Another volume from the posthumous pen of. What to make of this collection, ripped from two volumes published in Spanish, Putas Asesinas and Llamadas Telefonicas?
I have no idea when these stories were written within the timeframe of the Bolano oeuvre. My hazard-a-guess would be they come from towards the end, rather than the beginning. The author starts to show a fascination with more colourful “characters”. Porn stars, footballers, a Parisian playboy, fashion designers. It might be that these stories, which seem dependent to a certain extent on the exoticism of their characters’ professions, do not work as effectively as those which adopt either a more neutral protagonist, or, the classical Bolanian trope, either a writer or the writer’s alter-ego. Belano or Bolaño appears in several of the stories. When he does it reminds us of what a skill it is to construct a self-referential protagonist without this seeming whimsical or self-indulgent. All too often, this device will lead (pace Amis) to something clunky and unconvincing. But when Bolaño makes an appearance in one of his own stories the voice, the turn of phrase, feels completely authentic. Of course, it is a voice from beyond the grave, but it almost feels as though the text was indeed written from that vantage point, the high peaks of death. One of the stories, The Return, is told by a dead man, but oddly the dead man’s voice here is less compelling than the dead voice of the author. Even though this is also the author’s voice and even though in the moment of writing the author was not, we imagine, actually dead.
Writing is by definition a self-indulgent process. The wife of a writer friend of mine once turned on him, telling him it was all masturbation. It’s a regular attack and, when the writer isn’t getting paid for their troubles, one that is not ungrounded. The writer plunges into the morass of their own mind, hoping to emerge with gems which, for some unknown reason, might be of interest to others. This is as much an urge as a skill, more an addiction than a virtue. What’s so beguiling about Bolaño is that the reader knows this is not a man who wrote for money or even for fame. He wrote because he obeyed the compulsion to write, something that is detached from the industry of writing, an industry which includes the whole paraphernalia of criticism. That compulsion, shaped and honed through both practice and the act of reading, lead to the unlikely event of his books sitting in your hand, or your digital device. There might be thousands of Bolaños out there, unread, undiscovered, drowned under the weight of their unrecognised words. It is worth bearing in mind that, although his success is not entirely posthumous, it is largely so. Right up until the beginning of the end, this is someone who wrote into the void, unafraid, refusing to be silenced by the absence of an echo that might have marked the point which defined the writing’s raison d’etre.
The last story here is an account of a dream, a dream wherein he meets the poet Enrique Lihn. The story states that the dream took place in ’99. Lihn died in ’98. Lihn is therefore a ghost, although ghosts are allowed to roam free in our dreams, whilst real life ordains they remain on the other side of the crepuscular surface of ‘reality’. The story doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s just an account of a dream. It mentions the fate of another five authors who Lihn once nominated as the future voices of Chilean literature, once upon a time, all of whom have either died or seen their stars fade. What is the point of this story, this dream? It doesn’t possess the classical virtues of a well-rounded story. Yet it marks a completely satisfying conclusion to the collection of short stories. Because this is a ghost writing about a ghost. Who was also a writer. Literature, for all its masturbatory tendencies, is a death defyer. The writer, from the cocoon of his absence, maintains a presence. The universe of literature, just like the literature of dreams, resists the supposed laws of physics. The writers egotistical I triumphs. Bolaño, one feels in his writing, had a grasp of this, much as Homer or whoever else one wants to name did. Those writers who are not so much charging over the precipice of their society, as most do, for fame or fortune, but charging over the precipice of mortality. An altogether more audacious, Quixotian endeavour.