I’m a little late in bringing up the latest Roberto Bolaño book, Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998 – 2003 (Entre parentesis, 2004; tr. by Natasha Wimmer, 2011). It came out earlier this year, and beyond the first week after its release I haven’t really heard much about it. I’m behind in getting to it for a couple of reasons: (1) I have had less time to write reviews, so I have a pile of books I’ve read and want to review but just can’t, (2) while this book has been a joy to dip into, it’s not exactly the easiest book to “review”; enjoying it, even understanding much of it, may depend a great deal on how one feels about Bolaño and his work. However, so much has Bolaño’s work grown in my estimation since I first read and reviewed 2666 (my review here) that I had to get some thoughts down here and bring Between Parentheses up again, especially if people missed in when it first came out.
Between Parentheses is a large catch-all. It purports to collect “most of the newspaper columns and articles Roberto Bolaño published between 1998 and 2003.” There’s no quality control, then, and that has upset some people. Of course, there are those (and I’m one of them) who wouldn’t have it any other way. Bolaño, even when writing off-the-cuff about things he may know little about, is at his worst still full of infectious energy. Further, most of the pieces here are very short and can be quickly skimmed or skipped altogether if necessary.
The date span, 1998 – 2003, is the approximate span of time when Bolaño was a living literary superstar. He’d published books and won some minor awards before 1998, but that was the year The Savage Detectives was first published. Between then and 2003, when he died at fifty, what he thought mattered, and he was basically given free rein to write for various publications on various topics. And here they are.
The book isn’t arranged by chronology but rather loosely by theme in six parts: 1. Three Insufferable Speeches, 2. Fragments of a Return to the Native Land, 3. Between Parentheses (Bolaño’s column in Chile’s Las Últimas Noticias), 4. Scenes, 5. The Brave Librarian, and 6. The Private Life of a Novelist. Within are speeches, interviews, long essays, brief thought bubbles, sketches for books, book reviews, etc. All the stuff we’d expect the author to have been involved in within the literary world that could be written down.
I have two favorite parts. First, the book reviews and author portraits Bolaño wrote for his column. He writes about writers as diverse as Jonathan Swift, Turgenev, Philip K. Dick, and Thomas Harris. Some of my favorites were short but insightful pieces about a few of my favorites: César Aira (“an exceptionally perceptive chronicler of mothers (a verbal mystery) and fathers (a geometric certainty)”; you can read my reviews of Aira books here), and Horacio Castellanos Moya (“[His book El asco's] acid humor, like a Buster Keaton movie or a time bomb, threatens the hormonal stability of the idiots who, upon reading it, feel an irresistible urge to string the author up in the town square. Truly, I know of no greater honor for a real writer”; you can read my reviews of Castellanos Moya books here). The number of authors brought up in these pages, under praise or high criticism, is large. I don’t know it, but it’s enough to keep one reading through life.
My other favorite parts are the little tidbits that give insight into Bolaño’s strange and unique work. If you haven’t read Bolaño, some of this may not make much sense, but in a piece on exile Bolaño discusses “the photographic negative of an epiphany, which is also the story of our lives in Latin America.” I cannot think of a better way to describe his work and the sensation upon finishing — “the photographic negative of an epiphany.”
Bolaño also discusses his experiences in the early 1970s when as a twenty year old he was in Chile during Pinochet’s coup. Afterwards, Bolaño was arrested and spent eight days in captivity in a schoolhouse (an event recounted a few times in his fiction). He succinctly relates how those days after the coup felt: “full days, crammed with energy, crammed with eroticism, days and nights in which anything could happen.” If finishing a Bolaño book feels like looking at the photographic negative of an epiphany, reading one feels like how he describes this time in his life: “The experience of love, black humor, friendship, prison, and the threat of death were condensed into no more than five interminable months that I lived in a state of amazement and urgency.” That condensing: that’s his literary work.
Bolaño’s work is powerful, and it can be powerfully confusing and off-putting. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that, while I can admire (greatly) individual pieces in his oeuvre, Bolaño’s project was greater than any single work, and each work built up toward his lofty ideas. Between Parentheses is a great companion piece, essential, I think, to anyone who really wants to dig in. It’s not that it adds up to greater comprehension (though I think it can); it’s that it continues to rearrange the puzzle pieces in interesting ways.