Nobody really knows or understands and nobody has ever said the secret. The secret is that it is poetry written into prose and it is the hardest of all things to do.
Ernest Hemingway (as quoted by his wife Mary.)
In The Hero and the Blues, Albert Murray lays out his definition of the role of the protagonist in the epic: “Sometimes he may take the action necessary to dispatch evil, but his essential job is to dig up evidence and provide information about the source or sources of specific evils. Once he accumulates enough evidence for an “indictment,” the detective has, to all intents and purposes, completed the job he was hired to do and may collect his fee and move on to the next client. He provides existential information, not millennial salvation.”
Not only did Bolaño revamp the epic for a new generation, the way he also did it arguably places his work well within the blues tradition, in a way that few other contemporary writers, certainly not American writers, have been able to do. This is not to say that the Chilean made any conscious effort to adopt a specific sensibility (though he was greatly influenced by Julio Cortazar, who was explicit about the influence of jazz on his writing, particularly his magnum opus Hopscotch, which served as a model for Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.) but that Bolaño’s aesthetic vision shared much with the blues, whether or not it was a derivation. By this I mean, Bolaño acknowledges the difficulties and absurdities of life but instead of merely resigning, he sees this as something to overcome, primarily through devotion to the literary life.
Not only has Bolaño has restored the idea of the hero but also that of the writer as hero, not in the sense of speaking truth to power (the events of the mid twentieth century having dented that ideal) of why specifically, most of those heroes are writers, forged as always in the Byronic mold. This is not to be taken for granted; many contemporary novels have exchanged irony, however cruel, for base cynicism and thus preclude the existence of genuine epics and by extension heroes, even in the quixotic sense. Protest fiction on the other hand, usually draped with the saran wrap of identity politics, also denies heroism in it’s denial of agency, substituting individuals for cardboard avatars of collective victimhood. We shall no longer overcome, by use of our wits and wisdom; we are to instead appeal is made to the dragon’s better angels. Bolaño, despite being often being puerile and sardonic, is never quite that jaded (probably thanks to being untouched by the academy) ; his aesthetic vision is an extension of his own life, which he described as being marked by “black humor, friendship…and the danger of death.” (In an oft-repeated anecdote, Bolaño was arrested after the 1973 coup in Chile for being a “foreign terrorist” and may well have been murdered if a prison guard hadn’t recognized him as a high school buddy and subsequently released him.)
Despite the common perception, the blues aren’t about wallowing in self-pity, in a resigned, melancholic stupor. The hero archetype is essential to the blues idiom because of it’s preoccupation with overcoming difficulties. Of course, with Bolaño, nothing is ever that easy: Belano and Lima find the great Mexican poet in the desert and she ends up dead as a result. Garcia Madero is accepted by the infrarealists, gets the girl (a few times) but ends up stuck in the desert; there’s no evidence he’s ever heard from again; Fate senses something dark is going down in Santa Theresa, but isn’t able to do anything about it; The various characters in Last Evenings on Earth barely touch success but never really grasp it; Auxilio Lacouture spends much of Amulet locked in the bathroom. Bolaño may be a romantic but he’s certainly not a sentimentalist.
…Literature is the only available tool for the cognition of phenomena whose size otherwise numbs your senses and eludes human grasp.
John Gardner argued that essentially all great literature is seen as correction of that which has gone before, what he referred to as the ‘deconstructive implulse.’ In doing so, Bolaño, along with Kis, serve as corrections to Borges, in that while essentially working within the aesthetic, they take a decidedly less romantic position. In Bolaño’s famous assessment of his experience, and arguably work, he concluded “My life has been infinitely more savage than Borges’s.”
Roberto Bolaño’s earlier work, Nazi Literature in the America’s could be seen as an example of what Stanley Crouch dubbed, in reference to Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy “a novel in blues suite” This is highly appropriate given Borges’s well documented influence on the Bolaño, who modeled himself on the Argentine master though his own life and work were more sprawling, messy, sensual and of course sanguinary. Bolaño’s performance in Nazi Literature in The Americas is the literary equivalent of Shostakovich writing three minute pop singles.
For those interested in literary parlor games, Shostakovich was the main character in William Vollmann’s Europe Central, which was dedicated to and inspired by Danilo Kis, whose magnum opus A Tomb for Boris Davidovich was a dark and brooding response to the aforementioned A Universal History of Infamy. It is not clear whether Bolaño read Kis, who like Bolaño himself died at a relatively young age, but it shouldn’t be out of the question for a man who was considered one of the most widely read in the Spanish literary world.
While in Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolaño is obviously satirizing far right figures with their obsessive nationalism, coupled with the requisite creation of a mythical past, obsession with racial purity, distrust of modernism and of course morbid lack of a sense of humor. Kis’ characters on the contrary, are more like thepeople that populate Bolaño’s literary world in The Savage Detectives, indeed they are people like Bolaño himself. Indeed, Nazi Literature in the Americas sees Bolaño introducing the techniques he would use in the eponymous middle section of The Savage Detectives.
But nonetheless, it is instructive to juxtapose the fatalism in the portrayals of the young revolutionaries of the COMITERN with Bolaño’s own Lost Generation in Latin America. Kis’ young idealists, like Gould Verschoyle and Karl Taube, are ultimately consumed by the totalizing ideologies that they championed, “the sow that eats her farrow.” Bolaño’s generation, those survived the initial cataclysms of 1968-1973 and weren’t ‘disappeared’, ultimately succumbed to an unacknowledged dictatorship; But then, Auxilio Lacouture did warn that “Dust and literature have always gone hand in hand.”
All stories, if continued far enough, end in death and he is no true storyteller who would keep that from you.
Most of Bolaño’s works are quite short, falling into the category of the abandoned stepchild of the Anglo-American literary world, the novella. Even his two big novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666 are really compilations of shorter pieces, of varying lengths, which are joined. Indeed, the five sections of are only tangentially linked (The most notable exception being the reappearance of Rosa Amalfitano in The Part About Fate but the most significant perhaps being the (re?) introduction of Albert Kessler in The Part About The Crimes.) One reason for this is that Bolaño’s sparse prose style coupled with his dark subject matter may not necessarily be sustainable over an extended length. Indeed, the most descriptive Bolaño gets is with his Associated Press style documentation of the murders in Santa Theresa. The numbing violence lays the grooves for The Part About The Crimes, indeed the entire novel, providing a solid foundation for his digressions and improvisations: the sections on the young detectives, the seerwoman etc. Bolaño’s work is recursive with various themes phrases and characters constantly reappearing bracketed by the teutonic (and totemic) figures of Archimoldi and Klaus.
Those who plan on reading 2666 with the intention of finding out what happens next probably won’t make it to the end, unless they are blessed with a requisite amount of pure bloody-mindedness. The density, inter-textual references and flat droning prose resist passive reading. But more importantly, 2666 is a departure from the rest of Bolaño’s work in that it is the once least infused with life, his particularly. He had already left Mexico when the murders in Ciudad Juarez started and his alter-egos don’t feature prominently (with one curious exception.)
2666 work assumes a symphonic, as opposed to narrative, structure and rather than telling a cohesive story, is more interested in the exploration and development of themes. 2666 is a find example of this in that it was explicitly composed of five distinctive books which differ, sometimes very subtly, in not just pitch and timbre but indeed genre, skipping from academic satire to psychological thriller to künstlerroman. Bolaño was very influenced by the Symbolism which influenced modernists writers like Proust and Joyce. (The epigraph to 2666, “An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom”, is from Baudelaire’s Le Fleurs Du Mal, the seminal text of symbolism.) The eroticism and violence which characterized Symbolism were a reaction to the naturalism of Zola. However, it would be a mistake to place Bolaño’s work into any distinct groupings; like the most essential artists, Bolaño’s work can’t be easily categorized nor to it strictly adhere to the mandate of any project except for that which it creates.
Bolaño himself wrote in “Myths of Cthulhu” that “…Latin American literature is not Borges or Macedonio Fernándezor Onetti or Bioy or Cortázar or Revueltas Rulfo or even the elderly male duet formed by García Márquez and Vargas Llosa.” He instead applied that overarching term, which he regarded as little more than a marketing gimmick, to writers he had little regard for, like Isabel Allende.
As Marcela Valdes wrote in the Nation, reviewing a collection of Bolaño’s nonfiction, “… all writers he really loved–including Kafka–fight against darkness with humor.” This is the essence of the blues aesthetic. Contrary to common perception, the blues come not out of resignation to the pain of life but an attempt to overcome them. 2666 fails to provide this release and is brutally fatalistic. The bodies continue to pileup in Santa Theresa and the authorities remain as helpless as ever.
In The Part About Fate, one of the ‘minor’ sections of the novels but the one featuring the closest thing to a hero, Fate’s experience parallel’s that the reader exploring this strange, violence place. Like Fate, we sense the evil around and the imminent danger but are’t allowed to truly understand what it is happening, being able only to see through a glass darkly:
“This is more important,” said Fate, “the fight is just a little story. What I’m proposing is so much more.”
“What are you proposing?”
“A sketch of the industrial landscape in the third world,” said Fate, “a piece of reportage about the current situation in Mexico, a panorama of the border, a serious crime story, for fuck’s sake.”
“Reportage?” asked his editor. “Is that French, nigger? Since when do you speak French?”
This character allows Bolaño to make subtle use of the conventions of detective fiction to explore Santa Theresa, with the macguffin, or to draw another comparison, the great white whale, of the nature of the crimes remains elusive. Stanley Crouch wrote that in Hemingway’s world “…violence is no more a heightened version of what is always happening.”
Some have said, with much justification, that 2666 can not be examined without considering the circumstances of its composition. Ultimately, this was the work of a man on the final stages of a terminal illness. In this book, Bolaño pitched up his reoccurring themes of mortality and literature, nearly pushing them to the edge. Despite it greater size, which speaks volumes, 2666 is a less expansive than The Savages Detectives, a veritable cacophony of voices prevented from spinning off by the centripetal force of Lima and Belano. (Whether or not The Savage Detectives is Bolaño’s magnum opus, it certainly has a strong case for his most quintessential.) 2666, however, comes closer to Cormac McCarthy’s ideal literature, which essentially deals with “issues of life and death.”
In his superb review of 2666 for Open Letters Monthly, Sam Sacks argued that “Save in random corners, 2666 has no lights, and the result is that the unrelieved darkness overwhelms the senses and thereby renders itself uninterpretable.” He finally concluded: “The brutal truth is this: masterpieces are written at the height of an artist’s power. For all its size and sprawl, 2666 was written in a period of surpassing vulnerability.” This is not entirely without precedent; James Joyce wrote Finnegan’s Wake while dealing with the illness of family and his own poor health, most notably his failing eyesight, which required painful operations; Thomas Mann wrote Joseph and His Brothers during the political instability of Germany in the thirties and published the latter books while in exile (indeed, his daughter had to sneak into their confiscated home to retrieve a manuscript of the early sections.) Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment while trying to overcome a gambling addiction that left him destitute and depressed.
Still, Sacks’ conclusion can not be dismissed. While I concede many of his points, I don’t accept 2666 as being merely nihilistic, or an artistic failure. The book’s translator Natasha Wimmer wrote: “He [Bolaño] didn’t set out to do this just to prove something, to experiment, or to make some nihilistic statement. As he said many times, writing was for him a radical way of living, and thus he had to find a vital and arresting and, in some ways, anti-literary approach to fiction.” Yes, Life is hard; it is violent, uncertain and short; it often makes no sense. But so what? We are aware form early on of the fact that we will die but we still make love, get married, have children, go to work; we still read, we still write. The primary question is not whether anything makes sense but whether life is still worth it. Whatever meaning can be derived from life has to be found in the journey because it’s not to be assumed any meaning will be found.
While it is clear that 2666 wasn’t quite finished, there’s little certainty it ever would have been, or indeed what the implications would be for the text we do have. (It has been reported that a manuscript which appears to be a sixth section has been found.) Given the contest of it’s construction, it may be useful to view 2666 not just as a novel but as performance art, an intricate construct to serve as an epitaph to Bolaño’s preening ambition. Much like Scheherazade, Bolaño was attempting to write his way into immortality, a final attempt at self-mythologizing; Death is not just a great career move, it may also be a great muse.
Malraux explored this tension between art and death in The Voices of Silence and concluded: “But we have learned that though death cannot still the voice of genius, the reason is that genius triumphs over death not by perpetuating its original language, but by constraining us to listen to a language constantly modified, sometimes all but forgotten-as it were an echo answering and what the masterpiece keeps up is not a monologue, however authoritative, but a dialogue indefeasible by Time.” True, it was a personal struggle but great art seeks to turn the personal in to the universal. Bolaño may have failed in providing understanding but may be he deserves credit just for not flinching. So it goes.
Matt Hunte is a writer living in Saint Lucia. He is working on a book. You can follow him on twitter at @matthunte.