A Noisy Soul

Roberto Bolaño's Defiant Fiction

Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean expatriate poet, novelist, and literary prankster who died in 2003, has inserted himself into the world’s literary consciousness with singular doggedness. Since the U.S. publication in that year of By Night in Chile, in an elegant translation by Chris Andrews, readers here have been able to follow the path of Bolaño’s fictional alter ego, Arturo Belano, and a cast of sometimes traumatized, sometimes droll Chilean characters as they bear witness to the overthrow of Chilean democracy. Some of them-including Belano-are imprisoned briefly; others are tortured; some disappear like their real-life counterparts who vanished forever in the months after Augusto Pinochet seized power.

Because I am married to a Chilean who lived through the Pinochet years from the safe and frustrating distance of the United States, Bolaño’s work has an uncanny familiarity, but I am not surprised that he has suddenly become so broadly appealing to U.S. readers. His fictions revive the special resonance of that era in Chile for Americans, given the shadowy but significant role our government played in the overthrow of Salvador Allende-they remind us that it is we who now find ourselves dumbfounded by our own government’s use of torture, secret prisoner renditions, indefinite detentions.

And then there is the mesmerizing quality of Bolaño’s prose, as disturbing as it is fanciful. Drawn to the avant-garde since he was a teenage poet, Bolaño invented a new form for every novel and story. His novels are hyper-literary and provide an excellent crash course in Latin American poetry and prose, as well as brush-ups on Greek tragedy, medieval philosophy, contemporary literary theory, and avant-garde arts and artists. In Amulet, we learn that as a teenager Arturo Belano loved Beckett and Genet; in Distant Star, that young Chilean poets have “suffered from Neruditis since early childhood,” breaking out in hives at the sight of a Neruda poem. A high-school dropout, Bolaño himself was a ferocious reader, and is prone to long lists and classifications of literary fancies and enemies. His work salutes Cortázar, Borges, Vonnegut, DeLillo, and Pynchon, and it’s easy enough to see their influence. Mainly, though, he is a stylistic iconoclast-a master improviser, unnervingly sure of his own literary judgments and his own literary place.

Bolaño merges fiction and nonfiction with nods, winks, and signposts. Many of his plots follow the story of his life. His family moved to Mexico City in 1968, but at nineteen, after Salvador Allende’s election, he returned to Chile to support the socialist government. Within a month of the Pinochet coup he was arrested and held for a week. Though he was not tortured himself, his fiction gives a sense of what it is like to live in the presence of torture, disappearance, and death. His subsequent return to Mexico City was haunted by Chile. With his friend Mario Santiago, he founded a school of poetry called infrarealismo in Mexico City in the 1970s, inspired in part by André Breton and the surrealists. The two men disrupted readings and showed up in editors’ offices uninvited. They reveled in their obnoxiousness (as Bolaño, who gleefully attacked other writers, notably Isabel Allende, would do all his life). Both spent their lives in exile, with Bolaño traveling to El Salvador, France, northern Africa, and Spain. He worked most of his adult life as an itinerant laborer, read incessantly, messed himself up with drugs, got clean, and lived the life of an obscure poet while suffering from a serious liver ailment.

And then, in middle age, he married and decided to support his children by writing prose. Whatever made him think his audacious fiction would sell-especially after a lifetime of literary marginalization-is a mystery, but he has certainly been vindicated. With a rush of work that he did not begin publishing until he was in his forties, he won literary fame in Europe and Latin America. He died at fifty, waiting for a liver transplant, his last novel unfinished, but his literary reputation already secure.

The first novel available in the United States, By Night in Chile, provides a dazzling and unsettling introduction to Bolaño. A searing indictment of those artists, critics, and writers who witnessed the terrors of Pinochet’s 1974 Chilean coup and remained silent, the story is told in one unbroken monologue-by turns funny, panicked, and guilt-ridden-by Fr. Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean priest, poet, critic, and “probably the most liberal member of Opus Dei in the whole Republic.” Like all Bolaño’s work, By Night in Chile is salted with real historical characters in absurd situations (General Pinochet attends classes in Marxism as his generals snooze around him). The novel is a stylistic tour-de-force, composed of a single paragraph that rolls on and on, carefully accumulating its dreamy evidence, condemning not just the critic-priest who does not speak out, but artists and writers, silent collaborators of a regime that tortures prisoners in a Santiago basement while a literary salon meets upstairs.

New Directions followed By Night in Chile with Distant Star, the story of a one-man school of literary fascism presided over by an air force officer, torturer, murderer, and mediocre poet named Carlos Wieder. Wieder is a sky-writer, reproducing his poems of death and power in giant letters high over the Chilean countryside. (Bolaño parodies the work of the sky-writing Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, who remained in Chile after the coup and maintained an enigmatic political silence.) Taking on a series of identities and pseudonyms, Wieder is ultimately associated with Barbaric Writing, a fascist European literary movement whose name sarcastically invokes Theodor Adorno’s famous lines about the barbarity of writing poetry after Auschwitz. His story is told by an unnamed narrator (none other than Arturo Belano, the preface suggests), still stunned by his experiences as a young man during the coup. Now an isolated, ill, unpublished, and depressed poet in Barcelona, he is obsessed by fascist literary cults, and joins forces with a Chilean detective to hunt down Wieder. Distant Star captures the nuances of complicity. Its most unsettling scene occurs when Belano dreams himself on a sinking galleon with Wieder and realizes that “Wieder and I had been traveling in the same boat; he may have conspired to sink it, but I had done little or nothing to stop it going down.”

Bolaño’s works roll off U.S. presses at a steady rate now. And while the first books released in the United States gave us Bolaño the political witness and moral conscience, the latest-The Savage Detectives, which won the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in Spain in 1998—is quite different. Bolaño’s shorter novels, like the stories recently released under the title Last Evenings on Earth, are concentrated, intense, twitchy, melancholy. But The Savage Detectives, a 575-page novel spanning twenty-one years and occupying several continents during an age of hedonism, is exuberant, expansive, preening, inventive, swaggering, and crazily in love with language and literature.

The novel’s form alone captivates. Both its opening section and its close, set respectively in Mexico City in 1975 and in the Sonoran Desert the following year, are narrated by the orphan Juan García Madero, a law student who falls under the sway of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, poets involved in an obscure, prankish literary movement Bolaño calls “visceral realism.” García Madero tells the story of his own initiation into poetry, sex, radical politics, love, and disillusionment. The novel begins with the voice of innocence and ends in violence, when García Madero joins Belano and Lima in rescuing a friend, who is now a prostitute, from her violent pimp-and, not so coincidentally, driving into the Sonoran Desert to search for Cesárea Tinajero, the mother of visceral realism, who vanished there generations before.

The Savage Detectives offers affectionate parodies of the real-life infrarealismo movement. The novel’s jokes about the elusiveness of visceral realism are filtered first through García Madero’s voice and then, in the long middle section of the novel (which spans the years 1976-96) through the time-traveling voices of poets, friends, hangers-on, editors, and at least one madman. All offer testimonies on the frenetic poetry scene in Mexico City and beyond, much of it involving the hounding of Octavio Paz (in real life, Bolaño and Santiago used to disrupt Paz’s readings by shouting their own poems out loud).

In this documentary bricolage Bolaño has great satiric fun with voices: the profane American who sounds like a female Lenny Bruce, the lawyer who speaks compulsively in Latin clichés. Belano and Lima remain at the center of things, observed, envied, vilified, and loved from scores of angles. The accounts of the young poets’ search for intensity, passion, and glory often border on the ecstatic, but this is still a Bolaño novel; shadows lurk, and politics-the recent violent past in Mexico and Chile, the rise of the Sandinistas, war in Liberia-hovers over everything. When Belano and Lima leave to wander their separate ways across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, the restlessness of this new lost generation looks less like bravado and more like angst or despair. The wandering Ulises becomes a thug.

The Savage Detectives also includes the compressed story of a fictional Uruguayan poet, Auxilio Lacouture, which Bolaño expanded the following year into the brief novel Amulet, recently released here in another translation from Chris Andrews. Auxilio, too, is an exile, and like all Bolaño’s witnesses, her longing for her country is a crucial element of her displacement. The ultimate poetry groupie, she arrives in Mexico City at the apartments of the real-life poets Pedro Garfias and León Felipe, exiles themselves from Franco’s Spain, to clean for them-inspired, she says, “by a poet’s passion and the boundless devotion of...a little sister looking after her older brothers.”

This doesn’t look promising: another woman relegated (by another avant-garde artist, no less) to a nurturing domestic role. But Bolaño disavows literary machismo and invokes the “brave intelligent woman” Auxilio will prove herself to be. Though Amulet is not nearly as affecting as By Night in Chile and Distant Star, Auxilio becomes the kind of steady hero Bolaño could never make of himself or of his alter ego, Belano. She lives with zeal and flair in poverty, an artist in her devotion to other artists (they include the real-life poet Lilian Serpas and the Catalan artist Remedios Varo), and in particular to a teen-aged Belano, who appears both before and after his pilgrimage to Chile.

Auxilio, meanwhile, witnesses her own political horror, but from a tragicomic remove. For nearly two weeks she stays locked in a bathroom stall in the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature building at Mexico City’s public university, UNAM, during the 1968 demonstrations for democratic reforms. Outside, in the Tlatelolco section of the city, hundreds of demonstrators are being beaten, arrested, and killed, but Auxilio knows only that the university is being searched by soldiers. She hunkers down in the bathroom stall and reads poetry. Later, this central scene of passive resistance is circled again and again as Auxilio performs a compulsive examination of memory that moves from realism to a misty hallucinatory invocation of horror.

Like all Bolaño’s fiction, Amulet asks what bystanders to history can do in the face of terror. For his part, Belano ultimately performs a heroic act of rescue, redeeming the poet’s role as both political witness and existential actor. If it is all too familiar to watch the male poet act while the female poet takes refuge, it is nonetheless bracing to see a female poet so unwavering in her strange, improvised act of resistance. The real amulet is a poet’s life in opposition to wealth, convention, cruelty, and power. Auxilio’s poetic witness never descends into a prurient examination of violence. Indeed, it is her inability to see what is going on-she can make out only a soldier examining his face in a mirror-that makes her testify: “Let’s just say I heard a noise. / A noise in my soul!” Bolaño heard the noises, too, and transformed them into defiant literary acts of witness.

Published in the 2007-07-13 issue: 

Valerie Sayers, Kenan Professor of English Emerita at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of The Age of Infidelity and Other Stories and six novels.

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