This week I spent my time delving into a strange, dark, and fascinating world. Or more accurately, I was delving into a number of different worlds, each one stranger than the last, all somehow related. I had been recommended the work of Chilean writer Roberto Bolano. I had read a few of most famous figures of Latin American and Spanish-language writing, such as Borges and Marquez, but Bolano is a favorite among writers for his strangeness, his tautness, and his modernity. The mistake we often make when trying to read the literature of other countries, I think, is to stick to the old classics; many people have read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, for example, but do they engage with the literature of Russia today? I wanted to read something that was contemporary.
I left The Return, a collection of short stories, feeling somewhat ambivalent about the book. It is often magnetic. Favorite stories involved walking through lonely cities at night, the kind of cities that seem haunted by old loves, old grief. Ex-lovers are a large facet of these stories, and Bolano handles the fraught friendship of these relationships with wonderful tension and intrigue. These people with whom we once shared such intimacy become the only people we trust in his stories.
At the same time, there were stories that were less successful, stories that seemed too consciously “experimental.” One story, told all in one sentence about one man’s musings on poetry, seem like a re-hash of others’ experimentations. And the role of women could sometimes be disappointing — one story, for example, in which a man flips through photos of French female poets, becomes only a litany of which of these women he would have sex with. That still seems to be the only use men have for women in many of Bolano’s stories.
Sometimes, though, the collection went somewhere truly strange, leaving me with a lasting feeling of hauntedness. The title story is a surreal gallop through the streets of Paris from the perspective of a newly dead person following his corpse from disco to morgue and then on to more disturbing places. It ended up being funny and sweetly sad in a way I never would have expected.
I was glad I got a taste of Bolano’s sad haunted strangeness — and saw his sense of humor too. But I would have to pick and choose his stories carefully, because some clearly pale in the collection.