Roberto Bolaño, “The Return” (2001) (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews) – I haven’t got a ton to say about Bolaño that doesn’t reproduce the usual cliches. Symbolic figure of Latin American literature in the wrecked shambles of both the Boom and the dreams of twentieth century Latin America, check. Career tragically foreshortened and not even by something glamorous, check. Nihilism and with it enough dead women and sex workers to be suspect by today’s prevailing moral codes in literary circles, check. Most of all, the paradox of literature- utterly incapable of making the world a better place, in Bolaño’s telling, but also as essential as air to life as he knows it. Check.
The stories in “The Return” are Bolaño in fine form. If the magical realism promulgated by the Boom writers sought to weave dream logic into everyday life, Bolaño’s major theme is the nightmare logic that is already there. Bolaño’s Latin America was the Latin America of the narco wars, of structural adjustment, and most of all, of Pinochet and the other dictators who killed, at least for a generation, whatever fleeting hopes the continent had previously had for forging their own path forward. Violence permeates his surreal moments the way wonder permeated magical realism.
Bolaño doesn’t see incipient fascism as lurking under a mask of normality. In his stories, normality and fascism constitute each other; at its most remote, fascism is the norms — masculine norms above all, but norms of family, religion, nation, culture in general — militarized and let loose to rule by terror. The violence of a fascist cop shades into the violence of the soccer hooligans which shades into the violence of cartel enforcers which shades into the violence of exile and malaise, of cramped lives dependent on precarious employment and even more precarious literary patronage. All of which is expressed in large part through violence against women. Moreover, fascism (in a phenomenological sense if not a strict political one) lives in the decision to see all this as normal, fine, even as it produces spectacular, surreal, and horrifying results.
The collection’s best stories, in my opinion, are: “Detectives,” a dialogue between two cops who, we find out, went to high school with a “Belano” and jailed him after the coup- this based on a strongly-disputed part of Bolaño’s origin story, where he went to Chile as a young man to assist the revolution, only to be jailed and released to leave Chile for good; and “The Prefiguration of Lalo Cura,” the closest you’re going to get to an epic in short story form. There was a podcast called “Tales of Serious Literature,” which doesn’t seem to be running anymore, which had a good episode on the story. I don’t think I can say much that the host (who had a perfect, deeply amusing pedant voice, and a real love of literature) couldn’t.
Some of the stories about layabouts and their paranoid women troubles were kind of drags. Bolaño’s not the worst depressive writer when it comes to women but that’s not saying much. Misanthropy all too often shades into misogyny, though I get that he was trying to depict a milieu more than his own life. Some people see Bolaño as wallowing in paranoia and filth. I wouldn’t say he’s a sunny writer, but in continuing to create remarkable artifacts with literature — a tool he constantly harps is, at the very least, deeply compromised in the face of the world’s brutality — I think he actually affirms life more than a lot of cheery material does. ****’