martes, 1 de julio de 2008

Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean realist and lyricist

by James Wood
International Herald Tribune. 13.04.2007

Over the last few years, Roberto Bolaño's reputation, in English at least, has been spreading in a quiet contagion; the loud arrival of a long novel, "The Savage Detectives," will ensure that few are now untouched. Until recently there was even something a little Masonic about the way Bolaño's name was passed along between readers in this country; I owe my awareness of him to a friend who excitedly lent me a now never-to-be-returned copy of Bolaño's extraordinary novella "By Night in Chile." This wonderfully strange Chilean imaginer, at once a grounded realist and a lyricist of the speculative, who died in 2003 at the age of 50, has been acknowledged for a few years now in the Spanish-speaking world as one of the greatest and most influential modern writers.

The best way to offer a sense of this writer might be to take a scene, and a sentence, from "By Night in Chile," still his greatest work. The book is narrated by Father Urrutia, a dying priest and conservative literary critic, a member of Opus Dei, who comes to emblematize, by the novella's end, the silent complicity of the Chilean literary establishment with the murderous Pinochet regime. In one episode, Father Urrutia is sent to Europe, by Opus Dei agents, to report on the preservation of the churches there. This is where Bolaño's imagination suddenly expands into a magical diorama. Father Urrutia discovers that the chief threat to the churches comes from pigeon excrement, and that all over Europe churches have been using falcons to kill the pests. In Turin, Father Angelo has a fearsome falcon called Othello; in Strasbourg, Father Joseph has one named Xenophon; in Avignon, the murderous falcon is named Ta Gueule, and the narrator watches it in action:

"Ta Gueule appeared again like a lightning bolt, or the abstract idea of a lightning bolt, and stooped on the huge flocks of starlings coming out of the west like swarms of flies, darkening the sky with their erratic fluttering, and after a few minutes the fluttering of the starlings was bloodied, scattered and bloodied, and afternoon on the outskirts of Avignon took on a deep red hue, like the color of sunsets seen from an airplane, or the color of dawns, when the passenger is woken gently by the engines whistling in his ears and lifts up the little blind and sees the horizon marked with a red line, like the planet's femoral artery, or the planet's aorta, gradually swelling, and I saw that swelling blood vessel in the sky over Avignon, the blood-stained flight of the starlings, Ta Gueule splashing color like an Abstract Expressionist painter."

Much of the most successfully daring postwar fiction has been by writers committed to the long dramatic sentence (Bohumil Hrabal, Thomas Bernhard, W.G. Sebald, José Saramago). Bolaño is in their company. That long sentence is a poem, really. It will not surprise you to learn that Bolaño wrote poetry before he wrote fiction. He was born in Chile in 1953, but came of age in Mexico City, where his family had moved in 1968. Returning to Chile in 1973 to help with the socialist revolution as he saw it, he was caught in the Pinochet coup and briefly arrested. He went back to Mexico, where he published two books of verse, and then began a long period of displacement and travel and drug-taking and odd jobs in France and Spain. He died of liver failure in Barcelona. He knew time was short: the fiction that is currently being translated - there are more novellas to come, and a huge novel, "2666," will appear in English next year - was written in a spasm of activity in his last years.

"The Savage Detectives" was published in 1998, but its heart belongs to the Mexico City of the mid-1970s, when Bolaño was an avant-garde poet bristling with mad agendas. Like much of his work, the novel is craftily autobiographical. Its first section is narrated in the form of a diary, by a 17-year-old poet named Juan García Madero who is on the make, erotically and poetically, and who has been asked to join a gang of literary guerrillas who have named themselves the "visceral realists." The group is led by two young poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, a wild duo who appear elsewhere in Bolaño's work. Lima is based on one of Bolaño's friends, the poet Mario Santiago, and Belano is based on . . . Bolaño.