Friday, December 04, 2009

"A library is total generosity," or, Roberto Bolaño speaks!

Fans of Roberto Bolano who can't read Spanish have it remarkably good right now. Though we have had to adapt our reading to the structural pace of the publishing industry, for the past few years each season's list from New Directions has brought a freshly translated edition of one of his old novels. And while this requires patience, it seems clear that eventually we'll have them all--something that can't be said about the work of many other great novelists who wrote in languages other than English.

And now we even have a collection of interviews, pulled together into a slim volume by Melville House, Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview. Some of its contents have appeared in English before--most notably his final interview, with Playboy Mexico, which was published in Stop Smiling a few years back and the introductory essay by Marcela Valdes, which was originally published in the Nation--but it's great to have them all in one place, enhanced with explanatory notes that are a great help when Bolaño mentions writers who are little-known in English.

Without seeming disingenuous, the interviews feel like performances as much as anything: Bolaño throws out names, books, ideas with abandon, weaving a complicated tapestry of influence and Spanish-language literary history that it's easy to imagine taking a different form in another interview, conducted another day when he was in a different mood. Throughout, it's as if we're rushing through a giant library with Bolaño as our guide, his praise and damnation both driven by enthusiasm, as if he doesn't quite care if you agree with him--or even remember what he says--so long as you walk out the door with an armload of books.

While not as crammed with author names as many other answers, this exchange from a 1999 interview in Capital gives you an idea of the attitude Bolaño expresses toward books and authors:
RB:In one way or another, we're all anchored to the book. A library is a metaphor for human beings or what's best about human beings, the same way a concentration camp can be a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity.

HS/MB: Nevertheless, literature is not purely a sanctuary for good sentiment. It is also a refuge for hatefulness and resentment.

RB: I accept that. But it's indisputable that there are good sentiments in it. I think Borges said that a good writer is normally a good person. It must have been Borges because he said practically everything.
Elsewhere, he hints at the outlines of his positions on larger literary questions, especially as they relate to his working methods; here, in an interview from 2002 in Bomb, he answers the question of how he chooses plots:
Yes, plots are a strange matter. I believe, even though there may be many exceptions, that at a certain moment a story chooses you and won't leave you in peace. Fortunately, that's not so important--the form, the structure, always belong to you, and without form or structure there's no book, or at least in most cases that's what happens. Let's say the story and the plot arise by chance, that they belong to the realm of chance, that is, chaos, disorder, or to a realm that's in constant turmoil (some call it apocalyptic). Form, on the other hand, is a choice made through intelligence, cunning and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death. Form seeks an artifice; the story seeks a precipice. Or to use a metaphor from the Chilean countryside (a bad one, as you'll see): It's not that I don't like precipices, but I prefer to see them from a bridge.
I think that's the best, most concise description I've yet seen of the way that the relatively formal organizational structures of Bolaño's novels work to contain--or to fail to contain--the limitless sprawl of the forever branching stories within stories within stories that make up their plots.

The Last Interview is a slight book, but it's one that I'll be returning to as I keep reading my way through Bolaño's body of work--and it will make a nice stopgap while we wait for the collection of his nonfiction that Natasha Wimmer is currently translating. If only all international authors could be treated so well in English!

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