Thursday, September 06, 2007

Roberto Bolaño - The Savage Detectives, Last Evenings on Earth and Amulet

Benjamin Kunkel reviews Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, Last Evenings on Earth and Amulet.

Bolaño’s desperado image is a large part of his appeal. His revolutionary politics and the personal risk they entailed, the movement he founded, his poverty, exile and addiction, his death in his prime: the combination of these elements is foreign to the increasingly professionalised career of the contemporary writer. Bolaño’s dishevelled, wandering characters are, more profoundly than they are left-wing, anti-bourgeois, which is to say disdainful of comfort, security and success: an attitude more than a politics, but the attitude is deeply felt. Even to write ‘marvellously well’, Bolaño declared, was not enough; ‘the quality of the writing’ depended on the author’s understanding ‘that literature is basically a dangerous calling’.

But Bolaño would not be so strange or significant a writer if he had not found a way of handling his dangerous calling with simultaneous reverence and irony. And ‘calling’ is the word: there is never any question in Bolaño of another vocation. He is a writer for whom what Nietzsche said about music would seem to go without saying about literature: without it, life would be a mistake. But there is also an important sense – as Bolaño demonstrates again and again – in which both he and his narrators are without literature, in the desolate way that a religious person might find himself without God. Part of this is simply that these stories and novels narrated almost exclusively by and about poets don’t contain (with one notable exception) any examples of the poets’ verse, and Bolaño often invites us to doubt how much a poet writes or how well. But it’s not just that his fiction about poets excludes their poetry; his fiction excludes many of the familiar components of fiction. Sponsored and sustained by devotion to literature, these books nevertheless abstain from what we think of as literary writing. In Bolaño’s fiction, it is as if – but only as if – literature were what he was writing about, but not what he was doing.
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