Roberto Bolano: “I Can’t Read” (Excerpt?)

04/14/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s Magazine, April 2012. (From the forthcoming collection, The Secret of Evil.)
(Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews.)

I won’t blame Mr. Bolano for this, seeing as he’s dead, and this was cobbled together posthumously, but seeing as this has been done to other prolific writers like Nabokov (unwillingly) and Wallace (willingly), this serves as a fine launching point for yet another screed against hack publishers/editors. Just because a person has been recognized as an author, that does not make all of their scribblings into a story. Even writers themselves sometimes seem to forget this, foisting rushed or cheap work to magazines that they know will be happy for it, unconcerned with the effect a few (or even many) misses will have against the overall body of their work. And yet, that doesn’t make it right, and what Harper’s has done is even worse: they’ve taken some sort of excerpt from some sort of collection from some sort of writing found on Bolano’s computer after his death in 2003, and they’ve passed it off as a story. Let’s get to and through it, shall we?

First off, stories tend to have a style, either narrative or aesthetic (or both). If this were more complete, one might be able to describe Bolano’s choice here as non-illusory and autobiographical, in that he telegraphs what he’s going to be doing. But in this context, it comes across as the gloss of an unfinished work; i.e., a broad stroke of what will occur, which the author intends to go back and fill in later. “This story is about four people,” it begins. “Two children, Lautaro and Pascual, a woman, Andrea, and another child, named Carlos. It’s also about Chile, and, in a way, about Latin America in general.” Okay, it’s not the most subtle of theses ever inserted into a work of fiction, but unless the narrator is Carlos, then the story is incomplete: he never appears. As for Andrea, she’s described as an invisible creature, Cheshire in nature, the partner of Pascual’s mother, Alexandra (who we learn much of, despite the insistence that she’s not a part of the story). One absent character, one forgettable character, and then there’s a lengthy anecdote about a trick the narrator’s son, Lautaro, learns, in which he can prevent those automatic doors in, say, grocery stores from opening when he approaches them. (“[A]s if this approach were being made not by a single body but by a shadow and two phantom shadows, and even his face was transformed; it seemed to blur but also to be concentrating on invisibility, on stasis and movement, on insubstantiality and paradox.”)

So maybe this is approaching a larger metaphor about Chile, to which the narrator has returned after an absence (itself a type of invisibility, of physical remove) of 24 years. And yet, because it’s unfinished, because it’s excerpted, it doesn’t work. It’s as if a magician had meant to install mirrors and smoke, but ran out of time, and so while you may understand what he intends the effect to be, you see only the blatant, ineffectual trick itself. Instead of sustaining this narrative, in which the author tells you what’s coming and then chooses not to reveal some of it (hinting again at what’s invisible), the story begins to cut between context-less memories, and the story is quickly undercut by moments that do not build the theme or advance the momentum. This is most notable in the two final sections — which ideally would be the climax and conclusion, but are instead a meaningless encounter with some sort of “strange and solitary bird . . . a raptor, a falcon or something like that,” and the author’s observation of his return to Chile the following year, at which point he’s attacked by his fellow authors (both on the left and right) as being a patero, or “a sycophant, a flatterer, a brownnose, an asslicker.” Is the point that he’s now seen, but incorrectly? Is that what life in Chile is like?

Bolano’s talented, and this scrap is readable, but it’s not satisfying, and it’s certainly not a story.

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