Friday, February 05, 2010

Roberto Bolaño: The Romantic Dogs

The Romantic DogsLevi Stahl reviews Roberto Bolanõ's poetry collection The Romantic Dogs.
English-language readers have experienced Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s career sort of upside down and backwards. None of his work was translated into English until after his death in 2003, and it wasn’t until the publication of Natasha Wimmer’s translation of The Savage Detectives in 2007—nearly a decade after it took the Spanish-language literary world by storm—that Bolaño got serious attention in the United States. That novel, a sprawling, mesmerizing masterpiece, was the rare translated work that achieved both critical and commercial success. Its renown has led to renewed attention to the handful of other volumes of Bolaño’s fiction that are available in English, and has led New Directions to step up their admirable program of translating all of Bolaño’s older works. Now, coinciding with the English-language publication of the last novel Bolaño wrote, the horror-show magnum opus 2666, we have The Romantic Dogs, a career-spanning poetry collection translated by Laura Healy.

Bolaño would likely appreciate the irony that the translation of his poetry is only viable in the wake of the success of his fiction, for he always considered himself a poet rather than a fiction writer, explaining, “I blush less when I reread my poems.” He turned to prose out of necessity late in life, when faced with the need to support a family. His diagnosis with fatal liver disease only increased the pressure, and while he continued to write poetry, it was into his novels that Bolaño poured the majority of his energy in his final decade. Yet even the novels are suffused with poetry—or, more properly, the epiphenomena of poetry. Amulet opens with the narrator stating “I could say I am the mother of Mexican poetry, but I better not. I know all the poets, and all the poets know me.” The Savage Detectives is lousy with poets declaiming, drinking, fighting, fucking. But there is almost no actual verse in the books—the life of the poet, the trappings of poetry, are what matter, while the poetry itself is passed over in silence.
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