A Letter About Bolaño
A new friend in another country emailed me the following. The subject line was 2666: “There is this group of authors that mostly perplex me, from whom I end up reading more books than from anyone else, not really knowing why, Dostoievsky and Kafka were representative, now Bolaño. I never had the chance to hear someone who would have loved/been obsessed by one of these authors tell me about his or her relationship with them. May I ask you to tell me more about what you found (find still I guess) in this book?”
You’ve pointed out a vital, strange fact: some readers feel enthralled to the work of certain authors. This opaque compulsion happens with a handful of authors in a given reader’s lifetime, I believe. It’s as if the enthralled reader cannot afford to give out more of their secret cravings. That to do so would be to risk revealing one’s most vaporous secret.
I’ve read a lot of Bolaño’s work, but I can’t say that I love my time inside his books. They hold for me this strange magnetism, to which you’ve alluded. When I think about the mechanics of Bolaño’s work, and the peculiar atmosphere of nearly all his novels, I often go blank. When I talk about his work with friends, I lean too heavily on metaphor and analogy. I’m either unwilling or unable to face the trace of his work directly, avoiding the center of 2666, or The Third Reich. Is the center of Bolaño’s work too dark to articulate explicitly? Some novels feel like elaborate shields around terror. Though, no: Bolaño’s novels don’t feel like they’re surrounding an evil in order to allude to it while also protecting their visitors, us readers.
To me, 2666 is a document that traces a dark channel of energy. This energy is constituted simply: it is life’s cannibalism of itself. This flow is dark because it lacks exuberance. Power expresses itself in Bolaño’s novels in muteness, or in insinuated terms. Bolaño’s evil whispers, whispers because its weapons have already been buried. 2666, ostensibly a long novel about navigating a world of obsessive violence and mental compulsion, is stylistically tame. Its darkness permeates the stratum just under the surface of its lingual foundation, its simple sentences which sometimes loop around and through psychological agonies—or which sometimes document budding cruelties. Bolaño’s realms are steeped in the sinister. Violence is explicit, but often merely as artifact. We see replica after replica of evil, shorn up in gutters and dumpsters and ditches.
Bolaño’s characters are, as a rule, reduced to confusion, and eventually to a despondency leaden with fate. The characters who catch glimmers off of life’s underground river are often made to disappear. The naive die. The poor, as well. The few who know never know directly; their obliqueness to the truth assures their living, even their becoming mythological. His books are not afraid to present the staggering violence hidden in simple conversations. For Bolaño, the novel is an apparatus for calmly vivisecting our attempts to clothe life in civilization.
As documents of the labor of a mind, Bolaño’s books testify to the great range of creative desire. Hundreds of poems, many novellas, excruciating novels. Bolaño’s work forms a fugue. I think its melody is most strongly stated in 2666, and most precisely stated in The Third Reich. The former novel is open-eyed, openly haunted, and presents the blunt violence of modern life in a cold starlight. The latter novel is precise, figural, listless, claustrophobic, lodging you in a hunting ground conveniently labelled Resort. 2666 invests you in a world in which death and madness are quiet, profane, and assured; The Third Reich invests you in a world in which death and madness are simple moves in a blind and silent game. Though I don’t see Bolaño’s subtle fatalism as equivalent with Kafka’s. Bolaño’s fatalism could only be considered a byproduct of humanity’s hollow pageantry, like a ceaseless laugh in an empty theater. Bolaño’s fatalism feels cosmic, gnomic. The fate spoken by his work has the walled glance of a predator.
But I’ve leaned too heavily on metaphor and analogy. I’ve again avoided facing the center. But what if this is precisely why we find ourselves drawn in to Bolaño’s work? Maybe we find ourselves drawn in to his work because of the astounding fact of its hidden center. Most writers can no longer afford subtlety; Bolaño’s work testifies to the low, rumbling power of a writer unafraid to stare past the world.