Charming nonfiction from a late Chilean literary star
Posted: July 6, 2011
Between Parentheses, a collection of the late Chilean writer Robert Bolano's nonfiction, including essays, speeches and newspaper columns, displays the raw vitality of his writing in its purest form, free of the intricacies of plot and character. This entertaining, insightful book also reveals the source of that vitality more clearly than Bolano's fiction or poetry: the writer's poise on the razor's edge between jocular wit and devastating gravity.
Bolano (1953-2003) gained widespread fame in the Spanish-speaking world with the publication of Los Detectives Salvajes, or The Savage Detectives, his fifth novel, in 1998. The last five years of Bolano's life - during which he won increasing acclaim - would largely be taken up with the composition of 2666, an opus of more than 1,000 pages that Bolano was still working on when he died of complications from hepatitis.
In 2007 the English translation of The Savage Detectives established Bolano's posthumous reputation in the Anglo-American world, and he was immediately hailed as the greatest Latin American novelist at least since Marquez. The Bolano industry was born, beginning a rush to translate everything he wrote into English, with a dozen books appearing in the four years since.
Between Parentheses would seem to signal the end of Bolano's backlog, but make no mistake, even Bolano's most offhand writing is rich, and what emerges from this collection is a charming, immensely talented writer who will be read for decades to come.
By Roberto Bolano
Translated by Natasha Wimmer
What is immediately striking about Between Parentheses is Bolano's voice and its at times contentious relationship with his subjects. Even when the writer is at his most humorous, there is never any doubt that his relationship with literature is absolutely serious.
"So what is top-notch writing? The same thing it's always been: the ability to peer into the darkness, to leap into the void, to know that literature is basically a dangerous undertaking. The ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces you love, the smiling faces you love, and books and friends and food," he writes in "Caracas Address," a speech given in Venezuela.
Any conversation about voice in literature is of course a conversation about style, and Bolano has it by the truckload. His choice of the verb "sprint" to describe the writer's motion along the abyss is insightful, because that is precisely what Bolano does in his writing: These pieces, and especially the public addresses in which he often plays the know-nothing, eccentric writer, move forward so quickly from thought to thought, from allusion to allusion, one can almost never guess how they will cohere, which makes their conclusion all the more thrilling, when connections between disparate subjects are made clear and Bolano's narrative crystallizes.
Much of Bolano's reputation in the English-speaking world, which was at first dependent upon The Savage Detectives, rests on the romantic myth of Bolano as a peripatetic wanderer, an erstwhile revolutionary and a one-time heroin addict who, he once said, left his teeth behind him like bread crumbs, and who finally died at the age of 50 from a liver disorder caused by complications from his previous drug addiction. This is the stuff literary legends are made of and perhaps rightfully so - we love to believe that beauty can be culled from chaos.
But those who haven't realized Bolano was more than a junkie savant will be surprised to see a new portrait emerge from Between Parentheses. His range of literary knowledge is vast, sometimes alarmingly so. Besides his familiarity with Spanish-language writing, Bolano seems to have been well-versed in all ages of literature, from ancient times until modern. It is not uncommon for him to flit between references to James Joyce, Thomas Mann and the 7th century B.C. Greek poet Archilochus in the course of a single page. What is more, he describes each as if they were friendly acquaintances.
Much like Ezra Pound, Bolano was a provocateur with strong opinions about literature and society who often succeeded in ruffling the feathers of other writers and critics. Accordingly, Between Parentheses is full of bombastic statements about literature and Latin American society: "The best thing about Latin America are its suicides, voluntary or not. We have the worst politicians in the world, the worst capitalists in the world, the worst writers in the world," he writes in "The Lost."
Yet, like Pound, Bolano was also an uncompromising supporter of writers he considered great - and an unsilenceable disparager of writers he considered bad. At several points in this collection, he tries to raise the profile of writers he appreciates, even while admitting that difficulty and obscurity are often necessities for greatness, or, as he phrases it, "First requirement of a masterpiece: To pass unnoticed." Indeed, Bolano's love of literature is such that he constantly warns us that writing at the expense of reading is "a serious mistake."
The largest portion of Between Parentheses is taken up with newspaper columns Bolano wrote in the last years of his life in Blanes, Spain, north of Barcelona. These pieces are short - often a single page or two - but pure vehicles for Bolano's lively voice and wide range of subject matter. At the same time, they are hilarious and devastatingly serious, and evince the writer's uncannily acute eye for detail.
Bolano was at the highest point of mastery when he was writing these columns, and like a master painter, he is able to create a full emotional and intellectual portrait with a minimum of materials. One highlight of this section is "An Attempt at an Exhaustive Catalog of Patrons," in which he lists the different types of literary patrons:
"Also in no danger of extinction are those Latin American professors at American universities. ... To attend a dinner with them and their favorites is like gazing into a creepy diorama in which the chief of a clan of cavemen gnaws a leg while his acolytes nod and laugh."
Yet immediately after this hilarious catalog, Bolano concludes, "Behind this crowd, however, hides the one true patron. ... It isn't the devil. It isn't the State. It isn't a magical child. It's the void."
This blend of humor and deadly seriousness gives Bolano's writing much of its power, and is on display in Between Parentheses more clearly than in any of his previous publications in English.
Stephan Delbos can be reached at
Tags: new books, book review, between parentheses, chile, robert bolano, south america, literature, nonfiction.