Tales by Chilean master of malaise

"The Return"
"The Return"
Posted: October 24, 2010

By Roberto Bolaño

New Directions. 144 pp. $22.95.

By Roberto Bolaño

New Directions. 96 pp. $15.95.

By Roberto Bolaño

New Directions. 208 pp. $23.95.

By Roberto Bolaño

New Directions. 176 pp. $22.95.

Reviewed by John Timpane

'An extraordinary malaise was lurking in the most trivial details."

This perplexing, frightening thought, in the mind of a love-smitten hypnotist as he walks the streets of late-1930s Paris, is from Monsieur Pain, a short novel written in 1982 by the Chilean (and sometimes Spanish, and sometimes Mexican) writer Roberto Bolaño. This one sentence could stand for the singular, iconoclastic, threatening, tragicomic originality of his fiction.

Bolaño died in 2003 - then carpet-bombed the English-speaking literary world twice, with two massive cultural interventions (I hesitate to call them novels), The Savage Detectives (1998; in English 2007) and 2666 (2004; 2008).

Reeling from these two monumental inoculations, we now must face his short fiction - where the invasion may be just as decisive.

New Directions is pumping out the shorter Bolaño. Of the titles considered here, Monsieur Pain (first published in Spanish in 1982) and Antwerp (1980, published in Spanish in 2002) are novels (sort of), the other two collections of tales.

I remember when the story "The Insufferable Gaucho" appeared in the New Yorker. Within days, three friends weighed in. One loved it, something about "the whole world it creates" and "how much you sort of like the main character" but "how nothing really gets figured out." The next person said something like, "The New Yorker is printing anything these days - that was just terrible, a waste of my time." The third: "Please tell me what is going on and why I should like this."

I can't do the last two things, but I can speak of why I like this story. A gritty charm invests it, an amused, unhinged comedy married with suggestions of doom. And, as Bolaño's work often is, it's woven, a plait of threads and strands, repetitions of images (rabbits) and themes. It starts, as many of his tales and novels do, conventionally, and drops you off in an insecure, unfamiliar place.

The world it invokes: Héctor Pereda, successful Buenos Aires lawyer, decides to close his practice, shut his house, and move to a decayed ranch in the pampas. He gets into a series of incidents, climaxing, but not really, with a crime involving a knife (a favored Bolaño object). Throughout, we see rabbits on the pampas, rabbits everywhere. The rabbits do nothing. They're just there.

So is the collapse of the Argentine economy, which lies behind much of the ruin in the story. Bolaño will do that: work current events into the dark texture. Think of the murders of hundreds of women in and around Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. These outrages form the agonized, protesting heart of 2666. And in "Gaucho," the incompetence of power and money robs Pereda of anywhere to be Pereda. His tale ends, as often in Bolaño, with the main figure wandering and wondering: After all these nameless catastrophes, what next?

Many stories, like "Gaucho," are "open" - yet you'll find yourself in the midst of compelling, profound themes: Latin America vs. the North; city vs. country; the place of art and literature; sickness, courage, violence, and reality; the agony we call tenderness. I also recommend "Literature + Illness = Illness," a barely fictionalized autobiographical piece (Bolaño was often ill from the liver disease that reportedly killed him), an extended meditation on how sickness and writing need each other.

The stories in The Return live in the dim, sick underworld. Start with "Detectives," sort of My Dinner With Andre with two flatfoots, Contreras and Arancibia - but watch where we go, with politics, sexuality, ghost stories, North/South, the history of Chile ("Plenty to cry over, but not to explain"). I admire Bolaño's storytelling, leading us to places we don't suspect, forcing us to read again, and then again. A Bolaño story haunts - not least because reading it means rereading it. As in "Wait - hold on - what just happened?"

Story, in Bolaño, arises from nonstory. Many readers have commented on the senselessness and meaninglessness of his world, but that's not quite right. All sorts of sense and meaning arise - but the people within them are powerless to know them or do much about them. Consequences and tragedies, mistakes and regrets abound. But none of it means what - and means in the way - those affected expect.

Antwerp, a very short novel, is early Bolaño, but only in age. It's a crazed, burnished gem. Strands of action run parallel, many of them to be repeated throughout his fiction: a murder and police - detectives, an investigation, institutional idiocy (his police forces are sadistic Keystone Kops). There is a kind of KOA campsite (he's fond of those) and a hunchback (he's drawn to those with physical challenges, and to misfits). There is a sick writer who may be dying and a sex tryst focusing on a single act that the man feverishly pursues and the woman just as feverishly endures.

And, very Bolaño, the act of movie-watching wraps and cinches all these strands. Snatches of unsourced dialogue float through Antwerp, like audience conversation that intrudes on the film, or movie dialogue that intrudes on memory ("The wind whips grains of sand . . . " "Without much chance . . . "). Much is beautiful, approaching poetry. Much is sad and terrifying. Much you've heard somewhere - it's how people talk.

Antwerp doesn't tell a story. It flashes glimpses that might, we feel, get to be stories, but we can't get a grasp on any. That is the heart of Bolaño. His fiction lets us know that our worlds are beyond us, elusive. His tales explode into shreds (like Monsieur Pain, which starts fairly conventionally), lead us up blind alleys, or just stop, as if to tell us, "Get lost." They don't do what you think they will or want them to.

His people are inconsistent. Desire leads them to do things they know only another person would do. And motive? His fiction sneers at it - as if we ever really know why we do what we do.

So even though his fiction seems to fling down and trample on most of what we've been trained to look for in fiction - tidy plots; consistent characters; well-explained action; nice, legible outcomes - it ends up feeling a lot like life. That's why 2666, which maddened so many reviewers, is so fearsome a triumph. Reading it is to feel as if thrown into an unforgiving, vivid truth, with no recourse and no one coming. Bolaño once said something like, "Every little thing is important - only it's an importance we'll never know." His fiction gestures to that unknowable, frightening portent, that malaise, in every detail. Yet this malaise, while often sinister, is also - his word - extraordinary.

So if you want to take Bolaño step by step, read a few stories in The Insufferable Gaucho first, then, armed against the shock, try a few in The Return. When prepared, read Monsieur Pain, involving the Peruvian poet César Vallejo in a fascinating plot. After you recover, and only then, go on to Antwerp - such a fitting closure to them all, both coda and prologue.

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com or www.twitter.com/jtimpane.

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