"William Burns" by Roberto Bolaño Originally published in the February 8, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.
This week I’ve beat Colette to the punch! My copy of The New Yorker came on Monday (for two weeks in a row now) rather than the usual Tuesday. That and the fact that it is a short Bolaño story allowed me to find time to indulge in it sooner rather than later.
Well, I just reviewed Monsieur Pain, which, though strange, was fairly accessible (not to say clear). And then there’s this short little beast of a story . . .
There are many conspicuous elements in the setup of the story — but I am not sure where any of them take us.
First, as is the case in other pieces by Bolaño, there are some levels to the narration. Our unnamed narrator heard the story from Pancho Monge, a policeman in Santa Teresa, Sonora, who heard it from William Burns, the North American who will be the first-person narrator for 99% of the text.
There are some elements that seem to be set up for a specific purpose: there are two women, one old and one young; they have two dogs, one big and one small; they dwell in a house with two floors, though from the outside it looks like there are three; the house is full of windows.
These women have hired William Burns (who is also their shared lover) to protect them from some “killer.” They don’t give him more details than that. “When I asked what his motive was, they didn’t have an answer, or maybe they preferred to keep me in the dark. So I tried to work it out for myself.” Eventually, some things comes out. First, they name him (though our narrator says, “Let’s say the guy was called Bedloe.”). Then they run a string of ambiguous motives: “They talked about high-school romances, money trouble, grudges. I couldn’t get my head around how both of them could have had relationships with the same guy in high school, given the age difference between them.”
William goes in to the town to find the man they are scared of. He runs a store, and he has a dog. The dog starts to follow William back home. The man, looking completely innocuous, tries to get William to help him get his dog back, but William keeps going, the dog eventually jumping into William’s pickup truck. When he returns to the strange home, the women and the strange dog seem to know each other.
Where is this going? I have read it a few times now, and I still have no idea. It becomes violent, as it sometimes does with Bolaño, and as is often the case it never completely resolves itself. I am almost never even sure if its supposed to, though usually I can find a reason why not.
I definitely need some help with this story. Shoot out your ideas.
Some of you will understandably be completely turned off from Bolaño with this story. What is he doing? But I’ve developed a trust in him — or at least, I’ve been haunted by his stories enough to know that they at least bear the substance of a ghost. To me, there is much to unravel here, which is part of the pleasure — but is there something underneath the raveling?