Monday, December 15, 2008

Reckoning with Bolaño

These days everyone seems to be going ga-ga over Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003), even more so since the publication of 2666. I've never really understood what all the fuss was about, but then again I've only read a few of his stories that have appeared in The New Yorker (two this year, two last year, and one in 2005). 

His brief, single-paragraph story "Meeting with Enrique Lihn" in the Winter Fiction issue struck me as more interesting, though. Maybe that's because I was prepared to understand it by Jonathan Lethem's review of 2666, which offers a kind of overview of Bolaño's career and themes. In fact, looking back at Lethem's piece, I find that this passage encapsulates what seems to be going on in the story:

In a burst of invention now legendary in contemporary Spanish-language literature, and rapidly becoming so internationally, Bolaño in the last decade of his life, writing with the urgency of poverty and his failing health, constructed a remarkable body of stories and novels out of precisely such doubts: that literature, which he revered the way a penitent loves (and yet rails against) an elusive God, could meaningfully articulate the low truths he knew as rebel, exile, addict; that life, in all its gruesome splendor, could ever locate the literature it so desperately craves in order to feel itself known. Is a lifetime spent loving poems in a fallen world only a poor joke? Bolaño sprints into the teeth of his conundrum, violating one of the foremost writing-school injunctions, against writer-as-protagonist (in fact, Bolaño seems to make sport of violating nearly all of the foremost writing-school rules, against dream sequences, against mirrors as symbols, against barely disguised nods to his acquaintances, and so on). Again and again he peoples his singular fictions with novelists and poets, both aspiring and famous, both accomplished and hopeless, both politically oblivious and committedly extremist, whether right or left. By a marvelous sleight of hand writers are omnipresent in Bolaño’s world, striding the stage as romantic heroes and feared as imperious villains, even aesthetic assassins — yet they’re also persistently marginal, slipping between the cracks of time and geography, forever reclusive, vanished, erased. Bolaño’s urgency infuses literature with life’s whole freight: the ache of a writing-workshop aspirant may embody sexual longing, or dreams of political freedom from oppression, even the utopian fantasy of the eradication of violence, while a master-novelist’s doubts in his works’ chances in the game of posterity can stand for all human remorse at the burdens of personal life, or at knowledge of the burdens of history.

Take a look at the story and see what you think. Oh, and unless you know more about Chilean literary history than I do, you might want to check out this and this at Wikipedia first.


Kate in Chicago said...

I did not know those Chilean writers, but I do recognize the attitude. The principal at my school in Chile would always talk in long-winded ideals about how the school would improve. But yet, somehow Pinochet and the will to overcome his dictatorship would also always come up. Chileans are hopeful about the future but pessimistic about their past and have difficulty trusting the present.

I did find the story interesting, finding myself thinking about how easily I rationalize my improbable dreams while I'm dreaming them. However, as engaging as his dreams are, I didn't find any meaning in the story besides his whimsical love of literature and of his culture.

framiko said...

Yeah—I suppose it's just a little scrap compared to this 900-page novel he's got out. But somehow I can't get excited about reading huge books by a guy whose short stories have never done much for me.

Thanks for the interesting comments about Chileans. I was hoping you'd have a perspective like that.