The Once and Future Bolaño

By Sean Alan Cleary

It was a December 17, 2012, review in the New Republic that called it. In the course of largely panning Roberto Bolaño’s Woes of the True Policeman as an incomplete work that “showed [its] seams,” the reviewer, Sam Carter, declared that the immortal Bolaño was—finally—dead. It’d been nine years and 10 novels translated since the author’s death from liver failure, and now his illustrious second life in the American literary public’s eye had ended. “We have enough,” the review concluded.

The posthumous wave of translations and publications that had kept Bolaño alive for American audiences had crashed—or, at least the “Bolaño Bubble,” as Carter called it, had burst. A New York Times review declared that Woes has an appeal that “is to completists only,” and, if it were an album, that it would be akin to “a collection of outtakes, alternate versions, and demos.” The book’s publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, had described Woes as Bolaño’s “last, unfinished novel” and added an explanatory note that laid out the rummaging done among his papers to put the thing together. The effect of the publisher’s explanation might have been to distance Bolaño’s hand from the final product, or at least to distinguish it as different from the novels that the author had published while alive or for which he had “left instructions” for assembly after his death, as was the case with 2666. The New Yorker’s “Briefly Noted” section claimed that Woes “reads like an early draft of, or addendum to … 2666,” and that, unfortunately, “Bolaño’s legacy has been complicated by a wave of unfinished material flooding the market.”

While the original corpus of novels was firmly attached to the living Bolaño’s hand in their publication, Woes, in its rummaged-up assemblage of chapters and plot lines, marked a change. This was not something new. Not something alive. Instead, Woes was seen as a rancid carcass dumped on the street: fascinating, and maybe beautiful to someone interested in forensics, but not a living story still animated by the mind of its creator. The work wasn’t from the same author whose exuberant prose shook American literary circles 10 years before. It wasn’t a new Bolaño novel, after all, just a collection of rough and incomplete work shaped into something resembling a novel for an eager American market, the last scraping of the bottom of the barrel, put out for obsessives and cranks, like myself, unable to read the original Spanish text, or otherwise access the author’s unedited work. Sam Carter’s review even bemoaned that the novel risked crowding out other, more alive voices in a small American market for translated titles. And Ben Ehrenreich, at a Bolaño roundtable at the Los Angeles Public Library, commented that “there are other Latin American writers, you know.”

At the time Woes of the True Policeman was brought limping out into the American market (it’d been released by Anagrama the year before, in Spanish, as Los Sinsabores del Verdadero Policía), Bolaño had seemed to be the most prolific author in world literature, with books arriving every six months to a year from New Directions and FSG, producing splashes of media coverage, critical praise, and the adoration of the American literary world. Bolaño’s posthumous American life may have reached its apex in 2008, when, four years after it appeared in Spanish, FSG brought out the monumental 2666 in the United States. It was the first Bolaño novel to have been published that was unfinished at the time of the author’s death. It was the last thing Bolaño worked on. It was, everyone agreed, a masterpiece, Bolaño’s opus to eclipse the Rómulo Gallegos Prize–winning Savage Detectives.

Then FSG editor Lorin Stein promised the New York launch event for 2666 would be “the most chaotic fucking book party ever thrown,” and that—rather ominously—the event would “make all other book parties look like well-oiled teutonic machines.” The New Yorker declared that reading the nine-hundred-page novel would be the “New Year’s Resolution” for their staff, and Jonathan Russell Clark said of its publishing in his personal-critical exploration of the book, An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom, that “anyone with even a modicum of literary inclination couldn’t escape the hype surrounding the late and enigmatic Roberto Bolaño’s final opus.” It won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, accepted posthumously by its translator Natasha Wimmer, and Steven Moore, in the Washington Post, declared that “Bolaño has joined the immortals.” But after this great last book, his heroic end, Bolaño’s work kept coming.

So, here we are, a full 10 years after 2666 marked the height of Bolaño’s first posthumous life, six years since Woes marked the end of America’s posthumous Bolaño, and Penguin Press offers readers another new Bolaño novel, The Spirit of Science Fiction. The untranslated novel Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce, written in collaboration with A. G. Porta and published originally in Spain in 1984, looms on the horizon, along with the yet unpublished novel Diorama. Bolaño limps on, resuscitated feebly, hiccupping through the death throes like César Vallejo laid up in bed in a Paris apartment, alone and kept alive in a foreign land. But, perhaps, we can see the real end now.

To Bolaño fans, “The Spirit of Science Fiction” will feel familiar, though not stable in that familiarity.

Like the posthumously translated Monsieur Pain, The Spirit of Science Fiction was written by Bolaño while living in Gerona in the 1980s. A helpful chart from 2013’s touring Archivo Bolaño exhibit marks his work on the novel as encompassing the year 1984, then ending. Unlike Woes and 2666, which Bolaño continued to work on until his death, The Spirit of Science Fiction was put away, if not forgotten. While an early Kirkus review, similar to the critical appraisal of the unfinished Woes, calls The Spirit of Science Fiction “unshaped apprentice work,” the novel’s Spanish version, brought out by Alfaguara in 2016, makes it clear the text was considered complete by its author before being shelved. A review in World Literature Today of the Alfaguara publication remarks, “Bolaño left the manuscript finished and decided not to publish it (such was his brilliance and perfectionism).” This aspect marks the text as different from those final posthumous works left unfinished and puts it more in line with his novel The Third Reich, or with Philip K. Dick’s early literary fiction, as glimpses into the nascent talents of a later accomplished writer.

The Spirit of Science Fiction, billed by Penguin Press as a “sublime precursor to The Savage Detectives,” follows Jan Schrella and his roommate Remo Morán, two exiled poets from Chile precariously living in a rooftop apartment in Mexico City’s ever-expanding megalopolis of the mid-1970s. To Bolaño fans, it will feel familiar, though not stable in that familiarity. The regular places and characters of the author’s Mexico City abound—the famous Café Habana even appears with its real-world name instead of as the fictionalized Café Quito, as in The Savage Detectives—but the action of the novel seems more dreamlike and exploratory, its plot often abruptly changing course, leaving the reader with only a whiff of an associative connection.

For most of the novel, Remo spends his time searching for signs of the far-off “hurricane” that, for him, might be the spinning center of literature or revolution. With the motorcycle-riding poet José Arco, Remo searches for this hurricane in the mysterious origins of the proliferation of literary magazines across Mexico City, but he also finds it in recalcitrant, reclusive poets, and in romance (he’s quick to fall in and out of love). These are probably the most whole-feeling sections of the novel, where Remo seems like a well-drawn, displaced, and endlessly searching Bolaño character.

Meanwhile, Jan passes his days holed up in their rooftop apartment, reading and writing letters to science fiction writers. Jan’s compulsive, cloistered reading looks like a product of agoraphobia, similar to how the poet Jaime Quezada describes Bolaño’s teenage years in Mexico City, recalling him in Monica Maristain’s Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations as “stuck at home, moving between the bedroom and the living room, smoking and writing.” And, as if to spoil the biographical connection for readers, at the conclusion of the novel’s second section, as Jan’s final letter and his sections of the novel end, he reveals, in the sign-off, his alias to be “Roberto Bolaño.” Here, we see Bolaño wink ironically at his autofictional impulses, as the presence of his character Arturo Belano would later in his career.

But there is something unique in this early expression’s structure. Jan creates Bolaño, just as Bolaño creates Jan, and Jan is allowed plenty of creative space by his creator, Bolaño. Several sections of the novel follow Jan or are implicitly created by him. His letters to science fiction writers, an interview with an unnamed writer (who might, in fact, be Jan) at an awards ceremony for a science fiction prize, and various explorations of Jan’s writing make up most of Jan’s presence in the novel, though the organization of these sections might be considered loose compared to the plot following Remo, if not, as the publicity material calls it, “kaleidoscopic.” But there does seem to be a focus, here, on the power of literature to create and on how writing can generate something new, even something physical (a reader might see the beginnings of the ideas that later would become the Visceral Realists in The Savage Detectives). As if to underline this reading, at one point, Jan even builds a series of furnishings for their apartment out of his multiplying collection of science fiction books: a table, a bench, a desk, and a chair.

Spirit’s different sections glance off each other in a way familiar to Bolaño’s readers, and only Remo’s story has a plot with narrative direction, though, like many of the author’s works, this one seems to shrug off such linear thinking about how a novel should work. Remo, Jan, and José are in many ways like Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima, and the poet cohort of The Savage Detectives, wandering youths throwing themselves sidelong into life. But there’s something less sure about the characters of Spirit and more speculative in their intentions as poets—and as characters.

Bolaño’s posthumous life in English has in many ways been ill served by the marketing schedules and intense hype of American and world literature publishing.

In Spirit, the life searched for by its characters is found often in brilliant liminal moments between day and night, if not in a cohesive arc that comprises the whole of the book. When Remo and José find Dr. Ireneo Carvajal, the enigmatic source of The Poetry Bulletin of Mexico City, he explains away their hopes that the proliferation of poetry journals and workshops in the city is some evidence of the much hoped-for “revolution,” part of “the hurricane” that José and Remo have been searching for. Instead, Dr. Carvajal tells Remo and José a story of a missionary introducing devotional woodworking to a village in the Congo. The form of this fractalated storytelling within storytelling, bending outward from the central eye of a novel, will be familiar to Bolaño’s readers. Carvajal explains that as the brutality of colonial rule intensified, the village’s mania for woodworking mounted. “A virus of sadness and exaltation has seized the town,” the missionary warns, as “finished objects pile up in huts and yards, overflowing the frenzied village.” Eventually, unable to focus on the labor enforced on them by their colonial masters, the villagers revolt and are slaughtered, along with the missionary. The mania becomes a drug that masks the violence. Dr. Carjaval tells them, in Mexico “we seek out the cheapest and most pathetic drug or hobby: poetry.” Remo and José’s question and Dr. Carvajal’s answer exist in many forms in Bolaño’s work, but here they seem fresh and learned in the moment.

The final section of the novel, “Mexican Manifesto,” feels similarly alive. In this extended denouement, which appears to the reader as a dreamlike tableau come to life, Remo and a poet he’s fallen in love with, Laura, explore the city’s public bathhouses. It’s a section that feels like it ties the novel together, though it only attempts to do so in tone and not in plot. Remo and Laura’s explorations produce potent images of the swirling steam of the bathhouses and their inhabitants—bathhouse workers, salesmen—and their products, human and otherwise. The result is some of Bolaño’s most visceral prose, the kind that often operates through associative details that pile up or bounce off each other without a clear schematic, instead driven by an unnamable force. In the end of this final section, we are left with a single enduring impression of Remo’s:

The color of the stones around the pool, surely the saddest color I saw in the course of our expeditions, comparable only to the color of some gazes, [of] workers in the hallways, whom I no longer remember, but who were surely there.

Bolaño’s posthumous life in English has in many ways been ill served by the marketing schedules and intense hype of American and world literature publishing. The crests and crashes of publication and publicity foist expectations on his novels as events, as building toward or living up to the immortal Bolaño of 2008. But Bolaño’s novels often work better as pieces of a whole than as discrete entrants in a catalog. He knew this enough to fear his readership would never materialize because of it. Maybe, if his work had been released to the market simultaneously, like a Netflix or Amazon miniseries (though this seems like a nightmare), without prescriptions about which direction to read, The Spirit of Science Fiction might have been received as an enigmatic book able to be loved as part of the expanding whole of the Bolaño universe, while not in itself holding up the expectations of the ostensibly clarifying label: a novel.

As is, though, The Spirit of Science Fiction will be cast as the “new” publication publicity hook for fellow Penguin Random House subsidiary Vintage Español’s reprint program of the Spanish-language paperbacks. The publicists at Penguin Press will undoubtedly hope Spirit is received as evidence of a still living Bolaño, the same Bolaño that shook the American literary world with The Savage Detectives and triumphed with 2666. But I would say, for readers, that Bolaño—the prolific winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award—is unlikely to rise again on the strength of this novel. For today’s readers, Spirit cannot be new Bolaño like 2666 was new Bolaño.

If we agree that there have, to date, been at least four different lives of Bolaño, as one commentator counted—the one that ended with his death in 2003, the one made up by Bolaño in his legend, the one that lives in his work, and the one still alive via posthumous publication—it is good solace to imagine that, once the final “new” books have been translated in the years to come, the author’s universe might indeed finally be read as a swirling multidirectional whole, unbound by the expectations and genre definitions of American and world literature’s publishing cycle. Then, once fully dead, a fifth Bolaño can come alive for future readers.

This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

Featured image: Portrait of Roberto Bolaño (2011). Photograph by Juan José Richards Echeverría / Flickr