In his new monthly column, Archive of Longing, Dustin Illingworth examines recently released books, with a focus on the small presses, the reissues, the esoteric, and the newly translated.
The Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño idolized Jorge Luis Borges. “I could live under a table reading Borges,” he once told an interviewer. In the Argentine metaphysician, Bolaño found a path through the Latin American Boom’s sticky, commercial aftermath. Borges, with his elegance, his recursiveness, his allegorical purity and erudition, may at first blush seem worlds apart from the violent, hard-boiled predilections that came to define Bolaño’s oeuvre. But to think so is to overlook Bolaño’s subtle comic chops and lifelong interest in pulp. One of the great gifts Bolaño bestows upon Borges in return is how, in essays and interviews, he dispels the aura of brainy sobriety that tends to rarify his hero into an abstraction. Bolaño absorbed the cosmopolitanism and menace of Borges’s lesser-known stories—he was especially fond of the detective potboilers Borges wrote, pseudonymously, with Adolfo Bioy Casares. But he also pursued something more corporeal, savage, and belatedly modern in his own work. To a remarkable degree, Bolaño’s characters—all of them poets or poets manqués, regardless of their stated profession—delineate the aches and appetites that moor the gentle madness of their art. They eat ham sandwiches, fuck in stairwells, fight, sob, ride motorcycles, drink coffee, and read until their eyes burn. They are often poor or hungry, morally benighted, naive, wretched with longing and a writer’s remote gratifications. “Literature is basically a dangerous calling,” Bolaño said during a 1999 acceptance speech for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, and his work, like a slow mugging, poses a persistent, shiv-sharp question: What price would you pay for literature?
Bolaño died of liver failure in 2003, at the age of fifty. His posthumous legacy, like a military map, has come to describe a clash of violent loyalties. The By Night in Chile contingent swears by that novella’s glittering confessional mode. In By Night a Jesuit priest laments the acquiescence of the Chilean literary establishment under Pinochet (“silences,” he says, “rise to heaven too”). Then there are those more partial to the apocalyptic noir of 2666, which is, in my opinion, the richest, grimmest, and, yes, greatest novel of our young, doomed century. The nomadic melancholy and cracked self-portraiture of The Savage Detectives seems destined to be the central text of a future literary cult. Though there is a degree of overlap between these allegiances, they are nonetheless deeply rooted in an individual devotion. To encounter Bolaño at a particular time in one’s life is to be psychically branded.
Bolaño, like Borges before him, wrote only poetry into his thirties. The Spirit of Science Fiction, newly available in English thanks to the brilliant work of longtime Bolaño translator Natasha Wimmer, was written in 1984, years before he had fully transitioned to fiction. (He would begin to write novels and stories more seriously in 1990, largely for mercenary reasons: he had become a father.) How do we read and analyze the early, minor works of literary deities? They seem to reach us obliquely, warped by the dense knowledge of what came after. For the Bolaño devotee, reading The Spirit of Science Fiction is a little like glimpsing the graceful form hiding within the block of marble. The book’s loose, associative style, wounded idealism, and tender carnality anticipate many of his later novelistic preoccupations. The book’s very premise—two young poets drift around the literary underworld of Mexico City—reads like a dress rehearsal for The Savage Detectives, similarly soaked in poetry, disillusion, and longing. The novel is dappled with recognizably Bolañan pleasures, though they are mostly incidental. What The Spirit of Science Fiction offers most is the tingle of the nascent. It allows us to perceive the avalanche in the snowball before it rolls downhill.
Bolaño’s work resists summary. Like a cubist painting, his plots are a blur of perpetual, adjacent motion. Much is intuited, or inhaled like an atmosphere. In The Spirit of Science Fiction he is already at home in this mode, testing the narrative pliability of poetic delirium and oracular grimness. The book’s protagonists, Remo and Jan, are young poets in Mexico City, eager to establish themselves as literary fixtures. Remo spends his nights among a cadre of young writers, seeking pleasure and understanding in the cafes and bathhouses of the labyrinthine city. Meanwhile, hermetic Jan holes up in their shared apartment, writing letters to science fiction luminaries. While Bolaño makes a few Bellovian gestures toward the picaresque—“I believed that nothing bad would ever happen to us in that welcoming city,” Remo says early on. “How near and how far from what fate had in store for me! How sad and transparent that first Mexican smile appears now in memory!”—the many set pieces, once kindled, turn such comparisons to ash. We simply follow Bolaño up his ladder of fragments, risking vertigo to marvel at the view.
Remo’s sections contain the most plot-driven elements. He attends a literary workshop—“like a tiny dance club for shy, boring people”—where he befriends José Arco, a kindly motorcycle-riding poet-rebel. José and Remo explore the mysterious explosion of literary magazines in Mexico City. (They suspect this proliferation foretells the coming of an ill-defined revolution.) Over the course of their investigation, they fall in with a group of enticingly wild poets, one of whom, Laura, Remo falls in love with. Bolaño often transmutes his romantic impulses into surreality, or vice versa, a love laced with the lysergic: “The only thing that was real (I mean supremely real) was Laura’s smile from across the room, her meteorite smile, fading half smile, barely there smile, friend smile, smoke smile, knife-in-an-arsenal smile, pensive smile, and smile—finally—meeting mine without pretense: smiles sought, smiles seeking each other.” The final section of the novel, entitled “Mexican Manifesto,” takes place in the bathhouses Remo and Laura frequent together. Its foggy, crepuscular atmosphere—steam-filled rooms, slick tiles, unwilling male prostitutes, sleeping pimps—is an early example of Bolaño’s effortless conjuring of nameless, uncanny dread.
There is something richer and stranger at work in Jan’s chapters. The letters he sends to his favorite science fiction writers—Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, and James Tiptree Jr., to name a few—betray his cataclysmic anxiety that geography might limit genre. Jan (who later reveals his alias to be Roberto Bolaño) is working on a science fiction novel but questions whether great science fiction can be written by a South American. “I try to learn, study, observe but I always come to the same conclusion: it’s not easy, and I’m in Latin America,” he writes to Le Guin. “It’s not easy, and to add insult to injury, I was born in Chile.” His ability to parse reality is impaired by this fixation, and each missive, ticking like a Geiger counter, tracks the radioactivity of his paranoia:
While I was perched on the roof gazing through my binoculars at the dark rooftops of other buildings, a question came into my mind: how many science fiction novels have been written in Paraguay? On the surface, it seems like a stupid question, but it made so much sense to me just then that it kept coming back to me, like a catchy pop song. Were the closed windows of Mexico City really Paraguay? Were the storm and the rooftops that I was watching through the binoculars really the science fiction of Paraguay?
Love—or, rather, sex—provides Jan with an imagined future closer to home. After falling for a prize-winning poet, Angélica (another Angélica would win the Laura Damian Prize in The Savage Detectives), he writes to Philip José Farmer, the science fiction legend who he believes has written most radically about sex and the future. “I’m seventeen, and maybe someday I’ll write decent science fiction stories. A week ago, I lost my virginity,” he concludes this final letter. There is a tender joke from Bolaño embedded here. For a besotted teenager, what could be more speculative, more galactic, than sex?
The critic Sarah Kerr has said that Bolaño’s vision is fierce, not total. He is a kinetic, epiphanic writer, and even his earliest works tremble like a whirring, unpredictable machine. Is this curious, ephemeral novel, then, something to celebrate? That’s difficult to say. It’s neither the thin effort of an apprentice nor a masterpiece on par with the work of his later years. The Spirit of Science Fiction functions as a kind of key to the jeweled box of Bolaño’s fictions, an index of the images that would come to obsess him. While new readers may wish to start with the famous works on which his legacy rests, longtime Bolaño fans will doubtless enjoy this familiar cocktail of sorrow and ecstasy. We find in Bolaño’s entropic poetry the same thing Remo finds in the sprawl of Mexico City: “Not a melancholy sadness but a devastating, paradoxical sadness that cried out for life, radiant life, wherever it might be.”
Dustin Illingworth is a writer in Southern California. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Times.