Dream encounters on a brief stroll through the literature
FOR Roberto Bolano, the Chilean writer who died aged 50 in 2003, writing poetry was a lifelong project. Only in his 30s, when he realised there was no living to be made writing verse, did he turn his pen to fiction, which not only supported him and family in his lifetime but also ensured the prosperity of his estate for many years to come.
He considered himself primarily a poet but it was his sprawling epic novels The Savage Detectives and 2666, now cemented in the long tradition inhabited by the likes of Laurence Sterne, Herman Melville, James Joyce and David Foster Wallace, that catapulted him into the literary spotlight.
His fiction garnered him the coveted Romulo Gallegos Prize in 1999, placing him alongside Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. It resulted in his fellow Spanishlanguage novelists declaring him the most influential literary figure of his generation and his posthumously awarded National Book Critics Circle Award. Still, to his dying day he considered himself first and foremost a poet. Asked in his last interview, ‘‘ What makes you think that you’re a better poet than novelist?’’, he replied with trademark dryness, ‘‘ The poetry makes me blush less.’’
Nine of his novels have been translated into English, along with numerous collections of short stories, essays and interviews. Yet only one slender volume of poetry, The Romantic Dogs, had reached the English-speaking world until now. Tres, considered by Bolano to be ‘‘ one of [his] two best books’’, translated by Laura Healy, is published by New Directions in a handsome bilingual edition.
As its title intimates, this volume is a triptych. It opens with a series of prose poems collectively titled Prose from Autumn in Gerona, a highly distilled and abstracted love story, presented simultaneously as a movie, a detective story, a personal journey, a nightmare in which compacted motifs rise and fall out of one another as the relationship fades and comes back into focus, dies and is repeated with subtle, intricate variation.
Next is The Neochilians, a tale of a road trip presented as narrative verse, in which a group of young musicians make their way from central Chile up through Peru to Ecuador, reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the Visceral Realists of The Savage Detectives. The volume closes with A Stroll through Literature, a series of 57 poems in which Bolano describes dream encounters with an array of writers who had a strong effect on him, meetings that are in turn sexual, banal, horrific, tender, political and incredibly strange.
This is, to borrow Bolano’s description of Enrique Vila-matas’s novel Bartleby & Co, ‘‘ a brief stroll, composed in the form of footnotes, through the abyss and vertigo not only of literature but of life’’.
Two main elements bind the three sections: stylistically, in all three there is a complex relationship between the natures of fiction and poetry; perhaps more important, however, is the way in which each deals with that space where dreams intersect reality and where each of our dreams and realities intersect every- body else’s. Also, although more subtly so than in The Romantic Dogs, all of Bolano’s trademarks are present to varying degrees: the blood of Youth spilled at the hands of the State, the meaning of Art in the face of Horror, both personal and political, the rise of countercultures and, of course, the plight of Latin America.
Bolano has described his contemporary, Salvadoran Horacio Castellanos Moya, as ‘‘ the only writer of [his] generation who knows how to narrate the horror, the secret Vietnam that Latin America was for a long time’’.
But Tres is a prime example of the intricate and subtle ways in which Bolano explores what it means to be Latin American in the face of abject terror: from the empty, journeying dreams of the Neochilians to the poet’s own nested dreams that lead us directly back to some semblance of the brutal reality: I dreamt I was dreaming and in the dream tunnels I found Roque Dalton’s dreams: the dreams of the brave ones who died for a f. . .king chimera.
Dalton was a poet and a revolutionary, and