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The Bolano Letters

May 7, 2011
by

The Savage Detectives and 2666 by Roberto Bolano
“…made me think how there are no poets in America.”
Status: Something borrowed, something blew

A BRIEF EXCHANGE OF LETTERS.

10/22/09, 12:16 p.m.

Dear Z———

I read “The Savage Detectives” like a bored housewife reads a romance novel.  It may have been the way Bolano’s haircut on the inside cover reminded me of my own at one point in my life, but whatever it was, I read this looking for something that had basically gone missing. The book made me think about how there are no poets in America. Americans can’t read poetry any more than they can tell you which way East is by looking at stars, or name the kinds of trees in the backyard. Music is close to this idea of poetry that I have, but music is different.  Maybe it’s too easy. Poetry is hard, and no one seems to be writing it anymore, or caring about it. I can’t even tell you who the poet is who read at the inauguration, or what she talked about. Not that inauguration poetry is what I’m looking for at all.

I thought the book was really incredible. Bolano is genius (which I distinguish from a genius). To have written such a sprawling work and capture all those people is mind-boggling. I was a little disappointed to find out that the characters had actual real-life counterparts, because I was totally blown away by the scope of his creativity and how he makes something so ornate and complex come across as so simple.

I don’t know what to think of the ending. I get a little frustrated with the modern/post-modern books that don’t really end. So many of them — “Gravity’s Rainbow,” “Infinite Jest,” “SD” — build up momentum and anticipation through the construction of a mystery. I like to see the mysteries come to some kind of close. I guess I’m old fashioned that way. There tends to be this moment where I get a certain number of pages from the end and realize that there is no way the loose ends are going to tie up, and that makes it hard to keep going. It’s arguable that “SD” did close the loop. And I somehow felt like “2666” connected itself, if for no other reason than being able to draw some kind of parallel between the different sections. The “evil” that was sort of the antagonist, the girls dying in St. Teresa, never was resolved, but I still felt some closure. I’m sure I will have to go back and re-read both “2666” and “SD” to really understand.

M———

10/24/09, 1:15 p.m.

Dear M———

I had a long streak of pure pleasure reading when I went through all the Harry Potters in one “foul swoop” as T— D— would say, then “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” which is like Harry Potter written by a Jane Austen/Charles Dickens love-child. In other words, stuff that just felt good, where I could get engrossed in some magical atmosphere and not be challenged. Bolano made me like to be challenged again.

I couldn’t handle it at first. Everything I had been reading was all plot-driven, and all his stuff is more like poetry, where the plot is secondary and the atmosphere is everything. I feel like American readers don’t innately have the ability to digest that sort of thing. We’re a society based on cutting our ties with traditions and superstitions and that alienates us from poetry. We’re ingrained with this belief that even if you think there’s God or energy or magic in every bit of existence, if you were asked about it in a job interview, you’d go ahead and admit that a molecule’s just a molecule. So when Americans read poetry there’s something really foreign about it. And I even mean that literally. Poetry seems like a South American thing, or an Asian thing or a European thing.

The inaugural poet, I remember, was some lady whose style was basically like a clean Bukowski. In other words, someone just talking in stanzas. That’s the American contribution to poetry — just talk like you would normally talk, but hit enter in between sentences, or if you really want to be cutting-edge, hit enter one word before the end of the sentence. I feel like poetry needs to be steeped in time and tradition, and we don’t have the proper respect for the long-view to make it happen full force in our culture.

I feel like the open-ended endings is an element that comes from poetry. Letting the reader fill in the spaces. Letting the atmosphere be the final word in the story. Or having the title be the unifying element. I also feel like Bolano’s works are all integrated, and in order to get a full sense of any one book, you have to read at least another one of his books. I don’t think I would have any sense of real understanding of either “2666” or “SD” if I didn’t read the other. I loved how at the end of “SD” they finally catch up with whats-her-name and she obliquely refers to “some far off date. Two thousand six hundred and sixty-something.”

Bolano with my haircut

The unsettled endings and inter-related stories, themes, and characters is so much like real life. I love that the guy who Arturo Belano duels in “SD” is, in real life, the executor of his estate, and the publisher of “2666.” I love that, after reading “SD,” I felt like I really knew Arturo Belano really well, but not Roberto Bolano. And then reading in his notes at the end of “2666” where he says that the narrator of “2666” is Arturo Belano.

Also, his haircut reminded me of your old haircut too.

Z———

11/14/09, 12:10 p.m.

Dear Z———

[...]

One interesting thing is that I actually was inspired to start writing in earnest while reading “2666.”

[...]

The point is, I was totally worked up by “2666,” and it got me writing, which may be about the best thing a book can do for somebody like me.

M———

9/11/09, 3:06 p.m.
The Part About the Crimes

Dear M———

I am struggling through this section of “2666.” This is a really busy, crazy, stressful time for me and it is super hard trudging through section after section of thoroughly described brutal crime scenes. I’m a strong believer in what you read having a huge impact in the atmosphere of your life at the time, and this shit is fucking with me. I’m always thinking about people dying or getting hurt; nighttime seems really menacing; I just feel kind of on edge at all times.

It’s crazy to get this deep in a book and then have him switch it up on you and make you extremely uncomfortable for a really long time before you can reach the home stretch. Did it have the same effect on you when you were reading it? You’re gonna really love “The Savage Detectives.” I felt like I wasn’t absorbing “2666” at first, and so I took a break and read all of “SD” and now I feel like I really know Bolano’s writing style, but also who he is, since “SD” is based on his life and everyone he knew. I think of him more as Arturo Belano, the elusive main character,  than I do Roberto Bolano. Which is interesting because throughout the book you get the first person perspective of about 52 different people, but never from either of the two main characters, Belano and Ulises Lima, who is Mario Santiago in real life.

It’s a fucking great book. A lot lighter and more humorous than “2666,” although on its own I don’t think I would ever describe it as light or humorous. I’m about halfway through “The Part About The Crimes”. Wish me luck.

Z———

9/12/09, 2:57 p.m.

Dear Z———

It didn’t work quite the same for me. I was reading for clues and only after a while did I start to feel how fucked up it is. Keep going it’s well worth it. The last part is the best part. I’m on my phone and about to go to a wedding so I won’t get into it but trust me.

M———

9/21/09, 11:37 a.m.

Dear Z———

How’s it coming with The Part About the Crimes?  If I recall correctly, the next section is much better, almost certainly the best section of the book.  I do remember being weighed down by how grisly it was, and the sheer volume of it is pretty stunning.  I also think, unfortunately, it’s based on real events.  But if you’ve put it down, I say you pick it back up.

M———

9/22/09, 11:08 a.m.

Dear M———

I’m getting along a lot better with The Part About The Crimes. I guess I’ve kind of gotten used to it, plus I’m more motivated now that I’m about 60 pages from finishing that section. Plus, as Bolano seems to like to do, he’s jumping around through a lot more story lines now that he’s nearing the end of the section. So’s it’s not just “dead body” this and “anal and vaginal swab” that.

What I keep thinking about is if they had published it according to his wishes, and each section was released as its own novel, this would be one super fucked up novel. But it’s not bothering me like it was at first. And I’m really looking forward to finishing the section, and the entire book.

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