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.