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?