More than one person has told me that they've become physically affected while reading a Roberto Bolano novel. The symptoms are always the same: agitation, irritability, a sense of dread or impending doom, and, finally, exhilaration. His prose has a haunting magic—even in the mundane—leaving the reader unmoored and set adrift.
Roberto Bolano was a literary genius. His true calling was poetry, and for much of the Chilean's life, he was content working various odd jobs in Latin America and Europe, while publishing his poems in obscure journals. Following the birth of his first child in 1990, he realized that he wanted to secure a financial future for his family. He began to write fiction. Always with ailing health, liver failure placed him on a race against time to produce some of the greatest novels of the late 20th century, before his death in 2003. Over those 13 years he produced ten novels and three volumes of short stories, including Last Evening On Earth, The Savage Detectives, and 2666. A number of his works were translated and hit the American markets after his death. Bolano's posthumous career is prolific—he was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2008—and his legend has only grown bigger since his passing.
Did I say that Roberto Bolano was a genius? I meant to say magician. Bolano is a literary magician; a satirical and mesmerizing novelist with a poet's soul. There is an undeniable sleight-of-hand at play in his work, and one gets an unsettling sense that he is, somehow, using misdirection to not so much hide as obscure his intent. Bolano called this his "secret story."
Bolano's final posthumous novel,A Little Lumpen Novelita, was translated into English and published in September of last year to very little fanfare. After so many game-changing books, it may have been expected that his finale would have been a literary event. Instead, it silently slipped into an English translation and was hardly reviewed. Those that did review it, treated it like a small—though stellar—aside to his more sprawling epics.
Scholars of Latin American literature have consistently made the apt comparison of Bolano to Jorge Luis Borges, who also embraced the "unreality of literature." Maybe due to its size (109 pages, soaking wet), many critics read A Little Lumpen Novelita as a straight-ahead story with a beginning, middle, and end, but like Borges, Bolano is never that simple.
The story is told by Bianca, who begins: "Now I'm a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime." She describes the death of her parents in a car accident, leaving her and her brother, two teenagers, alone in their Rome apartment. They both drop out of school and take low-level jobs. Since their parents' death, Bianca has been stricken blind by brightness. She can see in the dark.
While working at a gym, her brother brings home two men to live with them, a Bolognan and a Libyan, adults with no pasts and no roots who, after an unsuccessful caper in Milan, hatch a plan: Bianca will go to work for an aging, blind, and wealthy former movie star and bodybuilder named Maciste, apparently for sex. It's all a ploy for Bianca to search his mansion for a safe. She ultimately finds herself roped into it, and through both inward and outward searching, makes discoveries of her own. That's the story on the surface.
Bolano's "secret story" doesn't so easily reveal itself.
It's never a good idea to underestimate the Chilean writer. After all, he has mysterious and magical ways that can fuck with your head. Bolano's style is most akin to the classic detective novel; the punchy prose and the book's length make it an easy read. Almost too easy. Several times while reading it, I had to force myself to put the book down. "Chew your food," I told myself. I wanted to find the secret story. I've always wanted to know how Bolano casts his spells, to peek behind some screen and learn the magic of his craftsmanship.
But to find the answer I would have to go back to the beginning. The book opens with a quote from Antonin Artaud.
All writing is garbage.
People who come out of nowhere to try and put into
Words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs.
All writers are pigs. Especially writers today.
At first glance, it's placement is confounding. There are no writers in the book. No books in the book, for that matter. So, is the quote there to piss off writers like me? Or to put writers on notice? Knowing Bolano, I suspected a little of both, and began my own detective adventure. What is this, a dying genius' final work, really trying to tell us? I read, and I waited.
Bianca understood both the readers' urgency and frustration, "because waiting is terrible, they were waiting for something that wasn't coming, but was about to come, or at least that was what they were betting on," and further, "I was waiting for something. A catastrophe. A visit from the police or the social worker. The approach of a meteorite, darkening the sky."
I clued in on Bolano's elusive use of foreshadowing, that sinister specter that permeates all of his other works in imperceptible ways was writ larger than I'd seen before. And the "deep downs," that lull the reader into a hypnotic trance as morality gives way to consequence:
"Deep down," says Bianca, "I think I was afraid something bad would happen. I think I sensed that it was coming soon and I worried about my brother, whose fate was so bound up with his friends' fates."
"Deep down I've always been an innocent. I'm an innocent now, and back then, when the nights were as bright as day, I was too."
"Deep down, I knew it made sense to be a prostitute."
At some point a master magician, who has jealously guarded his secrets, must pass them on. In this, my nth re-reading of the book, I believe that Bolano's secret story is one about his craft to contemporary and future writers. That the book should be read as a Strunk & White of sorts. And that Bolano, notorious for injecting himself into his fiction, is the blind bodybuilder Maciste.
"These days," says Maciste, "bodybuilding is considered a sport but when I practiced it, it was an art…Like magic…There was a time when it was an art and magicians were artists…Now it's just part of the show."
He wasn't talking about bodybuilding.
A Little Lumpen Novelita may be Bolano's best trick, and greatest gift, ever.