Monday, April 09, 2007

Carmen Boullosa recalls Roberto Bolaño.
We were formally introduced, twenty years after he left Mexico, in Vienna (which, like Mexico City in reverse, has shrunk to two-thirds of its former population). We had been invited to speak on a theme that was relevant to Roberto's work, not mine: exile. I said what I felt like saying, and so did he, disregarding the theme. There was a fraternal complicity between us from the start; I took him along to the dinner organized for me at the Embassy, and in exchange he took me to the outskirts of the city to see what must be the least appealing stretch of the Danube, in which some charmless ducks were swimming with a curious clumsiness. Roberto showed me a Vienna that was uncannily similar to Mexico City. He refused to go to museums or the kind of picturesque spots I love to visit; he was sure we'd be attacked by neo-Nazis.

That was the beginning of an uninterrupted correspondence. We wrote to each other almost every day. I don't think we ever discussed our relation to "magic realism," although we did say exactly what we thought of many writers. We also crossed paths at other literary events, or almost. I once read in Nîmes, then took a train to Blanes, where we ate by the sea: myself; Roberto; his wife, Carolina; and Lautaro, his son (the "little spark," as he called Alexandra, had not yet arrived). When my novel about Cleopatra was published, he was kind enough to travel to Madrid and launch it. It was such an anomalous novel--neither realist nor fantastic and yet both at once--that Roberto, who read it in manuscript, was immediately charmed.

On July 2, 2003, I wrote scolding him for not having replied to my e-mail of a few days before. On the third, Carolina wrote back: "Dear Carmen, Roberto asked me to reply to your message and tell you that he's gone into hospital... he'll be back at the keyboard soon. Love, Carolina." He died on the fifteenth of that month.

I spent months trying to get used to the idea that Roberto had died. When his collection of stories, El gaucho insufrible, came out, I couldn't bring myself to open it. Then came the monumental 2666, which he had mentioned so often in conversations and e-mails; it was irresistible. It is one of the great novels of my language, a raging monster of a book; the rest of Bolaño's work pales by comparison. After reading 2666, I went back to the book of stories: uneven exercises by a master of narrative acrobatics. Some are simply indulgent, written in the manner of Bolaño's character Sensini, to win prizes, or worse still, to recruit disciples. All bear the trace of his hand, it's true, but Roberto Bolaño didn't write with his hand. He wrote with the teeth he had left along the way (as had Auxilio Lacouture), the molars he lost when he had no money to pay a proper dentist or simply didn't care.

Paz, Huerta, Arreola, Cortázar: Bolaño took the best from them all. When he left Mexico he wasn't fleeing the masters: He was running to catch the ball they had flung high into the air.
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