Jorge Luis Borges writes about ideas. And the idea of books and ideas for books.
Roberto Bolaño writes about writing. And the impossibility of writing.
Borges once called heaven a library full of books. Literature, for Bolaño, is always about literature. Literature for Bolaño is about women, dead women, books.
To read Bolaño is to watch the scene in Bergman’s Persona where nurse Alma tells a story about having sex on a beach with two teenage boys. But we don’t see the sex, the heat of the sun (surely the same punishing sun as in The Stranger), the beach, so we must imagine for ourselves the scene, as we imagine that there are bodies under winter coats. All we are shown is the pale Swedish face of nurse and the face of the actress speaking and reacting on screen. There is no heat, no sand, no sex.
Certainly there was never any sex to begin with.
Bolaño wanted to be political prisoner. Badly. This was the role of his lifetime but he failed to get the part. In this failure, he failed himself, his dream, his fellow countrymen, Chile, his exile, his nostalgia, many inexpensive photographs, the figure of the sleepwalker, Alfonso Reyes.
Because he could not be a political prisoner, he had to become a writer. Because his body could not be imprisoned, his mind had to take drugs. He is a drug addict because he is addicted to literature. He is addicted to literature because he is addicted to drugs.
His characters are men (himself) who are deathly afraid of absolute evil (World War II) and prone to risking their lives so as to determine whether and where this evil exists. What if evil is located outside of the skull, to the left of the temporal bone?
What if he didn’t know of it––or of death?
His sentences are about the feeling of being off-balance, lacking in parallelisms. His prose hypothesizes meanings as a spliff of hash might: loudly in a daze, as though drilled at the dentist. Always a half-dream. Never a dream, though something like the laughter of a dream. Or a dream in the subjunctive. “Or” is his favorite tool to use on words. Because everything in life (or death) is always subject to modification, his stories are about the power language has on politics, or pretends to have.
Bolaño is a poet, not a mathematician or metaphysician. Bolaño writes as a visceral realist, which is to say, as a hypocritical idealist. Like the best of the blind poets Bolaño is deadly skeptical of all things. Borges was the best of the blind poets. But if Borges’ idealism is totalitarian then Bolaño’s idealism is mitigated by a love of the hypothetical tradition: an appreciation, possibly, for the plausible tunes of the Troubadours, the likely colors suppressed by black
and white neorealist film, the probable conviviality of Hume. Yet as a hypothetical empiricist, terrible gambler, and poor statistician, the relationship of his prose to the world of things is speculative, if not imaginary. If Bolaño’s speculative prose makes anything clear, it is that he does not believe in the first law of thermodynamics.
When Bolaño accidentally finds himself transforming a billiard bill into a taxidermist’s peacock, he goes completely silent for days on end. After some weeks like this (smoking or sulking), he picks up his pen to take revenge on his imagined taxidermist, stuffing him with feathers.
These grotesque deaths are as unreal as unreality is unreal.
If Bolaño is to be found in the Quixote, he must be Sancho Panza’s understudy donkey Dapple––that double, that hypocrite–––the first and greatest continuity error in the history of literature. If Bolaño had had a brother growing up, he might have played chess with him more often. As a twenty-two year old ass, Bolaño might have taken a sip, if the volcano in Teotihuacan were filled with whisky.
Bolaño’s paranoia is shot through with wonder and amazement at the fact that things exist at all. Not things in their regularity but in their persistence. He is painfully aware that these things themselves are always being distended, unearthed, partially destroyed, like vast and trunkless legs of stone in the rainforest. But the basic existence of things––of a lifetime of odd jobs, a shipment of frozen chicken, Apocalypse Now, a bronze statue of a military general in the old capital of Panama, gold and silver francs, that brothel, these folds of my stomach, a used copy of Pynchon, a table that is also a cage, drowning in sarcasm––of basic things that exist from one day onto the next is just as extraordinary and shocking to Bolaño as an impossible coincidence (a game of soccer without feet, the return of his Nazis or true neo-Stalinists, the glory of a Second Coming) would be.
Every moment described by Bolaño is an intense immersion in lived experience, like the man who eternally looks out his window at rain. He montages visual impressions––the azure blue of the Mediterranean, police snapshots of a bloodied jaw, the slow moving death of a tiger in Brussels––so as to turn any moment into an extended mood. These moods––uneasy perceptions (the sense that something is not quite right with this pay-phone)––give his prose the heavy quality of heavy drugs, or the alliterative quality of verse, but without the use of verse or alliteration or sedatives. He has learned well from Philip K. Dick that objects have desires and desire a mind of its own.
His descriptions, endless, prolong his sentences like pennies or baseballs tossed into a fountain. Tossed like pennies into a fountain at a Stereotype Mall by a ten-year
old boy wishing to fill space and time and infinity with his dreams and infinite longing. Plunk.
All of Bolaño’s moods are defined by the amount of time that they take to cut into space. The more time they cut, the more suspense. Plunk. His pacing slows, plunk, and slows, plunk, and slows––and slows and melts until it is an opiated glacier crowded with contradictions, and then, a rough game with its own exceptions––…until the slowness of his suspense begins to steam, like water near boiling. Plunk… Plunk… Plunk. The more suspense there is, plunk, the closer the near-comatose Bolaño comes to revealing the evil secret of his story. But he always runs out of his own steam. His suspense is so heavy it becomes lazy. At the end of his extended moods all we’re left with is the ordinary world, but even sleepier. A deep and lazy sleep. Maybe the memory of a knotted muscle. We wake up again surrounded by the ordinary sand, the normal sun, his tiny rental paddleboats.
Of course the secret of his story is that there is never any secret. Plunk.
This is the nature of Bolaño’s paranoia.
He thinks himself to still be alive. He constantly surprises himself, being dead.
Bolaño died of poverty, politics, and failure of the liver. He said, after he died, that he died abusing heroin. This is a lie.
On a Danish isle that lies off the coast of Norway, Bolaño is a teenager who takes turns making love to two older women. The women come frequently but at separate times, and while they give him equal amounts of verbal encouragement, they do so in different languages than one another, and it is unclear to the teenager, given his poor fluency in either tongue, if he is being faithful to them (or unfaithful to one, but not to the other, or whichever) or if, in his misinterpretations, he is adding something special to the value of this moment (or making it somehow his own), or if they would be better served should some older wiser author, ripping a page off a page at random from Sir Thomas Browne, attempt his own translation of this scene.
The teenager is painfully aware, whether anyone is watching or not, of the absurdity of his questions, of the movements he authors within this three-headed critical apparatus, of its clumsiness, all of their half-sad expressions, indecipherable words at the margins of their mouths. But no one sees them. The isle is empty this time of year; there is far too much ice too close to the coastline. No one is watching. And none of them will ever speak a word of this to anyone again, not even the teenager, who dies of pneumonia next winter and his heaven is a prison full of libraries.