Poetry Collection Introduces the Real Roberto Bolaño

'Tres' by Roberto Bolaño (New Directions)

Who is Roberto Bolaño? So much has been written and said about his short life that is impossible to distinguish the man from the legend. Literary critics across the world have fallen all over themselves in praising his vivid prose and imaginative characters. Once a vagabond dropout who drifted unknown and jobless between Chile, Mexico, El Salvador, France, and Spain, Bolaño has catapulted into the canon of legendary stars who died too young. He’s now the heir to Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, the “Kurt Cobain of Latin American literature,” according to literary critic Daniel Crimmins. Bolaño is no longer a just a man; he represents a literary movement, a generation, a counterculture.

Yet his latest poetry collection, “Tres,” makes it clear that Bolaño had as much trouble discerning his true identity as the literary world does now. “Tres,” which includes three long poems written in the 1980s and the 1990s before Bolaño’s literary rise, addresses identity, purpose, and belonging—and the lack thereof. Translated by Laura Healy, this new collection captures the dreamy quality of Bolaño’s writing style while offering insight into the fraught mental states of a brilliant writer on the cusp of a breakthrough.

The first poem, “Prose from Autumn in Gerona,” is a dizzying experiment with form. Each page contains one cryptic paragraph, usually disjointed from the previous and following pages. “Autumn in Gerona” was written in Gerona, Spain in 1981. It follows a writer named R. Bolaño in Gerona in 1981, but it traffics in different layers of reality and blurs the line between memoir and fiction. Some pages Bolaño writes in first person; sometimes he is a third-person protagonist; sometimes he addresses the reader as the protagonist; and sometimes he writes the poem like a screenplay. The result can only be described using the word that dominates “Autumn:” kaleidoscopic. As in a kaleidoscope, each page serves as an illuminating reflection of a writer who struggles with unrequited love, creative stagnancy, and spiritual stasis.

In addition to showcasing doubts about his personal life, Bolaño voices insecurities about his own writing and his disillusionment with writing as a whole. “Cut it out with the bullshit text!” screams the protagonist’s love interest. After trudging through opaque phrases such as “the kaleidoscope assumes the look of solitude,” Bolaño abruptly returns to loud, simple prose in which he questions his own literary capabilities: “Get me out of this text, I’ll want to say, show me things clear and simple.” But he discovers, through his interactions with his disengaged lover, that reality can be just as messy and contrived as poetry. Bolaño and his lover constantly fail to understand each other, and eventually she abandons him, explaining away the break-up with clichés like “moving on, acquiring nourishment and looking for more.” Maybe the kaleidoscope of literature. with all of its different angles and lenses, is the clearest and most complete way to see the world.

“The Neochileans,” written 12 years after “Autumn in Gerona” and around the time of the publication of Bolaño’s first novel, maintains the confusion and doubt of Bolaño’s earlier work. The poem is a coming-of-age story of sorts about an idealistic group of young musicians searching for a movement to latch on to. Pancho Ferri and his Neochileans are a reincarnation of Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty and the Beats: bored and cynical, they hit the road in pursuit of a promised land—the American West for the beats, North towards Ecuador for the Neochileans. The poem is filled with paradoxically rich imagery that nevertheless captures the barrenness of the band’s surroundings: “Assassins and converts / chit-chatting / with the deaf and mute, / With imbeciles turned loose / From Purgatory.” The Neochileans try to construct their identities as they go along—Pancho changes his name midway through—and in the end find that they aren’t really searching for anything substantial, as the narrator “realized / The Neochileans / Would be forever / Governed / by chance.” The poem as a whole paints South America as a desolate, corrupt, lonely place with little hope for the future.

The apocalyptic imagery of “The Neochileans” leads straight into the bleak fantasy world of “A Stroll Through Literature.” Also written in 1993, the last poem is a glimpse into Bolaño’s dreams. In each numbered dream, Bolaño meets a fabled writer who either needs help or is doing something incomprehensible to the speaker. “I dreamt Mark Twain was hiring me to save the life of someone without a face,” he recounts helplessly. Written before he became a legend himself, these accounts illustrate Bolaño’s respect for the writers before him and show the anxiety he feels in living up to them. Usually, he is too late or unable to help his heroes resolve their bizarre problems. He appears most often in his dreams as an “old detective,” overwhelmed and out of touch with the worlds he enters and the cases that he is supposed to crack. Many times he ends up back on the streets of Mexico City, vulnerable and homeless, as Bolaño did in real life.

In the last paragraph, Bolaño futilely attempts to console a three-year-old Georges Perec. “I said to myself: I’m good for nothing … Then it started to rain and we calmly went back home. But where was our home?” This last paragraph encapsulates the overwhelming emotions that envelope “Tres.” These autobiographical poems reveal Bolaño as lost, desperate, and without identity—and it was this emotional turmoil that inspired his beautiful and raw poetry. There’s no doubt that the literary world will be piecing together Bolaño’s life story for years to come. “Tres” offers three different lenses into the kaleidoscope that was his confusing, teeming mind.

—Staff writer Andrew R. Chow can be reached at andrewchow@college.harvard.edu.

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