Bolano’s consoling complexity
CHRIS Andrews writes very fine prose. You may already know that, but perhaps not know that you know. Let’s get it straight: if you have read any of the 10 books by Roberto Bolano that Andrews has translated into English, you know. And if like me you are in awe of those translations, you will be thrilled that Andrews has written something new.
This time it is not a rewriting of one of Bolano’s books (as we might think of the translations) but a book on them. Roberto Bolano’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe is the most significant critical publication to date (in English at least) on the work of the Chilean writer, who died in 2003, aged 50, and whose reputation has grown ever since.
Of course, it is not surprising that the Australian translator has a superior understanding of Bolano’s work: how much time must he have spent with it? (On this point, Andrews is modest, writing in his introduction: “A translator is, by necessity, a slow reader and a rereader, which is not to say a model reader.”)
This book isn’t just a translator’s homage to his author (Andrews’s affection for Bolano is Roberto Bolano’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe By Chris Andrews Columbia University Press, 304pp, $46.95 (HB) Bolano: A Biography in Conversations By Monica Maristain Translated by Kit Maud Melville House, 304pp, $54.99 (HB) obvious but does not interfere with his analysis) but an exceptional work of scholarship. Andrews’s focus is “on the published fiction … how it is composed, how it manages narrative tension, how Bolano’s characters experience their selves in time, how they damage and protect one another, and what ethical and political values are implied by their actions”.
Andrews’s criticism is notable for its treatment of Bolano’s work as a whole. Even a casual reader notices the interconnectedness of the books, but Andrews illuminates just how rich these connections are; how “Bolano revisited published texts and expanded them from with- in”. Tracing recurrent characters, settings and ideas across the considerable bibliography of novels and short stories, Andrews makes the case that Bolano’s work changed dynamically “when he had the idea of rewriting the final chapter of Nazi Literature in the Americas”. This is the key: “No characters from his previous novels … reappear in other books. But Nazi Literature in the Americas functioned like an incubator.”
It’s not just the depth and breadth of Andrews’s research and analysis that will be fascinating for admirers of Bolano; the lucidity of his writing, quiet in its admixture of personal style, distinguishes itself. Further to the six neatly organised chapters on crucial aspects of the fiction, Andrews considers, in a fascinating opening chapter, the phenomenon of the success of Bolano’s work in translation.
With typical equanimity, Andrews, borrowing Bolano’s words, concludes that “success is no virtue, it’s just an accident”. He says that while it can be difficult to accept such uncertainty, “doing so should leave us a little freer in our judgments, less inclined to revise them upward, as the fortunate publisher of the long-sell- er sometimes does, or downward, as believers in the intrinsic value of the marginal sometimes do when the object of their early enthusiasm loses its social distinctiveness”.
It’s a quote I love not just for its clear-eyed view of Bolano’s celebrity but how it exemplifies the wonderfully Zen, earnest, open-hearted spirit of the whole book. While some of the more conceptual and overwhelmingly methodical passages of Roberto Bolano’s Fiction are challenging, Andrews is never a pedant. His references are not restricted to fellow scholars (of course, there are plenty of those); he also looks to the work of novelists, poets, journalists, and editors. His investigation isn’t in the service of imposing some predetermined theory but of knowledge of Bolano’s work for its own sake, and of understanding the writer’s great consoling complexity.
Of particular fascination is the chapter titled Evil Agencies, which considers the “small number of genuinely villainous characters, intent not just on dominating the lives of others but also on destroying them”. The presence of these characters in Bolano’s work has always shaken and engrossed me, seeming a dark key be individual and humane and reasonable. His poems may not incite direct action but, like the hermeticism of Eugenio Montale, they are sites of resistance and voices of clarity in a time of uncertainty.
Today we are overwhelmed by the language of marketing and the plurality of voices vying to communicate with us. But in the absence of wider common values in which to judge such voices morally and aesthetically, it is the most insistent and loudest that enter our consciousness like mantras. Our ability to engage critically is broken down and the content is of secondary importance to the slogan. In this context, if poetry has a role, I like to think it is to create a space in which we take a step back and reflect. The word stanza, which we use to denote a group of lines of verse, is also the Italian word for room. We enter such rooms to encounter ourselves and our language, to feel grounded in reality, to dream, to hope.
At the end of the title poem from Gramsci’s Ashes Pasolini describes his struggle to live with a conscious heart ( cuore cosciente). In the best of his mature work this tension produced lasting poems such as The Cry of the Excavator and Plea to My Mother. It is also found in the lyric poetry he wrote in a little-known Friulian dialect at the beginning of his poetry career, generously sampled in this edition.
Pasolini never shied away from polemic. He was subjected to 33 trials during the course of his life, all eventually resulting in acquittals. He received numerous death threats, was expelled from the Communist Party, was loathed and lauded in turn by the church. With his tragic and mysterious murder in November 1975 the world lost what Sartarelli rightly describes as a creative juggernaut, one of the great human and intellectual dramas of our time.