Friday, May 1, 2009

The Bolano Buzz

When Andy Warhol noted we're lucky to get 15 seconds of fame, I wondered how he computed time; after all, it took me far longer than that to complete my business after two strong mugs in the morning. Potty humor aside, one writer who seems to have survived a bit longer than the fleeting 15 is Roberto Bolano. I have friends with varied literary interests who have found The Savage Detectives rather gripping, and both it and 2666 have won global acclaim. For me, the narrative strategy for The Savage D. amazes with its cumulative effect; in essence, two lives are told from the perspective of dozens of narrators, and so we get a disarmingly penetrating view into the motivations and idiosyncracies of dozens of characters. Many of the sections can be read as "stand alone" stories, and several of my favorites occur toward the end of the book. It is too tempting to give away more story.

To some extent, Bolano's short stories, some of which are translated into English by Chris Andrews and collected in Last Evenings On Earth can seem rather modest and subdued. I suppose that is one of the dangers of writing not one but two epic novels. I have read and reread this collection, much in the same way I have savored work by other haunting authors we may reread. (For me, in my past, these have included Sherwood Anderson, J.D. Salinger, Paul Auster, and many more. After a phone conversation with one book friend, we established that I am a "book returner" in the sense of returning for multiple reads whereas he is always looking forward to something new.) But back to Bolano, I am convinced no one with a taste for the wandering life and melancholy can possibly be disappointed by passages like this:

What were you dreaming about? he asks her. The girl replies that she was dreaming about her mother who died not long ago. The dead are at peace, thinks B stretching out in bed. As if she had read his mind, the girl says that no one who has passed through this world is at peace. Not anymore, not ever, she says with total conviction. B feels like crying, but instead he falls asleep.

That glimmering crystal is neatly tucked into Bolano's "Vagabond in France and Belgium." In nearly every story in the collection, you will discover several such bits of chilling wisdom. (My favorites are "Vagabond...," "Mauricio ('The Eye') Silva," "Anne Moore's Life," and "Dentist.") His style is so smooth and understated, it is possible to read right past these gems, so remember to slow down and enjoy the journey. Safe passage.

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