Bolano’s con­sol­ing com­plex­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Will Hey­ward

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.

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