Friday, October 29, 2010

The Three Stages of Bolano

Aside from the merits of his individual works, the literary output of Roberto Bolano presents a fascinating portrait of a writer in development.  The seemingly never ending stream of translations of his work over the last two years at one point seemed to me to be approaching the level of barrel bottoms being scraped.  From a monetary standpoint for the publishers, this seems likely to be the mentality.  However, it allows the opportunity to get an understanding of how he developed over his writing career.

After reading almost all of the existing English translations of Bolano's works, I have come to realize that his output can be roughly broken up into three groups.  First, there are the opus's that made him famous in the English speaking world starting with the publication of The Savage Detectives followed by 2666 just over a year later.  Next are the shorter works that speak to his dominant themes, but have a narrower focus than the later works such as Amulet and By Night in Chile.  Finally, there are the novels that I can best describe as writing exercises that, though entertaining, provide only a hint of what Bolano was capable of, such as Antwerp and The Skating Rink.  The novel I most recently read, Monsieur Pain, falls clearly into this third category.

Bolano didn't arrive on the scene fully formed.  He was a craftsman who developed his technique, themes and style over decades before he arrived at his landmark works.  He is still clearly "Bolano" in his early works, but almost in miniature.  He uses narrative techniques most often found in detective novels to propel his plots, a particular device which recurs through most of his later works too.  Monsieur Pain contains many of his trademark points, but I can't but classify it as anything but a minor work.  This judgement is less due to any specific demerits of the novel than how it compares to his best writings.

Monsieur Pain is about a practitioner of alternative medicines, acupuncture and mesmerism among them, who is asked by a friend to look at an ailing friend's husband who turns out to be one of my favourite poets, Cesar Vallejo.  Forces appear to be conspiring against him as he is warned about visiting him by shadowy people, eventually being paid off to stay away.  He is never told why he is specifically told to avoid Vallejo even though he is currently being treated in hospital by doctors.  The titular character Pain's inability to stay away, despite being frustrated in his attempts, makes up the bulk of the novel.  Later on he introduces almost a fantastical/mystical bent that I felt was out of place, and the tacked on mini-biographies at the end don't mesh with the rest of the work.

Bolano's greatest asset as a writer was his ability to add layers of complexity, incongruent themes, and create novels of massive scope, all with making them human, deep and engaging.  He didn't need massive tomes to do this as several of his short stories and novellas manage this admirably.  His early work, however, shows a writer still learning how to incorporate these disparate elements into a cohesive whole.

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