Sunday, July 1, 2007

By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolaño

I've been meaning to read a book by Bolaño since I read this New Yorker piece about him, and then a glowing omnibus review by James Wood, a critic whom I respect greatly. (There was also an omnibus review in the NY Review of Books this week which was similarly effusive.)

The book that has gotten the most attention by far is the longest yet translated, The Savage Detectives, and I really would like to start that this summer if at all possible. But I have the wonderful opportunity of perhaps speaking with Ilán Stavans, one of the foremost academics writing about Latin American culture and literature today, some time in the next two weeks; I am currently in Amherst, and he teaches here, even occasionally lecturing for the kids at the camp. His lectures on Spanglish, Neruda, and Elizabeth Bishop last year were among the best experiences I had all summer. I wanted to have read something by Bolaño before talking to him, so I picked this novella up. It is dazzling.

Narrated as a deathbed confession—a set-up worthy of an anticipatory grimace, but Bolaño never falters—he deploys this framing device with a feverish intensity worthy of Dostoevsky. But, oh dear god, what goes in that frame. There is really nothing in recent literature that I have read to compare with the sheer entrancing creativity of the falconry section that occurs just after the midpoint of the novel or so, and there are moments involving certain famous personages which are so well constructed that the reader cannot fail to feel an blushing proximity to the narrator's brush with fame (and infamy).

I worry that the slavering attention Bolaño has received these past few months will burn itself out in a year or two—for if that happens, the fault will not be in Bolaño nor in his books, but in our cultural attention deficit, and we will have lost the chance for a proper judgment on his work. I suppose it is premature of me to say this, but there is no doubt in my mind that the work of Roberto Bolaño demands a place of equal stature with the giants of the last century—and not just the Latin American giants (Borges, García Marquéz), but worldwide.

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