Windows Into the Night
Bolaño's career as a nonfiction writer began in 1998, the year he turned 45 and published The Savage Detectives, his fifth novel. The reason for this late start is simple. Bolaño rose from obscurity to celebrity with the speed of a meteor; before the appearance of The Savage Detectives, which dazzled readers in Spain and Latin America, no magazine or newspaper was particularly interested in his opinions. Writing essays and delivering speeches, however, were soon revealed to be two of Bolaño's great vocations--and he pursued them fervently. The entire contents of Between Parentheses, a book of 366 tightly spaced pages, were produced by Bolaño within the last five years of his life, at a time when he was also writing poetry, publishing a book of fiction each year and grappling with the liver disease that would eventually kill him on July 14, 2003.
"Twain was always ready to die," Bolaño said of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, whose Adventures of Huckleberry Finn he adored (in 1999 he published the prologue to one of its Spanish editions). "That's the only way to understand his humor." Something similar might be said of Bolaño. Diagnosed with a chronic liver problem in 1992, he wrote all of his major works while serving a virtual death sentence. In several of his essays he refers to the fact that he can't drink alcohol anymore, that just one drink could kill him, a change he must have felt keenly since, reading between the lines, it appears that heavy drinking and a heroin addiction may be what demolished his liver in the first place. Bolaño kicked dope in 1988, an experience he describes in "Beach"--a five-page essay composed of a single, harrowing sentence. A fragment of it reads: "thoughtlessly, I would get an urge to cry, and I'd get into the water and swim, and when I had already gotten myself pretty far from shore I'd look up at the sun and it would seem strange to me that it was there, so big and so different from us..." In this way he almost drowned himself twice.
"Brave" may well be the adjective that recurs most often in Between Parentheses, and bravery was indeed something of an obsession for Bolaño. "The figure of bravery is multiple and changing," he wrote in the starkly titled "Bravery." "For my generation bravery is linked with Billy the Kid, who risked his life for money, and with Che Guevara, who risked his for generosity, with Rimbaud, who walked alone at night, and with Violeta Parra, who opened windows into the night." Soldiers and poets, he liked to believe, were the bravest people on earth. He once joked that if he had to rob a bank, he'd choose five "true poets" as his accomplices.
Of course, courage is hardly an unusual fascination for an author. Writers love to glorify the difficulties of their line of work. They speak of wrestling with ideas and facing down blank pages, of battling with ham-fisted editors and triumphing over tin-eared readers. What makes Bolaño's preoccupation rare is that he associated bravery with failure, not triumph. Why choose to rob a bank with five poets? "No one else in the world," he explained, "faces disaster with greater dignity and clarity."
For him, the supreme writer on the topic was not Homer or Virgil but Archilochus of Paros, the ancient Greek poet who earned his bread as an itinerant mercenary and rhapsode. The earliest Greek writer of personal lyric verse, Archilochus is famous for penning a nonchalant poem recounting how he threw off his shield in battle in order to flee and save his skin--an action considered disgraceful for a soldier at that, and any, time. He was equally cynical about success. Remembering one victory, Archilochus scoffs:
So we're one thousand, those of us who gave death to the seven
bodies laid out there, which we reached by running
"He knew war as a sorry necessity, not as a place for heroic feats," Bolaño observes, and his willingness to face death over and over again with no public glory appears to be what captured Bolaño's admiration. Having spent most of his life on the down and out, hustling at one day job after another while he wrote his verse, Bolaño had an intense appreciation for the courage it takes to keep fighting when there are no laurels in sight. In fact, he devoted the entire final portion of his essay "Exiles" to citing passages from Archilochus' poetry. The longest quotation is a verse that appears to have meant as much to Bolaño as Rudyard Kipling's "If" meant to another generation of men:
Heart, Heart, if you're beset by invincible
griefs, rise!, withstand contrary-wise
offering up your chest, and against the tricks
of the enemy steel yourself firmly. And should you come out
victorious, dissemble, heart, don't boast,
nor, defeated, should you debase yourself crying
at home. Don't let them matter too much
your joy in success, your sorrow in failure.
Understand that in life alternation rules.
An essay, Cynthia Ozick once wrote, "is the movement of a free mind at play," and like many of the stronger pieces in Between Parentheses, "Exiles" moves through a complex, impressionistic structure that's held together by personal associations: sometimes images, sometimes numbers and other times words. One of the most moving pieces in the collection is Bolaño's acceptance speech for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, which he partly organized around the number eleven: he won the eleventh Rómulo Gallegos Prize; his childhood soccer jersey was number eleven; there may be a plaque commemorating Rómulo Gallegos at eleven on a street in Barcelona; the eleventh of September 1973 was the day of the coup d'état in Chile.