In his novels and stories about crimes physical and cultural, deceased Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño is obsessed with fingerprints and other records. This author of the novels The Savage Detectives and Nazi Literature in the Americas (that encyclopedia of invented authors) repeatedly has his characters leaving marks and clues that may or may not be followed, later, by others.
Similarly, the newly translated collection The Return is full of framed stories in which one character recounts the story of another. Bolaño's works are purposefully not genuine detective novels, though clues and witnesses abound. His preoccupation with these lingering marks and testaments is, like much of his work, chilling, given the full lineup of his posthumous books still coming into translation. Like many of Bolaño's characters, we're left with eerie traces and shadowed glimpses.
The prolific and itinerant Bolaño wrote poems and stories but is best known for his novels, particularly the internationally beloved door-stoppers The Savage Detectives and 2666. With The Return, we're not just invited to see what a novelist does in the notoriously compressed from of the short story. Here we have the chance to see what a novelist who prefers the sprawling and epic novel does with the short. With the briefer of Bolaño's two most popular novels weighing in at nearly 700 pages, it is here a delight to see Bolaño the ultra-marathoner also succeed on the short track.
The ventriloquism of the poly-vocal Savage Detectives recurs with these 13 stories combined from Bolaño's first two Spanish collections. Detectives is written entirely in dialogue. A character in another story gives us not just himself but also an entire world with his line, "She sure was a dreamer, my mother. Connie Sánchez was her name, and if you weren't so young and innocent, it would ring a bell." Character and confession fuse when a minor criminal in the new Russia goes on a date: "Her attitude towards sex, which is what I was really hoping to get out of her, was broad-minded." Bolaño is refreshingly sexual, especially for readers of chaste CanLit.
Several of these stories are overheard, not just heard. With career fixations on implication and contagion, Bolaño regularly connects one character's story to another's. One story begins "William Burns, from Ventura, California, told this story to my friend Pancho Monge, a policeman in Santa Teresa, Sonora, who passed it on to me." Like a neurotic and/or manipulative romance (excuse the redundancy), these framing gestures invite us into a story yet simultaneously distance us by emphasizing that the characters know more than we do and that a story will change as it passes through different hands.
The cinematic frame of one of the best stories is complex and appeals to the eye as well as the ear. In Prefiguration of Lalo Cura, a self-confessedly ruthless man recounts the plots of the pornographic films his mother made for a futilely artistic expatriate German director. Occasionally the director plays a sexless voyeur in his own films and stands in as an obvious surrogate reader. The catalogue raisonné of his work is a great device, providing the same kind of layered resonance and multimedia shape-shifting we see with the visual art invented or appropriated in Don DeLillo's later novels or the silent films nested within Paul Auster's memorable The Book of Illusions. But of course Bolaño doesn't simply describe the striking films; he has them recounted by an implicated witness (the son of a female porn star).
Not all of the stories are superb. Unfortunately, the weaker stories open and close the book. At times Bolaño appears too liberated from his long novels, working with sketches so minimal they're essentially one-liners. Another Russian Tale involves little more than two different translation errors. Some stories remain on the surface instead of providing the depth and sphericality of an Alice Munro or Joyce Carol Oates story. The protagonist of one story murders his oppressor, but we're given no mid-point between the oppression and the murder. We deserve to see how such a momentous decision is weighed before it's made. In Photos, another fictitious catalogue is inventive but isn't moving.
Five more of Bolaño's books are forthcoming from New Directions. Like The Return's unforgettably tender story Joanna Silvestri, many of them will, one hopes, both reach and stoop to climaxes that are simultaneously "all right," and "all wrong" and "all sorrow."
Darryl Whetter teaches at Université Sainte-Anne. His novel-in-progress also concerns sex, criminals and witnesses.