Sven Birkerts reviews Roberto Bolaño's Between Parentheses

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions, 2011)

The explosion of the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño onto the international literary scene in the last few years has been one of those events—they happen every so often—which are in part about the writing (which is major, yes, and absolutely does merit our best attention), but also have to do with a whole array of other factors, from the draw of an artist's tragic early foreclosure (Bolaño died of liver failure in 2003), to his actual and symbolic implication in beastly political events (Pinochet's right wing coup, Bolaño's subsequent—brief—arrest, his eventual exile), to the publication of the big—great—book (2666), and the myriad worthy works that amplified the posthumous suggestion that he was writing like one damned—under a sentence—with the uncommon pressure often ascribed to genius (whatever we deem that to be); to, simply, the fact that we seem at any one time to require a few literary figures that can trellis the mythologies we can't help but weave. Thus W.G. Sebald, thus David Foster Wallace...

Through the acumen and dedication of New Directions Press, Bolaño's oeuvre has now mostly emerged into view (11 titles published, 12 counting Between Parentheses, the most recent collection), and though it is not quite Vollmannesque in amplitude, it is amplitudinous enough to require maps and route-suggestions. Every experienced reader will offer her own. Mine, based on selective experience, would suggest that the reader get a taste with the short novel By Night in Chile, widen the narrative and tonal aperture with The Savage Detectives, and then check into Hotel 2666 for an extended stay. Do not, tempting as it may be, begin with the occasional prose of Between Parentheses, for though it is a collection full of passion and life, most of the contents will seem of specialized interest, unless you happen to be deeply immersed in the culture of 20th century Chilean literature. One can only follow up to a point with interest discussion of poets or novelists who have not yet been translated into English—or, if translated, then only available through an obscure publisher. There are pages and pages on: Ana María Navales, Juan Villoro, Osvaldo Lamborghini, Javier Cercas, Pezoa Véliz, Hiracio Castellanos Moya, Sergio Pitol...

Notice I wrote Do not begin, and not Do not read. For I would argue that Between Parentheses is very much a book to pick up at a certain point on the Bolaño trail, not just for the incessant flashes we get of the man's antic, pugnacious, idealistic, romantic, disaffected and utterly free-spoken personality, but no less important for what his full-throttle engagement with whatever is the literary matter-at-hand suggests about the ideal culture. One after another, the pieces show us how passion fuels polemic, how wit and vitriol sharpen the edge of a sentence, how intellectual reach and reference remind us that the writer is forever looking over his shoulder at those who preceded him. We may not always appreciate the references—many are, as I said, to Chilean writers—but watching Bolaño breast his way forward is heartening and energizing. I thought of Mailer at his best, or Vidal—except that here self-aggrandizement is replaced with far more winning self-irony.

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In a short essay called "Words From Outer Space," Bolaño makes reference to a clandestinely recorded tape, "voices talking and transmitting orders and counter-orders on September 11, 1973..." (p. 84) So deep is my reflex conditioning that though I read the sentence several times I could not see—physically—that the year written was not 2001. And then I did, and made the historical connection: that it was not a reference to the destruction of the World Trade Center, but the assassination on the same day of the month of Salvadore Allende, and the coup that brought General Auguste Pinochet to power, inaugurating a period of violent repression during which time thousands of Chileans were hounded, tortured, 'disappeared.' Bolaño had moved from Mexico back to Chile earlier that year to work on behalf of Allende's socialist government. After the coup he was arrested and detained for some days. He left the country after release, and later moved to Spain, where he spent much of the rest of his life. It was there that he served out his long literary apprenticeship, writing poetry (he often called himself a poet) and the many works of fiction that have now consolidated his reputation.

In 1998, after the publication and popular success of The Savage Detectives, Bolaño began to receive requests for lectures and articles. In 1999 he was given a weekly column for the Diari di Girona, and many of those vivid, swooping assessments are gathered here. They are pieces for occasions: occasional pieces. And if their author were almost anyone other than literary cult figure Roberto Bolaño, they would have little chance of being published or, if published, reviewed. This is in no way to disparage the collection. Au contraire, it is to disparage a publishing world that increasingly serves the corporate shareholder and not, as intended, the reader. Ours would be a livelier and more interestingly contentious world if, as in former days, the flashing occasions of our smartest and wittiest and most articulate citizens were preserved between covers.

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Given the context I've created here, how can I possibly adduce the particular pleasures of this book except by way of a few select quotations, these extracted not for their argumentation so much as for their engaged polemical verve, their way of running the bright chalk of voice and intelligence over the newspaper's available brick? It takes much work to attain this kind of casual declaration; the ease has been earned many times over with exertion and no small share of human suffering. Not that you would know it.

In "Caracas Address," for instance, one of several essays turning on the theme of exile, Bolaño writes, with a kind of freestyle bravado: "It's possible to have many homelands, it occurs to me now, but only one passport, and that passport is obviously the quality of one's writing. Which doesn't mean writing well, because anyone can do that, but writing incredibly well, and not even that, because anyone can write incredibly well. So what is top-notch writing? The same thing it's always been: the ability to peer into the darkness, to leap into the void, to know that literature is basically a dangerous undertaking. The ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces you love, the smiling faces you love, and books and friends and food. And the ability to accept what you find, even though it may be heavier than the stones over the graves of all dead writers. Literature, as an Andalusian folk singer would put it, is danger." (34) Simple—and arguable—declarations, but they carry a sense of earned weight.

Elsewhere, taking a brash swipe at Isabel Allende, darling of Latin American literature, Bolaño writes: "Asked to choose between the frying pan and the fire, I choose Isabel Allende. The glamour of her life as a South American in California, her imitations of Garcia Marquez, her unquestionable courage, the way her writing ranges from the kitsch to the pathetic and reveals her as a kind of Latin American and politically correct version of the author of The Valley of the Dolls..." (110) I hear the hiss of that frying pan.

Finally—hard to resist this—is the very last bit from an interview Bolaño gave to Monica Maristain for the Mexican edition of Playboy near the end of his life, while he was awaiting a liver transplant. Maristain asks, "What would you have liked to be instead of a writer?"

Bolaño: I would much rather have been a homicide detective than a writer. That's the one thing I'm absolutely sure of. A homicide cop, someone who returns alone at night to the scene of the crime and isn't afraid of ghosts. Maybe then I really would have gone crazy, but when you're a policeman, you solve that by shooting yourself in the mouth.PLAYBOY: Do you confess to having lived?Bolaño: I'm still alive, I'm still reading, I'm still writing and watching movies, and as Arturo Prat said to the sailors of the Esmerelda before their last stand, so long as I live, this flag will fly. (369)
The essays in In Parenthesis preserve for us the voice of the seasoned and accomplished Bolaño, the man who, as he was whipping up these various tapas, was also tending the large pot simmering with the eventual 2666, and was very likely aware that his days were numbered. I would like to have the culture, the knowledge, that would let me enjoy his responses to his fellow writers as they were meant to be enjoyed, but even without that—and it is a considerable deficit—the collection delights. How not? Spirit, where it exists, shines through. Roberto Bolaño was one of the ones for whom literature was everything.



Sven Birkerts will publish The Other Walk, a book of short personal essays, this September with Graywolf Press. He edits the literary journal AGNI.