Never one to proceed by half-measures, Roberto Bolaño dropped out of high school shortly after he decided to become a poet at age 15. The year was 1968, a time as wild in Mexico City, where Bolaño and his parents were living, as it was in the United States–but much more dangerous. There, student protests, rock ‘n’ roll and sexual liberation were the pursuits not only of poets but also of activists and leftist guerrillas, and the Mexican government greeted them with a dirty war. Four unlucky students died at Kent State in 1970; some 300 were killed in the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968. Yet for Bolaño, who’d just arrived from a small country town in Chile, the atmosphere of the big city was intoxicating. Years later he recalled that the capital had seemed to him “like the Frontier, that vast, nonexistent territory where freedom and metamorphosis are the spectacles of every day.”
Bolaño’s own transformation began with a five-year period of isolation. Rather than join the party, he shut himself in his bedroom to consume book after book after book. The poet Jaime Quezada, who came to visit the family when Bolaño was 18, recalls that the young writer was living like a hermit. “He didn’t come out of his bed-living-dining-room,” Quezada has said, “except to go to the toilet or to comment out loud, pulling on his hair, about some passage in the book he was reading.”
Young and broke, Bolaño stocked his shelves by shoplifting from bookstores all over Mexico City. His captures included volumes by Pierre Louÿs, Max Beerbohm, Samuel Pepys, Alphonse Daudet, Juan Rulfo, Amado Nervo and Vachel Lindsay. But the book that changed his life was Albert Camus’s The Fall, in which a lawyer who hangs out at an Amsterdam bar named Mexico City resigns himself to a life of calculated hypocrisy. Bolaño explains in his essay “Who’s the Brave One?” that after reading it, he was possessed by a desire “to read everything, which, in my simplicity, was the same as wanting to or intending to discover the mechanism of chance that had led Camus’s character to accept his atrocious fate.” Bolaño’s library was his own private Frontier.
Unlike many passionate young readers–who knock off two books a week when they’re in high school but slow down to three or four a year once adulthood hems them in–Bolaño kept reading all his life. Most authors, Bolaño’s editor Jorge Herralde observed in his book For Roberto Bolaño (2006), bury themselves in their own work, losing sight of the larger field. But Bolaño loved reading the works of his contemporaries–and he loved talking about what he was reading with his friends. According to Herralde, he was that rare and beautiful animal: “an insatiable reader.” This lifelong compulsion, and its fleeting gratifications, formed the foundation of Bolaño’s critical rulings, many of which can be found in his posthumous collection Entre paréntesis: Ensayos, artículos y discursos (1998-2003) (Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches).
The collection, edited by Spanish literary critic Ignacio Echevarría–one of Bolaño’s best friends–was published by Anagrama in 2004, and it has yet to be brought into English. This is a shame, and not only because Bolaño’s judgments are often a delight to read. In the United States, Bolaño is best known for his fiction: the eerie stories of Last Evenings on Earth, the short novels Distant Star and By Night in Chile, the tragicomic colossus The Savage Detectives. But in the Spanish-speaking world, Bolaño is also renowned for his erudition. The onomastic index at the end of Between Parentheses contains 600 names, most of which represent a book, or a series of books, that Bolaño had read. The C’s, which number sixty-two, are especially rich. There one finds not only such Golden Age masters as Miguel de Cervantes and Calderón de la Barca but also philosophical novelists Camus and Elias Canetti, as well as North American novelists Michael Chabon, Douglas Coupland and Raymond Chandler.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Bolaño has become a T.S. Eliot or Virginia Woolf of Latin American letters. His influence on the younger generation of writers is considerable, and it derives as much from his fierce, lapidary opinions as it does from his fiction’s style and imagination. The Spanish writer Javier Cercas made Bolaño a character in his novel Soldiers of Salamis, as did Jorge Volpi in his novel El fin de la locura (An End of Madness). Six weeks before his death, Bolaño was unanimously declared to be the most important novelist of his generation by a meeting of Latin American writers in Seville. As novelist Rodrigo Fresán has written, Bolaño was “one of those rare hinge-writers who make a new generation through the simple pleasure of shaking up certain self-satisfied forms, structures content to have achieved the easy and false immortality of the fossilized.”
In the introduction to Between Parentheses, Echevarría asserts that the volume isn’t meant to be exhaustive. Nonetheless, it’s an immense miscellany, including among its 125 items almost every one of the semi-weekly columns Bolaño published in the Chilean newspaper Las Últimas Noticias and the Catalan paper Diari di Girona–some eighty-six works. This is too much for the newcomer to Bolaño, for whom a selection of the better pieces would do. But for those interested in deciphering Bolaño’s many influences, his values and his biography, and certainly for anyone whose appetite for reading is as insatiable as Bolaño’s, the collection is a treasure chest: filled with straw and dust but also with odd glittering jewels and fistfuls of gold.
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.
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.”
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
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.