Roberto Bolaño’s Between Parentheses

by FR

CM363_GAs other reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s Between Parentheses (Entre Paréntesis, Anagrama, 2012) note, the posthumously published collection of the writer’s articles, essays, speeches and other writings isn’t a pretty thing. And not that Bolaño was ever too concerned with form and beauty, but this amalgam of texts dating from 1998 to 2003 is particularly devoid of the kind of narrative coherence found in his novels. Which–don’t get me wrong–isn’t a bad thing. And not only not a bad thing, but, this being mostly a collection of journalistic writings, to be expected from a text of its kind. In this respect, Between Parentheses might unwittingly be Bolaño’s most postmodern, poststructuralist and/or schizophrenic text: for one (though only in the strictest sense of the term), its author isn’t really Bolaño–the texts are all the writer’s, but as a posthumous publication it was Ignacio Echeverría, Bolaño’s literary executor, who selected and organized them [1]; because of the diverse nature of the writings, the book lacks a cohesive narrative and can be best described as collage-like, a series of independent fragments that don’t quite cohere into a whole; and, lastly, Between Parentheses is also the closest thing we’ll get to a Bolaño autobiography, to an unfiltered view of the writer’s mind at work. But Bolaño wasn’t a postmodernist, and there is plenty of the author’s distinctive style to be found in the 350 or so pages of Between Parentheses–which I don’t think anyone would deny is largely the writer’s appeal.

Not that the content, the subject matter of the various writings in Between Parentheses doesn’t matter–I’ll get to that in a minute–but there is no question that much of Bolaño’s allure lies in his prose, as much in what he says as in how he writes. He did, after all, consider himself a poet first and foremost, and if there is one thing that Bolaño carried over from his poetry-writing days to the short stories and novels (and, as demonstrated by this collection, journalistic pieces) he wrote in his forties was a prose that remains as idiosyncratic and mysterious as impenetrable. In a New Yorker: Fiction podcast episode from 2011, Daniel Alarcón argues that for many young writers the appeal of Bolaño’s writing resides in its ability to describe a mood or atmosphere without really saying anything or without anything significant happening plotwise [2]. I would tend to agree with this assertion. So, despite the fact that a good chunk of Between Parentheses is about literature, poetry, writers and writing, much (though not all) of Bolaño’s prose here somehow manages to be as political, ethical and atmospheric as that of his more narrative undertakings. For fans of Bolaño, this should be reason enough to pick up this book.

As far as the contents of Between Parentheses, the bulk of the writings found here are journalistic pieces Bolaño published in Spanish and Chilean newspapers toward the end of his life (the book’s title is borrowed from that of the column he wrote for the Chilean newspaper Las Últimas Noticias), while the provenance of the rest of the texts is varied. Included are the author’s last known interview with the Mexican edition of Playboy, the speech he gave upon receiving the Rómulo Gallegos Prize for The Savage Detectives, and various prologues and prefaces he authored. These are all organized into six non-chronological sections, an organizing scheme that works as well as any other given the diverse nature of the texts. Also worth noting is that fact that it is not a coincidence that the writings in this volume only span half a decade, from 1998 until Bolaño’s death in 2003, as it was not until the publication of The Savage Detectives and subsequent critical acclaim the novel received that Bolaño’s fame began to grow, and with it, invitations to give talks and write columns.

From the book’s first section, “Three Insufferable Speeches,” the Caracas Address stands out for Bolaño’s candid comments on writing and literature. In response to an unidentified writer who claimed that “the homeland of a writer … is his language,” Bolaño retorts: “a writer’s homeland isn’t his language or isn’t only his language, but the people he loves. And sometimes a writer’s homeland isn’t the people he loves but his memory. And other times a writer’s only homeland is his steadfastness and his courage” [3]. And a bit later he describes great writing as the “ability to peer into the darkness, to leap into the void, to know that literature is basically a dangerous undertaking” [4]. Though upon first impression hyperbolic, for anyone familiar with Bolaño’s background and concerns these statements fit well within the writer’s ethos. In this regard, it isn’t surprising that Bolaño ends the speech by aligning specific political, ethical and philosophical positions with the (honorable) profession of the writer; in great poetic fashion he confesses that, “to a great extent everything that I’ve written is a love letter or a farewell letter to my own generation” [5].

The book’s second section, on the other hand, is comprised of a dozen or so columns Bolaño wrote on the occasion of returning to his native Chile in 1998. Though he states in the book’s preface that, “my only nationality is Chilean,” he had what can only be described as a conflicted relationship with his country of birth [6]. At fifteen Bolaño left Chile with his family for Mexico and came back for a brief period in 1973 to support Salvador Allende’s leftist government. In September of that year, however, Allende’s government was overthrown by the Chilean armed forces, which captured and kept Bolaño in custody for a week or so on charges of extremism. After being rescued by two former classmates (or so the story goes), he returned to Mexico, where he lived for a few years before moving to Spain in the late 1970s [7]. He did not return to Chile for two and a half decades, and it was upon setting foot again on Chilean soil that he wrote the various pieces include in this section of the book. Among these, “Fragments of Return to the Native Land,” “The Corridor With No Apparent Way Out,” and scattered passages describing his visit with Nicanor Parra are worthy of note. It is also in the last piece of this section, “On Literature, the National Literature Prize, and the Rare Consolations of the Writing Life,” that Bolaño famously disparages the work of Isabel Allende (Salvador Allende’s niece), one of Chile’s better known and popular living writers; he writes: “Allende’s work is bad, but it’s alive … It won’t live long, like many sick people, but for now it’s alive” [8].

The next section, “Between Parentheses,” comprises the bulk of the book and includes Bolaño’s published columns from 1999 through 2003. As newspaper pieces, these are mostly short and come across less as researched and prepared texts than as diary entries–their tone is candid and relaxed. Though the theme of literature and writing is predominant among them, as opinion columns the format’s freedom allowed Bolaño to speak his mind about anything and everything–he writes about a pastry cook friend from Blanes, his local bookshop, childhood memories of growing up in the south of Chile, his editor, Berlin, planes, movies. On the other hand, the columns on writers and writing are diverse within the constricted universe of literature; recurrent topics include Latin American and Chilean literature–the latter of which he describes as “an endless nightmare” [8]–the classics, surrealist, nihilistic or absurdist novels and poems, and too many writers, both dead and alive, to list here. If there is anything the reader learns from this section is that Bolaño considered himself a Latin American writer through and through; his opinions regarding Latin American literature’s past, present and future are some of the most fervent in the entire book–no doubt because for Bolaño literary and political choices and positions go hand in hand.

“Scenes,” the book’s following section, consists of a grouping of pieces Bolaño wrote about specific places. These pieces are part diaristic and autobiographical, and part fictional and narrative. In “Beach,” for instance, Bolaño writes about undergoing methadone treatment for heroin use and the surreal scenes he witnesses at a nearby beach–see footnote [7]. This short piece hinges on the use of a unique narrative strategy–one that Bolaño used to great effect in The Savage Detectives and 2666–in which the writer describes in an ominous and foreboding way the witnessing by a character (in this case Bolaño himself) of a seemingly banal event. Plagued by a sense of anxiety and impending doom, stories such as this one exemplify Bolaño’s aforementioned ability to evoke an ambience or mood around the most trite of events–I also just realized that the 5-page story consists of a single, unbroken sentence, which surely adds to the effect. This excerpt should exemplify what I’m talking about:

“… she was fat, or round, and must have been about seventy, and he was thin, or more than thin, a walking skeleton, I think that was why I noticed him, because usually I didn’t take much notice of the people on the beach, but I did notice them, and it was because the guy was so skinny, I saw him and got scared, fuck, it’s death coming for me, I thought, but nothing was coming for me, it was just two old people, the man maybe seventy-five and the woman about seventy, or the other way around, and she seemed to be in good health, but he looked as if he were going to breathe his last breath any time now or as if this were his last summer…” [9]

Also worth a mention from this section is “Fateful Characters”–an essay included in the catalogue accompanying an exhibition of the photographs of Chilean artist Sergio Larraín in Valencia, Spain–if only for the following line, which is worthy of its own Bolaño story: “The killer sleeps as the victim photographs him” [10].

The fifth section is comprised of pieces written on assignment, such as prefaces and reviews, all on literary topics. From this section I thoroughly enjoyed “The Brave Librarian,” a sort of homage to Borges in which the Argentine’s name isn’t mentioned once. (We learn in Between Parentheses that Bolaño’s writer is Borges and his poet/anti-poet is Parra.) Lastly, the sixth section is largely autobiographical and includes four pieces in which Bolaño discusses his young and adult life in the context of his literary influences. He talks about stealing books, tells how Camus’s The Fall “saved me from hell and plummeted me straight back down again” [11], gives advice on writing short stories–“It’s best to write stories three at a time, or five at a time. If you’ve got the energy, write them nine at a time, or fifteen at a time” [12]–and confirms what the reader of The Savage Detectives already knows: “[The Savage Detectives] tries to reflect a kind of generational defeat and also the happiness of a generation, a happiness that at times delineated courage and the limits of courage. … I believe there are as many ways to read my novel as there are voices in it. It can be read as a deathbed lament. It can also be read as a game” [13]. The interview with the Mexican edition of Playboy, possibly the last one he gave, is an essential read, too.

Sure, not all of Between Parentheses is as consistently gripping as some of Bolaño’s best novels–for instance, the pieces where the writer discusses lesser-known Latin American literature; much of which, I have to admit, I have not read–but as demonstrated by the various writings I’ve discussed, there’s enough substance and meat and enough of Bolaño’s prose here to make this worth a read–and in the case of some of the pieces, a re-read. Having said as much I have to say about the book, I’ll end with its beginning, the epigraph chosen by Echeverría which serves as a homage to Bolaño, but which also, in my opinion, expresses with great accuracy the power of Bolaño’s words: “Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength” [14].

Notes

[1] For the purists, Echeverría notes in the introduction that before his untimely death, Bolaño hinted a number of times at the idea of publishing his journalistic writings–though surely Bolaño’s version of this collection would have been different from Echeverría’s; [2] http://www.newyorker.com/ online/2011/03/28/110328on_audio_alarcon; [3] Roberto Bolaño, Between Parentheses, New Directions, 2011, p. 34; [4] Ibid; [5] Ibid, p. 35; [6] Ibid, p. 16; [7] as this New York Times article suggests, Bolaño’s past might not be as tumultuous as the writer would like us to believe; [8] Between Parentheses, p. 110; [8] Ibid, p. 124; [9] Ibid, p. 261; [10] Ibid, p. 280; [11] Ibid, p. 344; [12] Ibid, p. 350; [13] Ibid, p. 352; [14] Ibid, p. 13.