(1953 – 2003)
“He wrote, read, and watched television. That was essentially all he did.”
– Bolaño’s Spanish publisher, Jorge Herralde.
“…just encountered something extraordinarily beautiful and (at least to me) entirely new.”
– Francine Prose on Bolaño
for Anna Veprinska
By J.S. Porter
In Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, Bolaño is asked whether he’s Chilean, Mexican, or Spanish? He replies, “I’m a Latin American.”
He was born in Chile, lived his formative years in Mexico, and lived his final years in Spain. More importantly: his wife was literature, his mother was Spanish and his children are novels, stories, and poems.
When a new writer comes into my life, I feel like a child with a gift in his hands. Potentially a new vision, a new language, awaits the simple act of turning pages.
Some years ago I remember walking into a bookshop and spotting a thin volume entitled Soulstorm. The title seduced me. I found out later that the volume was a book of short stories by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector.
In the same year, I discovered a book by the Icelandic-Canadian poet-painter-novelist Kristjana Gunnars entitled The Rose Garden: Reading Marcel Proust. The narrator’s academic sabbatical, with time in a garden, seemed the perfect time and place to read Proust.
When I find a soulmate, I devour everything by and about her. With Gunnars and Lispector, I thought I had discovered two new planets.
Presently I’m in love with Patti Smith and the intimacy of her voice in Just Kids, M. Train, Devotion, and Year of the Monkey. She looks like the Ancient of Days, but she writes with the freshness of the First Morning of Creation. What she reads comes into what she writes. She recognizes no border between poetry and prose. Her recent tribute to the late Sam Shepard in The New Yorker is very beautiful.
Patti Smith is in love with writers, living and dead. Among her loved ones is Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean writer of long novels, short stories, and poems, who has a talent for making outcasts and nomads the people you most want to spend time with. He’s fresh, he’s daring, he’s imaginative. His characters are rough, unshaven, wild, troubled, confused, aspiring, and form a community of dreamers, drifters, poets, vagabonds, scaly-wags, and ruffians. You wouldn’t invite them to a cocktail party. You wouldn’t want to be without them if you had some dreamtime at a business meeting.
A critic has said this about the world Bolaño conjures: “At the center of Bolaño ’s work is the myth of a lost youth, a brave, committed youth in which literature was linked to the overall experience” (quoted in Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations by Monica Maristain). A friend remembers him “as a simple person, who always wore a long coat, had a newspaper under his arm, and a couple of books in his hands.”
Patti Smith soaks in the warm baths of The Savage Detectives and 2666 over kegs of coffee. Has any writer ever done more for coffee as a meditative catalyst than Patti? I think I can handle the novellas she recommends, but not Bolaño’s big novels. My favourites so far are the short story collection The Return, the novella A Little Lumpen Novelita, and the final writing from his computer file, all the short texts he was working on before his death, The Secret of Evil. I was hooked from my first-read story, “Clara,” published in The New Yorker.
Patti Smith photographs Bolaño’s chair in Blanes, Spain. She writes a hundred-line poem on New Year’s Eve after reading Amulet to make him live a little longer. Everything and everyone Patti Smith touches, she makes live a little longer.
An observer of small things, Bolaño is playful and unsentimental. He’s also heartbreakingly tender. The tenderness comes out in his direct address to his books and his son in one of his poems: “Resist, my dear books,/Cross thy days like medieval knights/And care for my son/In the years to come.” The posthumous collection of his poetry, The Unknown University, is full of tender moments, especially in the last pages. He knows his time with his son is going to be limited. Yes, there’s play in the poems and casualness, even a bit of surrealism, but there is also urgency: “Read the old poets, my son/and you won’t regret it.”
Books, his own and those written by others, are what Roberto Bolaño’s legacy consists of. He has interesting things to say about books and libraries.
He says in an interview: “In one way or another, we’re all anchored to the book. A library is a metaphor for human beings or what’s best about human beings, the same way a concentration camp can be a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity.”
Bolaño is maybe not total generosity. That’s too much for anyone, even Shakespeare. But he is hugely generous. From his personal library, he recommends that I, and other readers, read Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar and The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares. Some day soon –at least Morel.