Of course Bolaño himself was first of all a poet. Only in his last decade, with a family to support and death swiping at his heels—he learned in 1992 that he was terminally ill—did Bolaño turn to prose, fiction being a more gainful grit than verse. He wrote furiously during those years, publishing four novels, as many novellas, and three short story collections before his death at the age of 50 in 2003. His last and greatest novel, the gargantuan 2666, was released posthumously and is only now available in English. Relatively few poets appear in its 900-plus pages. All of his other longer works, though, are swimming with them. Most of them are very, very bad.
This is especially true of the book that brought Bolaño to prominence in 1996, Nazi Literature in the Americas. Bolaño’s most Borgesian novel, it takes the form of a reference book composed of brief biographies of imagined fascist writers whose lives occasionally intermingle with those of actual Latin American authors. The result is cruelly, often painfully comical. Take his invented Luz Mendiluce Thompson, an obese, alcoholic Argentine poet who treasured a photo of her infant self in Hitler’s arms and whose poem “I Was Happy with Hitler” was “misunderstood by the Right and the Left alike.”
Bolaño would expand one entry from Nazi Literature into the chilling novella Distant Star, about Carlos Wieder, a fictional Chilean poet and air force pilot who pens his enigmatic verses (“Death is cleansing”) in smoke across the sky. To clarify his intent, Wieder moonlights with Pinochet’s death squads. By Night in Chile treads similar ground. The novella is a single, unbroken monologue, the self-justifying confession of a Chilean priest, conservative literary critic and failed poet haunted by his complicity with the Pinochet regime. Like Distant Star, it is a powerfully off-putting tale, less for any actual violence than for the uneasy sympathy it arouses. Bolaño seems to have needed badly to understand his characters, if only to figure out what had gone so horribly wrong, as if poetry itself had failed him.
Bolaño was born in Chile, but left at 15 when his family moved to Mexico City in 1968, the year of the student massacre at Tlatelolco. He quickly threw himself into radical politics and poetry, which would remain for him, for a while at least, a single entity. He writes of his early loss of poetic innocence in a semi-autobiographical short story in which he tells of befriending filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowski, “who, for me, was the Archetype of the Artist.” In the story, called “Dance Card,” Jodorowski declares Nicanor Parra, the great iconoclastic “antipoet,” to be Chile’s finest poet. Young Bolaño, who has not yet read Parra, disagrees, insisting that honor belongs to Pablo Neruda. They argue until Bolaño bursts into tears and leaves. The break proves final, both with Jodorowski and Neruda, whose lyricism Bolaño comes to find tainted, cloying, false.
Three years later, after the election of Salvador Allende in 1973, Bolaño returned to Chile “to help build socialism.” The first two books he bought there were Parra’s. But things did not work out. Pinochet staged a coup. Allende shot himself. Bolaño was arrested. “They didn’t torture me,” he remembers, but “In the small hours I could hear them torturing others.” He was lucky, and was let go. “I had lost a country / but won a dream,” he writes in the title poem of The Romantic Dogs, the first volume of his poetry to be published in English. “And sometimes I’d retreat inside myself / and visit the dream: a statue eternalized / in liquid thoughts, / a white worm writhing in love. / A runaway love. / A dream within another dream.”
That dream, its stubborn survival despite all evidence of its defeat, would become the subject of much of Bolaño’s writing. He caresses it, rejects it, resents it, but always returns to it. In the poem “Parra’s Footsteps,” he writes of it almost as a burden: “The revolution is called Atlantis / And it’s ferocious and infinite / But it’s totally pointless / Get walking, then, Latin Americans / Get walking get walking / Start searching for the missing footsteps / Of the lost poets / in the motionless mud. . . .”
In 1974 Bolaño returned to Mexico, and for the next few years—a period lovingly chronicled in the novel The Savage Detectives—was able to live off the vapors of that dream. With a friend named Mario Santiago, he founded a gang of poet-pranksters called the Infrarealists. In The Savage Detectives, they become the Visceral Realists; Bolaño disguises himself, barely, as his fictional double Arturo Belano and gives Santiago new life through the character Ulises Lima. Tellingly, he doesn’t quote a single line of their verse. They sell grass, talk and drink and talk. They become the terrors of the local poetry scene, heckling at readings given by poets they don’t like, threatening to kidnap Octavio Paz. In real life, they spilled a drink on him.
Behind the goofy hijinks is a wary, already heartbroken version of the insurrectionary spirit that had sent Bolaño to Allende’s Chile: “Our ethics is Revolution, our esthetics is Life: one-single thing,” he writes in a Breton-inspired First Infrarealist Manifesto. The depths of his political disillusion are apparent enough (“We dreamt of utopia and woke up screaming.”), but he’s hardly cynical. For all his posturing, the young Bolaño is arguing for a passionate, uncompromising commitment to poetry-as-liberation. His legions of fascist antiheroes will demonstrate again and again that purity is murderous. Transcendence stinks. Poetry that seeks it—the lyrical, the epic—reeks of dishonesty. Only the fleeting can be trusted. If it means anything, poetry means resistance, stoic courage. “The true poet is the one who is always abandoning himself,” Bolaño writes. “Leave it all behind, again,” his manifesto ends. “Take it to the road.”
And so he does, in fact and fiction both. At the end of The Savage Detectives, Belano and Lima drive north from Mexico City, searching for an obscure disappeared poet named Cesárea Tinajero, the heroine of a previous era’s secret avant-garde. (Bolaño’s fiction is filled with quests for lost poets and artists, grail-like bearers of his insurgent dreams.) Somewhere in the desert of Sonora, just outside the fictional city of Santa Teresa, things go seriously wrong. Belano and Lima take off for Europe.
Like his fictional double, Bolaño left Mexico in 1977, vagabonding about Europe for years, ultimately settling down in Spain. But the poems in Romantic Dogs remain obsessed with what he left behind. They’re thick with melancholy and residual awe, as if life had ended at 24. He doesn’t blame himself for not measuring up to his own demands: a life devoted to the transitory, he knows, can only turn out badly. It’s not by accident that his lost poets are so often found in asylums. But Bolaño refuses to sit in judgment on his youth. In “Romantic Dogs,” he writes, “back then, growing up would have been a crime.”
His old friend Mario Santiago appears repeatedly in these poems. “Visit to the Convalescent” describes their trip to see another friend, Darío. “It’s 1976 and the Revolution has been defeated / but we’ve yet to find out,” the poem begins. “It’s 1976 and even though all the doors seem to be open, / in fact, if we paid attention, we’d be able to hear how / one by one the doors are closing.” The poem ends on a mournful note, simultaneously resigned and defiant. Bolaño recalls even then sensing the presence of “that unnamable thing, part of the dream, that many / years later / we will call by various names meaning defeat. / The defeat of true poetry, which we write / in blood. / And semen and sweat, says Darío. / And tears, says Mario. / Though none of us is crying.”
This notion of “true poetry,” defeated but not dead, comes up more than once, usually in reference to Santiago. Bolaño describes him “appearing and disappearing like true poetry.” It’s a heavy phrase for a consummate ironist like Bolaño, but as the novelist Benjamin Kunkel observes, “Bolaño’s piety is not to be distinguished from his irony.” The only faith he permits himself is a devotion to an ideal he knows to be at best tragic, at worst ridiculous. Maturity, with its heavy burden of grief, has little to recommend it, but neither does the stubborn, self-destructive nobility embodied by Santiago, who died a solitary alcoholic, hit by a car in 1998.
In a poem called “The Donkey,” Bolaño writes, “Sometimes I dream that Mario Santiago / Comes looking for me on his black motorcycle.” They ride north, “Chasing . . . the dream of our youth, / Which is to say the bravest of all / Our dreams.” Bolaño describes the northern deserts: “Land of flies and little lizards, dried brush / And blizzards of sand, the only imaginable stage / For our poetry.”
It is there, in those deserts—both literal and metaphoric—that Bolaño sets his last novel, 2666. Most of the book takes place in the same fictional city of Santa Teresa outside which he left Belano and Lima at the end of The Savage Detectives. But Belano and Lima do not appear in 2666. The central tension that pushed much of his earlier work—the stubborn, dolefully celebratory faith in a dream he knew had been defeated—is largely absent here. There’s no more disappointment, just the freedom of despair. For all its whimsy, 2666 is a sad, nightmarish book. Its plots (the novel is composed of five loosely linked novellas) circle around the serial murders of women and girls in and around Santa Teresa, a stand-in for the real-world Ciudad Juárez, where more than 400 women have been killed since the early 1990s. This is the world in the absence of poetry, or at least in the absence of any that might be called true.
There are poets, of course. There’s even a poet in a madhouse. One of the other inmates attacks him. “He raised his hand the way someone might raise a tattered flag. He moved his fingers, each finger, as if his fingers were a flag in flames, the flag of the unvanquished.” Then he drops his hand into another patient’s robe, and gropes him.
There’s an ex-poet turned into a high-ranking cultural official who is called El Cerdo (“The Pig”) even by his friends. He has learned the important lesson that “Distancing oneself from power is never good.” He carries a pistol, and no longer writes. (Literature and power, as always in Bolaño’s work, are eternal enemies.) One of the only direct intrusions of the authorial voice in the novel is Bolaño’s parenthetical insistence that a “bad Soviet poet” is “as oblivious and foolish and prissy and gutless and affected as a Mexican lyrical poet, or actually a Latin American lyrical poet, that poor stunted and bloated phenomenon.”
The word “lyrical” is key—recall his opinion of Neruda. Elsewhere Bolaño has the character most like himself, a depressive Chilean expatriate philosophy professor named Amalfitano, hear voices that tell him, “there is no lyric poetry that isn’t the gurgle or chuckle of egoists, the murmur of cheats, the babble of traitors.”
The only person to sing poetry’s praises is a mysterious young tough who may be a policeman or a killer, or both. “People are cowards to the last breath,” he tells Amalfitano. “Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated . . . . Only poetry isn’t shit.” But the fact that his hunger for purity, for some cleansing violence, so precisely echoes the versifying fascists of Bolaño’s early novels begs the question: perhaps it is shit. Perhaps everything is.
Bolaño doesn’t go quite that far. He gets close, though. In 2666, to paraphrase his old hero Nicanor Parra, Bolaño is dancing at the edge of the abyss. The point is not the abyss’s proximity, but that he’s dancing: “So everything lets us down,” Amalfitano says to the voice in his head, “including curiosity and honesty and what we love best.”
“Yes,” the voice answers, “but cheer up, it’s fun in the end.”