Reading Roberto Bolaño is an addictive pursuit in the same way that chasing visions is a quest. There’s always enough mystery left after his last tale to make one imbibe again. Perhaps this next time the truth will manifest itself in full. Yet, instead, what seems to occur is that one more layer of the truth he seems to circle around is peeled away only to be replaced by another layer closer to truth’s core. Like that vision quest, the reading of Bolaño’s work is enjoyable despite the despair and fear often therein. Perhaps it the seeming innocence of the teller that makes it so. Perhaps I just like stories that include these human emotions wrapped in that innocence tempered by uncertainty and carelessness like those told by Bolaño.
A wanderer for a good part of his life, Bolaño’s work reflects the uncertainty of his existence. Likewise, it quite often points the reader towards what is reasonably understood to be the cause of his wanderings over the last thirty years of his life—the overthrow of the socialist government of Chile’s Salvador Allende by the fascist forces of Augusto Pinochet. Bolaño was arrested by the fascists and spent seven days in detention, only to be “rescued” by two of his former classmates who were prison guards. Although this historical tragedy is not literally present in many of Bolaño’s works, its spectre lends a darkness to them all. Even then, that darkness is underscored with a humorous but cynical view of this world humanity has made. Whether the tale takes place in the Mexican wild lands south of the US border, in the streets of Santiago, Chile or somewhere in between, the fact of dark forces is present; sometimes those forces are characters in these tales and sometimes it is just their presence which is felt. Poets and prostitutes alike are not spared. Nor is the author himself.
This is especially the case in the most recent collection of Bolaño’s works to be released posthumously in English. Titled Cowboy Graves, the three novellas that make up this book are interrelated. Most describe a family as seen primarily through the son’s eyes. The political struggle of Chile in the early 1970s is very much part of the story, as is the relationship between the parents who live in two different countries for part of the year. The coup of 1973, which saw the Left in Chile destroyed and on the run, acts as a main protagonist in the collection, darting in and out of the narrative. The stories tell of departures and arrivals, soldiers and politics, sexual adventures, twisted love and murder. The result is a feeling of dislocation and separation, as if the only way the narrator can survive is to be outside of the story he is living. The disassociative nature of these novellas is reminiscent of a journey outside one’s mind. Outside looking in, if you will.
There’s a short story within the story of the first novella which is about extraterrestrial ants landing on earth. The creatures immediately set to colonizing the planet and, in so doing, alarm the militaries and governments of the powerful nations. After killing President Richard Nixon and a few others, the ants are left alone. Then they depart. The story itself is something of a puzzle, but the possible metaphors it lends itself to give it substance. This is how Bolaño writes. Linearity and convention are not the tools he prefers. Instead, his narrative involves an enchantment of the ordinary that underscores the magic (also both good and bad) that defines his and hopefully our earthly existence.
Bolaño’s approach might seem distant to the reader, even uninterested in the stories he relates. This tone belies the emotions underlying his detached telling. There is loss; there is love. There are moments of joy and perhaps even more moments of sorrow. There is even anger and defeat. Informing all of this is a certain amusement at the hand the protagonist (and humanity itself) is dealt. Judgments are implied, but very little is clearly spelled out in terms of right and wrong. Instead, the reader is left to extrapolate their own opinion of the characters, their circumstances and their response to both. Certain readers may find this approach to be cynical. I find it to be a delightfully appropriate response to a world where the only certainty is the defeat of death, yet the living carry on. Some do so out of hope and some do so out of fear. Some do so just because it seems to be the reason we are here.