Reading Roberto Bolano

(In November I am giving a paper on Bolano’s 2666 in Prague. Below is an attempt at an introduction to the themes that will be analyzed in that paper. I like to think of this as a sort of rough demo to what I hope will end up a pretty good tune.)

Reading Roberto Bolano is a lot like having rough sex; after the experience we are left battered and bruised, spent and satisfied, but wanting more. The panting and sweaty reader also feels slightly dirty and perverted, but in a good way.

When it comes to a mastery of the fictional topographical climate of the early twenty-first century, Roberto Bolano has no equal. Doubtless, there are better writers, better storytellers, but there is no one (in my opinion) who can compete with Bolano’s sense and representation of the world. His apocalyptic visions have been compared to Cormac McCarthy’s, but Bolano’s visions are more cosmopolitan, his characters are more worldly-wise. If Kafka has a successor, then that person may very well be Roberto Bolano.

The content of his fiction aside for the moment, what it means to read Bolano becomes an important, but easily neglected question. Bolano has become the darling of literary critics and has, almost impossibly, reached the masses as well. Although this type of success is not unheard of, it does occur from time to time. Bolano has so far successfully bridged the gap between literary, or serious fiction, and mainstream fiction. He’s not as hard to read as some make out, but neither is he as accessible as most mainstream writers. Reading Bolano is an undertaking, and the reader does not always come out of the books the same as he or she came in. In fact, some readers (myself included) fail to come out of his narratives unscathed at all, and still others may not bother to finish the two “big” novels, 2666 and The Savage Detectives. For example, there is only one reference to the number “2666” is his work and that occurs in an entirely different novel, Amulet. Much speculation has been made to the number “2666” and its possible meanings. This is typical Bolano: he leaves his readers incomplete clues sprinkled throughout his books. Although one can read only one book, or short story, or poem, the serious reader will travel throughout the labyrinth of Bolano’s fictional worlds looking for answers. Well, as someone who has read all of his books (albeit in translation), I can tell you that so far there are no answers. Readers searching for complete narratives will only find disappointment, just as those looking for a promise of some sort of an arrival at a narrative ending will end up disappointed.

So why is it so satisfying to read Roberto Bolano in the age of distraction? The answer may reside in the reading experience itself. Reading Bolano violently unmoors the reader from his or her orbit. Bolano presents us with worlds that are so frighteningly familiar that we tell ourselves again and again that this “can’t be real.” Yet, when we read the news we are confronted with just how similar Bolano’s worlds are to the one the reader encounters when he or she steps outside the front door. The reader of Bolano’s fiction will at this point begin to question which came first: reality, or Bolano’s representation of it.

With the publication of his masterpiece, 2666 in 2008, Bolano gives us the first epic of the twenty-first century. 2666 is a lengthy and complex narrative that examines life in the first years of the twenty-first century. Cut into five separate, but interlocking parts, the segmental narrative shadows the life of a reclusive German writer, Benno von Archimboldi. Reading this epic, and it is an epic, is like watching a trail of blood run down a drain. The drain is the quasi-fictional city of Santa Teresa, Mexico, located in the Sonora Desert. The violence, especially against women, is a “true” representation of actual events.

It’s really too early to tell whether Roberto Bolano will have changed how we read fiction in the twenty-first century. I suspect that his fiction will have long-term affects on the reader and the landscapes of fiction and reality. One thing is for certain: Bolano’s star has crossed the literary horizon like a comet, and his readers can only stand far below its violent streak and gaze up in bewilderment.

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