Motorcycles are the vehicles of choice in The Spirit of Science Fiction; one in particular, a stolen brown Benelli called Aztec Princess, carves its erratic path through the pages of the novel, stalling and starting, testing its engine as it changes speed and direction. Midway through the book, the narrative itself begins to feel like a motorbike being revved, a loud growl that every now and then accelerates into glee and abandon before slipping back into a more tentative mode.
The Chilean author Roberto Bolaño is best known for his effervescent novel The Savage Detectives, first published in English in 2007, four years after his death, and the epic 2666. The latest genie to emerge from his seemingly inexhaustible archive, The Spirit of Science Fiction, was not intended for publication; written in 1984, it was only published in Spanish in 2016 and, like much of his work, is masterfully translated by Natasha Wimmer. More than anything, it reads as an ur-text of The Savage Detectives, and is populated with precursory character sketches and situations. Bolaño had written mostly poetry beforehand; this book offers a view into the author’s mental workshop as he figures things out, his sights now trained on the romance and possibility of the longer stretch.
Bolaño’s novels are often fuelled by a playful dialectics, structured loosely around rival friends, siblings or schools of poetry, which are set against one another as each pursues its own desires. In The Spirit of Science Fiction the two young protagonists, Jan Schrella and Remo Morán, are Chileans who have fled the military dictatorship at home and headed to the exhilarating Mexico City of the 1970s, a place humming with bars, cafes and conversation, which over the decades has welcomed émigrés from Europe and South America escaping war, persecution or ennui. Remo is the restless one, who engages with the outside world. He writes book reviews, attends poetry workshops, partakes in the extravagant nightlife. Jan is a hermit who hardly leaves their shared rooftop flat; his main dialogue with the outside world is conducted through the fan letters he sends to American science fiction writers including Ursula K Le Guin and Fritz Leiber (these appear in intervals across the book).
The novel’s symbolic register, if there is one, is that of science fiction. Unlike the distillatory act of poetry, SF implies an act of expansion: how far can the imagination colonise and how far can a country’s technology keep up in service of this imagination? Jan’s letters to SF authors express uncertainty and indeterminacy; they question the reality on which everything is premised. Along the way he also asks the writers to address the United States’s troublesome policy of intervention in Latin America. While Jan frets about scenarios real and imaginary, his best friend Remo, the true protagonist, is out creating some of his own.
The book is a hymn to Mexico City, and it’s fascinating to see which topographical features of the vast metropolis are pulled into focus. There’s a lyrical description of the fictitious poet José Arco, author of “Eros and Thanatos” (and an early incarnation, perhaps, of Ulises Lima in The Savage Detectives), riding his own motorcycle through the nocturnal urban landscape.Bolaño’s eye alights on the venerable Bucareli cinema – “A benevolent king, practically a paragon of virtue, host of those with nowhere to sleep, dark Disneyland” – and the basilica of Guadalupe, looming in the distance like a giant beetle. Melancholy and despair are offset by comedy, wonderfully present in scenes from a poetry workshop: one of Bolaño’s microcosms of choice, and the ideal space for intellectual strutting and sparring.
An intriguing cast, mostly vagabond in spirit, enters and exits the novel like spectres, part of the picaresque multitudes that populate his oeuvre. There’s the old caretaker stationed by his ham radio, eternally waiting for a transmission. We meet “the Doll”, an ageing Argentinian magazine editor, followed by the frail, enigmatic figure of publisher Dr Ireneo Carvajal, whom Remo and his poet friend José Arco visit in order to investigate the mysterious abundance of literary journals in the city (this mystery isn’t sufficiently developed, but is an early nod to the detective genre Bolaño often draws on). And then there are the vivacious Torrente sisters, Teresa and Angélica, who awaken desire in most men they encounter.
The novel, divided into two parts and concluding with a fragment called “Mexican Manifesto”, feels structurally unresolved. Yet its unsturdy architecture is at moments redeemed, particularly in part one, by scenes that bear the exuberant spirit of the work to come. Everything feels fleeting and precarious, and it’s this sense of the fugitive, the restless characters and their obsessions, that both buoys the narrative and ultimately lets it down. Too many roads lead nowhere; this brand of absurdity is itself a theme in Bolaño’s work, yet here the various aborted journeys don’t feed into a larger project.
The lack of clarity and cohesion finds its symbolic climax in the final fragment, which tours the city’s steamy bathhouses. These weird, covert ecosystems indulge the thrill of obfuscation and inscrutability and allow all manner of transgression. Every now and then, little islands of visibility appear within the fog, clear-eyed glimpses into the books to come.
• Chloe Aridjis’s latest novel is Sea Monsters (Chatto & Windus). The Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer, is published by Penguin (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.