Reading the works of Roberto Bolaño is a bit like hitchhiking in some godforsaken frontier territory. You stick out your thumb and wait. A semi zooms by, air-horn blasting, abandoning you to the dusty whirlwind of its wake and a brief glimpse of its NRA sticker and the inevitable Semper Fi crookedly plastered to the bumper. One minivan, two SUVs, an RV, a camper—they all pass you by. It’s rough country out here; you could be anyone. You could be Dick and Perry, looking for some middle-aged traveling salesman with a wallet full of fives and a tank full of gas and feeling in need of a little friendly chitchat in the middle of Kansas. Someone gives you the finger as you’re left behind to face darkness and uncertainty. The sky’s grown dark; the owls have come out to haunt. Headlights round the distant bend. Then an old pickup, unworthy of safety inspection, creaks to a halt. A model you haven’t seen in years. The driver turns his gaptoothed grin on you, a smile reeking of cheap brandy, his skin bleeding meth. He lights a Camel and starts to talk, or rather continues to talk, because he’d been talking when you opened the door, and even when you expressed your gratitude for his stopping, as if he were telling a story he’d begun days or weeks or even months earlier, but you’re in the midst of it, he’s telling about this guy he’d met at a bar, and this woman he knew, and some weird things were happening, man, there was a knife and an armadillo, and you don’t know if you’ll ever reach your destination or be murdered by this man who won’t shut up, who is telling four stories at once, and nothing’s making much sense.
Then, suddenly, it hits you, it all begins to make sense. A kind of sense you hadn’t encountered for years, a kind of insightful sense that touches your soul and reminds you of a story you once heard as a kid on a night just like this. But the story he’s telling you is an imitation of life, his life, and all the strands that had seemed so disparate have begun to come together. You realize that you’ve known these people all your life, and that the driver is someone you’ve met before—because now you’ve become part of his narrative. He’ll be telling this story for months and years to come, the one about the creepy loner who’d been hitching a ride in the dead of night. “Man, he had these dead eyes, I didn’t know if he was gonna slit my throat or something, and I was just glad to dump him a couple miles up in the canyon.”
“Hell, yeah, man. I killed the guy. Just like that.”
Welcome to Roberto Bolaño’s fictional world.
In an earlier piece I wrote that reading Bolaño was like listening to the Dylan of his great trilogy of Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. The mythology is utterly private; the imagery beyond enigmatic, and yet we who first heard it made it our own. Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine? Been there, man, done that. That’s the effect Bolaño has on me, and his latest title to be published, in a handsome bilingual edition out from New Directions, is Tres, a collection of poetry and prose poems. Bolaño always felt that he was at his best and most honest as a poet, though he’s always, by necessity, at his most cryptic in the poems collected here and in an earlier volume, also translated by Laura Healy, The Romantic Dogs. For me and for many other readers, though his short stories (and short novels) are always worth reading, he truly fulfills his sometimes mythologized reputation in his two great novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666.
Bolaño lived like some dodgy people I knew all too well in the Sixties: wandering, hitchhiking, waking in strange apartments, accepting gifts from strangers in the form of things to smoke, to shoot (in both senses), to swallow or snort. Much of his work as a novelist and short-story writer is about strangers, people met by chance, people who, like billiard balls, touch and send the narrators off in a whole new direction, hurtling towards yet another disaster. He chose a line from Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano as the epigraph to The Savage Detectives, and it’s Lowry’s world of dread and fate, of the dangerous promise of sunset and the spinning glowing wheels of ill-fortune and misguided intentions, that’s woven through Bolaño’s fiction. We see it, too, in his poems, especially those collected in Tres.
As with so much of Bolaño, it’s difficult to judge the works in Tres solely as poems. They seem more like cryptic telegrams sent from a distant outpost by a man who had gone to find one thing and ended up getting lost in—and coming to an understanding of—a labyrinth of others. As they were written before he became the Bolaño we know by reputation today (the sequence is dated 1981), the reader senses a man grappling with the possibilities of language and creation beneath an overcast looking a lot like failure.
Section one is entitled “Prose from Autumn in Gerona,” ostensibly based in that Catalonian town. Each piece barely fills a quarter-page. Some are simply informative, factually flat:
The real situation: I was alone in my house, I was twenty-eight, I’d just come back from a summer spent working outside the province, and the rooms were full of cobwebs. I no longer had a job and money, really stretching it, would last me four months. And I had no hope of finding another job. At the police station they had renewed my visa for three months. Not authorized to work in Spain. I didn’t know what to do. It was a benign autumn.
Others possess deeper resonance as they draw us back to Bolaño himself, caught in the tug between the demands of life and the seductions of fiction:
Two in the morning and a blank screen, My protagonist is sitting in an armchair, in one hand a cigarette and in the other a cup of cognac. He’s carefully reworking some scenes. There. The stranger sleeps with perfect calm. Then she rubs his shoulders. Then she says not to walk her to the station. There you pick up a signal, the tip of the iceberg….
Crack, his heart. Patience like a gray tape inside the kaleidoscope you turn over again and again.
And if the protagonist were to speak of happiness? Does happiness begin in his twenty-eight-year-old body?
If I’ve given the sense that this is merely a series of precious, disconnected artifacts, then I ask the reader to read the entire sequence in the book. Images return—the Stranger, the kaleidoscope, Atlantis, the author known as R.B.—they are all part of an archipelago of artistic failure, personal disappointment, and the distant horizon—glimpsed perhaps only in the author’s imagination—of true breakthrough. The story is that, coming from Mexico, he has quit his job to spend three months in Gerano solely to write. There he’s met a woman who, even while she’s there in his room is already absent, as though rehearsing for the day she’ll walk out on him. The circularity of the pieces seems to indicate an inability even to get started—a Beckettian problem best solved by, well, just starting, something Bolaño seems to understand as well as Beckett did, who once famously wrote: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Which could be the motto of any writer.
The second part of Tres, “The Neochileans,” dates from 1993, five years before the publication of The Savage Detectives, and consists of a single poem, in which all at once we’re in a van, travelling with a group of musicians, Pancho Relámpago (later Pancho Misterio) and the Neochileans, in search of an identity (for what is a band without a hook, a sound, a complaint?), or at least an audience, which seems, as they head north, always to elude them. Dylanish lines appear with some frequency: “A strange phenomenon: we Neochileans/Shut our mouths/And went our separate ways/Visiting the dumps of/Philosophy, the safes, the/American colors, the unmistakable manner/Of being born and unborn.” And: “A young thin whore,/Whose name was Margarita,/An unrivaled teen,/Resident of the permanent/Storm.” (Though the latter seems more Joni Mitchell in retrospect.)
Born in 1953, Bolaño had certainly lived through the whirlwinds of the 60s, the drifting, the drugs, the mindless tightrope stroll over an abyss without a net, and this poem, as with the first part of this collection, and The Savage Detectives, is all about the Great Search of those times, which, as so much of that era, “Would be forever/Governed/By chance.” It’s a hymn to youth, as would be, in a fuller and richer form, The Savage Detectives.
“A Stroll Through Literature,” written in Blanes, Spain, in 1994, is the third and final section of Tres, and before I even read the first numbered item (“I dreamt that Georges Perec was three years old and visiting my house. I was hugging him, kissing him, saying what a sweet boy he was”), while leafing through it, my first thought was how Perecian this was. Georges Perec, best known for La Vie mode d’emploi (Life A User’s Manual), was a great collector of memories, dreams, locations, facts, trivia, which, collected, would become something far more substantial. Like Joe Brainard before him in I Remember, and Perec’s own take on it, Je me souviens, Bolaño here is writing down his dreams, fragments of prose, thoughts, where the thread that runs throughout is of seeking (the word detective frequently appears), and never quite finding, and of encountering tearful, inconsolable poets.
More riffs than memories, this stroll falls upon certain authors—Mark Twain, Philip K. Dick, Carson McCullers, the Marquis de Sade, Pascal, as well as many Spanish and South American writers. This isn’t the author showing off his extensive reading, but a tour of the shades of influence, the writers who, because Bolaño was always on the move, always departing just as soon as he arrived, served as shelters for him. It ends with another dream of Perec: “I dreamt that Georges Perec was three years old and crying inconsolably. I tried to calm him down. I took him in my arms, bought him candy, coloring books. Then we went to the boardwalk in New York and while he played on the slide I said to myself: I’m good for nothing, but I’ll be good at taking care of you, no one will hurt you, no one will try to kill you. Then it started to rain and we calmly went back home. But where was our home?”
It’s a paragraph worth considering. Perec broke many barriers with his fiction, as did Bolaño with his. They belong everywhere and nowhere; they are creators unto themselves, of tradition and yet utterly adrift from it, like asteroids whizzing through the solar system, blazing brilliantly across the night sky as they head for their next near-miss with Earth.
In the end, though, it’s the author himself who needs to be found: “I dreamt I was an old, sick detective and I was looking for people lost long ago. Sometimes I’d look at myself casually in the mirror and recognize Roberto Bolaño.”