Confession. I am a minor writer with some risible symptoms: most conspicuously, perhaps, an over-egged autodidactic thrust of style too easily used to body-slam mots justes into Sisyphean polysemies goosestepping up the asymptote towards the haecceity of the Uncanny Brought to Book, sort of thing. More forgiveably, perhaps, a writer of my ilk—I am not alone—is very apt to believe that excess is a kind of Body English of true telling, that more is more, that a sufficiently meme-irradiated passage can with luck implorate us truthwards: get the handwavium right, and you have spelunked the deep grammars of the storyable, where desiderium becomes prolepsis, where the Uncanny—all Stories are uncanny, all Stories are invasions of the world on behalf of the unspoken—does the Mysterious Stranger Rag. Sort of thing. So I am a badly foxed minor author of reviews and criticism who thinks this sort of thing can be a form of truth. I have a reason for saying this now.
Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) was a major writer who attempted to tell the truth by embedding his dazzling exercises in instructural and linguistic semiosis into an unending story, for everything he wrote joined everything to everything without cease, every book he wrote was a cellar the next book darkened: the twenty published books so far of his short career muscle high up the asymptote into an embracive interactive portrayal of the world, an assault on the ultimately not-sayable which climaxes with 2666 (2004; trans. Natasha Wimmer 2008), the last great novel of the last century. The temptation besetting a minor writer is to attempt to capture this ouroboral haecceity through emulation: to weave the storiated pleroma of 2666 into a magic isomorphy of paraphrase. (There we go again.) 2666 is a dance-map of mirrorings so far beyond decipherment that us Constable Plods are very unlikely ever to catch sight of what one might call the First Mirror (see part 2 below), where that which cannot be said can almost be seen; 2666 is a threnody, one thousand vast pages long, whose apparent incompletion, or interminability, or desperation of necessary silence, ends in portraying the planet as fully as the planet has yet been portrayed, turtles all the way down.
What follows, instead of a necessarily doomed attempt to box the compass of this vast oeuvre, is (1) a moderately straightforward notice of a moderately straightforward early novel by Roberto Bolaño, now first published fifteen years after his death; and (2) a couple of paragraphs about the “location” of the gaze of his work, which is from somewhere above, a First Mirror black hole energumen's gaze from somewhere beyond the vanishing point. Which is to say that it may be useful to think there is a point of view from which the supreme 2666 is seen, though we cannot exactly see that mirror, or speculum, or get behind it. Or maybe we can.
1. The Spirit of Science Fiction (written circa 1984; published 2016; trans. Natasha Wimmer 2019) comes early in the quarter of a century of Roberto Bolaño's full creative life, a period during which he himself published several finished and seemingly unfinished works, the best-known of these being Historia de la literatura Nazi en America (1996; trans. Chris Andrews as Nazi Literature in the Americas 2008), Detectives salvajes (1998; trans. Natasha Wimmer as The Savage Detectives 2007) and Notturno de Chile (2000; trans. Chris Andrews as By Night in Chile 2003); much of his best work, including 2666, is posthumous: he wrote too fast for his publishers; much of his posthumous output seems to have been in the queue for release when he died in 2003, though some titles seem to have been disinterred from computer files. The state of apparent completion or incompletion of any text says little about its “readiness” for release after 2003: for me, the most complete of all of Bolaño's novels, El Tercer Reich (written 1989; 2010; trans. Natasha Wimmer as The Third Reich 2011), is his weakest.
Its apparent date of composition around 1984 does not in any case make Spirit Bolaño's first completed/incompletable novel. Before Spirit seems to have come the obscurely documented Monsieur Pain (published 1999; trans. Chris Andrews 2010), which may have been published in an earlier version, perhaps under another title, around 1982. The brilliant book-length prose poem Antwerp (published 2002; trans. Natasha Wimmer 2010) also seems to have been composed in the early 1980s; and many of the poems voluminously assembled in The Unknown University (2007; trans. Natasha Wimmer and Laura Healy 2013) probably come from the 1970s (his first collection, Gorriones cogiendo altura [“Sparrows Grokking Height”], was published [or did not quite appear] in 1975). There is also much journalism, sometimes inflammatory. By 1984 Bolaño had been writing for a decade, and in Spirit he knew what he was doing. However scattershot the tale may seem, therefore, it is no more complete or incomplete than The Savage Detectives, the vast odyssey (noted above) which he did publish, which made him properly famous for readers of Spanish, and of which Spirit is a skittish aliquot sample; and it is superficially more complete than 2666, into which it could fit like a needle in a nest of needles.
Spirit is set in Mexico City in the late 1970s, and traces with a seemingly random touch the aspirationally picaresque toings and froings of its two very young protagonists, who long to become significant published authors; the tale comes to no “natural” climax, except maybe sexual—the two young protagonists lose their virginity almost simultaneously in its final pages. Remo and Jan are teenagers, fragilely linked through waterbug consanguinities of shared ambition, though they sometimes don't meet that much. Like so many characters in Bolaño's later novels and tales, they are consumed by a sense that words matter, and that they themselves are, or may soon be, important to the world because they write words about the world: this more than anything evokes a sense of desiderium for any 2019 reader: for Remo and Jan are not postmodernists, any more than Bolaño was. They are creatures of the deep past. Back then they are still able to feel deep in their bones that the political and cultural abysses and torture chambers of the Latin American world as a whole—of which Mexico City is for them a condensing Bloomsday mirror—can only really be understood by the stalwart battalions of colleagues who tell the truth through innumerable works. At one point, they learn that there are something like six hundred literary journals in Mexico City, most of them extant if not exactly flourishing: a palimpsest of words, a crazy quilt of insights into the Real: if Reno and Jan could only make all these tongues clamour together, a music of the spheres might sound the depths of Mexico, a bee-dance feeding the hive of truth. They are very young. Spirit ends before they suffer much.
In the meantime, enter science fiction. Of the two protagonists, Remo, not much interested in SF, is an extroverted mingler, an emcee: several of the young people he introduces to us here show up later, in other books, under one name or another, throughout Bolaño's hugely populous Commedia. They almost seem already to know who they are going to become: more accurately, they know who they already resemble, though they are drawn here without any of the apophthegmatic extravagances of insight characteristic of the later books: they are rough-shot, ad hoc, stupefyingly young. They may suspect they are creatures of fiction, but they know fiction is true. They still believe that to speak the unspoken is to save it. Remo much enlivens Spirit through an unending parade of touching but disposable utterands dragged into its pages, like a dog returning home with birds between its jaws; but this gathering in of utterands is not the central engine of the tale. It is his friend, the seventeen-year-old Jan Schrella—even when, intermittently overwhelmed by a paralytic narcissism typical of teenagers, he encloses himself in his solitary digs for days on end—who slowly brings Spirit into focus through the letters he composes to American SF writers, and perhaps sends to some of them. The late 1970s setting of the novel is confirmed early on through a message to Alice Sheldon, where he apologizes for not addressing her by her eponym (Spirit's term for James Tiptree Jr). Other SF figures Jan writes to include Forrest J. Ackerman, Harlan Ellison, Philip José Farmer, Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, Robert Silverberg. Whether these real figures ever received real letters from the unreal Jan (who all the same signs himself as “alias Roberto Bolaño” on page 178), it may be impossible to determine. Silverberg (personal communication) says he has no recollection of receiving anything of the sort.
But it is not really to the point to ask if the letters were “real”: what is real is the gesture, the imploration to be seen down here, where we do the work of Word, in the rag and bone shop. For Jan, the spirit of science fiction is ocular, a truth-discerning gaze at the heart of the world of Spirit from some magic domain where to pay attention is to understand. (Science fiction sees an arguable world; SF is a gaze of understanding; SF will sort it.) There is very little in the scherzo hijinks of Spirit, in other words, that does not implore hopefully upwards towards something like an eye in the sky. The stakes are high. To gain a conspectual view of Mexico City in 1979 is to understand life as a playable game, with rules: board games are described at considerable length (p. 141ff) by a savant cartographer of the artifices of literary Mexico City, who makes it clear that winning a wargame—where hundreds of pieces, utterands of this Mexico, are put through excruciating dances—is all about becoming visible to the eye of the future that you have just gamed. Let me bathe in the liquid of your gaze! implorates young Roberto. There is no strong premonition in Spirit that the eye may be vacant: that even before Bolaño's death the spirit of science fiction would begin to lose its glow of noumen, even as dreamed about from abroad, by readers who thought of SF as an escape from prison. There is no ansible conveying good news. The Spirit of Science Fiction is a first stab at the cemetery eye of 2666.
The central character of 2666, Benno von Archimboldi, the only figure in that novel who may understand its import, is also an author, active from the 1940s; the first paragraph of the tale mentions three of his books, one of them being “French-themed,” one Polish, one English: which is to say he is an author immersed in the vastness of Europe, when it could still be told. The young scholar who discovers Archimboldi is overwhelmed with “wonder and admiration.” But the reader of 2666 never sees a word Archimboldi has written, nor any description of what any of his books is about: he does not speak; he is unspoken. So we never learn what has overwhelmed the young scholar, nor does the quarrelsome cénacle of Archimboldians to which he belongs ever find out anything at all of substance, though its members make their careers from their unseen master's dozens of novels, without ever penetrating them. To the reader, from without, they seem carceral; inside may be nothing but vacated shrines (which is one definition of Europe after the Rain): but I'm inclined to think that every Archimboldi text is, like 2666 which enfolds them, an Arabian Nightmare, where to awaken from one dream is to enter a deeper dream, without end. There are hints in Spirit that the board game of life Remo and Jan are pretending to play may in fact be bottomless: that every move in the dream of understanding opens into a deeper and more deadly dream: that in the end there is no line of sight, no egress: there is no SF: there is no end. Spirit is a tiptoe draft which never quite says what it seems to long to utter: that formal incompleteness and the Arabian Nightmare are identical, in this world we must inhabit. The Savage Detectives comes closer to saying the Arabian Nightmare is our story here on Earth. 2666 is a final statement of Story's final vengeance on the species it has shaped: an unending exposure of the ultimate unspeakableness of the unspoken until Hell freezes over.
But Spirit was written thirty-five years ago, and its shaky insistence on the importance of the written word, and of the chance that truth will make us free, worthily and movingly evoke today a previous era. Bolaño became magister ludi of a world that had already begun to disappear before he was born (in 1953: he was very young). He was a modernist whose earliest tales insisted they could be told (though they never quite were), and whose final masterpiece shut down the world while espousing it. Long after the game had been lost, he gave persistence of vision to the world, so that we could see it.
But of course he knew the end of science fiction was 2666.
2. In “Serpent's Egg,” an essay I published with other linked pieces as The Darkening Garden in 2006, I attempted to generalize on the governing metaphor of Ingmar Bergman's 1977 film, The Serpent's Egg, a masterful exercise (I thought) in body-englishing the terror of our times. The film is set in 1923 Berlin, in a period of profound cultural anxiety, with the population of the great city trapped in Bergmanian grotesqueries of sex and drugs, and at the same time acting out darker paranoias and narcissisms and cruelties. The garishly lit disorder of this exceedingly undervalued film seems entirely deliberate, a clear directorial rhetoric designed to portray Germans in the aftermath of 1918 as cartoon exempla: anguishes in a petri dish under mortuary gaze from some malign coign of vantage. At the long-delayed climax of the film, it is revealed that the grotesque apocalyptic Commedia of aftermath Berlin has been generated by a plague of drugs and other poisons inserted deliberately into the veins and arteries of the city by an experimental scientist in order to forge a “new society.” Berlin was a prolepsis, a mirror of our state to come. As the scientist tells his tormented interlocutor,
Anyone who makes the slightest effort can see what is waiting in [that mirror:] in the future. It's like a serpent's egg. Through the thin membrane you can clearly discern the already perfect reptile.
Let us turn back to 2666 for a moment, a date which never appears in the novel itself. What can it refer to? A play on 666 is hardly disguised, and plausibly signals a novel set in hell, a double text full of mirrors whose two central interweaving foci—the Holocaust, which Benno von Archimoldi witnesses; and the hundreds of unsolved femicides decades later in 1970s Santa Teresa, a corroded city run to feed America drugs and cheap imports—reflect each other like a portrait of Hell. But that is not really quite good enough. A reference to the Biblical 666, with its yesterday's-newspaper evocation of cartoon creatures and conjurations, hardly seems to explain some deep sense that in 2666 the human race is on view: 2666 is not where we end up; it is our fundament. In any case, 666 is a cliché, certainly in a text whose hundreds of characters already know it all:
Reality [as two minor characters clock it, not for the first time] seemed to tear like paper scenery, and when it was stripped away it revealed what was behind it: a smoking landscape, as if someone, an angel, maybe, was tending hundreds of barbecue pits … (p. 135)
That's just not good enough for 2666. Later, on page 339, a minor protagonist looking for the internet tells a hotel clerk that the name of the cybercafe he's been directed to reminds him “of a David Lynch film.”
The clerk shrugged and said that … “Every single thing in this country is an homage to everything in the world, even the things that haven't happened yet.”
This may be Bolaño's most explicit reference anywhere to the structure of 2666, whose central grammar is precisely a move or beat upwards from the pandemonium of the world towards some vanishing point; a savant geographer might describe 2666 as a pyramid converging on an eye. The protagonist of a slightly earlier and relatively simple novel, Amulet (1999; trans. Chris Andrews 2006), which is set in Mexico City at the same time as vast portions of 2666, finds herself after midnight among the “human ants” of the great city, many of them almost certainly characters in this tale, or a dozen others. She is in one of the remoter districts of the City, known as Guerrero. She notes that
Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else. (p. 86)
So it is easy, after all. The innumerable exemplas of 2666 are seen through a Serpent's Egg, but backwards: without prolepsis, without hope, without chance of change. The mirror of the world that might give us faces, the vanishing point of the world where the world might end, the aleph which might swallow the Arabian Nightmare whole and give us a sense of ending, is a Serpent's Egg in reverse: we are reflections in the rearview-mirror eyelid of a corpse. The history of the species lies behind us in a dream. The eye is empty, Baby Blue. The cenotaph has no mourner. There is no gaze. We are not seen. We will never be seen.