Dream en­coun­ters on a brief stroll through the lit­er­a­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Hugo Bowne-an­der­son

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

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