Cowboy Graves by Roberto Bolaño review – more mysteries and enigmas

The Chilean writer’s posthumous novellas may be the most autobiographical fiction he wrote, but the uninitiated should seek out his two masterworks first

The executors of the Roberto Bolaño archive have us right where they want us. Like pushers who know we’re hooked enough to keep buying product of diminishing quality, every couple of years they staple together something new from the notebooks, loose papers and computer files Bolaño left behind when he died in 2003 and tack it to the end of his oeuvre. It mightn’t be long before we’re presented with Bolaño: The Complete Shopping Lists or Gauchos at the Forgotten Library: Selected Email Drafts. Not that this scraping of the seemingly bottomless barrel is unwelcome. Like virtually everything the incomparable Chilean wrote, a newly excavated trio of unarguably minor novellas, Cowboy Graves, is companionable, exotic, witty and glamorously suggestive.

One drawback to the continued publication of posthumous works, some of them in a clearly unfinished state, is that the newcomer might take them as a starting point and, not seeing what the fuss is about, thereafter steer clear of Bolaño. In lieu of a colour-coded schema marking out the canonical from the supplementary, we ought to diligently steer the Bolaño-curious towards the two masterworks, 2666 and The Savage Detectives, or the short story collections, or the better non-posthumous short novels such as Nazi Literature in the Americas or Distant Star. Once addicted, they can rummage deep in the barrel like the rest of us.

To an extent, the value and interest of Cowboy Graves depend on a prior familiarity with the sprawling, hyperlinked metaverse of Bolaño’s fiction. Taken on its own, the first, titular story would feel rather slight; the fact that it’s narrated by Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s alter ego from The Savage Detectives and elsewhere, significantly warms up the atmosphere.

In fact, Cowboy Graves may be the most plainly autobiographical fiction Bolaño ever wrote. A characteristically nostalgic portrait of Belano’s youth in Chile and Mexico, it offers familiar depictions of the pleasures of buying (or stealing) books, vague attractions to elusive, poetry-loving women and friends who one day disappear, never to be seen again. The Grub, a short story from Last Evenings on Earth, reappears here as a chapter. The novella climaxes with Belano’s return to Chile in 1973, to defend Salvador Allende’s socialist government from Pinochet’s military coup. (Bolaño really milked that particular autobiographical episode – I’ve lost count of its iterations in his fiction.)

Both Cowboy Graves and the third piece, Fatherland, were composed in the mid-1990s. Sandwiched between them is French Comedy of Horrors, which was written in the year before Bolaño’s death of a liver ailment (when he was also hastening to finish 2666). It takes up and runs with a speculation that Bolaño first aired in a piece collected in the delightful nonfiction volume Between Parentheses, concerning a suggestion by André Breton, leader of the surrealists, that his movement might need to go underground. In the story, a teenage poet (an archetypal Bolaño character) receives a telephone call from Paris inviting him to join the Clandestine Surrealist Group, which for a decade has been conducting its operations in a network of sewers beneath the capital. It’s good fun, but it ends abruptly, as if we’ve been woken from a promising dream.

Fatherland, a novella in 20 loosely connected fragments, features the sinister pilot who skywrites fascist poetry over Chile, and also appeared in Distant Star (and before that in Nazi Literature in the Americas). Arturo Belano has become Rigoberto Belano. All is fluid, oneiric, a peyote vision in a hall of mirrors. Just as Bolaño’s stories manifest themselves across several books, they nestle other stories within them: films, dreams and imaginary novels break off from the main narrative, unfurl mesmerically for a few sentences or pages and trail off with no particular conclusion. Bolaño’s is a distinctly non-functionalist approach to narrative, as if he were the apotheosis of an alien tradition wherein the rules of Anglophone writing don’t apply (which, of course, is exactly what he is: few other great writers have taken so keenly to heart the revolutionary methods of surrealism).

A primary element in the compound that keeps Bolañoites hooked is the voice: it hardly matters what it’s saying, or what the torrent of words ultimately amounts to, when it speaks so seductively (as it does in Natasha Wimmer’s dependably limpid translations). The tics and trademarks are on display here: similes that break with reason and logic (“the horizon was flesh coloured, like a dying man’s back”); compulsive parenthetical alternatives (or substitutions or stand-ins); dazzling psychedelic feints (“he seemed like a lunatic imitating a lunatic”).

Characters, fictional cities and real-life poets recognisable from other novels flicker briefly into sight and then vanish. Cowboy Graves is a minor chamber in the labyrinth of Bolaño’s fiction, but it’s one with many doors.

Cowboy Graves by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Natasha Wimmer) is published by Pan Macmillan (£8.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply


Rob Doyle

The GuardianTramp

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