The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Roberto Bolaño

180px-roberto_bolano.jpgRoberto Bolaño has finally hit the big time. As usual, for a writer, it’s a bit late. He’s dead. But in a sense, Bolaño is responsible for this state of affairs. Although he was a hard-working writer all of his life, he only began seriously promoting his work in the late 1990’s.

I first stumbled upon Last Evenings on Earth, a selection of stories taken from Putas asesinas and Llamadas telefónicas and translated into English by Chris Andrews, and was immediately hooked. Here was a man with a strange voice–at once immediate and remote–and the translation was first-rate. Most of the stories are first person accounts of his (presumably Bolaño’s) encounters with Latin poets and writers living in exile. (Bolaño fled Chile after being detained briefly by Pinochet’s government in 1973.) It’s the voice that gets you, full of charm and intelligence, but so distant and objective that you fear for him.

Next, I tried Distant Star (Estrella distante), a novella in the absurdist manner, full of references to obscure poets (as is normal for Bolaño) and rather heavy symbolism. I liked it, of course. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff. My wife did not, however. After faithfully trying to read the novella for several nights, she finally turned to me, made a face, and wondered out loud why I had recommended it to her so highly. “It’s the voice, my sweet.” Rolling her eyes, she said, “Yes, dear,” and returned it.

Undaunted, I picked up a copy of his most famous novel, The Savage Detectives (one of the New York Times notable books). I happily read the first hundred pages or so, enjoying the adventures of the young, sexually active group of poets and writers in Mexico City, until Bolaño changed voices on me. Suddenly, I’m listening to obscure people I only know by reference giving me first person accounts of the individuals I’ve come to know and love from the first part of the novel. I slogged on, hoping it would get better. But it didn’t. It only got worse. There are more of these voices than you can count, and, eventually, you don’t give a damn about anything they say.

So, right now, I’m trying to get unstuck. The book sits on the dresser beside the bed, waiting for me to pick it up. I don’t. I can’t. Like someone I’ve met in one of Bolaño’s stories, I’m ready to shake hands and part company forever.

December 25, 2007   1 Comment