Monday, December 27, 2010

Roberto Bolano - A Personal Journey Through His Works

It's been nearly 3 years or just more since I first read Bolano, during which time I have read several of his books, the latest being Amulet. Amulet triggered me, to make this post regarding my experience in reading Bolano. This is a purely readers experience in reading Bolano and not a complete review of his works.

It was in mid or late 2007 when I first came upon Roberto Bolano. It was a period where the Bolano boom had not kicked off (at least in India, or at least up to my knowledge). The book was 'By Night In Chile' and since the name was intriguing enough I bought it. It was a fair read, but I was by no means blown away by it. The main thing that struck me in it, was the implication that if you don't raise your voice or just turn the other way in face of cruelty happening in front of you to avoid it, you are as culpable for it even if you personally had no hand in doing it. Doesn't matter if you are a so called aesthetic person who does not want to get involved in the murkier things of live, you are culpable.
Then came 'The Savage Detectives' the next year. During this time, I had read quite a bit about him in the internet and his works too. But, I bought this again on a lark, mainly because the blurb referred to it as a road novel. The first part was good, enjoyed it, but once the polyphony of voices started in the next section, I found it quite difficult and even thought of discarding the book altogether and left it at that. Couple of months later, I took it up again and persisted a bit more and boy, were the rewards enriching or not. (A digression here,  a similar thing happened 2-3 months ago, when I started reading Gravitiy's Rainbow again for the fourth or fifth time and got sucked into TP's world. Persistence does have it's rewards). More than the fact that the novel is also a road trip, what sucked me in is the world Bolano shows us about writers, particularly those who are on the fringes to literary glory as it were. The pain of budding writers, their immense confidence in creating that work of genius, repudiating everything that has been written before them, the process of bringing of small literary magazines (to publish their own works :) ) ,  that complete isolation from the so called normal world, the demystification of the whole literary process, this is what sucked me fully into the novel. These need not happen only in the Mexican literary establishment, it's what happens across the world, even in India/Tamil Nadu. At the end of it, I was ready to ready anything by him.
Next up was 'Last Evenings on Earth' the most melancholic and poetic of all titles that I have ever read. Just imagine the images the title conjures in our mind if we think about it for even a few seconds. This collection too touches upon the points mentioned above, about writers and their works. They also tell about the pain a writer undergoes when his work is rejected. We easily trash a work, but even for a so-called bad work, a writer could have put in a lot of effort which finally serves no purpose when his work is rejected. Doomed to live in anonymity and the moment when you come to face the truth that you are not going to make it across the literary ocean and still you keep striving for the word (as it were), these things are beautifully brought across here.

The big fish, 2666 was up next. Frankly the first part about the students did not do much for me, the next 2 parts were when I felt a sort of darkness and a descent of human spirit which reached it's peak in the part about the crimes. (Like descent into Dante' hell maybe, like someone has mentioned?). Some people have found this part a bit morbid, maybe it is, but to me it felt like Bolano was hammering to us the violence that surrounds that and the fact that we have got inured to it somehow, or just want to look the other way. When you read that part, you see that, initially the victims are mentioned with their names with a bit of background, as the pages go, they are mainly referred to as bodies (mostly like newspaper reports) and the reader's level of involvement with them reduces as we tend to with news bytes we notice in passing. I assume that this is Bolano's way of saying that we get inured to just about  anything and everything that happens around us over a period of time. We just get numb to it. This also could be that we are descending more and more into hell, where all feelings pass and we just become spectators without any feelings. This could also be because, since the victims are those who are the marginalized part of society, their names becomes less important after sometime and they just become numbers after a period. The final part was, to me a sort of redemption reading the back history of the mysterious author, a kind of breathing space given to the reader after the suffocating environment of the 'part about crimes'. I came out of this novel with my mind on fire (that happens very rarely). Can this be called a novel anyway, more like 5 different novels/novellas lumped together with only the first and last parts having any semblance of relation. All in all a sprawling gargantuan of a novel, not just in its length, but in the characters of the novel, it's scope and ambition. With this novel, I feel that Bolano completely broke out the shadows caused by masters like Juan Ruflo, Marquez, Losa, Borges et all. Latin American fiction has moved on, the next major step in their novel. (This is based on my reading of the latin american novelists and in translation. I may have missed a lot more of them). Till then, I think only Pedro Juan Guattirez (is he a latin american novelist technically?) was the one who was going in a completely different path and with great success too. I know that I have not described even a little about what this novel is, but how can one describe 2666, or how can one describe life or for that hell. You have to experience it (yeah I know it's a cliche)
This is by no means a perfect novel, (what is ever perfect?).  I cannot point out exactly what is missing/lacking here, but maybe it could have done with a bit better editing in the first 2 parts (that's just my personal opinion).  There is no final resolution in the novel, which is as it should be, since in real life, we do not have any final resolution. 

So far so good, even incredible, I was crazed on Bolano. 3 successive books where the author blows you away. Must be great right. The inevitable bit of disillusionment followed, which is actually great since it now makes me regard his works in a even better light and actually more favorably in some case, with the advantage of slightly more rational thinking instead of the first flush of hypnotic trance that I was in earlier. (I think the same will happen with TP soon)

'Distant Star' was my next work of Bolano. A strange and at times even bizarre work again,this time it is possible to describe a bit about this work. It's about ' Alberto Ruiz-Tagle' an air force person, who purports to be a poet (does sky writing), but who has an extremely dark side to him, which involves torture, killings and taking photographs of the dead. He is not even a sadistic, it's just that probably his brain or inherent nature is wired to do all these things, all the while he is writing poetry. The complete calmness and the almost unconscious way he goes about his nefarious activities are bit chilling, as is the understanding of what power can do to a person, unlocking his basest and deepest desires. A troubling book, but something missing here. To me the concept of power and its ramifications were not as deeply brought out. 
I then read 'Nazi Literature In the Americans' which is probably the most disappointing (to me) of Bolano's works. The concept of the book was great, writers blinded by the Nazi concept, utterly unconscious of the havoc it created (or unwilling to accept it or even endorsing it). But the book sadly ended up as a sort of fictional bibliography, the high point here being the reality that is reinforce about writers who endorsed the Nazis, who believed in them. But according to me, Bolano's weakest book.
'Amulet' sort of borrows it's narrative structure from 'By Night In Chile' of using a hallucinatory narrator to dictate her experiences in the late 60. It also shares with the 'Savage Detectives', the same marginal players on the literary world, their lives. 

There has been a definite cooling down in my appreciation of Bolano, end of the first flush of ardor  but I am now settling into a comfortable, long lasting marriage as it were, which I think is not a bad thing at all. So why this slight cooling down. For one thing, no one can keep producing works of greatness every time, the Himalayas is not made up of Mt. Everest alone, it has several smaller mountains, even flat valley, but the enormity of the whole is what makes the real deal. Bolano is one such real deal. 

I feel that whenever or how much more Bolano addresses themes that are his forte so to speak, his books reach a certain cadence. But there are some areas where he hits the wrong note or should I say, the notes do not reach the octave of the areas of his forte. So what is this forte I refer to. To me it  is the manner in which he entwines art and the real every day life, dis-investing art of all possible jargons like art being a liberator of souls, being different from everyday while. The following passage from his short story encapsulates what I am trying to say.

"That's what art is, he said, the story of a life in all its particularity. It's the only thing that really is particular and personal. It's the expression and, at the same time, the fabric of the particular. And what do you mean by the fabric of the particular? I asked, supposing he would answer: Art. I was also thinking, indulgently, that we were pretty drunk already and that it was time to go home. But my friend said: What I mean is the secret story.... The secret story is the one we'll never know, although we're living it from day to day, thinking we're alive, thinking we've got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn't matter. But every damn thing matters! It's just that we don't realize. We tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, we don't even realize that's a lie."

He is at his best when when writing about the human condition, but when it comes to describing the interplay of individuals and the impact of power it has on them, the things people do to get the power, hold on it, use it for their means, I feel that he is not on such a sure footing. As an example, I would mention 'The Autumn of the patriarch' which mentions the complete desolation and isolation that power brings, or Colonel Buendia who becomes blood thirsty general in the wars of liberation after starting out as mild mannered individual. Somehow the impact these novels evoke do not happen with Bolano. For e.g. in 'By Night In Chile', the priest's guilt at looking the other way at the atrocities of Pinochet are not brought out very forcefully. But maybe that is not what Bolano wanted to do, he just wanted to show this in passing, as a backdrop to the human condition which is one of his recurring themes, so that's why they stick out as something which do not fit here, they are not bad, but just don't seem to fit in. That's why right from 'Distant Star' I have been able to appreciate Bolano as his earlier works. A funny thing here is that his huge tomes are more appealing to me than his shorter novels (but I love his short stories). Maybe that too gives an idea, maybe Bolano was meant for the large, sprawling novels like in the nineteenth century. Maybe short novels are not his cup tea, who knows.
A hypothetical question here would be, whether Bolano would have been feted like this if he had not met an untimely end. Is the romance of the tragic clouding people's vision in appreciating him. 
To me, it does not seem so. Bolano was and would have been one of the giants of the modern era even if he had been alive, but surely there may have been more criticism of him, which is of course natural. (As an aside, Steig Larsson, to me is highly overrated, the second and third parts of his trilogy suck big time, which would have been trashed if he had been alive when they came out).
My one hope is that Bolano's editors do not try to cash in on his posthumous fame and bring out books left and right from him. As it is there seems to be a glut of books by Bolano, not that I am complaining. In fact, waiting for the time when an unread Bolano book becomes available at my bookstore. 
P.S 1: For beginners in Bolano, 'Last Evenings On Earth' might be a good place to start. Then onto 'Savage Detectives' and '2666'.
P.S. 2: What about reading 2666 in a different order. If I read say, the fifth part first and then went on the first and sort of jumbled up the order, what would be the experience. What would be an ideal different order of reading it.


  1. This is a wonderful post on Bolano-my most recent Balano read is Nazi Literature in the Americas-I will be rereading Savage Detectives in January for the readalong

  2. My first encounter with Bolano, was The Savage Detectives & I only grabbed it as I was going through a lazy period, reading only thrillers, detective tales & their ilk. Imagine my surprise on opening the book, well it truly kicked me out of the slump & was one of the main reasons I started blogging.