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Windows Into the Night | The Nation

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Windows Into the Night

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In these essays we hear Bolaño's real voice, the one he often disguised through the ventriloquism of his fiction. Its tone is angry and declamatory as often as it's conversational and intimate. And its most tender notes sound when Bolaño is writing about his friends and family and Blanes, the small coastal town in Spain where he eventually made his home. Bolaño had a talent for vignettes and for small locketlike portraits. His columns about daily life can be as sweet as seaside watercolors: "I like to contemplate the beach," he explains in "Civilization." "There in that triumphant amalgamation of semi-nude bodies, lovely and ugly, fat and thin, perfect and imperfect, the air brings us a magnificent smell, the smell of suntan lotion."

About the Author

Marcela Valdes
Marcela Valdes, a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, last wrote for The Nation about Alejandro Zambra.

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But put before a large audience, Bolaño liked to play the boy who reveals the emperor has no clothes. A typical gambit was to introduce an irritant where others might employ a joke. Asked to talk about "literature and exile" in Vienna, for example, he opens by declaring that he doesn't believe in "exile," then launches into a long anecdote recounting how badly the Austrians treated his best friend, Mario Santiago, when he came to visit Vienna in 1978 or '79.

Having discharged that bile, however, Bolaño goes on to say quite a bit about literature and exile, or rather about why he believes that no real writer could ever be exiled from his country. "A real writer's only nation is his library," he explains. To drive his point home, he treats his audience to a close reading of a poem by the Chilean physicist Nicanor Parra, whom Bolaño considered the best living poet in Spanish. The poem grapples with a party-game question: who are Chile's four greatest poets? Among the possible answers: Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Vicente Huidobro, Pablo de Rokha, Nicanor Parra, Jorge Teillier and Enrique Lihn. Parra's answer matches the absurdity of the conundrum:

The four great poets of Chile
Are three:
Alonso de Ercilla and Rubén Dario.

As Bolaño explains, Ercilla was a Spanish soldier who fought in Chile's colonial wars. His epic poem La Araucana recounts the battles between the conquistadors and the Mapuche Indians. It is a foundational work of Chilean literature, which Ercilla wrote while he lived in Castile. The second poet, Dario, is the father of Modernist poetry in Spanish. He was born in Nicaragua and lived in Chile only briefly, near the end of the nineteenth century. In short, Parra's poem asserts that the greatest poets of Chile, the ones who have most influenced its literature, aren't Chilean at all.

Bolaño hated nationalist tendencies of any sort, and he loved cerebral jokes, but there's another part of Parra's poem that delighted him--and that, more generally, provoked him to admire Parra as a sort of hero. The poem, Bolaño remarks, is like "an explosive artifact put there so that we Chileans open our eyes and leave off our nonsense, it's a poem that inquires into...the fourth dimension of civic conscience, and although at first glance it looks like a joke, and moreover it is a joke, a second look reveals it to be a declaration of human rights." An explosive joke that inquires into the reader's conscience? This sounds like the method behind much of Bolaño's fiction, which regularly satirized the moral failings of historical figures. At least four of his novels are actually romans à clef.

For those on the receiving end, such explosions are rarely pleasant. They can cause collateral damage as well, which is why bomb throwers tend to light the fuse well behind the target's back. Bolaño, however, clearly modeled his public persona on Parra's call-a-spade-a-spade, take-no-prisoners approach. The whole Parra family, he writes in another essay, has "put into practice one of the highest ambitions of poetry of all time: to fuck the public's patience." The last words of his profile "Eight Seconds with Nicanor Parra" are "THE TIME TO SIMMER DOWN WILL NEVER COME."

Such a declaration--IN ALL CAPS, no less--made when Bolaño was 48, can be interpreted either as uncompromising integrity or rancid intransigence. I'd vote for an uneasy combination of both. Bolaño's commitment to a moral code was genuine, but he always had a romantic attitude toward adolescence--his essays are permeated with a nostalgia for lost youth--and his irritants sometimes smack of solipsism. Had his only idols been Parra and Archilochus, his fiction might well have been insufferable.

In fact, their influence was tempered by Bolaño's passion for two other writers--Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. Cortázar's thumbprints can be seen all over The Savage Detectives and Last Evenings on Earth, with their puzzlelike structures and multinational characters. Asked by journalist Mónica Maristain whether one of his stories was modeled on Cortázar's "Taken House," Bolaño replied no, but "what more could I want than for it to seem like one of Cortázar's?"

Of the two men, however, Borges held the greater sway. "Borges is, or should be, the center of our canon," Bolaño wrote shortly before his death, and his best, most provocative, examination of the blind Argentine can be found in the sweeping essay "Wayward Drifts" (2002). "When Borges dies," the essay declares, "everything [in Argentine literature] suddenly ends. It's as if Merlin had died...Apollonian intelligence gives up its place to Dionysian desperation."

The problem with most contemporary Argentine literature, Bolaño thought, is that it's anti-Borgesian. Rejecting the cerebral, playful purity of Borges's work, it gives itself over to two "lamentable" trends: commercialism and "heaviness," a word he employs with both its 1970s sense (intense) and its more standard meanings: dense, excessive, mentally oppressive. Commercialism repulses Bolaño for obvious reasons: it measures achievement through sales and propagates itself through plagiarism--an offense Bolaño ranked among the worst of all sins. His relation to heaviness was more complicated.

Bolaño enjoyed the work of "heavy" writers like Roberto Arlt and Ricardo Piglia, but all writers he really loved--including Kafka--fight against darkness with humor. (If you're beset by invincible griefs, rise!) Like many others, Bolaño admired Borges's rigorous structures and his uncanny inventions, but he also took a bat to the idea of Borges as a sober brainiac. He championed the comic detective stories Borges wrote with Adolfo Bioy Casares under the pseudonyms H. Bustos Domecq and B. Suarez Lynch. "Without a doubt, they write the best comic fiction" in Latin America, Bolaño asserts, an accomplishment he found all the more precious because the tradition of comic writing in Latin America is so threadbare.

Elsewhere Between Parentheses suggests that it was Borges who moved Bolaño from Dionysus' to Apollo's side. In "The Book That Survives," Bolaño recalls that the first book he bought after he moved from Mexico City to Europe at 24 was the complete poems of Jorge Luis Borges. Almost thirty years later, he still remembered the "completely irrational" joy he felt at holding the volume in his hands. "I bought it in Madrid in 1977," he writes, "and, though Borges's poetry wasn't unknown to me, that same night I read it until eight in the morning, as if the reading of those verses were the only reading possible for me, the only reading that could effectively distance me from a life that was, until then, immoderate."

For Bolaño, life until then had consisted mostly of leading a group of young Mexican poets known as the Infrarealists. At 23, he wrote the manifesto for the group, which specialized in publicly harassing poets who accepted money from Mexico's PRI government. In contrast to such ostentatious rebellion stood Borges, whose works and life pointed the way to a quieter, more radical form of literary revolution. The title of Bolaño's short biographical essay on Borges, "The Brave Librarian," tries to imbue the writer with some Archilochian glamour, but the matter-of-fact tone of the text surrenders to the plainness of the facts: Borges wanted to be a poet. He worked in a library for years. In a city full of writers, he made few literary friends. Like Bolaño, he turned to fiction only in his 30s, after it had become clear that his poetry would never be a great success. He spent his youth in obscurity and was gifted with fame in middle age. Like Bolaño, he loved detective fiction, outlaws, wrinkles in space and time. His reading was insatiable.

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