My relationship with Roberto Bolaño’s fiction is a bit strange to think about. My first encounter was in 2008, when 2666 was released in English. I stayed up very late for many nights in a row to finish the book. It mixed with my dreams and affected me in ways nothing had before and nothing has since. It absolutely confounded me. When I finished it, I didn’t know what to think. It was so unlike anything I had ever read, I didn’t know what to do with it and ended up thinking I disliked it. My review, while it noted the book’s effect on me, was mostly negative. Leave Bolaño to the hype machine, I thought. Only I could not get the book out of my head. It kept working on me, kept insinuating itself into my daily life. I picked up a few of Bolaño’s shorter books, was confounded again, only this time felt invigorated rather than frustrated. They helped me retroactively revise my experience with 2666. That book is a masterpiece; it is one of the greatest reading experiences of my life.
Which isn’t to say I get it. Bolaño’s fiction is deliberately stripped of any conventional comfort. It’s too much to say some of the confusion is due to deliberate ambiguity as I don’t even think Bolaño cares about ambiguity. He’s not suggesting a few, perhaps contradictory, conclusions. He’s suggesting there is no conclusion, no epiphany, nothing at all to be discovered in this mess of patterns and metaphors. And yet he tantalizes us, pulling us in, shows us the world around us from a new perspective, granting insight just beyond our grasp. I know there is little light at the end of this struggle with Bolaño, but the struggle itself is worth it. I was thrilled when I saw that Chris Andrews, one of Bolaño’s translators, had written a volume of Bolaño criticism, Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe (2014), something to help me along in my struggle, not by illuminating the mysteries but by reveling in them with me.
I want to note that I’m a big fan of Chris Andrews. In July 2009, he graced this site with an interview (here). We haven’t been in touch since then, but I’ve followed his work closely. He not only translates but he often discusses Spanish-language literature. Before reading this book, I was already confident in Andrews’ ability to think carefully about these works and to articulate clearly his criticism, and I was confident that if took on Bolaño it’d be a great idea to read what he wrote. All of this is to say that I was predisposed to appreciate this book, so perhaps my perspective is not entirely disinterested and I’m not going to pick apart Andrews’ arguments. I’m not even going to dig into them in any great depth. I’ll leave it to you to discover Andrews’ arguments in particular. I approached this book as a fan, and as a fan I don’t want to ruin it for others approaching it in the same manner.
Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe is approximately 200 pages of what I guess I’d call general criticism, meaning that while Andrews closely reads the works he’s doing so to illustrate larger themes and techniques running through Bolaño’s work. You’ll find long passages devoted to, for example, Distant Star that chase down, say, how Bolaño creates and uses narrative tension differently than most other authors. You won’t find chapters meant to interpret all of the particular themes of, say, By Night in Chile or The Savage Detectives — those kinds of books are yet to be written. This book is an excellent step in that direction, providing as it does some general framework in which to discuss Bolaño’s tremendous work.
The first chapter is actually even more general. Rather than discuss any particular facet of Bolaño’s work, it discusses “The Anomalous Case of Roberto Bolaño,” or, how on earth did this publishing phenomenon come about. Obviously, when it comes to publishing, particularly publishing literature in translation, you never know exactly what’s going to happen and it’s hard to pin down why. And why this author but not this other author. So, rather than give any kind of definitive answer, Andrews discusses several possibilities, some of which he doesn’t think apply but have been posited nonetheless.
I found this section fascinating. After all, I lived through the publishing phenomenon and was affected by it. I was shocked to learn that By Night in Chile, Bolaño’s first novel to be translated into English back in 2003, was positively reviewed but still sold only 775 copies in its first 12 months. The second to arrive, Distant Star, sold even less. Things changed with The Savage Detectives in 2007, which sold 22,000 copies in hardcover. 2666 did even better: rushed to a second printing within days of its release, it sold more than 75,000 in that initial period.
Why? Why Bolaño and not any number of other great translated authors? It can’t be simply that FSG brought out their marketing force for The Savage Detectives because they publish an impressive number of translations each year. At any rate, this chapter was a great start. Andrews organizes and theorizes with exceptional discipline, never allowing himself to jump on a limb he hasn’t ensured is secure.
The next few chapters focus on some of the structural and technical attributes of Bolaño’s work, focusing in particular on his use of narrative tension and aimlessness, two attributes that are the most frustrating and fascinating. They’re frustrating because its in them that Bolaño defies us, refusing to resolve tension, refusing to bring his characters to some destination. And yet, for those same reasons, they’re fascinating and unique. Andrews follows these more formal chapters with chapters devoted to Bolaño’s violence and Bolaño’s depiction of evil (“It would be hyperbolic to use the category of evil in discussing much contemporary fiction, but not in Bolaño’s case.”). In conclusion, Andrews explains how these particular facets he’s discussed have affected readers, why they’re important to us.
It is a thrill to revisit Bolano’s fiction — which, as the titles says, is not just expansive but expanding, though Bolano has been dead nearly ten years, and those of us who love Bolano’s work have a place in that universe. Andrews is a close reader — indeed, as a translator, the closest — and this work of criticism keeps that horizon open. Anyone at all interested in digging into some facets of Bolaño’s work should read it. And then keep the conversation going.