Thinking of the debts he has to pay, and that perhaps no one is ever ready to die, he retreats further from reality into the realm where what he perceives is made into allusions to literature. This happens again in a corner store where he drinks a glass of eau-de-vie and observes an old gaucho strumming his guitar. He is “inwardly satisfied that the scene [is] like something from a story by di Bennedetto.” Gradually he builds a staff of ranch hands and tries to get his place going, a place he has to ask directions to when he first arrives in town. To counter the boredom and to forget the erosion of his previous life, he decides he would like to get into a fight with one of the gauchos. But none of them take him seriously, and he returns to Buenos Aires.

Many say that if not for the two big books, Bolaño would not have gained so many readers. That’s probably true, considering the romance of The Savage Detectives, or the sprawling complexity of 2666. They have their flaws, like all large, ambitious novels, but that only enhances the experience. Part of the excitement of The Savage Detectives, a friend told me, was in hanging on to see whether Bolaño could keep up the momentum of the first 80 pages. He didn’t, my friend thought, but neither of us were disappointed. Bolaño took us through an exhausting cycle of points-of-view, and ended the book with an empty box composed of dotted lines, as though he were handing the wheel over to us. In translator Natasha Wimmer’s introduction to the paperback, she notes the novel’s obvious theme of friendship, and that Bolaño may have wanted to write his own Huckleberry Finn, but argues that he took the form further, linking the author-doppleganger Arturo Belano and his Tom Sawyer surrogate Ulises Lima in friendship with “the chorus of fellow-writers who help narrate the book.” But “the more pages you write,” Bolaño said, in a 2000 interview cited by Wimmer, “the more possibility there is of revealing imperfections.”

The short novels and short stories fool us. They read as straightforward tales, and the action concludes neatly but without explanation. Part of Bolaño’s greatness is his skill as a storyteller, which is interesting because aside from some of the more absurd, fantastic, or fable-esque tales, the pieces are difficult to re-tell. “The Myth of Cthulhu,” the essay that concludes Insufferable, excoriates a populist Spanish critic and the bestselling work that he upholds. Bolaño claims that it isn’t the accessibility or entertainment value of bestsellers that make people buy them, but the fact that the stories can be understood (emphasis Bolaño’s). Referencing Lorca, he cautions that the public can never be wrong “because the public understands.” 

The essence of Bolaño's stories is not as simple to grasp as the stories themselves are to read, and part of this is due to the fact that many of the protagonists and their first-person narratives, particularly in The Return, are preoccupied with their dreams. The most successful stories hold up the artifice of a dream world as though its fantastic events are actually happening. This is the beauty of a story like “Meeting with Enrique Lihn.” Everything happens within a dream. It begins with the line, “In 1999, after returning from Venezuela, I dreamed that I was being taken to Enrique Lihn’s apartment, in a country that could well have been Chile, in a city that could well have been Santiago, bearing in mind that Chile and Santiago once resembled Hell.”

Other characters seem to believe that their dreams show them the truth, safety, or a better world. In “Detectives,” Arturo Belano and a detective named Contreras, who saves Belano from prison in 1973 (following the story of Bolaño’s own purported escape), seem to magically grasp the truth that inhabits the other side of a mirror, in which they no longer recognize themselves. “It was like I woke up, but in reverse, and instead of coming back to this side, I’d come out on the other side, where even my own voice sounded strange.”

Sometimes the characters’ dreams mislead or haunt them. The German-Colombian porno producer who finances the career of the protagonist’s mother in “The Prefiguration of Lalo Cura” is said to provide narration of his films “like a travel journal for sleepwalkers.” In the beginning of “Clara,” the narrator is visited by a powerful angel who decrees that Clara is his true love, even though she only disappoints him. Occasionally, a dream will disrupt a story like a scrim falling from its scaffold. In “Buba,” Bolaño actually writes “I think that was when I woke up.” Fortunately the story is saved by its portrayal of friendships among soccer players on a national Spanish team, along with quite fine descriptions of game play, plus a magic blood potion concocted by the eponymous African teammate, which may or not be the cause of their victories.

There is no need to argue for novellas over novels, or short stories over novellas. Who can say whether Amulet is simply leftovers from Savage Detectives, or that the hardboiled, distilled version of “The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman” from Nazi Literature in the Americas is better or worse than the more meditative Distant Star? What does it matter?  Early this summer I wrote about Bolaño’s novel of prose poems, Antwerp, an experiment in form that I believed was unsuccessful, until I realized that even that book has its merits. Roberto Bolaño is one of those writers who have made it worthwhile to read everything they’ve written. And there is definitely an argument for the stories included in The Return and The Insufferable Gaucho, in which Bolaño tells tales that are both sprawling and concise.


Comments

1

Quote: “Roberto Bolaño is one of those writers who have made it worthwhile to read everything they’ve written.”

I love this line. In a way, it’s utterly mundane. But written about Bolaño, it’s not. In fact, it’s as haunting to me as the line from another critic that I also love: “I am addicted to the haze that floats above Bolaño’s fiction.”

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