June/July/Aug/Sept 2006

DEAD CALM

Roberto Bolaño's imperturbable style

Wayne Koestenbaum


Roberto Bolaño died (of liver failure) in 2003 at the age of fifty; he died in Spain, exiled from his birthplace, Chile. Much remains mysterious about his life. He had bad teeth. As a child he was diagnosed with dyslexia. He was arrested by Pinochet's police. He wrote two impossibly long novels——his last, called 2666, is over one thousand pages long——and many poems; neither of the novels, and none of the poems, as far as I know, has yet appeared in English translation. He remains, for readers marooned in English, an unfolding discovery: New Directions, our savior, has published his two aria-like novels By Night in Chile and Distant Star (as concerned with tone as with plot, they spin out, unimpeded, in extended Whitmanic exhalations), beautifully translated by Chris Andrews, who has also rendered the newest fruit from the Bolaño vine, a collection of laconic, disaster-oriented short stories, Last Evenings on Earth, which poses an antidote to mainstream North American fiction's (and cinema's) tired reliance on naive mimesis.

The tragedy of Bolaño's premature death seems a culminating or incidental detail from one of his own fictions, a demise that places him in a pantheon of the disappeared, a legion of writers not yet sufficiently appreciated, who wait patiently for revival. Indeed, the major concern of Last Evenings on Earth, as of By Night in Chile and Distant Star, is the fate of the disappeared writer——either the writer who has been snuffed out or kidnapped by the state, or the writer who has been forgotten, underestimated. In Last Evenings on Earth, one such invisible writer "barely scrap[es] a living in the Paris gutter press"; "his manuscripts are invariably rejected." He appears in "mouldering magazines and newspapers whose mere names provoke nausea or sadness." Bolaño casts these figures as martyrs, perversely sanctified by mediocrity and anonymity; they have the dilapidated, shipwrecked beauty of Pessoa's heteronyms. Like a John Gilbert fading with the advent of the talkies is Bolaño's mournful, sepia-tinted depiction of a poet's disappearance: "A minor poet disappears while waiting for a visa to admit him to the New World. A minor poet disappears without leaving a trace, hopelessly stranded in some town on the Côte d'Azur." Bolaño disliked joiners, sycophants——any writer who belonged too solidly and complacently to an influential aesthetic movement or who occupied too visible a seat in the literary firmament. (I gather that he even scorned Neruda——because of his eminence.) Like Enrique Vila-Matas's book-length essay on writerly refusal, Bartleby & Co., Bolaño's stories assert that literature, as a martyr's vocation, has more to do with ignominy than with accolades. Forced into exile, Bolaño found a way to love displacement, to find philosophical comfort in dwelling's vertigo. For Bolaño, only the erased and forgotten figure glows: "The name means nothing to B. And suddenly, in the secondhand bookshop, that name, the only one that means nothing to B, lights up like a match struck in a dark room."

Bolaño's supreme accomplishment is his tone, if I may hazard such a judgment on a writer I have read only in translation. His narration, whether in his "own" voice or filtered through the consciousness of one of his fictional avatars (B or Arturo Belano), is unhindered by adjectives, filler, or interstitial junk; limpid and nearly blank, sometimes with an intellectual detective fiction's antiseptic clarity and sometimes with a sorrowful undertow, he uses, in the words of one of his personae, "a wellmodulated voice, with a tone that betrays a certain sadness, a Chilean, bottom-heavy tone." Bolaño's bottom-heavy voice recalls Moravia's melancholy, genteel stiffness, as well as Handke's ability to sound sane (though vacant-souled) about insane circumstances. Bolaño may have Javier Marías's noirish bonhomie and mock joviality, but the moral weight underlying Bolaño's bottom-heaviness raises him to the level of Saramago or Sebald, for, in Bolaño, destinies tremble like palimpsests beneath the surface of a prose whose first concern is remaining calm and reasonable, like a flight attendant on a falling plane. By Night in Chile ends: "And then the storm of shit began." Similarly, the story "Last Evenings on Earth" concludes: "And then the fight begins." The horror will not interrupt the dinner party or puncture the narrative poise. Yet when spectactular death hits, Bolaño renders the horror with a curt, pointillistic luminosity, as if posttraumatic, etherized depressiveness had already descended over the narrating consciousness, now sundered from chattiness. Bolaño's greatness lies in the distance between the horror of the alluded-to event and the imperturbable lucidity of his narrative tone, as if every newsreel or flashback of catastrophe could be intellectualized into fable or turned into chill synopsis. Let two brief quotations show how he renders ruin as the scrim over ruin, and never as the bloody occurrence itself: "The whirlwind of fire that would soon engulf Central America could already be glimpsed in the eyes of my friends, who spoke of death as if they were talking about a film." And: "Inside she could feel herself starting to scream, or rather, she could feel, and see, the dividing line between not-screaming and screaming. It was like opening your eyes in a cave bigger than the earth."

I am addicted to the haze that floats above Bolaño's fiction——a trance, a "certain way of expressing opinions, as if from a distance, sadly but gently"; a modest avoidance of grand statement; a sense that every divination occurs underwater, in halflight. "What color is the desert at night?" asks one character, and then rescinds the question, calls it "a stupid rhetorical question." But it won't disappear. "Somehow I felt it held the key to my future, or perhaps not so much my future as my capacity for suffering." One's capacity for suffering, suggests Bolaño, is immense, though one's future is foreclosed and brief. I like the blur that Bolaño creates in place of clarity: So reduced are his stories, even within their nested plots, their complexly shifting points of view, their allusions, and their autophagous tendencies, that the mere act of narration gilds disappearance, makes it bearable.

Bolaño practices an art of resistance——against punishment and police and dictatorship, yes, but also against classification and oversimplification. In one story, "Mauricio ('The Eye') Silva," the protagonist, homosexual, rescues two boys from castration in India. Torture, says Bolaño, happens. Torture happens, as in By Night in Chile, in the same house where literary people gather for their glittering salon. In the basement beneath Bolaño's fiction, a body is being beaten; on the floor above, where we are reading his remote, grave tales, we can imagine the screams but can't quite hear them. Are we too complacent? Are we listening carefully enough?

As Bartleby and his compatriots understood, one must leave literature to find it again; one must lower one's voice to raise it. Bolaño's work, at once baroque and attenuated, gives us the model for a literature that, Bartleby-like, flees itself, forgets its usual tasks, and achieves moral austerity through a prose that makes room for the blankness of pure attentiveness. "Is it possible to die of sadness? Yes, it is." It is possible, Bolaño implies, to write a fiction so true it dies into poetry, a prose that loses its identity or goes underground to perform another, secret service.

Wayne Koestenbaum's most recent novel, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, appeared in 2004 from Soft Skull Press. His fifth collection of poems, Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films, was published in April by Turtle Point Press.

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