A version of this article originally appeared
in Newcity on August 27, 2010.
I first met the fictional Arturo Belano with someone just back from Cuba who was sitting on a rock with the rest of the visceral realists and “The Savage Detectives,” too, and I thought it was strange from the start because when the light hit him right he sounded like the author Roberto Bolaño and his name looked similar on the page—all of this happened around the same time that hardcovers anywhere outside bookshops were either “Dragon Tattoo”-ed or else they were “The Savage Detectives,” and a literary choice between visceral feminism and visceral realism was less a decision and more a finer distinction of translation between something that was Swedish and something that once spoke Spanish.
To meet Bolaño is to encounter a storyteller utterly possessed by the obsession that he must tell every story he ever tells in a single breath. A writer for n+1 has observed that for Bolaño, “literature is a helpless, undignified, and not especially pleasant compulsion, like smoking.” As a result, falling headlong into Bolaño’s sprawling, 592-page “The Savage Detectives” or his 912-page masterwork “2666″ is an experience that is roughly analogous to drowning.
If you’ve ever “imagined that the furniture in the room and even [your] lover were empty things…to invest with meaning,” or if your “memory slowly dictates soundless sentences” that always come “to a stop in a strange metro station” where you search for cigarettes in a jacket pocket before, “with the first puff, it occurs to [you] that monogamy moves with the same rigidity as the train,” then you will not only like Bolaño’s “words that drift away from one another,” but you will also like “Antwerp,” his elliptical novella written across years of pages in a diffuse, aphoristic style, recently translated by Natasha Wimmer. Urban malaise accompanies hip nihilism through “Antwerp,” which reads like the blueprint for the rough draft of a novel—not a good demonstration of what really makes people like Bolaño.
“Death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning,” writes Bolaño in “The Return,” while the rest of the story unfolds in a hysteric romp that comes, at last, to support the discovery “that Jean-Claude Villeneuve,” an aging, lonely character not unlike, say, Karl Lagerfeld, “is a necrophiliac.” Translated by Chris Andrews, stories like these appear in the recently published short-story collection, “The Return,” and “The Insufferable Gaucho,” due out at the end of August. Both are good collections of short, self-contained Bolaño breathing exercises, in which stories seem to emerge organically from a shotgun-like declaration at the beginning before each story flowers and unfolds as a primer on Bolaño’s writing, what it is like, and how to read it.
For the crowd after auto-erotic asphyxiation, there’s “Antwerp” and Bolaño’s other deep and darkly psychological supernovels; for the rest of us with an appreciation for a healthy inhale/exhale cycle, there’s “The Insufferable Gaucho” and “The Return.” For everyone else (and especially for what must be a hugely profitable New Directions habit), there’s the curious, canonical obsession with foreign writers (like W. G. Sebald) who die before their sentences get vacuumed up, carried across and stuck into the American literary firmament.