The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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That Rare Good Book

Roberto Bolaño Ávalos

Finding a book that interests me—captures my attention and rewards me with its language, structure, or thought—is becoming increasing rare. Most novels are very formulaic—not unlike the films they become. You know from the start what you’re in for—a desperate attempt to keep your attention at all costs. With few exceptions, these are the novels that are published in our time, because the large publishing houses rule. The concept of marketing is everything. If there’s a potential market segment for a novel (read “product”) then the literary agents actively seek suitable manuscripts, especially from known authors, and funnel them to the publishers. Of course, this is normal when all decisions are based strictly on money.

There are some exceptions. A wonderful aspect of Robert Bolaño’s writing is that he’s not afraid to be misguided, off-topic, boring, and just plain awful. He more than makes up for it when you get caught in the strong undertow of his language and find yourself in a different universe, a place you never imagined existed, thinking strange thoughts and feeling part of an interesting dream of how life might have been with a different set of gods.

Recently, I’ve been selling my library of books through Amazon and find it amusing to remember what I learned from a particular book and what caused me to buy it in the first place. Mostly, it was a reflection of whatever dream (read “illusion”) I was living under at the time. There were the books on mysticism (the dream of achieving some kind spiritual status), the ones on literary criticism (the dream of being a college prof), those on sculpture (the dream of being a famous sculptor), and the books on good sex, et cetera.

Funny, isn’t it? As humans, we are powerful and powerless at the same time. No wonder we’re so confused.

March 26, 2009   Comments Off on That Rare Good Book

2666 (Final Parts)

In the last two hundred pages of 2666, we finally meet Archimboldi, the reclusive writer around whom the entire novel is constructed. For whatever reason, Bolaño makes this as painful as possible. We don’t even know it’s Archimboldi until we’ve endured a hundred pages of pure tripe—one ad hoc digression after another about nothing in particular. It’s grueling, boring stuff. Of course, Bolaño comes through in the end, but only after he’s weeded out the casual reader (who has tossed the novel into the dust bin in sheer disgust). It’s funny, of course. There’s a mad genius at work here. When Robert Bolaño is brilliant, he’s very, very brilliant, and when he’s bad, he’s very, very bad. No editor put her hand to this stuff.

Still, I love it. It’s the most interesting literary novel in years. Bolaño’s style is quintessentially his own, and the translation is first rate. That something so flawed and brilliant could see the light of day and make it to the top of the charts is mind boggling. Maybe they’ll even award him a Nobel posthumously.

Will someone please explain the literary world to me?

March 16, 2009   Comments Off on 2666 (Final Parts)



After the experience of reading (or, rather, trying to read) The Savage Detectives, I resisted buying Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 for months, but the positive reviews, many listing it as the best novel published in 2008 (in Natasha Wimmer’s English-language translation), finally encouraged me to pick up a copy. I’m glad I did.

Focused on the unsolved serial murders of Ciudad Juárez (Santa Teresa in the book), the novel is divided into five parts. Regarding those five parts, the story is that Bolaño called his family around him on his death bed and told them to publish them as five separate novels, that it would secure their financial futures, but after he died, they disobeyed him and had it published as a whole. So far, I’ve read only two parts, “The Part about the Critics,” and “The Part about Amalfitano,” but I couldn’t resist commenting.

As I have grown to expect with Bolaño, the two parts are written in quite dissimilar styles. Of these, the first is vastly more interesting. It’s the story of four critics of Benno von Archimboldi, the German novelist whom no one has ever seen. The critics, a Frenchman, Spaniard, and Italian, all fall in love with their English counterpart, a woman of strange tastes, who makes them crazy with desire for her. The Frenchman, Spaniard, and Englishwoman (who are both her lovers) eventually make their way to Santa Teresa in search of Archimboldi, who, of course, they never find, though they do encounter Amalfitano who has some knowledge of the German. The experience of being in Santa Teresa is so profoundly upsetting for the Englishwoman that she leaves early without the two men, goes to Milan, and chooses the wheelchair-bound Italian, realizing it is him she truly loves.

The Part about Amalfitano concentrates on Oscar Amalfitano, a mentally unstable professor of philosophy at the University of Santa Teresa, who fears his daughter will be one of the killer’s next victims. It’s fun watching him fall apart as he begins to hear voices, but this part is not as interesting or moving as the first.

Unlike The Savage Detectives, there is no hint of dross or puerility in Bolaño’s later style. His language is poetic, complex, layered, and yet easy to understand, like a gospel rendered by a wise saint. I’m absorbed by it—perhaps because it deals with literary matters, but, mostly, I think, because in 2666 Bolaño has reached perfection. He is the magician he set out to become when he left Chile all those years before. All the suffering was worth it. What more could a writer want?

January 19, 2009   Comments Off on 2666

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