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Literature is a Dangerous Game: Roberto Bolaño’s Between Parentheses

By David Varno

Roberto Bolaño was the kind of writer who belonged to a species that is hopefully not as endangered as appearances suggest: writers who read more than they write. Bolaño read a lot, and he loved that Borges boasted about the books he read instead of the books he wrote. In his own fiction, poetry and nonfiction, Bolaño waved the books he loved in his reader’s face.

During a recent panel with Wyatt Mason, Heidi Julavits, Francisco Goldman, Lorin Stein, and Natasha Wimmer, moderated by New Directions publicist Tom Roberge and held to celebrate the release of Bolaño’s Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998 – 2003 (translated by Wimmer), Mason made the claim that there are two kinds of fiction writers: 1) Those who write only fiction; 2) Those who write both fiction and nonfiction. 

The fact that Bolaño originally considered himself a poet already makes this distinction too complicated to deal with, though it does bring to mind a lot of interesting writers who've belonged to the second camp. What we need to know is that Bolaño wrote a lot; he wrote in many different forms, he wrote the same stories, repeated the same opinions, and also contradicted himself over and over. In his final interview, published by the Mexican Playboy and consisting mostly of stock questions like, “What makes you laugh?” and “Do you think about killing yourself?” he was asked: “Why do you like to be so contrary?” His reply: “I’m never contrary.”

There are many contradictions in Between Parentheses, a book that its editor, Bolaño’s literary executor Ignacio Echevarría, believes can be read as autobiography. Francisco Goldman, during last week’s panel, dissented. He pointed out that Bolaño wrote the bulk of these pieces, dozens of reviews and author profiles that originally appeared in Spain and were then republished in the Chilean newspaper Las Ultimas Noticas, for money, and that he wasn’t thinking so much about self-expression. Goldman is right in that you won’t learn more about Bolaño’s life or personal history beyond the details already published in reviews and articles, but you will get insight into Bolaño as a reader, and how he defined what Maurice Blanchot called the space of literature. 

Despite his contradictions, Bolaño was a decent critic, in possession, as Goldman said, of “a solid set of opinions on Latin American literature.” Like Borges’s early reviews and biographies for the women’s magazine El Hogar, Bolaño’s newspaper pieces are short and witty, except they’re also loud, sweaty, and blatantly biased in favor of friends and against enemies, which sort of makes him a bad critic. Even so, it’s pretty hard to argue with his indictment of Norberto Fuentes (“no longer a writer, he’s a lost soul”), or resist the charm of his praise for Javier Cercas: “[He betrays the] generic categories [of fiction] to slip toward poetry, toward the epic.”

At the time he wrote these, Bolaño had two reasons to be cocky: 1) He’d just had his first real success, with The Savage Detectives; 2) By virtue of living in Spain, he was in exile from the audience he was writing for. Whether or not he was planning to collect them for a book (as Echevarría claims), they form the backbone of a very good one. He makes us shake our heads when he goes from calling César Aira “one of the three or four best Spanish-language writers alive today” to “mostly just boring,” but there’s a central line to the book’s overall critique and investigation, and it has to do with what it means to be a poet and what it means to be brave. Cervantes may have said the soldier’s work is more honorable than the poet’s, but Bolaño’s hero is Archilochus, the Greek mercenary who fled the battlefield to save himself. “Not for nothing are [poets] descended from Orpheus,” he says, because sometimes doing the wrong thing, as Blanchot showed us with “Orpheus’s Gaze,” can bring about the most unexpected inspiration. “If I had to hold up the most heavily fortified bank in America,” Bolaño says, “I’d take a gang of poets. The attempt would probably end in disaster, but it would be beautiful.” 

Why did Bolaño consider himself a poet first and foremost (even if, as he claims in the “Self Portrait” that begins this book, his poetry should never be read)? He empathized with the poet’s temperament, his sacrifice and sadness. According to Bolaño, a poet can be someone like Pedro Lemebel, the openly gay Chilean essayist who doesn’t write poetry. 

A real writer, Bolaño argued, in a note of praise for Mario Vargas Llosa, follows literary convictions over political convictions. In addition, a real writer’s work (for example Horacio Castellanos Moya’s El asco (Nausea) cannot be abided by nationalists: 

Its acid humor, like a Buster Keaton movie or a time bomb, threatens the hormonal stability of the idiots who, upon reading it, feel the irresistible urge to string the author up in the town square. Truly, I know of no greater honor for a real writer.

There are so many moments like this in Between Parentheses, their nitro concoction so well preserved by Natasha Wimmer’s translation, that it will be impossible for readers to refrain from grabbing their pencils to score the margins with deep vertical lines.

Could this measure of pure, uncompromising courage be what Bolaño held over the heads of his fellow writers, even those like Aira, for whom he sang the highest praise? Had he changed his mind after writing “The Incredible César Aira,” when he attacked him in the lecture he gave a year or two later by calling him boring? The use of arbitrary numbers (“the three or four best”) shows Bolaño taking after Nicanor Parra, who famously wrote: “Chile’s four great poets/are three:/Alonso de Ercilla and Rubén Darío.” Parra’s real joke was that neither of those poets were Chileans. Bolaño appreciated Parra’s playfulness because it was a way around the nationwide self-mythology he saw in his country, particularly among the left. 

As Goldman explained last week, Bolaño thought it was horribly wrong to romanticize a time that ultimately led to nothing but bloodshed. In “A Modest Proposal,” he suggests raising statues of Parra and Neruda in Buenos Aires, “but with their backs turned to each other,” though he is sure that “more than one alleged reader will say: Bolaño says Parra is the poet of the right and Neruda is the poet of the left.” Perhaps what he meant was that a good monument to poets would show that a poet’s vision is singular. 

Bolaño is more critical of Neruda’s followers than he is of Neruda, and actually wrote a glowing review of the poet’s Complete Works for Las Ultimas Noticas, which is included in the book. Aira doesn’t fit into the category of blind leftists or sentimentalists, but Bolaño does smear Aira as a “professional Latin American writer, who always has a word of praise for anyone who asks it.” In Bolaño’s world, perhaps, it is even worse to be a professional writer than a political writer.

Beyond these strong opinions on Latin American literature and world literature in general, we see Bolaño’s particular interest in North American writing, which came through so often in his own fiction. He lists Whitman, Poe, Melville and Twain as essential for any writer, specifically a writer from the Americas. In his prologue to a Spanish edition of Huckleberry Finn, which Mason read from last week, and which is as illuminating as Borges’s prologue to his own translation of Leaves of Grass, he writes: “All American novelists, including those who write in Spanish, at some point get a glimpse of two books looming on the horizon…two fates…. One is Moby Dick and the other is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In his “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories,” he writes, “The honest truth is that if we read Edgar Allan Poe that would be more than enough... Consider and reflect. It’s not too late. You must consider [this] point… If possible: on your knees.”

Like Borges, he had a special regard for genre fiction, and also like Borges, he seemed to be in search of an original, widely informed literature for the Americas. Just look at the range of names mentioned in “All the Subjects with Fresan”: Basquiat, Haring, Borges, Gombrowicz, Philip K. Dick, Proust, Stendhal, David Lynch, David Foster Wallace, “Chabon and Palahniuk” (two names I wouldn’t necessarily group together, but he does), Wittgenstein, and Kubrick. It’s a brilliant piece about a literary friendship between two writers from Latin America who live in Spain, even in exile from one another. (Perhaps Bolaño meant that he was the one in exile, since Fresan was in Barcelona while he lived “on the Costa Brava, not even Costa Brava but the living room of my house in Blanes.”)

Back to Cervantes, Blanchot, and the center, so to speak, of Between Parentheses. Bolaño’s 1999 “Caracas Address,” given on occasion of accepting the Don Romulo award for The Savage Detectives, holds the key. After a string of jokes inspired by what he calls his “verbal and geographic” dyslexia, in which he claims to have always thought that Bogota was the capital of Venezuela and Caracas was in Colombia, that Don Romulo (a Venezeulan author) wrote “an essentially Peruvian novel,” and that The Green House, by Llosa, is a “Colombian-Venezuelan novel,” he reflects on the many forms of a writer’s homeland, and how it takes shape in exile. A writer’s homeland, he says, citing an unnamed writer, “is his language”; it’s also the people he loves, he says, plus whatever he’s writing at the moment and the courage to face the abyss and accept what he finds. 

It would be great if the index in the back of Between Parentheses included some of the words that frequently appear, such as poet, bravery, and abyss, all of which Bolaño uses to suggest that the ultimate courage involves a total lack of regard for respectability, an allegiance to no one, and the ability to be unblinking in the face of horror. He makes this distinction most memorably in a side-by-side discussion of the memoirs of Martin Amis and James Ellroy, two very different animals indeed. “Amis knows, like a good college student who has read his Nietzsche, that the abyss can look back. Ellroy knows it too…[but] he keeps his eyes open…” it’s impossible to resist quoting more from this passage: Amis is “pedantic [and] bland,” he says, while “Ellroy is capable of dancing the conga with the abyss staring back at him.”

That Orphic notion of the abyss can start to lose its meaning when it’s repeated so much, but you believe Bolaño when he says that “literature, as an Andalusian folk singer would put it, is dangerous.” Reading him, you also believe it is fun. 

Published Jun 23, 2011   Copyright 2011 David Varno

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