(c) Mathieu Bourgois
1. THE BOLAÑO LIGHT, THE BOLAÑO DARK
In the event that you haven’t yet heard, there are a couple new and exciting Bolaño works available this season: The Third Reich (a brilliant and haunting novel translated by Natasha Wimmer, published by FSG) and Tres (a collection of three poems translated by Larua Healey, published by New Directions). This pair of recently translated books, as it turns out, happens to work together well in the context of the expanding world of the English-translated Bolaño. Third Reich is the scariest, grimmest, and angriest Bolaño novel I’ve read (it is the story of a German man who obsessively plays a board game that replicates the military activities of the Third Reich); Tres may be Bolaño’s funniest and, if we can say this about anything Bolaño wrote, the most light-hearted of his work heretofore translated into English. Because this is the FSG poetry blog, I’d like to try convincing you that Bolaño’s poetry is something you ought to read. The prose published by FSG is, among other things, brilliantly cynical, Third Reich included, and the poetry published by ND is strangely hopeful—point being, if you hope to stuff the stockings of your literary friends this year with something they’ll really appreciate, you should probably purchase and read and spread the word about both of these new books.
2. THE BOLAÑO DARK: HIS PROSE
Let’s take a preliminary look at Bolaño’s prose. Back in 2001, New Directions introduced English-speaking American readers to his narrative work when they published By Night In Chile, a short and magnificent novel about literature and everything sacred unfortunately consumed and transformed into something evil by nefarious political ambitions. This book established a kind of standard amongst our country’s nascent Bolaño readership: There is something strangely haunting about this man.
Maybe the easiest way to see this haunting quality is to take a look at the titles of his works translated and published on our soil in the past decade. Some of these works of prose include: 2666, The Savage Detectives, Nazi Literature in the Americas, By Night in Chile, The Insufferable Gaucho, Last Evenings on Earth.
The content of all these books is relentlessly dark, and these titles announce this darkness with a handful of words that signify something clearly quite grim: “Night,” “Last Evenings,” “Nazi,” “666.” In these works we the readers experience the darkness of failed revolutions (The Savage Detectives), of Nazism’s Westward migration to South America after the end of the Second World War (Nazi Literature in the Americas), of the recent rapes and murders committed by Mexio’s narcos in the Sonoran desert (2666), of the willed ignorance of citizens whose countries have climbed to the apex of criminality (Third Reich).
But those of us who’ve read any of these great works will, I think, agree that there persists a kind of heroic light in Bolaño’s dark tales. In 2666 we read: “So everything lets us down, including curiosity and honesty and what we love best. Yes, said the voice, but cheer up, it's fun in the end.” Call this “light” his sense of humor, or his irony, or his ability to communicate through language a powerful urgency. Call it whatever you like. But do not deny that you feel it, whatever it may be—that lightness that dances on the dark surface of his work.
3. THE BOLAÑO LIGHT: POETRY
Here’s what I think Bolaño would call this “light”: Poetry. He once said, “Poetry is braver than anyone.” Certainly that sounds nice, and the poet in all of us will respond positively to such a statement, but when he said that, what might he have meant by “brave”? He did not mean the bravery many of us here in the US think of as “bravery”: the audacity to walk on a tightrope strung between two skyscrapers, the will to leap overseas with guns loaded when called to do so by TV commercials, the refusal to limit to basic decency the lexicon of fourth-graders named Cartman or Kyle or Stan.
Tres shows us what he meant by bravery. It’s kind of honesty, the will to relinquish power, to lay bare all faults universally human—and, perhaps most importantly, this bravery consists of the decision to claim that none of these faults or darknesses will overtake the dignity of being human. It’s an attitude maybe exemplified by Kafka in Tres, in the dreamy and nightmarish poem entitled “A Stroll Through Literature”:
I dreamt that Earth was finished. And the only human being to contemplate the end was Franz Kafka. In heaven, the Titans were fighting to the death. From a wrought-iron seat in Central Park, Kafka was watching the world burn.
Bolaño-the-poet’s gods aren’t in heaven, they’re down here with us, and they’ll be here with us even if the world as we know it has ended. Those poets will be in Central Park, watching and taking notes as the world suffers its catastrophic end. Or consider this, from the same poem:
I dreamt that Pascal was talking about fear with crystal clear words at a tavern in Civitavecchia: Miracles don’t convert, they condemn, he said.
He’s referring to the Pascal we see in the Pensees, the poet who wrote with painful clarity about the fears we all feel. That Pascal’s writing was a kind of condemnational miracle. That is, his writing was poetry.
Two poems precede “A Stroll Through Literature”: “Prose From Autumn in Genoa” and “The Neochileans.” Want to read them? Buy the book. But before you go, a final quote from the very quote-able “A Stroll Through Literature”:
I dreamt that a storm of phantom numbers was the only thing left of human beings three billion years after Earth ceased to exist.
After reading Third Reich you may find some solace in that premonition of where our world’s headed, a storm of phantom numbers.