Traces of Jorge Borges in Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolano channels the many characteristics that made Jorge Borges a great writer in his book, “The Insufferable Gaucho”

Roberto Bolano
Roberto Bolano

Borges died in 1986. At about the same time Roberto Bolaño was rising to become the most interesting author of emerging Spanish-language literature. Jorge Borges shares his inexhaustible imagination with Roberto Bolano, which allows him to invent new, surprising, hyperrealist or absurd texts. The variety of places, actions and sounds in the five stories of Bolano’s “Insufferable Gaucho” is impressive. He makes reading pleasurable.

With Borges, Bolaño also shares his astonishing discipline. In the book, one can admire them in two brilliant literary-theoretical essays and also in the witty intertextual allusions of the narrations. Bolaño is distiguished from Borges by the fact that he is also an author of erotic obsessions alongside the leitmotivs of traveling, writing and violence (especially in his forays into the thriller genre).

Borges is also distinguished by his biography and his political attitude. While Borges at least initially welcomed the Argentine military dictatorship, the Bolaño, born in Santiago in 1953, fled to Spain after the Chilean military coup. Before that, he spent many years of his youth in Mexico. He had just returned to Chile when the army launched a putsch and immediately imprisoned him for a week. In Spain, the land of his grandparents, he then became a port worker and night watchman and began publishing in the 1980s.

His work includes more than a dozen books; From 1997 to the year of his death, in 2003, he wrote one every year. About two-thirds of these are novels, the remaining  are collections of short stories. Only half of his works are available in English. Among them is the narrative collection, “Telephone Calls”. Among his protagonists in this collection is a former porn star, who recalls her suffering from AIDS inside a clinic – or a talentless author, who seems to turn anything into to collaboration, and who rescues writers threatened with deportation.

Another book, I have read is the collection of more than 30 portraits of authors from both Americas, “The Nazi Literature in the Americas,” which, in the mode of a fantastic hyperrealism, invented a genuinely fictional manual of right-wing writers. This parody is an abysmal literary play, which with its many too credible details is also a poignant criticism of mainly South American realities.

Of the novels are translated, I have read “The Savage Detectives.” This artful polyphonic novel was compared to Pynchon and Cortazar. In addition to these books, I have also read Bolano’s gloomy novel about evil, ‘Distant Star’ and also ‘Amulet’ – a novel about memories and hopes of a literature lover, who hides from a backdrop of political violence for 13 days inside a university stadium.

I am infinitely curious about Bolaño’s great novel, 2666, which is as dense as it appears and as obscure as the title suggests.

The author handed the manuscript to the publisher just shortly before he went to the hospital to wait for a liver transplant. The transplant never happened. Reflections on disease and literature are discussed in his essay, Literature + Disease = Disease. The lecture is devoted to the relationship between illness, travel and writing with black humor. He combines his own observations from the hospital with pointed remarks on Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Kafka. The motto of the book is also the motto of the volume (possibly prophetic of his own death): “Perhaps we will not be without much.”

“The only thing that impatient people want is to be fucked,” he said, “the worst of his life,” he said Philosopher of the twentieth century, wanted nothing else but to fuck, even the dead, I’ve read somewhere, just want to fuck. ” These convulsive interjections, of course, lead to a melancholy conclusion: “All this cosmic explosion, all these cumulus and cirrus clouds, which populate our imaginary geography, leave a sad ending. But it can also be a nightmare. ”

The second literary-critical text of this mixed collection, is an angry and at the same time elegant and witty calculation with the rules of the literature business. He describes poets as eccentric functionaries who produce media-fair, globally marketable folklore instead of poetry. Of the five short stories, the shortest is “Jim,” an American Vietnam veteran, who became a murderous writer. He travels to Peru and Mexico, preferring to be robbed rather than struggle against it. He looks for “an exceptional thing and translate it into common, familiar words.” The narrator preserves Jim from burning in the flames of a firefighter, but gets tired of life immediately afterwards. The title “The Insufferable Gaucho” refers to Manuel Pereda, a faultless lawyer and father, who said that: “To not be happy  is  difficult in Buenos Aires, a perfect blend of Paris and Berlin, as he found, although, if you take a closer look, it is a perfect mix between Lyon and Prague.”

During the Argentine economic crisis, happiness crumbles. Pereda retreats to the mythical land of the Pampas. But he finds that the Gauchos no longer tend to cows. They also avoid ritualistic machinations. They feed on rabbits who have mutated into dangerous bloodthirsty assailants.

The encounter of the old man with a psychiatrist is just as strange as the visit of his son, a writer who comes to the country with other authors and his publisher. The old man returns once more to his former bourgeois sphere of influence in the city, but then retreats back to the desert land. His unreal form of existence as an ‘Insufferable Gaucho’ can be read as a parable on the uprooting of Argentine society. Both the city and the country life conjured up by a long literary tradition are transformed into surrealistic ciphers of expropriation in Bolaño.

It is unclear who is more delirious: the old man or the world. Two Catholic stories tell of religious sacrificial fantasies irritatingly in first person. The narrative of “José, the rat policeman” also revolves around bloody violence. He is the nephew of the singer Josefine. Bolaño’s homage to Kafka unfolds in the sober, precise tone from the cosmos of a sympathetic people living in underground corridors, which must defend themselves against martens and other enemies. José, the brave policeman, becomes a lonely hero, who looks heroically at the dangers and unpleasant truths. Against the repression of his colleagues, who do not want to do this, he realizes that some dead rats are obviously the victims of a killer and not their enemies. The discovery that rats kill rats is equivalent to a fall from innocence. “The journey of Alvaro Rousselot” is a splendid parody of the Latin-European literature relations. The fictitious Argentine author Rousselot is looking for the filmmaker in Paris, who penned two of his novels as a plagiarist (and, at the same time, the most loyal reader). The laconic tone with which Bolaño tells the various books of the imaginary authors and their fate in the market, is as captivating as his amorous and detective experiences in French capitals.

The encounter of how the author fails to change from brave husband in Paris to becoming a Latin lover with his love-hate of plagiarism is not revealed here.

On the other hand, the small book offers a thoroughly recommendable entry into the œuvre of Bolaño, whose fame since his Death in 2003 still seems to rise steadily. These stories are gorgeously sculptured and formulated in a gorgeously polished prose. The translation in English has presented the book in a handsomely made envelope. A quotation from Bolaños philippic, which is slightly misleading in its irony, is plaguing the literary enterprise. Instead of the being confined to the Pampa of gaucho, the space of his literature extends all over the world and opens up imaginatively parallel worlds. The insufferable in the title also points to Milan Kundera’s masterpiece. With him, the Chilean-Spanish author shares melancholy as a side-effect of eroticism and politics. And, fortunately for the reader: the elegance of form.

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