Contemporary Specter; The Return by Roberto Bolaño (New Directions, 2010)
In case you’re someone who has seen other people reading 2666 or The Savage Detectives and wondered what the fuss was all about, yet never had time to crack open one of those giant books, The Return is a great place to introduce yourself to the immense literary talent and haunting world of the late Roberto Bolaño. The Return is the Chilean author’s second short story collection published in English, one of his latest in a seemingly non-stop bombardment of translated releases. Yet the thirteen stories here are from a more mature, masterful Bolaño; indeed, they are even better and darker than his first book of short stories, Last Evenings on Earth.
When you talk to publishers and agents and ask them what they are looking for, nine times out of ten they will respond: a strong voice. Well, there is not a contemporary author with a stronger voice than what Roberto Bolaño displays in The Return.
The greatness of Bolaño lies in what he does not write about. For without ever using the word, the world of The Return revolves around evil. Bolaño takes his readers on a dance around and around the circumference of an abyss; he brings us to the edge of a black hole, one we can peer into, without actually making the plunge. This effect partly lies in the casualness with which Bolaño discusses some of the most disturbing subjects. In The Return, Bolaño presents more thugs, murderers, whores, porn stars, poets, and detectives. Yet readers will be surprised to see how Bolaño continues to push the envelope, even for those who have read 2666.
In the title story, “The Return,” a ghost watches as his body is stolen from a morgue and molested in a necrophiliac’s mansion (the necrophiliac being the most famous designer in France). In “Buba” we have Spanish soccer players who insure their victories through African blood rituals. In the story “Murdering Whores,” a woman narrates the seduction and kidnapping of a soccer fan she sees on TV, with details of strapping him to a chair and covering his mouth with plaster before torturing him. There is the ambiguously tough guy Lalo Cura, who visits an aged, magnetic porn star who penetrated his mother while Cura was still in the womb. There is William Burns, the man who was tricked by his two girlfriends to kick another man to death. We also have tender stories of failed love affairs, vague relationships of the diseased and psychologically disturbed drawn out over decades. And then there are dreams, dreams within the stories, or stories that are completely dreams. Though these thirteen stories are a product of a fantastic, twisted imagination, Bolaño didn’t create this world. Rather, it is our world that he is ruthlessly reflecting.
Though flowing, the language is extraordinarily precise as it is spare. We hardly have any physical description, if any (the story “Detectives” is told only in short bursts of dialogue), other than single lines: he was “obese even by Russian standards” or “she had long brown hair, and her simple ponytail gathered all the grace in the world.” Like a conductor of a symphony, Bolaño uses language to speed up our mind or slow it down. It is unlikely gems of insight that arise from the intoxicating prose to knock us out: “Your face, which until recently could express only stupidity or rage or hatred, is reconfigured now and can express what can only be guessed at inside a tunnel where physical time and verbal time flow into one another and mingle.” For anyone who is skeptical about the hype, or would disagree with the view that Bolaño is the most important writer of our time, they only have to turn to the opening paragraph of “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura”:
It’s hard to believe, but I was born in a neighborhood called Los Empalados: the Impaled. The name glows like the moon. The name opens a way through the dream with its horn and man follows that path. A quaking path. Invariably harsh. The path that leads into or out of hell. That’s what it all comes down to. Getting closer to hell or further away. Me, for example, I’ve had people killed. I’ve given the best birthday presents. I’ve backed projects of epic proportions. I’ve opened my eyes in the dark. Once I opened them by slow degrees in total darkness and all I saw or imagined was that name: Los Empaldos, shining like the star of destiny. I’ll tell you everything, naturally.
With such captivating writing, it’s no surprise that this eerie story was one of the three from this collection to be published in The New Yorker. In “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura”, and in all of The Return, Bolaño’s words have the energy of a madman. His words are alive. With these thirteen stories, Bolaño grabs you by the scruff of your collar, drags you to the edge of a black hole, forces you to peer down, and whispers in your ear: This is why you care.
If you haven’t read Bolaño yet, read him now. If you’ve already read Bolaño, read more.