note: inertia

Before I get into the body of this I should say that I have never read 2666 or the Savage Detectives. I found out about Roberto Bolano through an interview with Pete Swanson, of the Yellow Swans, who was reading Savage Detectives at the time. He was also recommending banana, muesli and yoghurt. I was in the middle of my dissertation and so had been writing books down that I wanted to read afterwards on a large bit of cardboard taped to my wall, and that was the end of the Savage Detectives for a while.

At the start of Pontypool, a black screen and a voice talks about Norman Mailer’s theory about coincidences surrounding the death of someone culturally important. He uses the example of JFK, and describes the way the fabric of reality swells outwards for a moment before shrinking back and solidifying around these pockets of happening. Nothing changes, but certain things are aligned in proximity or thought. In terms of Normal Mailer, this was a very romantic way to describe his obsession with the assassination of JFK and the conspiracy theories that surrounded it. Just as popular culture has taught us that the best detectives are nothing but killers without a motive, it takes someone pathologically disposed towards conspiracy theories to study them to the point of romance; to be obsessed with a conspiracy is only one step inward of being obsessed with conspiracy theories, just as being obsessed with killing is a click away from being obsessed with killers.

A couple of weeks later, in a newspaper I never usually read, I found two pages dedicated to one of Bolano’s short stories. After that I read Last Evenings on Earth, and I liked how the stories seemed obvious and easy in their construction: they were about writers, or poets, with very similar names to Bolano or his friends and heroes, or else were simply about people called A and B and C, without turning themselves into allegories. They were about people living in the Americas and submitting stories for competitions – later, thinking about these stories, I decided that they were simple but not really that simple at all, and the only way that they could be constructed so easily was because the author had created this inward facing world where these were the only things that existed, in that he was a writer and a poet writing about writers and poets in his short stories, trying to sell them to magazines and win competitions, and the short stories contained A or B or C who were trying to get by on writing, swapping tips on competitions or people. The stories were caught in an orbit, or more like a storm, where to stop meant that everything would fall to the ground or instead collapse inwards and expand into some boring overly self reflexive bullshit. I also liked the way they reminded me of Borges, even though I’ve only ever read essays about Borges and never any of his actual writing, fiction or (non-) fiction.

Of course, I was soon to read that one of Bolano’s major influences was Borges, on a photo finish with Nicanor Parra. It was on the strength of Parra’s poem The Trap that I bought Bolano’s collection of poems, Romantic Dogs.

One of the most fascinating things about Bolano is his insistence on poetry. Through interviews and his own stories it is obvious that he regarded poetry with much more importance than prose fiction, and without the Savage Detectives or 2666 you could easily draw the conclusion that he was as satisfied with the short form (poems, or stories) as Barthes or Borges. My feeling is that he drew the short form in closer alignment with political or revolutionary action – I read that he and a group of young Chilean poets would attend readings and, if they didn’t like the poet, would heckle with their own poems. Putting themselves squarely in the firing line. I haven’t read Bolano’s poems with this literary vigilanteism in mind, but you would have to either be profoundly stupid, inexplicably confident or very, very, very good. Bolano is not very very very good – Romantic Dogs, for whatever reason, is the only collection available in English, out of what must really be at least hundreds of poems that he has not published for one reason or another; it is good, but it is not very very good – but nor is he stupid, and I think the confidence comes from this bubble that he not only existed in but wrote about, wholly wrote about, all the time; any other short story seems like some anecdotal tale the protagonist A would tell to guest B at one of the parties or meetings or while trawling the newspapers for story competitions.

Another reason seems to be that poems are essentially free. We give them away when we read them aloud (or shout them over a crowd); a single poems is incredibly easy to copy out and pass around, whether by hand or on the internet, or to anthologise and collect. This is not to say that he found them dispensable, but it seems that he equated poems with action and free(dom), and fiction with solidity and money. This points some way towards the monumental anomalies that are 2666 and the Savage Detectives, which he wrote to fund the existence of his wife and children. It may only be this way because of 2666 posthumous publication, but Bolano always seemed effortlessly sure that these two huge books would basically equate to a trust fund for his children; the overridden request that 2666 be published in 5 parts, one a year, to give his children an annual allowance speaks to an economic relationship with fiction that many serious writers simply cannot comprehend. I have never heard of another writer – apart from perhaps Ian McEwan – who can budget a publication into their life, and death. But I am probably just being naïve here. I am sure that many writers have attained stability.

This is perhaps the moment where I have to stop talking about the novels, because I have not read them, but flicking through the Savage Detectives made it seem like a series of long short stories – three sections, one of which is a long series of interviews; and 2666, as I have said, is essentially five separate books. This idea is another with which Bolano tries to skirt around the novel without actually writing one, and reminds me of Hopscotch, a favourite of either Bolano or Parra or Borges, written by an Argentinian called Julio Cortazar. (As a side note to similarities, the brief biography of Cortazar in the back of the novel mentions that ‘until the publication of his first novel last year, Senor Cortazar was chielfy known for his brilliant short stories.’) Hopscotch is another long one, but not quite as long – 550 pages or so – but detaches complete responsibility from either the length or the label of ‘novel’ by opening with a kind of preface:

In its own way, this book consists of many books, but two books above all. The reader is invited to choose between these two possibilities:

The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with chapter 56,  at the close of which there are three garish little stars which stand for the words ‘The End’. Consequently, the reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience.

The second can be read by beginning with chapter 73 and then following the sequence indicated at the end of each chapter. In the case of confusion or forgetfulness, one need only consult the following list:












Each chapter has its number at the top of every right-hand page to facilitate the search.

Unlike the beginnings of a few specific post-modern/playfully self-reflexive novels, you have to take this preface completely seriously. The fact that it was first published in Spanish in 1963 may have something to do with it – I think I unfairly associate a certain kind of disingenuous postmodernity with North American and, to a lesser extent, British writers – but this preface seems meticulous and flamboyant but, ultimately, controlled. If I were looking at this more seriously I might find an elaborate joke hidden in these numbers or their relation to the novel, but on the face of it they seem to make a certain sense – the standard progression of chapters 1,2,3,4 etc working numerically upwards through a series of byroads of 73,116,84 etc (set beyond the ‘first’ book which ends at 56), before finishing with a coda of 131, 58, 131. By dividing it into so many sections and alerting the reader at every corner that they really don’t have to read it in this order, it eliminates much of the suspension of disbelief that carries you so far through the more arduous passages of long novels. It also guides you into that same Borgesian question – is he serious? Is this bit true? What if I read it this way around? Is this part of his life? The impossible amount of permutations are the answer, in that you might find out if you try all of them – all of the realistically impossible permutations. My name is legion, for we are many. Just like the story of Gerasene demon, you end up with a powerfully false allegory.

So now we have a Bolano that can’t keep still for fear of the insular world losing the centrifugal force, and who must – even when writing something solid and huge – create the illusion, like Cortazar, of weightlessness. Now that we’re finally here I want to link back to the reasons I first started to read Last Evenings on Earth and consequently everything else, which means that I want to go back to that very first short story I read by Bolano in the supplement magazine of the daily paper I don’t usually read. I think it was the Sunday Times. The story was about a poet meeting another poet, and idol of his, and their consequent friendship through conversations and letters and, if I remember correctly, the decline of one or the other not into old age but into a kind of lifeless resilience that he promised the other would feel some day soon. That summary is quite possibly wholly inaccurate, but the thing I remember most about the story is the way it fitted perfectly onto this two page spread, and that the sentences were very similar in form and balance so that a rhythm was built up across the page – obviously, I saw then, a poet – and the way the story ended with the word ‘inertia’ and didn’t have a full stop. I didn’t know whether it was customary for this paper to cut the last full stop from the stories it published, or whether it was a singular decision based on the fact that the story fitted exactly on the pages without the full stop, or whether it was just a typo, but that word inertia – continuing, as the definition, off the edge of the page with nothing to stop it – mirrored the continuous lilt of the rhythm and theme of the story, of carrying on until something, possibly death; and it went on to echo in everything I would subsequently read by or about Bolano. It has also become one of my most (over)used techniques when writing poetry – which is why this long tirade is here in the first place – and I either let lines scatter off the edge of the page into the white bits without words, or purposefully highly punctuate the rest of the poem while leaving the last line blank and open, without commas or colons or a final stop. I realise now that this sense of ambiguous and continuing motion crops up in most things that I try to realise in poetry or prose, right into the unfinished diagrams of architecture that Richard produces in the short story of the previous post, Fingerbone, where the beams stretch off into an infinite sky, losing their structural definition and turning into lines and then leading into white or blue nothingness.

I suppose all that’s left here is to read the Savage Detectives, 2666, Hopscotch and Bolano’s last interview, and to find out if it carries through or if I’ve just made a whole load of baseless claims that will, nevertheless, continue to be a powerful (false) influence.


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