Photo courtesy of New Directions
A story might begin like so: “William Burns, from Ventura, California, told this story to my friend Pancho Monge, a policeman from Santa Teresa, Sonora, who passed it on to me…” There’s the suggestion that what’s about to unfurl was simply transcribed from a friendly conversation, or perhaps a drunken, wee-hour confession. Sometimes the names of the characters are the same as those of real people, such as the late porn actor John Holmes. Sometimes these names read as obvious covers for the author himself. These qualities imbue the stories in Roberto Bolaño’s The Return (New Directions, $30) with a seductive intimacy, the allure of secrets being shared, of something once hiding in the world being excavated. But then we remember that there’s no such place as Santa Teresa in the state of Sonora, that John Holmes died in 1988, not 1990, and that it might be advisable to avoid confusing Arturo Belano with Roberto Bolaño, however compelling the illusion. Bolaño’s best stories often hover in this twilight realm where the conviction of the narrator’s voice, speaking to us softly as though over the airwaves, allows us to lose sight of the frontiers between the factual, the apocryphal, and the dream-drawn invention. A lucid voice speaking to us of obscure and illucid things. If you like spending time in this place, keep reading.
The 13 stories in The Return, translated by Bolaño’s award-winning steady Chris Andrews, are culled from two collections already published in Spanish, 1997’s Llamadas telefónicas and 2001’s Putas asesinas. The selections seem arranged in pairs: two about Russia, two about mentally unstable women, two about the porn industry. These little diptychs make for a pleasing fluidity. They also emphasize the freedom Bolaño might have found in working within diverse milieux, that the author of such ambitious novels as 2666 and The Savage Detectives was having fun sinking his teeth into the microworlds of Russian thugs, the adult film industry, necrophile French clothing designers, and international soccer stars. Yes, death lurks in most every corner, but the titular tale assures us that dying is actually pretty much like it’s depicted in the Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore mega-hit Ghost, and that forging connections with some living person will set us free to leave our shells behind and roam the afterlife.
Dedicated to Mexican author Juan Villoro, ‘Buba,’ the soccer story, recalls a winning streak that may or may not have been the result of magic blood rituals undertaken by an African playing for Spain. It may have also been the result of a peculiar and impermanent sort of friendship between young men with their lives still ahead of them. The narrator of ‘Clara’ attempts to chronicle the life of a girl he dated in his youth. Clara remains a peripheral figure in his life—it’s only when she vanishes that he recognizes his need for her. ‘Prefiguration of Lalo Cura’ concerns the child of a renegade priest and the female star of the Olimpo Movie Production Company, now a confused adult trying to make sense of his mother’s career. Passing through life with a moniker like Lalo Cura—“la locura” means madness in Spanish; Bolaño liked the name so much he recycled it in 2666—our narrator obsesses over how names determine our fate. Lalo was born in a neighbourhood called The Impaled. “The name glows like the moon. The name opens a way through the dream with its horn and man follows that path.” It also reminds him of how many times his mother was impaled by her costars while acting in the bizarre, surrealistic blue movies authored by a mysterious German working in Latin America. Bolaño’s synopses of these movies make for some lively reading.
Coming just a month after The Return, The Insufferable Gaucho (New Directions, $28.50), also translated by Andrews—who even has a story dedicated to him—is a somewhat slimmer collection of short work. There are fewer, longer stories, and a couple of these might just be among the finest writings available in English from Bolaño. The titular story concerns a retired lawyer and judge who, following the departure of his adult children from his Buenos Aires home and the collapse of the Argentine economy, moves to his long-abandoned ranch in las Pampas, where he very gradually sheds an entire way of life and adopts another. Along the way he becomes familiar with the local rabbit population, some of which prove to be shockingly bloodthirsty, their appearances resembling something out of Paul Bowles. Bolaño’s evocation of place is rife with typically odd details and utterly immersive. There’s something almost like optimism here, too, a sense that there are brief windows in our lives that, should we heed their invitation, will offer up the opportunity to change everything.
A sort of homage to Kafka’s final short story, the unambiguously titled ‘Rat Police’ at first glance seems like the least likely Bolaño project yet: a detective fiction set in the sewer-washed world of rats. Rats, we’re told, rarely make art and they rarely murder, so this story is about the exceptions to the rule, narrated by a rat cop whose life brushes against both phenomena. As is often the case in Bolaño’s cosmology, art and murder share something essential that’s never quite articulated but dangles brilliantly in the imagination. The rat authorities lack of interest in what appears to be serial murders could almost read as a dry run for the under-investigated killings in 2666.
The Argentine novelist at the centre of ‘Alvaro Rousselot’s Journey’ discovers he’s plagiarized by a European filmmaker. Still a minor author, perhaps vaguely flattered, he lets it slide. Time passes, Rousselot publishes another novel, the filmmaker makes another movie—and plagiarizes Rousselot again! Not only that, the filmmaker actually kind of improves on the source material. Rousselot still doesn’t take legal action. In fact, he despairs that the filmmaker might have abandoned him, that he might lose his best reader, “the reader for whom he had really been writing, the only one who was capable of fully responding to his work.” The story is very funny, shaped by unexpected encounters, and there is a delicious irony at work here, but there’s also an allusion to the secret destinies that seem to lay waiting for everyone, should they take off the lid and peer into the burbling stew. What you see might make your blood curdle. It might also startle you with the beauty of its design.