Gary Raymond reviews Between Parentheses by Roberto Bolano, a collection of essays, articles and speeches from 1998-2003.
Reading Roberto Bolano can be an equally rewarding and exhausting experience. The sheer size of his masterpiece 2666 can be daunting enough, the five hundred pages given over to detailed reports of the brutal murders of women in a Mexican border town comes at you in such an unflinching barrage it begins to have a similar effect to the burning waves of heat that inevitably begin to decay the desert-strewn corpses. It is not unusual to feel punch-drunk after an encounter with Bolano. And it is another of his fictions that comes more immediately to mind when reading certain sections of Between Parentheses, a conglomeration of essays, reviews, speeches, and it seems, scribbled notes on random topics, and that is Nazi Literature in the Americas. In Bolano’s mesmerising encyclopaedia of fictional novelists and poets with Hitlerite sympathies and loyalties he dazzles by blurring the lines of reality and unreality, mixing his made-up pantheon with historical figures of letters and politics; he plays tricks with the well-read, and dumbfounds the new-comer. It is, in short, a fabulous literary trick. And so in this collection the compilers have played a similar, if slightly more sinister, parlour game with the reader. For such is the depth of Bolano’s intellect and bibliomaniacal stamina that his references to so many third and fourth rate (in his reckoning) writers from the South Americas, for instance, it is often difficult not to wonder if, like in Nazi Literature…, he is not making some of them up.
In his short essay ‘The Transparent Mystery of Jose Donoso’ Bolano displays his intellectual energy, (which sometimes can come across as restlessness), when in the space of seven hundred words he denounces Donoso, denounces Huidobro, denounces all Chilean novelists, lauds the Chilean poetic tradition, before issuing a dictat to those who claim to be in thrall to the influence of Donoso (‘From the neo-Stalinists to Opus Dei, from the thugs of the right to the thugs of the left, from the feminists to the sad little macho men of Santiago, everyone in Chile, secretly or not, claims to be his disciple). ‘It would better if they read him,’ he writes. ‘It would be much better if they stopped writing and started reading instead. Much better to read.’
In the next essay on the National Literature Prize he opens with, ‘Asked to choose between the frying pan and the fryer, I choose Isabel Allende.’ ‘Allende’s work is bad, but it is alive!’ A hundred pages on and he states how he and his friend through years of deep-night conversations in smoky tavernas have realised that Philip K Dick was one of the best ten American authors of the last century, ‘a kind of Kafka steeped in LSD and rage.’ It is indeed sometimes difficult to keep up – never mind disagree with – a man of such intellectual energy, even on the page.
It is perhaps the ultimate poetry, then, that Bolano died in 2005 at the age of fifty from liver failure. His energy, his wit, his rage, produced more books than any man has a right to produce in such a short time. He is, in death, a publishing industry all of his own. The translations of his work are in a constant stream and he has three books coming out in English this year alone. The excellently odd-ball The Third Reich came out at the beginning of the year; Between Parentheses is out now and, what appears to be the first touch at the bottom of the barrel, The Secret of Evil, a collection of bits and bobs, unfinished book reviews and notes on the back of napkins etc., comes out toward the end of the year. If Bolano is to be judged as a great writer – and he was certainly that – then he will be judged on his major works; 2666, The Savage Detectives, Antwerp and Nazi Literature in the Americas. Does Between Parentheses add to this? Well, it gives you a taste of the intellect behind these great works. And although the actual compilation does come across as a little shoddy and unnecessarily completist-pandering, there is at least a line of worth in almost every essay. In his short, otherwise throw-away, reflection on Thomas Harris’ Hannibal he writes, ‘Agent Starling… will always look like Jodie Foster to us, but who in Harris’ dreams is probably prettier than Jodie Foster.’ In more important moments he compares the landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian to the landscapes of de Sade; he writes of Jonathan Swift, ‘if we don’t want to be slaves, if we don’t want our children to be slaves, then we must read him and read him again’; and he describes the most terrifying, brutal book he has ever read, Tadeys by Osvaldo Lamborghini (‘Naturally, I haven’t finished Tadeys, and I’ll probably die without finishing it. But I’m not giving up. Every once in a while I feel brave and read a page. On exceptional nights I can read two.’)
Bolano has a high-energy opinion on almost everything he comes across, from Burroughs to Turgenev, from Nikki Lauder to the ravens of Geneva, and no sooner has he dipped you into one corner of his mind than he is off to discuss something else with, often, equally tantalising brevity.
There are some books of Bolano’s (that he hated, incidentally; he believed Antwerp to be his only book of worth) which are for academics and completists only, and they are being thrown upon the market of the cult-enthusiasts. Between Parentheses is not one of those books. In its finest moments it is dazzling, startling, hilarious, touching even; the closest anyone will now get to a conversation in a smoky cantina with this brilliant novelist. At its points of failure it is bloated with ephemera and nugatory notes that Bolano, surely, never intended for publication (wait for The Secret of Evil for further exploration of this territory). But in the second tier of Bolano’s posthumous work, like The Third Reich, it stands firm and significant.