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The Bolaño Syllabus, Updated

By posted at 6:01 am on November 15, 2010 6

coverThough the great Roberto Bolaño fever of 2008 appears to have moderated somewhat, this year saw new Bolaño titles pop up in American bookstores with the frequency of periodicals. We’ve probably passed that point in the hype cycle – and in Bolaño’s own back catalogue – where we might look for critical consensus: in January, reviewers seemed hesitant to gainsay Monsieur Pain; by autumn, The Return was getting a decidedly mixed reception. (In between, no one except our own Emily St. John Mandel seemed to know what to do with Antwerp.) So where was a Bolañophile to turn first?

We first tried to answer this question with our original Bolaño syllabus. With the aim of offering continued guidance to newcomers and enthusiasts alike, we’ve updated it below to take into account the two most recent novels and the thirteen stories in The Return. The Insufferable Gaucho will be added shortly. We continue to feel, hype notwithstanding, that this is one of the most important authors to emerge in the last decade, and we’ll try to stay on top of the work yet to appear: an essay collection, a book of poetry, and The Sorrows of the Real Policeman (a.k.a. the “sixth part of 2666.”)

coverUpdated 1. “Dance Card” and “Sensini” (from Last Evenings on Earth) and “Detectives” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

Together, these three stories offer a précis of the personal mythology that animates Bolaño’s most important writing. The first explores Latin American – and especially Chilean – politics in the 1960s and 1970s and their impact on a generation of young writers. The second finds a Bolaño-like narrator many years later, in artistic and geographic exile. The third offers a finer-grained look at “Arturo Belano’s” brief but transformative stint in Pinochet’s prison system.

cover2. Nazi Literature in the Americas [1996]

This early novel, a compendium of fictional writers, offers our first glimpse of the hugeness of Bolaño’s ambition. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to his peculiar sense of humor, which compacts the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. It’s a favorite (See our review).

cover3. Distant Star [1996]

When it was published, this probably constituted Bolaño’s most compelling narrative to date. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives. Another favorite.

4. “Last Evenings on Earth” and “The Grub” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

Tales of young Arturo Belano, I’m guessing. The former provides one of Bolaño’s rare glimpses of fatherhood; the latter introduces the Caborca knife and Villaviciosa, the town of assassins. Both are implicated in Bolaño’s later work.

coverUpdated 5. Antwerp [1980s – 2002]

New Directions’ decision to publish this 90-page novella as a hardcover initially roused my suspicions, but it amply repays the investment. It is a total avant-garde freakout, and has to be among the most linguistically beautiful things Bolaño wrote. Initially, it presents as an aleatory collection of prose poems, half Nicanor Parra, half David Lynch. Quickly, though, it develops into a kind of quantum murder mystery, in which we’re trying to identify both the perpetrator and crime. In its enjambment of poetry and mayhem, a perfect set-up for…

cover6. The Savage Detectives [1999]

What remains to be said about The Savage Detectives? Once you read this book, you’ll want to read everything else this guy wrote (See our review).

7. “Photos” (from The Return) [1999]

A moving coda to The Savage Detectives, this story finds Arturo Belano in exile, as usual.

8. The Romantic Dogs [1980 – 1998]

Now that you’ve read The Savage Detectives, you’re probably wondering: why all this fuss about poetry? You’re probably also willing to bear with this collection, which mingles wheat and chaff, cream and crop, as it further adumbrates Bolaño’s personal mythology. It’s worth noting that Bolaño’s gifts as a poet – narrative, character, and a dreamlike vision – are identical to his gifts as a novelist.

Updated 9. “Henri Simon LePrince,” “A Literary Adventure,” and “Anne Moore’s Life” [2001]; “Phone Calls,” “Vagabond in France and Belgium,” and “Days of 1978″ [1997] (from Last Evenings on Earth), “Meeting With Enrique Lihn” (from The Return) [2001]

The first three of these stories read like minor-key variations on Nazi Literature. The second three share a narrator, B, who in some incarnation – protagonist or revenant – haunts most of Bolaño’s fiction. And the third offers us a literary dream that feels almost like a dry-run for “Sensini.”

Updated 10.“Cell Mates” and “Clara” (from The Return) [1997]

Two of Bolaño’s most straightforward and accessible stories about love, these nonetheless manage to be mysteriously harrowing.

cover11. The Skating Rink [1993]

I humbly dissent from Wyatt Mason; this isn’t a masterpiece. It is Bolaño’s first published novel, however, and is one of his most technically accomplished. It won a regional writing contest, back in the days when (per “Sensini”) Bolaño was entering scores of them. By this point, such things are probably interesting to you.

12. “Joanna Silvestri,” “Snow,” “Buba” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

This triumvirate is, for me, the heart of The Return. Whereas the earlier Bolaño collection in English circled around the author’s fictional mirror image, these three – concerning a porn star, a gangster, and a soccer star, respectively – look outward, with spectacular results.

13. “Gomez Palacio,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” “Dentist” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

To hell with technique; here the other side of Bolaño holds sway. These pieces are not so much crafted as dreamed into being, and the hallucinatory intensity of the latter two serve as a perfect warm-up for 2666…

cover14. Amulet [1999]

…As does this novella-length expansion on an incident from The Savage Detectives. I don’t think this one is as successful as Distant Star, but by now, you’re willing to forgive that, right? Arturo Belano features heavily here. And the heroine, Auxilio Lacoutre, feels like a sketch for Florita Almada of 2666…about which Auxilio (like Césarea Tinajero) seems to be having visions…is anyone else getting dizzy?

15. “Enrique Martin” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [2001]

This is one of my two or three favorite Bolaño stories. Enrique seems to have contracted his numerological delirium from Auxilio and Césarea.

16. 2666 [2004]

Supernova and apotheosis. You can read my take here.

coverUpdated 17. Monsieur Pain [1981 – 1982]

Again, I dissent from the newspaper reviews. Monsieur Pain strikes me as the least essential of Bolaño’s novels to appear in English. It’s palpably an early work, and far less incendiary than Antwerp. Atmospherically, it has affinities with his best short novels, but in historical drag that somehow cuts against Bolaño’s usual sense of suspense. At this point you may be willing to put up with that.

Updated 18. “William Burns,” “Murdering Whores” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

Speaking of inessential, I wasn’t particularly taken with these two.

Updated 19. “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura” (from The Return) [2001]

This story, on the other hand, deserves mention alongside the stronger “Joanna Silvestri” for its enthusiastically gritty take on the porn industry. Curiously, this Lalo Cura is not the same as – or at least doesn’t share parents with – the character of that name we meet in 2666. Hence “prefiguration?”

cover20. By Night in Chile [2000]

Some people think that this short, late novel is Bolaño’s finest, and though I don’t agree with them, it’s always good to save something for dessert. Of all Bolaño’s books, this one seems to have the fewest connections with the others, and so perhaps it would be as good a place to start as to end.

Updated 21. “The Return” (from The Return) [2001]

This story, at once revolutionary and relaxed, suggests to me where Bolaño might be headed were he still alive to day…which is to say, everywhere.





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6 Responses to “The Bolaño Syllabus, Updated”

  1. NME
    at 7:37 pm on November 15, 2010

    Ugh, they’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel now. Bolano has to be the most over-hyped ‘literary’ writer in my lifetime. LAST EVENINGS ON EARTH is pretty good, but I’m amazed how many people consider the sloppy 2666 a success, not to speak of the lesser works.

  2. Tom B.
    at 12:35 am on November 16, 2010

    Distant Star is the best introduction to Bolano among the novels — it’s short and well-focused. Someone who likes crime novels would be likely to take to it. That said, I picked up The Savage Detectives one afternoon and was hooked within about 20 pages.

    The recent releases, though — Monsieur Pain, The Return, The Skating Rink, etc., I can’t get into them. With the exception Antwerp, that’s some heavy drug.

  3. George Balanchine
    at 7:56 am on November 23, 2010

    Hello Mr. Hallberg,

    “brief but transformative stint in Pinochet’s prison system.”

    That’s one way of talking about being imprisoned by a military dictatorship. But then I suppose spending time in the Gulag would be ‘transformative’ as well. Calling this intellectually lazy is an insult to time-wasters everywhere.
    Wow man, you really can’t write at all.

    Sincerely,
    George Balanchine

  4. Luke Dunlap
    at 4:35 pm on December 1, 2010

    I thought that the first edition of this syllabus made sense largely agree with the logic presented in the revisions. I agree with Tom that Distant Star may be the best intro to Bolaño’s oeuvre. It was the first one I read (when it came out in English and before Anglophones had heard of 2666) and I still think about the story, its protagonist, and its stylistic and character ties to subsequent works. In fact, I’m overdue to re-read it. I now read everything as soon as it’s released in English, and I have to say that Monsieur Pain was by far his weakest full-length work.

    Amulet? Interesting experience reading it. I read it cover-to-cover on a short flight and found it riveting. I really think one must have a lot of Bolaño experience to make sense of it, and even then, be in the proper frame of mind. It’s strange, because I usually have a hard time reading a lot of prose on airplanes, but this was a great experience in that setting. This is required reading for any serious Bolaño enthusiast.

    2666…well, what a feast, and it should be read (and savored) last. I maintain my position that expressed on the last syllabus: Savage Detectives is the most fun and the capstone of the Bolaño experience. It’s in a totally different vein from 2666, and the one I will keep re-reading. It would be a shame for anyone wanting to be cool to read 2666 and bypass this gem.

    There is something to look forward to in 2012–the English translation of El Tercer Reich, a fairly lengthy novel about a wargame enthusiast. I have the Spanish edition and will probably read it, however slowly, before the translation is released. It looks promising and will no doubt be greeted with fanfare and mucho gusto.

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    at 11:50 am on December 3, 2010

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