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Roberto Bolaño Recenters His Mythic World

Three Novellas
By Roberto Bolaño
Translated by Natasha Wimmer

Emily Dickinson asked her sister, Vinnie, to burn her papers after she died. For Kafka, it was his friend Max Brod. Philip Larkin assigned the job to a professional, the distinguished editor and poet Anthony Thwaite. But no formal code of ethics covers the work of literary executors, whose general inclination — when in doubt, publish — often leaves us the richer. True, it may not enlarge our sense of Larkin’s poems to read him banging on about his “non-acting bowels” (see: “Letters Home: 1937-1977”), but do we really want to live in a world where Dickinson’s fascicles or Kafka’s “Castle” get consigned to the flames?

The case of the Chilean genius Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) seems even more clear-cut. By his 40s, with his liver starting to fail, he was already mining his own archives to support his wife and children, beginning the work that continues long after his death. And why shouldn’t it? “The Savage Detectives” may have made Bolaño’s name, but his posthumous publications — from the galactic “2666” to the winsome “Spirit of Science Fiction” — have cemented his legend. He left behind a vault to rival Prince’s Paisley Park.

Still, given the intricate recursions among the books he published in his lifetime — his love of mirrors and fractals and labyrinths, his gestures toward some Borgesian roman-fleuve — the bootleg feel of more recent editions has started to pose an aesthetic problem. It’s all well and good to speak of Bolaño’s “poetics of inconclusiveness” (to quote a peremptory note in “The Secret of Evil”), but how to discern those poetics when the work itself is so obviously unfinished?

Which brings us to “Cowboy Graves,” a newly published collection of “three novellas.” They date back in places to the dawn of the 1990s, to typescripts and floppy disks now as outmoded as tablets of chiseled stone. Nonetheless, these drafts “are in no way abandoned or forgotten,” an afterword to Natasha Wimmer’s sterling translation insists. “We must speak of puzzle pieces rather than fragments.” Must we? I’m not so sure.

The gem here is the title piece, an account of the lost youth of Bolaño’s fictional double, Arturo Belano. Readers may recall Arturo from “The Savage Detectives,” where he stars as a firebrand young poet in mid-70s Mexico, and from any number of short stories (including “The Grub,” repurposed here) that find him sifting the ashes of adulthood for the embers of “visceral realism.” In effect, the novels are a prelude, the stories an aftermath, each gesturing urgently at the scale of the biographical explosion that must lie in between. It would seem almost a violation of the “poetics of inconclusiveness” to fill in that missing space. But this is precisely where the novella succeeds.

Right away, we discover the complexities of Arturo’s sentimental education — the rough-edged ex-cowboy of a father, penning letters home from Mexico; the plucky mother stuck with the kids in provincial Chile, elsewhere called “the ass end of the earth.” The opening chapter, “The Airport,” tracks the fraught migration meant to mend this sundered family. “Santiago … seemed to me a metropolis of dreams and nightmares,” Arturo reflects. “Wait till you see Mexico City,” his mother replies.

And the climactic chapter, “The Coup,” gives pride of place, at last, to the event that sends Arturo charging back to Santiago: the C.I.A.-assisted overthrow of the government by the right-wing general Augusto Pinochet. Bolaño, who made the same journey home to join the resistance in 1973, strikes a note of authority: “I wasn’t a Communist or a Socialist, but it didn’t seem like the kind of day to be choosy about your comrades.” And if Arturo’s own vaquero resolve is shadowed by quixotic futility, so much the better. The effect of “Cowboy Graves” is less the piecing together of a puzzle than the recentering of a whole, mythic world.

Not so with “Fatherland,” a sequence of early passes at the same material. Again, our protagonist is named Belano, but here he is “Rigoberto,” a kind of ur-Arturo. Here, too, we see the coup, but far from galloping toward it, Rigoberto remains passive, and gets dragged away. Our fascination comes mostly from spotting, amid the narrative shrapnel, flashes of future works and roads not taken. The skywriting Messerschmitt from “Distant Star,” the escape scene from “The Savage Detectives,” a shelf’s worth of “Nazi Literature in the Americas” — all are present, but as what Elena Ferrante has called frantumaglia, the primordial jumble from which the artist slowly extracts and elaborates the work.

Between these two bookends — cool triumph, hot mess — sits an unrelated piece called “French Comedy of Horrors.” It’s the most recent thing in the book, and, as the title suggests, the funniest — less a novella than a shaggy anecdote. Walking home from the beach after a solar eclipse, a young poet hears a pay phone ringing on a deserted street. When he answers, an unplaceable voice begins initiating him into the folkways of a secret society called the Clandestine Surrealist Group. “Or the Surrealist Group in Clandestinity,” the voice allows. The swirl of deadpan everydayness and “Twin Peaks”-y foreboding would sit easily alongside Bolaño’s earlier stories. But as with the title novella, the ironies here are deepened by our foreknowledge of the world that actually awaits the poet: laissez-faire where he wants to be engagé, iron-fisted where he would be free.

“Where will we be 15 years from now?” Bolaño writes. “We’ll be working in pharmacies, as clerks, or we’ll have left for the provinces to lead miserable lives. We’ll have children and aches and pains. No one will write. And this … country will be just the same as it is now.”

Even more than the “oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” (the Baudelairean epigraph to “2666”), this is what anchors the Bolañoverse: the loss of youth inscribing a larger loss of historical possibility, in an elegy for a future that never came to be. But at least inside the fiction, the possibility of change, of poetry, isn’t lost for good — just gone underground, like Bolaño himself. One needn’t exalt every fragment as a puzzle piece, or every story as a novella, to be staggered by his feats of resurrection.

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