Roberto Bolano

06/07/2011

Ontologies of Mystery

In a passage from Roberto Bolano’s By Night in Chile, the central character, who is a priest and lover of literature, is talking to a woman who used to hold literary salons at her salubrious house during the Pinochet era, all the while her American husband was involved in torturing people in the basement. The priest says that he now believes “life was much more important than literature, and she looked me in the eyes with that bovine face of hers and said she knew, she had always known that.”

More than most, Bolano is a writer who works with the problem of life and literature, and does so not only as a thematic and technical concern, as we find say in anything from David Storey’s A Serious Man, Coetzee’s The Diary of a Bad Year or Javier Cercas’s The Speed of Light, where the narrative consciousness is a literary figure in the work as we wonder where the real and the fictional reside, but in a way closer perhaps to Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski, where literary conceits would be a sign of coyness. Miller and Bukowski are interested only in the flimsiest of alter egos to fictionalise experience; they don’t especially want to get lost in the novelistic problem of narration and narrator. Yet while Miller and Bukowski create strongly present central characters, Bolano is a great writer of absences. It is a point Scott Esposito, reviewing 2666 in The Quarterly Conversation, makes when talking of the void in Bolano’s work, and it is absolutely vital to the mystery his novels and stories contain.

Central to this mystery is the line between fiction and reality, and Bolano’s obsessive concern with literature. Now this could be a narcissistic device, an opportunity for the writer and reader to share a concern for art and barely any interest in life, as the writer creates the sort of metafictional world that only an idiot would think needs to connect to reality. This is a fictional approach that accepts the book is a text, a self-contained world that need not refer to anything outside of itself.  Yet Bolano’s work constantly seems to want to create the mystery and tension of the extra-textual, of the book in front of us stretching beyond the page. When early in By Night in Chile the narrator is a young man visiting the house of a famous critic, Farewell, he happens to see Pablo Neruda there also. At one stage Neruda asks the critic who this Sordello was they were talking about, and Farewell’s reply “Don’t you know, Pablo? And Neruda’s voice saying, why do you think I’m asking, dickhead” throws us into speculation – who might Farewell be, and is this an actual exchange reported by Bolano, or completely made up? And who perhaps is Sordello; he seems obscure enough for Neruda not to know who he is, but is that because he also didn’t actually exist as Bolano creates an inevitable obscurity as the writer lives only on Bolano’s pages? Maybe someone reading the book will know the answer to the question, but surely much of the tension and mystery of Bolano’s fiction comes from the blend of fact and recreation. One can think of few writers who better achieve an ontological mystery over narrative drive, and indeed this helps explain the accumulative weight of Bolano’s fiction over the narrative disencumbering of most novels and stories. Generally in Bolano’s work we do not know where we are going, and this is partly because the central character is replaced by the surrounding void, so even if a character is centrally present as in By Night in Chile, or peripherally so as the two young poets Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are in Savage Detectives, the centre does not hold, and the story never becomes focused.

This constant sense of the periphery is beautifully caught in Bolano’s short story ‘Grub’, with a teenager skipping school and hanging around a district in Mexico City, where he comes across someone he nicknames the Grub – a man he would see each morning “sitting on the same bench in the Alameda, very still with a Bali cigarette hanging from his lips, and his straw hat half covering his grub-like forehead”. We find various details about the Grub: that he always carried a gun, and occasionally was given to vivid description, though he was “a man of so few words”.  What he describes in detail is the village from where he comes, and the Grub depicts the houses, explains that the village is two to three thousand years old, and mentions that “the native sons worked as hired killers or security guards.” During the description, the teenager asks a question and notices that “the sound of my own voice frightens me”, and there is something very Bolano-esque about not the violence of the man describing his village full of killers, even though his voice seems loud (“then he calmed down after a while”), but in the fear of the enquiry.

This is basically the difference between the representation of violence and the mystery of violence. The impact of violent worlds rests not especially in the description but in the questions surrounding the deed. Even in 2666, where there are literally hundreds of pages given over to describing the dead bodies of the young women in a fictional town based on the Ciudad Juarez murders, what interests the writer is the mystery around the killings; not the representation of acts of violence. When Esposito proposes that what is central to Bolano’s work is the question of evil, the operative word is question rather than evil. Michael Wood in a London Review of Books piece on Bolano quotes a female Mexican journalist saying in 2666 “no one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them”, and Wood reckons “the killings do have something to tell us, even and especially in their unsolved form.” When Wood also says, in relation to a passage in By Night in Chile, “…ambiguity is part of what is disturbing about the power of Bolano’s fiction”, it is another comment that feeds into the idea of a non-representational violence stronger than the violence itself. Bolano’s epigraph to 2666 is Baudelaire’s “an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” and we may wonder how aptly this describes the general fictional project, and at the same time how Bolano subverts it.

Violence, after all, is endemic in fiction, but it usually takes the form of narrative event, of an incident contained, however horrific, by fictive necessity. When Madame Bovary kills herself with poison near the end of Flaubert’s novel, when Camus’s Mearsault kills the Arab in The Outsider, or Raskolnikov murders the old lady in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, these are all absolutely vital to the eventfulness of the narrative, and we take masterful examples to propose that representational, narrative violence isn’t simply a cheap and sensational device, but part of the inner integrity of narrative event. But from a certain point of view one might have a problem with such an approach to violence (and more especially in the twenty-first century) and central to this piece is seeing Bolaño as an important, modern writer, perhaps in the sense that Paul Verlaine believed “the profound originality of Charles Baudelaire is to represent powerfully and essentially modern man.” Now in his book Baudelaire and Freud, Leo Bersani  says “Sartre’s complaint about “the essentializing” of individuals in traditional fiction could be rephrased, in the terms being used here, as the unmasking of the writer’s project of reducing the events of fiction to a parade of sameness.” Bersani reckons that “for example, it would not be wholly absurd to suggest that a Balzac novel becomes unnecessary as soon as its exposition is over.”

Bolano seems to want to break with this expositional efficiency, and part of the mystery of the work resides in the sense that it cannot be contained by its premises, by the sort of “expository portraits made of them at the beginning of the novel” – as Bersani notes of Balzac. We may note in a story like ‘Days of 1978’ that the exposition of the premise is secondary to an examination of temperament, as though hovering around every character and situation resides another story, and then another and yet another. In ‘Days of 1978’, an argument between the narrator B and a character called U in Barcelona continues to preoccupy B but seems over time to have been forgotten by U, whom B doesn’t see for a while. When they meet again, there is no suggestion on U’s face that he remembers the discussion they had over dawn light long before. In another age, and with another writer, what the story could set in motion would be the nature of a duel. Two people argue at a party and they decide to meet at dawn a week afterwards. This is not Bolano’s premise, of course, yet it helps us understand Bersani’s comment and also the enigmas Bolano’s work contains. Let us compare it for example with an actual potential duel so described in Javier Marias’ book Written Lives. After a quarrel over whether Russia should be westernized, Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to pistols at dawn. Initially Turgenev apologised, but on hearing that Tolstoy was calling him a coward, insisted that they go ahead when he returned from a trip to Europe. It was Tolstoy’s turn to apologise and after many years passed the pair eventually made up. In Bolano’s story one person remembers and nurses the memory; the other one appears to forget. They occasionally meet up, and one evening B describes a film that can only be Andrei Rublev, a film he had recently seen. For several pages of a sixteen page story B details the plot, about a monk and painter who has renounced the latter activity, and who after witnessing the building of a bell, invites the young boy responsible for it to come to the monastery: he will return to painting, and the young boy can make bells for the churches. After B tells it U cries. A couple of pages later, some time has past and U commits suicide in the woods near a French village. Where in the Tolstoy/Turgenev situation we have two strong characters colliding, in Bolano’s we have two weak characters having a brief argument and then left to their own subjective conditions. The narrator fusses over the memory of the event; the other character may have allowed it to wound him more deeply still, or has managed to ignore it altogether. There is a feeling that where for the narrator such an incident is occasional, can the same be said for U, who we are told mixes up Marx with Feuerbach, Che Guevara with Frantz Fanon? We’re later told he tried to kill his wife, and ends up getting electro-shock treatment. Here is a man who may well have often been corrected for his literary confusions in the past, and who has more than enough general chaos to cope with in the relative present.

Yet the story Bolano tells is of B’s brush with U, and brush in this instance seems a more appropriate word than collision.  Though Bolano frequently deals with categorical events – with murder in 2666, torture in By Night in Chile, with suicide here, and terrorism in Distant Star, it is the appalling violence of the periphery, the events that are on the edge of consciousness rather than at the centre of the action, that fascinates him. What happens in such an approach is that the violence becomes all the more pronounced in its absence. This has nothing to with the old cliché that alluding to violence is better than showing it; more that if one is to allude rather than show what can be gained by the allusiveness that adds to the terror? Representation is often perfectly valid, but not for Bolano, and perhaps because it would centre the notion of evil where Bolaño is drawn to dispersion. This is partly why we wouldn’t want to talk about sub-text in his work, the idea that he leaves unsaid what could be said, and in the unsaying still gives the reader a clear idea of the point he is making. In such an approach meaning sits underneath the story or book as a combination of thematic weight and moral significance, so that we have the surface narrative of events, and the two other elements providing strong foundations. The incidental detail can give purpose to the theme so that an apparent digression commenting on another character can become thematic counterpoint in relation to our central figure. The strong story might reject it, but the story with strong thematic undercurrents sees it as necessary to the texture of the piece. By the same reckoning, a parent in a story may have no place in the drive of the plot, but they represent a strong moral dimension that perhaps the wayward leading character would need to learn from by the end of the story. This is where a wayward character realises that traditional values are pertinent, and his own behaviour rather impertinent. There is even a dimension of this in so challenging a novel as Coetzee’s Disgrace; where David Lurie is due a few life lessons in the wake of his own complacent attitude to sex and violence earlier in the book, but in this instance learns it through his daughter. She is of course raped within the book, but she is also a very important moral; figure within the novel.

In such an example the story may have depth and texture, but Bolano’s stories seem to have neither, not because they are badly written, but more because they are works preoccupied with what we’ll call off-spaces. Bolano’s books often give the impression of adventures not only in the peripatetic shift from place to place so strongly evident in Savage Detectives but also because any scene described contains far more information than can possibly be divulged from the particular narrative point of view. Bolano rarely grounds his characters in categorical time and space; he is drawn to the sense of drift that doesn’t only leave characters on the move, but the places they occupy sketchy and incomplete. Just as the conventionally good writer would follow through on the premises as Bersani proposes, so at the same time the solid writer will fill out the spaces he chooses to plant his or her characters in. Time is narrative length covered, and space is filled for that segment of story. Bolaño frequently details a space in such a way that it doesn’t become vivid in our mind as a picture, but as a feeling. In the story ‘Gomez Palacio’, the town of the title is somewhere that is ironically a non-place not only because it may well be a backwater, but that it brings out a certain feeling in the narrator. As the writer says in the opening line of the story: “I went to Gomez Palacio during one of the worst phases of my life.” As he explores what happens once he is there to teach a creative writing course, so we comprehend that the events are less important than the realisations, or perhaps better the hints of existential awareness. Halfway through the story he says that “the only one who had any talent was the girl. But by then I wasn’t sure of anything.” In the last paragraph of the story as he is leaving to go back to Mexico City we’re informed that “I didn’t sleep well.” If we compare it to a passage from that master of literary description, Nabokov, and his novel The Gift, we see the opposite. “The rain still fell lightly, but with the elusive suddenness of an angel, a rainbow had already appeared. In languorous self-wonder, pinkish green with a purplish suffusion along its inner edge, it hung suspended over the reaped field, above and before a distant wood, one tremulous portion of which showed through it.” We can all but hear a Bolano narrator saying what does he care whether there was a purplish suffusion around the rainbow, and that a tremulous portion showed through. If Nabokov manages to keep us at one remove from narrative consciousness through endless description of the sensuous world, Bolano brilliantly does the opposite: the sparest of details fill out the inner world without necessarily relying on psychological analysis. When James Wood astutely notes in How Fiction Works that “Nabokov’s fiction is always becoming propaganda on behalf of good noticing, hence on behalf of itself”, adding“there are beauties that are not visual at all, and Nabokov has poorish eyes for those,” Bolano has, on the other hand, a curious form of twenty-twenty vision based on refusing or being unable to fill out the details.

In this sense, Bolaño’s work is consistent with existential fiction as The Handbook of Literature would describe it, noting that Sartre and others were interested not in the traditional questions of literary craft; more in the “existential philosophy…concerned with the personal ‘commitment’ of this unique individual in the ‘human situation'”. This tradition that includes Kafka, Dostoevsky, Camus and Sartre, could easily be dismissed by ‘literary’ writers like Nabokov and Martin Amis. The teenage Amis referred to Kafka as a “fucking fool” and Nabokov thought Dostoevsky “a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar”. Unable or unwilling to see what the writers were doing, they insist on believing the writer fails on their terms instead of seeing a different type of success. Bolano’s work is full of tired phrasing. “I had a soft spot for those writers”, from the story ‘Sensini’, “one fine day” and “around that time” from Distant Star. Indeed an article by Adam Kirsch in Slate Magazine mentions Proust’s idea that only minor writers write beautifully, “since they simply reflect back to us our preconceived notion of what beauty is”. Bolano, however, is a major writer and thus this apparent ugliness is actually a new kind of beauty.

Now without agreeing that beautiful writing can only be produced by minor writers, we may nevertheless agree that one definition of major writing is that it incapacitates our readerly expectations, forces us to read what the writer is saying more than tick off the accomplishment apparent in the style. Frequently Bolaño’s narrators will improve their sentences as an existential process. In By Night in Chile the first person narrator says “I could no longer bear the weight, or to be more precise, the alternatively pendular and circular oscillations of my conscience, and the phosphorescent mist, glowing dimly like a marsh at the vesperal hour, through which lucidity had to make its way, dragging the rest of me along.” The least interesting aspect from Bolano’s point of view, we may suspect, is the phrasing, contained as it is by a character for whom denial would feed into his very phrasemaking, and contained by a wider problematic addressed by the wife of the American who believes life is more important than literature. Near the end of the book, thirty pages after this comment, the narrator is driving back into Santiago, thinking about what the American wife had said about how literature is made. “That is how literature is made in Chile, in Argentina and Mexico too, in Guatemala and Uruguay, in Spain and France and Germany, in green England and carefree Italy.” Bolano seems to be offering three probes into literature: language, human denial, and ethical awareness, and that language so often isn’t enough, for central to the priest’s false consciousness is the seductive possibilities of language and literary endeavour.

We wouldn’t want too readily to claim Bolano as an existential writer; just as we are determined not to see him in the tradition of self-conscious novelists like Coetzee and Storey in Diary of a Bad Year and A Serious Man, nor quite writing in the semi-autobiographical style of a Miller or Bukowski. But he nevertheless shares with existential writing an interest in ethos as opposed to a classical style that needn’t concern itself with society. In Literature and Existentialism, Sartre says of the seventeenth-century writer, “well integrated in a hierarchical society, they knew neither the pride nor the anguish of being “different”; in short they were classical.” Sartre reckons classicism is apparent “when a society has taken on a relatively stable form and when it has been permeated with the myth of its perenniality”. If there are still many classical writers around today, is it not because of similar reasons? Often Bolano’s work questions such assumptions, and we may wonder whether he is particularly interested in Chile for the political dimension, or even more for the ontological problem of literature when it sits on top of false consciousness. One senses in By Night in Chile, Bolano’s is an entirely encompassing image for the creation of compromised literature, without remotely descending into metaphor or fantasy. While the American wife was keeping literature alive in the roomy house in Suburban Santiago, her husband was torturing radicals downstairs in the basement. Bolano shares Sartre’s political existentialism, yet also very concretely locates it in a culture where literary endeavour exists within a world of torture, political compromise and nightly curfews. Obviously Sartre’s notion of literature and commitment was seen to come out of his enlistment as a soldier in WWII and his consequent imprisonment, and the same appeared to be the case with Bolano until it was revealed that he had not as he claimed returned to Chile shortly after the coup and been jailed briefly, but was nowhere near Chile at the time. However what interests us is not authenticity in relation to the writer’s life, but a certain problematic addressed in literary form, and where Bolano’s mythically filled biographical aporias – another is of Bolano’s heroin addiction; denied by his estate – even help explain key differences between the Sartrean approach to being and literature, and Bolano’s.

Both may be interested in the problem of literature and politics, but where Sartre is committed to the problem, Bolano seems agnostically to tease out the issue as it becomes not a moral given evident in Sartre’s various claims concerning freedom, but a moral void. For example Sartre says “one can imagine a good novel being written by an American Negro even if hatred of the whites were displayed throughout, because it is the freedom of his race that he demands through this hatred,” and later adds “thus, whether he is an essayist, a pamphleteer, a satirist, or a novelist…the writer, a free man addressing free men has a single subject – freedom.” If Sartre was finally concerned with the question of freedom in the face of oppression, Bolano instead seems fascinated by the problem of truth in the face of evil. By Night in Chile achieves its completeness in that moment where the narrator discovers the basement hell and his own abasement complicitly: by realising his love of literature contains a concomitant acceptance of atrocity however indirectly. As the novel offers up a series of apparently meandering stories and anecdotes, so it internally builds around the question of a certain obliviousness of being, or perhaps unconscious compartmentalization.

At one stage of the book the narrator digresses to tell a story told to him by the writer Salvador Reyes, who says “that one of the purest men he had met in Europe was the German writer Ernst Junger”, and goes on to explain how he met up a number of times with him either by accident or design. At one moment Reyes notes that “Junger said he did not think the Guatemalan [a painter] would live until the following winter,  an odd remark for him to make, since by then it was obvious to everyone that many thousands of people were not going to live until the following winter, most of them much healthier than the Guatemalan, most of them happier, most of them unmistakably endowed with a stronger will to live, but Junger made the remark all the same, perhaps without thinking, or not wishing to confuse separate issues, and Don Salvador agreed once again…” We may wonder why this digression concerning a friendship between a poet and Junger should be in the book, and the very process of that wondering may be partly why it is there. It is part of the hermeneutic vigour expected of us in reading Bolano’s work as we have a character talking to the narrator about a writer he met many years before, and we wonder how much truth and how much fiction resides in the situation when at one moment the narrator says that Junger subsequently read a book of Reyes poetry the poet gave him, “because he mentions it, in quite positive terms, in his memoirs.”

The novel gives us first of all a dense historical aspect as we may choose to look through Junger’s memoirs to see if there is any mention of a Chilean poet, and we might also muse over what Bolano is getting at by including the lengthy anecdote at all as it takes up more than ten pages of a book that only runs to a hundred and thirty. Yet there are a couple of comments from Bolano that can more than help us. One is that “all literature, in a certain sense is political”, the other that “plots are a strange matter…Let’s say the story and plot arise by chance, that they belong to the realm of chance, that is, chaos, disorder, or to a realm that’s inconstant turmoil…Form, on the other hand, is a choice made through intelligence, cunning and silence.” If we assume that part of the story is the fascination with Junger and the idea of a Chilean poet meeting him, then the form is the shaping of that material within what Joyce called a chaosmos, a world of contained chaos. Many writers work with story and plot, and obviously find a form within which to contain them, but it is as though the form is coherently linked to narrative and plotting, that the ‘chaosmatic’ dimension is suppressed, as the form insistently pushes the narrative demands. If a writer works too closely with the story, they cannot quite make form their own, so much of the intelligence and cunning Bolano mentions has already been done, and falls loosely into the realm of craft. But Bolano wants to incorporate the political into the form, and we do not say this because of Bolano’s own politics – did he return to Chile to help the Leftist cause after the fall of Allende; or did he as is now generally claimed stay in Mexico? No, the question is about how to bring politics into a work of literature without it becoming a political book. How can Bolano basically earn the comments near the end of By Night in Chile, the comment on how literature is made? Literature is made out of the texture of life, but part of that texture is the result of political decisions made beyond one’s ken, and yet often within one’s ethical universe also. Junger more than most writers seemed to be a product of this tension (he fought in both World Wars and  lived long enough to see Germany reunified) and it touches upon a couple of Junger anecdotes of our own, and also a well-known short chapter by Milan Kundera about internal and external changes, as we ourselves choose to digress while we look more closely at By Night in Chileand The Savage Detectives. In the book The Details of Time, Junger says “actually I seldom dream about the war. It doesn’t seem to have influenced me as deeply as literature.” He mentions a combat situation where “at regular intervals, there were pauses lasting one or two hours, during which I read Sterne. Then the gunfire resumed, then I went back to Sterne. And, astonishingly enough, the book left a deeper mark in my memory than all the combat.” The second comes from an interview with Bruce Chatwin in What Am I Doing Here? where he mentions that the writer Henry de Montherlant sent him a letter and Junger shows Chatwin a “rather blotchy sheet of Xerox paper on which was written a brief, unfinished comment that was actually an aphorism of Junger’s from the thirties. Now what interest Chatwin is imagining the scene: “Montherlant, dying of cancer, is sitting in his apartment on the quai Voltaire, surrounded by a collection of Greek and Roman Marbles. On his desk are a bottle of champagne, a revolver, a pen, and a sheet of paper. He writes ‘le suicide fait partie…’ Bang! The blotches were photocopies of blood.”

In Testaments Betrayed, Kundera asks “Where does the stable essence of an “I” reside?” as he notes in War and Peace that two of the characters, Bezukhov and Bolkonsky, both radically change. “What is the common essence that lets us see Bezukhov the atheist and Bezukhov the believer as the selfsame person?”, “when Bolkonsky sets about the task of serving his country, is he seeking thereby to expiate the wrong of his earlier misanthropy?” Shortly afterwards, Kundera observes that there are two shifts: one internal; the other external. In the first, characters like Bezukhov and Bolkonsky are confirmed as individuals by the way their interior worlds change. They are shaken by them: “they experience them with such intensity…in Tolstoy, man is the more himself, the more an individual, when he has the strength, the imagination, the intelligence, to transform himself.” Kundera reckons “by contrast the people I see changing their attitude towards Lenin, Europe, and so on expose their nonindividuality. This change is neither their own creation nor their own invention…” In a scathing attack on James Wood’s reading of Savage Detectives on the site contra James Wood, a critic writes that Wood wants to tame the book and so proposes it is a work about youthful hopes and mad, reckless energy. The critic reckons Wood the conservative has to see the novel being about vainglorious ambitions of youth coming up against the realities of getting older. But while the critic’s problem with Wood is a lack of political engagement, the more pressing problem happens to be the ontological limitations in such an approach. Rather than the book illustrating the inevitable dashing of youthful hope up against mature reason, Bolano seems more interested in the sort of problematic raised by Kundera in relation to War and Peace – and helps explain why Savage Detectives is such a big book. When Kundera says “only the novel can, in concrete terms, explore this mystery”, we might add only a large novel. What makes The Savage Detectives such a fine, ambitious work is that not only does it offer multiple perspectives on the strictly formal level of numerous different characters commenting on the two poets at its absent centre, but that these are perspectives over many years. The Tolstoyan question hasn’t so much been opened up, as exploded and fragmented over time (the novel covers the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties) and space (from Mexico to Africa, the US to Barcelona, Paris, London and California). The critic quotes Wood saying “a painter, interviewed in Mexico City in 1981, says that Belano and Lima weren’t revolutionaries: ‘They weren’t writers. Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don’t think they were poets either.” But the character offering such lines is Alfonso Perez Camargo, a character who is also a fan of Octavio Paz (unlike Lima and Belano), and who ends his appraisal with hearsay: “…sex didn’t interest them, I know that for a fact. How do I know? From a friend, an architect friend who tried to have sex with one of them. Belano, probably. And at the moment of truth nothing happened. Limp dicks.”  There is little to indicate we have a reliable narrator here, and that would seem to be Bolano’s point. Not that youthful hopes are confronted by mature reality; more that different points of view obliterate consistency of perspective. Where Kundera talks of the deep changes apparent in characters like Bezukhov and Bolkonsky, these are changes visible partly because of the relatively consistent point of view offered on them. E. M. Forster may say in Aspects of the Novel that Tolstoy creates, quite brilliantly, an inconsistent perspective, but it is clearly coherent next to Bolano’s fragmentation.

Thus Bolano picks up the sort of problematic Kundera reckons is central to the novel form, but shows various characters who have clearly adjusted to the times externally, and others who have maladjusted internally. At one moment quite near the end of the book we have a completely different take on Belano than Camargo’s, yet not especially inconsistent with it as a journalist talks about meeting him in Africa “…he never touched coffee or black tea and he didn’t eat anything fried. He was like a Muslim…as for women, he got along without them, as far as I know.”  Had Belano changed in some ways and not changed in others? His wandering around Africa at this stage of the novel would hint at interior crisis, but the book’s multiple perspectives on an absent centre cannot quite reveal what this crisis might have been, as Tolstoy can readily reveal his characters’.

When the character in By Night in Chile praises Junger’s ethical purity, it perhaps resides in the internal shifts over external fashions. If Kundera is right that it is the internal shifts that create individuality, then, of course, it is the pragmatic external shifts that obliterate it. For Bolano this is both a formal and political issue. In The Savage Detectives we can never be sure about the external and internal shifts; the polyphony of voices demands that we must decide how much not so much integrity as individuality Belano and Lima have. Out of all the voices we may wonder how successful they were at resisting the world rather than succumbing to it. It is as though the poetry comes out of a place not of creative brilliance, but of resistant individuality. When a few pages before the journalists’ comments we have Octavio Paz’s secretary, we note the different directions a poetic life can take. At one moment she says “another thing I did was keep Don Octavio’s calendar, which was full of social engagements, everything from parties and conferences to invitations and art openings to birthday parties and the awarding of honorary doctorates.” This is a passage not especially different from one in By Night in Chile, where “Junger’s diary was crammed with inescapable engagements, not to mention the things that came up each day”, yet at the same time there seems to be a difference. Though the secretary’s comments on her boss are favourable, they are also servile, and she says at one moment when he got into her Volkswagon car: “When I saw him sitting there with that absent look of his I felt a little sorry that I didn’t have a better vehicle to offer him, although I didn’t say anything because it occurred to me that if I apologised he might take it as a kind of reproach, since after all he was the person who paid me…”  Bolano offers here a great example of false consciousness and shame in the face of one’s social betters, so while he doesn’t present Paz disrespectfully, he shows him respectfully through the eyes of someone whose admiration is slightly suspect. In the Junger instance, the narration is more reliable, the questioning more acute, and Salvador Reyes is not reliant on Junger for a paycheck. There is also the sense that where Junger is in control of his hectic life, Paz is not. Where Junger at least seems to consult his own diary, and makes many of his own arrangements, Bolano gives the impression that Paz’s maid and his wife were responsible for arranging his social life.

The Paz Bolano chooses to show is a discreet, polite, caring figure, but one finally trapped in his own success, while aslo one well capable of sitting on a bench in a poor district of Mexico City having a conversation with the second last ‘visceral poet’, Ulises Lima. Obviously Paz is near the end of his life in this chapter dated 1995, while Junger is in the middle of his during WWII, but there is in the passage from By Night in Chile a sort of existential bounce missing from Paz: Reyes refers to Junger’s “aesthetic flair and above all…his tireless curiosity” as Junger visits an impoverished artist friend in the latter’s garret. In Savage Detectives Paz’s decision to see Lima seems more based on ego, pride and a remembrance of things past. Lima was one of those who threatened to kidnap Paz in the mid-seventies, and the maid notes: “Don Octavio looked at me and said in a voice that seemed to come straight from the heart of a wolf: no one attacks me, not even the President of the Republic.”

How does this fit with what we’ve been saying earlier, however, about changes of self over time, and what does it say about Bolano’s use of the novel form? This is where Bolano is subtle, slightly paradoxical and brings out the texture of Kundera’s brilliantly bald dichotomy, and also makes us think once again of the thrust of this article: the figure in the text and the figure beyond it; the writer as a character in a book and the writer as a person with an actual biography. Anybody who knows anything about Paz’s life knows that in many ways it has been an honourable one. He visited Spain in 1937 and was strongly supportive of the Republican cause, returned to Mexico and established various literary magazines, and on entering the Diplomatic Corps in 1946, resigned in 1968 in protest at the brutal treatment meted out to student radicals that year. Martin Seymour-Smith in Who’s Who in 20th Century Literature has described Paz’s work as a “fascinating attempt to reconcile solipsism with political ‘engagement’”, and such an approach wouldn’t seem to be too far removed from Bolano’s own project.

Now Kundera talks of the internal changes a character undergoes and the external changes, but Bolano’s purpose seems so often to be slightly different: how does the writer resist not only changing with the times, but allowing the times to change them? How does one avoid reality transforming them, from turning the writer into institutions or figures of authority and cultural significance? It is as if Paz could not be such a resistant figure for Bolano; that he was somehow too institutionalised, too monumental a character for Bolano’s subtle curiosity. Junger seems closer to such a figure, finally more enigmatic and ambiguous: someone who was no admirer of Hitler but who nevertheless was so well-respected as a highly decorated WWI hero that Hitler couldn’t but admire him. Junger could also claim, despite his medals and as we have noted, that Sterne was a more important influence on him than the war. Thus where Kundera sees the superficial changes and deep changes and the agency involved in each, Bolano seems more interested not in agency but perspective, in searching not monumental shifts but seeing curious changes seen from oblique angles. This is of course absolutely vital to The Savage Detectives, where the agency of the two central characters’ lives is insignificant next to the perspectives offered on them, but it also appears present in much of his other work also. InBy Night in Chile we have the narrator’s perspective, or a character within the narrator’s perspective commenting on other writers, like Neruda or Junger. In Last Evenings on Earth, again Bolano works with perspectives: many of the stories points of view on someone else, whether it is the young writer who “wasn’t Rimbaud, he was just an Indian boy” in ‘Dentist’, the person the narrator has an argument with in ‘Days of 1978’, or ‘The Grub’ in the story of that name, Bolano has the great ability to bring the partial to life, to know, like the writer he so much admired, Borges, that any story can only be partially told. Borges says in an interview in Borges on Writing, “I think one should work into a story the idea of not being sure of all things, because that’s the way reality is. If you state a given fact and then say that you know nothing whatever of some second element, that makes the first fact a real one, because it gives the whole a wider existence”. (Borges on Writing) Here we could be hearing Bolano’s own dictum for literature. His stories and novels are littered with half-remembered details. In ‘Sensini’ “I was twentysomething and poorer than a church mouse. I was living on the outskirts of Girona…” In ‘Days of 1978′: “At one point, possibly at dawn, a young man starts quarrelling with B on some pretext or other”. In By Night in Chile the narrator says “and without further ado he invited me to spend the following weekend at his estate, which was named after one of Huysmans’ books. I can’t remember which one now…” At the beginning of Amulet, the narrator doesn’t remember when she arrived in Mexico City from Uruguay; she works it out logically. Everything is potentially oblique.

Bolano doesn’t seem especially interested in the values people hold as a measure of their integrity, then, more in the curious erosions of self accompanied by the inevitability of time passing. As the narrator in Amulet says, “now I believe, if you’ll excuse a brief digression, that life is full of enigmas, minimal events that, at the slightest touch or glance, set off chains of consequences, which, viewed through the prism of time, invariably inspire astonishment or fear.” Where Kundera is talking of the existential enigma of character conformity to their time, or fidelity to a deeper self, Bolano is talking more of a self fractured by the nature of time. Has Belano been true to himself in The Savage Detectives, has the character who commits suicide at the end of ‘Days of 1978’? Partiality of perspective and the passage of time leaves such questions irresolvable enigmas, while also hinting at motives for the disappearing acts (whether a suicide as in ‘Days of 1978’, murder in ‘Phone Calls’, missing as Belano is in Savage Detectives, or disappearing, as in ‘The Grub’). These are complex selves not only, or even especially, because of the depths they contain, but often due to the limited perspective offered. Bolano’s narrators’ poor memories and limited positioning offer rich ambiguities.

Bolano is also a great writer of making everybody’s life mysterious, so that fame (like that of Paz’s) becomes an inverse problem: one’s fame is an act of visibility that in turns endangers the mystery. The sort of existentialism Bolano is interested in isn’t especially moral; it is, if you like, more spatial. It creates opportunities for disappearing acts as opposed to moral acts, and from this point of view fame is a limitation. When Paz’s housekeeper explains how many letters Paz would write a week, how he had friends all over the world, Bolano doesn’t offer this up for mockery; more quizzicality – as though to say here is a man at home everywhere but who could disappear nowhere. Paz from this angle becomes the character with the least portals, the least opportunity to escape his own existence. When Bolano mentions numerous other Latin American writers who do actually exist, he does so nevertheless surely aware that their existence is nominally fragile, where others pass for the nominally solid. Paz and Junger, Neruda and Gramsci, are all nominally strong, but frequently Bolano searches out the nominally weak, or working with the nominally strong in such a way that they become strangely existentially unreliable. Whether that happens to be Paz’s fascination with Ulises Lima in The Savage Detectives, or Neruda’s comments in By Night in Chile, Bolaño fashions or creates an anecdote that returns them to existential singularity, and away from nominal solidity.

But most of the time he is working with the rather less well known, and though Bolano is constantly close to the romantic cliché of the unknown, neglected artist, it seems less the cliché that interests him than what sits inside it. Hence when he is asked how much autobiographical material is in his work, Bolano replies “not much. A self portrait requires a certain kind of ego, a willingness to look at yourself over and over again, a manifest interest in what you are or have been.” His comment seems strangely consistent with another, “the truth is I don’t believe that much in writing”, as though the two comments together move towards that nominal solidity that is in danger of destroying one’s spatial and temporal freedoms. This leads to a very interesting ontology of fame, where he is intrigued by the outsider escaping the dictates of celebrity not as the outsider sour at going unrecognized in the literary sense, but achieving instead an anonymity of being that leads to this existential, spatial freedom. In such an approach being famous for fifteen minutes isn’t a flash of status followed by the resentful darkness of ongoing obscurity; more a moment of visibility that creates around it a world of mystery. In Bolano’s work, mystery in some ways replaces obscurity, gives the obscure its metaphysical due. Where the usual ontology of fame offers obscurity as absence, Bolano is interested in it as a hovering presence, a hovering that potentially gives both greater freedom and greater mystery than fame itself can.

Bolaño’s ‘metaphysics of obscurity’ connects to all the other observations we’ve made about his work thus far. The way that other writers spill into and out of his work, some famous, some little known, others made up. It also connects to our claim that literature is less important than life, but not especially because one is real and the other not; more that literature is merely the appearance of a life and Bolano is no less interested in its absence on the margins. The comments Bersani makes about Baudelaire are relevant to Bolano’s works also; they help explain the approach Bolano would need to take in retaining the ambiguity of existence. Also literature suggests a self-containment that Bolaño would be unwilling to trust, so that like Sartre, if for very different reasons, he doesn’t want to enter into literature and its fine phrasemaking, but wants to stand slightly outside of it, rather like the man who wants to stand outside fame. Bolano now, of course, stands very much inside literature, and with one of the world’s most ambitious agents posthumously behind his work (Andrew Wylie), is now indeed one of the famous. But he is also obviously now dead, as though most of his life he escaped the homogenising impact of celebrity, and searched out the existential possibilities in the obscure. We are ourselves, here, in danger of falling into the romantic cliché, but while there are many writers who remain all but unknown until their deaths, only a small handful – like Robert Walser and Kafka – seem to offer the obscure, marginal and mysterious as existentially necessary. To be and remain small, a Walser character says,  while according to Idris Parry in Speak Silence, Walser “expressed contempt for this foreign world of painful analysis, of rank, narrow ambition and fatuous ceremonial”. Bolano was by all accounts no saint – Isabel Allende said just because he was dead didn’t make Bolano any nicer a man  – and maybe he would have been more than happy to accept fame if it had more easily come his way. However, there is a body of work here that questions presence, of which fame is one of the most manifest, questions it to the point that absence becomes a different type of presence, one creating both more freedom and greater mystery.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Roberto Bolano

Ontologies of Mystery

In a passage from Roberto Bolano's By Night in Chile, the central character, who is a priest and lover of literature, is talking to a woman who used to hold literary salons at her salubrious house during the Pinochet era, all the while her American husband was involved in torturing people in the basement. The priest says that he now believes "life was much more important than literature, and she looked me in the eyes with that bovine face of hers and said she knew, she had always known that."

More than most, Bolano is a writer who works with the problem of life and literature, and does so not only as a thematic and technical concern, as we find say in anything from David Storey's A Serious Man, Coetzee's The Diary of a Bad Year or Javier Cercas's The Speed of Light, where the narrative consciousness is a literary figure in the work as we wonder where the real and the fictional reside, but in a way closer perhaps to Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski, where literary conceits would be a sign of coyness. Miller and Bukowski are interested only in the flimsiest of alter egos to fictionalise experience; they don't especially want to get lost in the novelistic problem of narration and narrator. Yet while Miller and Bukowski create strongly present central characters, Bolano is a great writer of absences. It is a point Scott Esposito, reviewing 2666 in The Quarterly Conversation, makes when talking of the void in Bolano's work, and it is absolutely vital to the mystery his novels and stories contain.

Central to this mystery is the line between fiction and reality, and Bolano's obsessive concern with literature. Now this could be a narcissistic device, an opportunity for the writer and reader to share a concern for art and barely any interest in life, as the writer creates the sort of metafictional world that only an idiot would think needs to connect to reality. This is a fictional approach that accepts the book is a text, a self-contained world that need not refer to anything outside of itself. Yet Bolano's work constantly seems to want to create the mystery and tension of the extra-textual, of the book in front of us stretching beyond the page. When early in By Night in Chile the narrator is a young man visiting the house of a famous critic, Farewell, he happens to see Pablo Neruda there also. At one stage Neruda asks the critic who this Sordello was they were talking about, and Farewell's reply "Don't you know, Pablo? And Neruda's voice saying, why do you think I'm asking, dickhead" throws us into speculation - who might Farewell be, and is this an actual exchange reported by Bolano, or completely made up? And who perhaps is Sordello; he seems obscure enough for Neruda not to know who he is, but is that because he also didn't actually exist as Bolano creates an inevitable obscurity as the writer lives only on Bolano's pages? Maybe someone reading the book will know the answer to the question, but surely much of the tension and mystery of Bolano's fiction comes from the blend of fact and recreation. One can think of few writers who better achieve an ontological mystery over narrative drive, and indeed this helps explain the accumulative weight of Bolano's fiction over the narrative disencumbering of most novels and stories. Generally in Bolano's work we do not know where we are going, and this is partly because the central character is replaced by the surrounding void, so even if a character is centrally present as in By Night in Chile, or peripherally so as the two young poets Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are in Savage Detectives, the centre does not hold, and the story never becomes focused.

This constant sense of the periphery is beautifully caught in Bolano's short story 'Grub', with a teenager skipping school and hanging around a district in Mexico City, where he comes across someone he nicknames the Grub - a man he would see each morning "sitting on the same bench in the Alameda, very still with a Bali cigarette hanging from his lips, and his straw hat half covering his grub-like forehead". We find various details about the Grub: that he always carried a gun, and occasionally was given to vivid description, though he was "a man of so few words". What he describes in detail is the village from where he comes, and the Grub depicts the houses, explains that the village is two to three thousand years old, and mentions that "the native sons worked as hired killers or security guards." During the description, the teenager asks a question and notices that "the sound of my own voice frightens me", and there is something very Bolano-esque about not the violence of the man describing his village full of killers, even though his voice seems loud ("then he calmed down after a while"), but in the fear of the enquiry.

This is basically the difference between the representation of violence and the mystery of violence. The impact of violent worlds rests not especially in the description but in the questions surrounding the deed. Even in 2666, where there are literally hundreds of pages given over to describing the dead bodies of the young women in a fictional town based on the Ciudad Juarez murders, what interests the writer is the mystery around the killings; not the representation of acts of violence. When Esposito proposes that what is central to Bolano's work is the question of evil, the operative word is question rather than evil. Michael Wood in a London Review of Books piece on Bolano quotes a female Mexican journalist saying in 2666 "no one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them", and Wood reckons "the killings do have something to tell us, even and especially in their unsolved form." When Wood also says, in relation to a passage in By Night in Chile, "...ambiguity is part of what is disturbing about the power of Bolano's fiction", it is another comment that feeds into the idea of a non-representational violence stronger than the violence itself. Bolano's epigraph to 2666 is Baudelaire's "an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom" and we may wonder how aptly this describes the general fictional project, and at the same time how Bolano subverts it.

Violence, after all, is endemic in fiction, but it usually takes the form of narrative event, of an incident contained, however horrific, by fictive necessity. When Madame Bovary kills herself with poison near the end of Flaubert's novel, when Camus's Mearsault kills the Arab in The Outsider, or Raskolnikov murders the old lady in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, these are all absolutely vital to the eventfulness of the narrative, and we take masterful examples to propose that representational, narrative violence isn't simply a cheap and sensational device, but part of the inner integrity of narrative event. But from a certain point of view one might have a problem with such an approach to violence (and more especially in the twenty-first century) and central to this piece is seeing Bolao as an important, modern writer, perhaps in the sense that Paul Verlaine believed "the profound originality of Charles Baudelaire is to represent powerfully and essentially modern man." Now in his book Baudelaire and Freud, Leo Bersani says "Sartre's complaint about "the essentializing" of individuals in traditional fiction could be rephrased, in the terms being used here, as the unmasking of the writer's project of reducing the events of fiction to a parade of sameness." Bersani reckons that "for example, it would not be wholly absurd to suggest that a Balzac novel becomes unnecessary as soon as its exposition is over."

Bolano seems to want to break with this expositional efficiency, and part of the mystery of the work resides in the sense that it cannot be contained by its premises, by the sort of "expository portraits made of them at the beginning of the novel" - as Bersani notes of Balzac. We may note in a story like 'Days of 1978' that the exposition of the premise is secondary to an examination of temperament, as though hovering around every character and situation resides another story, and then another and yet another. In 'Days of 1978', an argument between the narrator B and a character called U in Barcelona continues to preoccupy B but seems over time to have been forgotten by U, whom B doesn't see for a while. When they meet again, there is no suggestion on U's face that he remembers the discussion they had over dawn light long before. In another age, and with another writer, what the story could set in motion would be the nature of a duel. Two people argue at a party and they decide to meet at dawn a week afterwards. This is not Bolano's premise, of course, yet it helps us understand Bersani's comment and also the enigmas Bolano's work contains. Let us compare it for example with an actual potential duel so described in Javier Marias' book Written Lives. After a quarrel over whether Russia should be westernized, Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to pistols at dawn. Initially Turgenev apologised, but on hearing that Tolstoy was calling him a coward, insisted that they go ahead when he returned from a trip to Europe. It was Tolstoy's turn to apologise and after many years passed the pair eventually made up. In Bolano's story one person remembers and nurses the memory; the other one appears to forget. They occasionally meet up, and one evening B describes a film that can only be Andrei Rublev, a film he had recently seen. For several pages of a sixteen page story B details the plot, about a monk and painter who has renounced the latter activity, and who after witnessing the building of a bell, invites the young boy responsible for it to come to the monastery: he will return to painting, and the young boy can make bells for the churches. After B tells it U cries. A couple of pages later, some time has past and U commits suicide in the woods near a French village. Where in the Tolstoy/Turgenev situation we have two strong characters colliding, in Bolano's we have two weak characters having a brief argument and then left to their own subjective conditions. The narrator fusses over the memory of the event; the other character may have allowed it to wound him more deeply still, or has managed to ignore it altogether. There is a feeling that where for the narrator such an incident is occasional, can the same be said for U, who we are told mixes up Marx with Feuerbach, Che Guevara with Frantz Fanon? We're later told he tried to kill his wife, and ends up getting electro-shock treatment. Here is a man who may well have often been corrected for his literary confusions in the past, and who has more than enough general chaos to cope with in the relative present.

Yet the story Bolano tells is of B's brush with U, and brush in this instance seems a more appropriate word than collision. Though Bolano frequently deals with categorical events - with murder in 2666, torture in By Night in Chile, with suicide here, and terrorism in Distant Star, it is the appalling violence of the periphery, the events that are on the edge of consciousness rather than at the centre of the action, that fascinates him. What happens in such an approach is that the violence becomes all the more pronounced in its absence. This has nothing to with the old clich that alluding to violence is better than showing it; more that if one is to allude rather than show what can be gained by the allusiveness that adds to the terror? Representation is often perfectly valid, but not for Bolano, and perhaps because it would centre the notion of evil where Bolao is drawn to dispersion. This is partly why we wouldn't want to talk about sub-text in his work, the idea that he leaves unsaid what could be said, and in the unsaying still gives the reader a clear idea of the point he is making. In such an approach meaning sits underneath the story or book as a combination of thematic weight and moral significance, so that we have the surface narrative of events, and the two other elements providing strong foundations. The incidental detail can give purpose to the theme so that an apparent digression commenting on another character can become thematic counterpoint in relation to our central figure. The strong story might reject it, but the story with strong thematic undercurrents sees it as necessary to the texture of the piece. By the same reckoning, a parent in a story may have no place in the drive of the plot, but they represent a strong moral dimension that perhaps the wayward leading character would need to learn from by the end of the story. This is where a wayward character realises that traditional values are pertinent, and his own behaviour rather impertinent. There is even a dimension of this in so challenging a novel as Coetzee's Disgrace; where David Lurie is due a few life lessons in the wake of his own complacent attitude to sex and violence earlier in the book, but in this instance learns it through his daughter. She is of course raped within the book, but she is also a very important moral; figure within the novel.

In such an example the story may have depth and texture, but Bolano's stories seem to have neither, not because they are badly written, but more because they are works preoccupied with what we'll call off-spaces. Bolano's books often give the impression of adventures not only in the peripatetic shift from place to place so strongly evident in Savage Detectives but also because any scene described contains far more information than can possibly be divulged from the particular narrative point of view. Bolano rarely grounds his characters in categorical time and space; he is drawn to the sense of drift that doesn't only leave characters on the move, but the places they occupy sketchy and incomplete. Just as the conventionally good writer would follow through on the premises as Bersani proposes, so at the same time the solid writer will fill out the spaces he chooses to plant his or her characters in. Time is narrative length covered, and space is filled for that segment of story. Bolao frequently details a space in such a way that it doesn't become vivid in our mind as a picture, but as a feeling. In the story 'Gomez Palacio', the town of the title is somewhere that is ironically a non-place not only because it may well be a backwater, but that it brings out a certain feeling in the narrator. As the writer says in the opening line of the story: "I went to Gomez Palacio during one of the worst phases of my life." As he explores what happens once he is there to teach a creative writing course, so we comprehend that the events are less important than the realisations, or perhaps better the hints of existential awareness. Halfway through the story he says that "the only one who had any talent was the girl. But by then I wasn't sure of anything." In the last paragraph of the story as he is leaving to go back to Mexico City we're informed that "I didn't sleep well." If we compare it to a passage from that master of literary description, Nabokov, and his novel The Gift, we see the opposite. "The rain still fell lightly, but with the elusive suddenness of an angel, a rainbow had already appeared. In languorous self-wonder, pinkish green with a purplish suffusion along its inner edge, it hung suspended over the reaped field, above and before a distant wood, one tremulous portion of which showed through it." We can all but hear a Bolano narrator saying what does he care whether there was a purplish suffusion around the rainbow, and that a tremulous portion showed through. If Nabokov manages to keep us at one remove from narrative consciousness through endless description of the sensuous world, Bolano brilliantly does the opposite: the sparest of details fill out the inner world without necessarily relying on psychological analysis. When James Wood astutely notes in How Fiction Works that "Nabokov's fiction is always becoming propaganda on behalf of good noticing, hence on behalf of itself", adding"there are beauties that are not visual at all, and Nabokov has poorish eyes for those," Bolano has, on the other hand, a curious form of twenty-twenty vision based on refusing or being unable to fill out the details.

In this sense, Bolao's work is consistent with existential fiction as The Handbook of Literature would describe it, noting that Sartre and others were interested not in the traditional questions of literary craft; more in the "existential philosophy...concerned with the personal 'commitment' of this unique individual in the 'human situation'". This tradition that includes Kafka, Dostoevsky, Camus and Sartre, could easily be dismissed by 'literary' writers like Nabokov and Martin Amis. The teenage Amis referred to Kafka as a "fucking fool" and Nabokov thought Dostoevsky "a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar". Unable or unwilling to see what the writers were doing, they insist on believing the writer fails on their terms instead of seeing a different type of success. Bolano's work is full of tired phrasing. "I had a soft spot for those writers", from the story 'Sensini', "one fine day" and "around that time" from Distant Star. Indeed an article by Adam Kirsch in Slate Magazine mentions Proust's idea that only minor writers write beautifully, "since they simply reflect back to us our preconceived notion of what beauty is". Bolano, however, is a major writer and thus this apparent ugliness is actually a new kind of beauty.

Now without agreeing that beautiful writing can only be produced by minor writers, we may nevertheless agree that one definition of major writing is that it incapacitates our readerly expectations, forces us to read what the writer is saying more than tick off the accomplishment apparent in the style. Frequently Bolao's narrators will improve their sentences as an existential process. In By Night in Chile the first person narrator says "I could no longer bear the weight, or to be more precise, the alternatively pendular and circular oscillations of my conscience, and the phosphorescent mist, glowing dimly like a marsh at the vesperal hour, through which lucidity had to make its way, dragging the rest of me along." The least interesting aspect from Bolano's point of view, we may suspect, is the phrasing, contained as it is by a character for whom denial would feed into his very phrasemaking, and contained by a wider problematic addressed by the wife of the American who believes life is more important than literature. Near the end of the book, thirty pages after this comment, the narrator is driving back into Santiago, thinking about what the American wife had said about how literature is made. "That is how literature is made in Chile, in Argentina and Mexico too, in Guatemala and Uruguay, in Spain and France and Germany, in green England and carefree Italy." Bolano seems to be offering three probes into literature: language, human denial, and ethical awareness, and that language so often isn't enough, for central to the priest's false consciousness is the seductive possibilities of language and literary endeavour.

We wouldn't want too readily to claim Bolano as an existential writer; just as we are determined not to see him in the tradition of self-conscious novelists like Coetzee and Storey in Diary of a Bad Year and A Serious Man, nor quite writing in the semi-autobiographical style of a Miller or Bukowski. But he nevertheless shares with existential writing an interest in ethos as opposed to a classical style that needn't concern itself with society. In Literature and Existentialism, Sartre says of the seventeenth-century writer, "well integrated in a hierarchical society, they knew neither the pride nor the anguish of being "different"; in short they were classical." Sartre reckons classicism is apparent "when a society has taken on a relatively stable form and when it has been permeated with the myth of its perenniality". If there are still many classical writers around today, is it not because of similar reasons? Often Bolano's work questions such assumptions, and we may wonder whether he is particularly interested in Chile for the political dimension, or even more for the ontological problem of literature when it sits on top of false consciousness. One senses in By Night in Chile, Bolano's is an entirely encompassing image for the creation of compromised literature, without remotely descending into metaphor or fantasy. While the American wife was keeping literature alive in the roomy house in Suburban Santiago, her husband was torturing radicals downstairs in the basement. Bolano shares Sartre's political existentialism, yet also very concretely locates it in a culture where literary endeavour exists within a world of torture, political compromise and nightly curfews. Obviously Sartre's notion of literature and commitment was seen to come out of his enlistment as a soldier in WWII and his consequent imprisonment, and the same appeared to be the case with Bolano until it was revealed that he had not as he claimed returned to Chile shortly after the coup and been jailed briefly, but was nowhere near Chile at the time. However what interests us is not authenticity in relation to the writer's life, but a certain problematic addressed in literary form, and where Bolano's mythically filled biographical aporias - another is of Bolano's heroin addiction; denied by his estate - even help explain key differences between the Sartrean approach to being and literature, and Bolano's.

Both may be interested in the problem of literature and politics, but where Sartre is committed to the problem, Bolano seems agnostically to tease out the issue as it becomes not a moral given evident in Sartre's various claims concerning freedom, but a moral void. For example Sartre says "one can imagine a good novel being written by an American Negro even if hatred of the whites were displayed throughout, because it is the freedom of his race that he demands through this hatred," and later adds "thus, whether he is an essayist, a pamphleteer, a satirist, or a novelist...the writer, a free man addressing free men has a single subject - freedom." If Sartre was finally concerned with the question of freedom in the face of oppression, Bolano instead seems fascinated by the problem of truth in the face of evil. By Night in Chile achieves its completeness in that moment where the narrator discovers the basement hell and his own abasement complicitly: by realising his love of literature contains a concomitant acceptance of atrocity however indirectly. As the novel offers up a series of apparently meandering stories and anecdotes, so it internally builds around the question of a certain obliviousness of being, or perhaps unconscious compartmentalization.

At one stage of the book the narrator digresses to tell a story told to him by the writer Salvador Reyes, who says "that one of the purest men he had met in Europe was the German writer Ernst Junger", and goes on to explain how he met up a number of times with him either by accident or design. At one moment Reyes notes that "Junger said he did not think the Guatemalan [a painter] would live until the following winter, an odd remark for him to make, since by then it was obvious to everyone that many thousands of people were not going to live until the following winter, most of them much healthier than the Guatemalan, most of them happier, most of them unmistakably endowed with a stronger will to live, but Junger made the remark all the same, perhaps without thinking, or not wishing to confuse separate issues, and Don Salvador agreed once again..." We may wonder why this digression concerning a friendship between a poet and Junger should be in the book, and the very process of that wondering may be partly why it is there. It is part of the hermeneutic vigour expected of us in reading Bolano's work as we have a character talking to the narrator about a writer he met many years before, and we wonder how much truth and how much fiction resides in the situation when at one moment the narrator says that Junger subsequently read a book of Reyes poetry the poet gave him, "because he mentions it, in quite positive terms, in his memoirs."

The novel gives us first of all a dense historical aspect as we may choose to look through Junger's memoirs to see if there is any mention of a Chilean poet, and we might also muse over what Bolano is getting at by including the lengthy anecdote at all as it takes up more than ten pages of a book that only runs to a hundred and thirty. Yet there are a couple of comments from Bolano that can more than help us. One is that "all literature, in a certain sense is political", the other that "plots are a strange matter...Let's say the story and plot arise by chance, that they belong to the realm of chance, that is, chaos, disorder, or to a realm that's inconstant turmoil...Form, on the other hand, is a choice made through intelligence, cunning and silence." If we assume that part of the story is the fascination with Junger and the idea of a Chilean poet meeting him, then the form is the shaping of that material within what Joyce called a chaosmos, a world of contained chaos. Many writers work with story and plot, and obviously find a form within which to contain them, but it is as though the form is coherently linked to narrative and plotting, that the 'chaosmatic' dimension is suppressed, as the form insistently pushes the narrative demands. If a writer works too closely with the story, they cannot quite make form their own, so much of the intelligence and cunning Bolano mentions has already been done, and falls loosely into the realm of craft. But Bolano wants to incorporate the political into the form, and we do not say this because of Bolano's own politics - did he return to Chile to help the Leftist cause after the fall of Allende; or did he as is now generally claimed stay in Mexico? No, the question is about how to bring politics into a work of literature without it becoming a political book. How can Bolano basically earn the comments near the end of By Night in Chile, the comment on how literature is made? Literature is made out of the texture of life, but part of that texture is the result of political decisions made beyond one's ken, and yet often within one's ethical universe also. Junger more than most writers seemed to be a product of this tension (he fought in both World Wars and lived long enough to see Germany reunified) and it touches upon a couple of Junger anecdotes of our own, and also a well-known short chapter by Milan Kundera about internal and external changes, as we ourselves choose to digress while we look more closely at By Night in Chileand The Savage Detectives. In the book The Details of Time, Junger says "actually I seldom dream about the war. It doesn't seem to have influenced me as deeply as literature." He mentions a combat situation where "at regular intervals, there were pauses lasting one or two hours, during which I read Sterne. Then the gunfire resumed, then I went back to Sterne. And, astonishingly enough, the book left a deeper mark in my memory than all the combat." The second comes from an interview with Bruce Chatwin in What Am I Doing Here? where he mentions that the writer Henry de Montherlant sent him a letter and Junger shows Chatwin a "rather blotchy sheet of Xerox paper on which was written a brief, unfinished comment that was actually an aphorism of Junger's from the thirties. Now what interest Chatwin is imagining the scene: "Montherlant, dying of cancer, is sitting in his apartment on the quai Voltaire, surrounded by a collection of Greek and Roman Marbles. On his desk are a bottle of champagne, a revolver, a pen, and a sheet of paper. He writes 'le suicide fait partie...' Bang! The blotches were photocopies of blood."

In Testaments Betrayed, Kundera asks "Where does the stable essence of an "I" reside?" as he notes in War and Peace that two of the characters, Bezukhov and Bolkonsky, both radically change. "What is the common essence that lets us see Bezukhov the atheist and Bezukhov the believer as the selfsame person?", "when Bolkonsky sets about the task of serving his country, is he seeking thereby to expiate the wrong of his earlier misanthropy?" Shortly afterwards, Kundera observes that there are two shifts: one internal; the other external. In the first, characters like Bezukhov and Bolkonsky are confirmed as individuals by the way their interior worlds change. They are shaken by them: "they experience them with such intensity...in Tolstoy, man is the more himself, the more an individual, when he has the strength, the imagination, the intelligence, to transform himself." Kundera reckons "by contrast the people I see changing their attitude towards Lenin, Europe, and so on expose their nonindividuality. This change is neither their own creation nor their own invention..." In a scathing attack on James Wood's reading of Savage Detectives on the site contra James Wood, a critic writes that Wood wants to tame the book and so proposes it is a work about youthful hopes and mad, reckless energy. The critic reckons Wood the conservative has to see the novel being about vainglorious ambitions of youth coming up against the realities of getting older. But while the critic's problem with Wood is a lack of political engagement, the more pressing problem happens to be the ontological limitations in such an approach. Rather than the book illustrating the inevitable dashing of youthful hope up against mature reason, Bolano seems more interested in the sort of problematic raised by Kundera in relation to War and Peace - and helps explain why Savage Detectives is such a big book. When Kundera says "only the novel can, in concrete terms, explore this mystery", we might add only a large novel. What makes The Savage Detectives such a fine, ambitious work is that not only does it offer multiple perspectives on the strictly formal level of numerous different characters commenting on the two poets at its absent centre, but that these are perspectives over many years. The Tolstoyan question hasn't so much been opened up, as exploded and fragmented over time (the novel covers the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties) and space (from Mexico to Africa, the US to Barcelona, Paris, London and California). The critic quotes Wood saying "a painter, interviewed in Mexico City in 1981, says that Belano and Lima weren't revolutionaries: 'They weren't writers. Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don't think they were poets either." But the character offering such lines is Alfonso Perez Camargo, a character who is also a fan of Octavio Paz (unlike Lima and Belano), and who ends his appraisal with hearsay: "...sex didn't interest them, I know that for a fact. How do I know? From a friend, an architect friend who tried to have sex with one of them. Belano, probably. And at the moment of truth nothing happened. Limp dicks." There is little to indicate we have a reliable narrator here, and that would seem to be Bolano's point. Not that youthful hopes are confronted by mature reality; more that different points of view obliterate consistency of perspective. Where Kundera talks of the deep changes apparent in characters like Bezukhov and Bolkonsky, these are changes visible partly because of the relatively consistent point of view offered on them. E. M. Forster may say in Aspects of the Novel that Tolstoy creates, quite brilliantly, an inconsistent perspective, but it is clearly coherent next to Bolano's fragmentation.

Thus Bolano picks up the sort of problematic Kundera reckons is central to the novel form, but shows various characters who have clearly adjusted to the times externally, and others who have maladjusted internally. At one moment quite near the end of the book we have a completely different take on Belano than Camargo's, yet not especially inconsistent with it as a journalist talks about meeting him in Africa "...he never touched coffee or black tea and he didn't eat anything fried. He was like a Muslim...as for women, he got along without them, as far as I know." Had Belano changed in some ways and not changed in others? His wandering around Africa at this stage of the novel would hint at interior crisis, but the book's multiple perspectives on an absent centre cannot quite reveal what this crisis might have been, as Tolstoy can readily reveal his characters'.

When the character in By Night in Chile praises Junger's ethical purity, it perhaps resides in the internal shifts over external fashions. If Kundera is right that it is the internal shifts that create individuality, then, of course, it is the pragmatic external shifts that obliterate it. For Bolano this is both a formal and political issue. In The Savage Detectives we can never be sure about the external and internal shifts; the polyphony of voices demands that we must decide how much not so much integrity as individuality Belano and Lima have. Out of all the voices we may wonder how successful they were at resisting the world rather than succumbing to it. It is as though the poetry comes out of a place not of creative brilliance, but of resistant individuality. When a few pages before the journalists' comments we have Octavio Paz's secretary, we note the different directions a poetic life can take. At one moment she says "another thing I did was keep Don Octavio's calendar, which was full of social engagements, everything from parties and conferences to invitations and art openings to birthday parties and the awarding of honorary doctorates." This is a passage not especially different from one in By Night in Chile, where "Junger's diary was crammed with inescapable engagements, not to mention the things that came up each day", yet at the same time there seems to be a difference. Though the secretary's comments on her boss are favourable, they are also servile, and she says at one moment when he got into her Volkswagon car: "When I saw him sitting there with that absent look of his I felt a little sorry that I didn't have a better vehicle to offer him, although I didn't say anything because it occurred to me that if I apologised he might take it as a kind of reproach, since after all he was the person who paid me..." Bolano offers here a great example of false consciousness and shame in the face of one's social betters, so while he doesn't present Paz disrespectfully, he shows him respectfully through the eyes of someone whose admiration is slightly suspect. In the Junger instance, the narration is more reliable, the questioning more acute, and Salvador Reyes is not reliant on Junger for a paycheck. There is also the sense that where Junger is in control of his hectic life, Paz is not. Where Junger at least seems to consult his own diary, and makes many of his own arrangements, Bolano gives the impression that Paz's maid and his wife were responsible for arranging his social life.

The Paz Bolano chooses to show is a discreet, polite, caring figure, but one finally trapped in his own success, while aslo one well capable of sitting on a bench in a poor district of Mexico City having a conversation with the second last 'visceral poet', Ulises Lima. Obviously Paz is near the end of his life in this chapter dated 1995, while Junger is in the middle of his during WWII, but there is in the passage from By Night in Chile a sort of existential bounce missing from Paz: Reyes refers to Junger's "aesthetic flair and above all...his tireless curiosity" as Junger visits an impoverished artist friend in the latter's garret. In Savage Detectives Paz's decision to see Lima seems more based on ego, pride and a remembrance of things past. Lima was one of those who threatened to kidnap Paz in the mid-seventies, and the maid notes: "Don Octavio looked at me and said in a voice that seemed to come straight from the heart of a wolf: no one attacks me, not even the President of the Republic."

How does this fit with what we've been saying earlier, however, about changes of self over time, and what does it say about Bolano's use of the novel form? This is where Bolano is subtle, slightly paradoxical and brings out the texture of Kundera's brilliantly bald dichotomy, and also makes us think once again of the thrust of this article: the figure in the text and the figure beyond it; the writer as a character in a book and the writer as a person with an actual biography. Anybody who knows anything about Paz's life knows that in many ways it has been an honourable one. He visited Spain in 1937 and was strongly supportive of the Republican cause, returned to Mexico and established various literary magazines, and on entering the Diplomatic Corps in 1946, resigned in 1968 in protest at the brutal treatment meted out to student radicals that year. Martin Seymour-Smith in Who's Who in 20th Century Literature has described Paz's work as a "fascinating attempt to reconcile solipsism with political 'engagement'", and such an approach wouldn't seem to be too far removed from Bolano's own project.

Now Kundera talks of the internal changes a character undergoes and the external changes, but Bolano's purpose seems so often to be slightly different: how does the writer resist not only changing with the times, but allowing the times to change them? How does one avoid reality transforming them, from turning the writer into institutions or figures of authority and cultural significance? It is as if Paz could not be such a resistant figure for Bolano; that he was somehow too institutionalised, too monumental a character for Bolano's subtle curiosity. Junger seems closer to such a figure, finally more enigmatic and ambiguous: someone who was no admirer of Hitler but who nevertheless was so well-respected as a highly decorated WWI hero that Hitler couldn't but admire him. Junger could also claim, despite his medals and as we have noted, that Sterne was a more important influence on him than the war. Thus where Kundera sees the superficial changes and deep changes and the agency involved in each, Bolano seems more interested not in agency but perspective, in searching not monumental shifts but seeing curious changes seen from oblique angles. This is of course absolutely vital to The Savage Detectives, where the agency of the two central characters' lives is insignificant next to the perspectives offered on them, but it also appears present in much of his other work also. InBy Night in Chile we have the narrator's perspective, or a character within the narrator's perspective commenting on other writers, like Neruda or Junger. In Last Evenings on Earth, again Bolano works with perspectives: many of the stories points of view on someone else, whether it is the young writer who "wasn't Rimbaud, he was just an Indian boy" in 'Dentist', the person the narrator has an argument with in 'Days of 1978', or 'The Grub' in the story of that name, Bolano has the great ability to bring the partial to life, to know, like the writer he so much admired, Borges, that any story can only be partially told. Borges says in an interview in Borges on Writing, "I think one should work into a story the idea of not being sure of all things, because that's the way reality is. If you state a given fact and then say that you know nothing whatever of some second element, that makes the first fact a real one, because it gives the whole a wider existence". (Borges on Writing) Here we could be hearing Bolano's own dictum for literature. His stories and novels are littered with half-remembered details. In 'Sensini' "I was twentysomething and poorer than a church mouse. I was living on the outskirts of Girona..." In 'Days of 1978: "At one point, possibly at dawn, a young man starts quarrelling with B on some pretext or other". In By Night in Chile the narrator says "and without further ado he invited me to spend the following weekend at his estate, which was named after one of Huysmans' books. I can't remember which one now..." At the beginning of Amulet, the narrator doesn't remember when she arrived in Mexico City from Uruguay; she works it out logically. Everything is potentially oblique.

Bolano doesn't seem especially interested in the values people hold as a measure of their integrity, then, more in the curious erosions of self accompanied by the inevitability of time passing. As the narrator in Amulet says, "now I believe, if you'll excuse a brief digression, that life is full of enigmas, minimal events that, at the slightest touch or glance, set off chains of consequences, which, viewed through the prism of time, invariably inspire astonishment or fear." Where Kundera is talking of the existential enigma of character conformity to their time, or fidelity to a deeper self, Bolano is talking more of a self fractured by the nature of time. Has Belano been true to himself in The Savage Detectives, has the character who commits suicide at the end of 'Days of 1978'? Partiality of perspective and the passage of time leaves such questions irresolvable enigmas, while also hinting at motives for the disappearing acts (whether a suicide as in 'Days of 1978', murder in 'Phone Calls', missing as Belano is in Savage Detectives, or disappearing, as in 'The Grub'). These are complex selves not only, or even especially, because of the depths they contain, but often due to the limited perspective offered. Bolano's narrators' poor memories and limited positioning offer rich ambiguities.

Bolano is also a great writer of making everybody's life mysterious, so that fame (like that of Paz's) becomes an inverse problem: one's fame is an act of visibility that in turns endangers the mystery. The sort of existentialism Bolano is interested in isn't especially moral; it is, if you like, more spatial. It creates opportunities for disappearing acts as opposed to moral acts, and from this point of view fame is a limitation. When Paz's housekeeper explains how many letters Paz would write a week, how he had friends all over the world, Bolano doesn't offer this up for mockery; more quizzicality - as though to say here is a man at home everywhere but who could disappear nowhere. Paz from this angle becomes the character with the least portals, the least opportunity to escape his own existence. When Bolano mentions numerous other Latin American writers who do actually exist, he does so nevertheless surely aware that their existence is nominally fragile, where others pass for the nominally solid. Paz and Junger, Neruda and Gramsci, are all nominally strong, but frequently Bolano searches out the nominally weak, or working with the nominally strong in such a way that they become strangely existentially unreliable. Whether that happens to be Paz's fascination with Ulises Lima in The Savage Detectives, or Neruda's comments in By Night in Chile, Bolao fashions or creates an anecdote that returns them to existential singularity, and away from nominal solidity.

But most of the time he is working with the rather less well known, and though Bolano is constantly close to the romantic clich of the unknown, neglected artist, it seems less the clich that interests him than what sits inside it. Hence when he is asked how much autobiographical material is in his work, Bolano replies "not much. A self portrait requires a certain kind of ego, a willingness to look at yourself over and over again, a manifest interest in what you are or have been." His comment seems strangely consistent with another, "the truth is I don't believe that much in writing", as though the two comments together move towards that nominal solidity that is in danger of destroying one's spatial and temporal freedoms. This leads to a very interesting ontology of fame, where he is intrigued by the outsider escaping the dictates of celebrity not as the outsider sour at going unrecognized in the literary sense, but achieving instead an anonymity of being that leads to this existential, spatial freedom. In such an approach being famous for fifteen minutes isn't a flash of status followed by the resentful darkness of ongoing obscurity; more a moment of visibility that creates around it a world of mystery. In Bolano's work, mystery in some ways replaces obscurity, gives the obscure its metaphysical due. Where the usual ontology of fame offers obscurity as absence, Bolano is interested in it as a hovering presence, a hovering that potentially gives both greater freedom and greater mystery than fame itself can.

Bolao's 'metaphysics of obscurity' connects to all the other observations we've made about his work thus far. The way that other writers spill into and out of his work, some famous, some little known, others made up. It also connects to our claim that literature is less important than life, but not especially because one is real and the other not; more that literature is merely the appearance of a life and Bolano is no less interested in its absence on the margins. The comments Bersani makes about Baudelaire are relevant to Bolano's works also; they help explain the approach Bolano would need to take in retaining the ambiguity of existence. Also literature suggests a self-containment that Bolao would be unwilling to trust, so that like Sartre, if for very different reasons, he doesn't want to enter into literature and its fine phrasemaking, but wants to stand slightly outside of it, rather like the man who wants to stand outside fame. Bolano now, of course, stands very much inside literature, and with one of the world's most ambitious agents posthumously behind his work (Andrew Wylie), is now indeed one of the famous. But he is also obviously now dead, as though most of his life he escaped the homogenising impact of celebrity, and searched out the existential possibilities in the obscure. We are ourselves, here, in danger of falling into the romantic clich, but while there are many writers who remain all but unknown until their deaths, only a small handful - like Robert Walser and Kafka - seem to offer the obscure, marginal and mysterious as existentially necessary. To be and remain small, a Walser character says, while according to Idris Parry in Speak Silence, Walser "expressed contempt for this foreign world of painful analysis, of rank, narrow ambition and fatuous ceremonial". Bolano was by all accounts no saint - Isabel Allende said just because he was dead didn't make Bolano any nicer a man - and maybe he would have been more than happy to accept fame if it had more easily come his way. However, there is a body of work here that questions presence, of which fame is one of the most manifest, questions it to the point that absence becomes a different type of presence, one creating both more freedom and greater mystery.


© Tony McKibbin