Friday, September 17, 2010

Roberto Bolaño

Michael Greenberg reviews Roberto Bolaño's works recently translated into English, The Insufferable Gaucho, The Return and Antwerp.
The Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño has to be one of the most improbable international literary celebrities since William Burroughs and Henry Miller, two writers whose work Bolaño’s occasionally resembles. His subjects are sex, poetry, death, solitude, violent crime and the desperate glimmers of transcendence that sometimes attend them. The prose is dark, intimate and sneakily touching. His lens is largely (though not literally) autobiographical, and seems narrowly focused at first. There are no sweeping historical gestures in Bolaño. Yet he has given us a subtle portrait of Latin America during the last quarter of the 20th century — a period of death squads, exile, “disappeared” citizens and state-sponsored terror. The nightmarish sense of human life being as discardable as clay permeates his writing.
Readers trying to navigate Bolaño’s gathering body of work may find themselves wondering where to turn: since his death in 2003, 12 of his books have been published in the United States. “The Insufferable Gaucho” would be an excellent place to start. The title story of this collection is one of Bolaño’s most powerful fictions. It is a reimagining of Borges’s story “The South,” an emblematic tale of the schism that has plagued South America’s republics for almost two centuries: between the capital cities with their totems to European culture, and the vast, serenely violent countryside that surrounds them. In Borges’s story, the protagonist has survived a fever that brought him to the brink of death. He sets out from Buenos Aires to convalesce at his ancestral ranch on the Pampas. On arriving, he goes to the general store where a drunken tough lures him into a fight that honor won’t permit him to decline. Clutching a knife he hardly knows how to wield, he walks resignedly and without fear into the death that “he would have chosen or dreamt” had he been given the chance.
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