Literature of the Future

Roberto Bolaño, trans. Natasha Wimmer, Cowboy Graves: Three Novellas

Penguin, 208pp, $24.00, ISBN 9780735222885

reviewed by Josh Weeks

Given their proclivity for narrative open-endedness, it is fitting that the works of Roberto Bolaño should continue to emerge long after his death. The latest iteration of the Chilean’s eternal return (or what many have perceived as a literary barrel-scraping) is Cowboy Graves: a trio of novellas first published by Alfaguara in 2017 (Sepulcros de vaqueros), now finally available in English thanks to the ever-dependable translation of Natasha Wimmer.

Like most of Bolaño’s fiction, we find ourselves in familiar territory from the get-go. The eponymous opener begins with Bolaño’s alter-ego and hero of The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano, about to board a plane from Santiago to Mexico City with his family. ‘I was fifteen then and I didn’t know whether I was Chilean or Mexican and I didn’t care much either way,’ he offers bluntly, before revealing the story’s ephemeral through-line, ‘We were going to Mexico to live with my father.’ Filling in some of the gaps of Bolaño’s fabled youth, the novella invokes the writer’s return to Chile days before the coup, eschewing the legend of his imprisonment at the hands of the regime in favour of an anecdote about idealism and the banality of its foreclosure (Belano is tasked with guarding a street from right-wing radicals, only to forget the crucial password when he is approached by one of his comrades). Sandwiched between Chile’s bookended shift from point of departure to point of arrival is a section entitled ‘The Grub’ — a reworking of a story from Last Evenings on Earth that charts Belano’s book-stealing escapades in Mexico City, and his friendship with an enigmatic drifter who occupies the local Alameda or public garden: ‘The empty Alameda was the ocean bottom,’ Belano notes, ‘and the Grub its most precious jewel.’ Bolaño’s humour shines as brightly as his characters, and his effortless poeticism is as breath-taking as ever.

The eponymous tale ‘Cowboy Graves’ is awash with meandering tangents and cascading, dream-like memories, as if the crepuscular unfurling of the world and its lunacy were the only motivation a writer could ever wish for. The third novella, ‘Fatherland’, is more episodic still, constructed out of miniature vignettes (each only a few pages in length) that form less a cohesive narrative than a dizzying, sometimes dazzling tapestry. As Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas points out in his afterword to the collection, ‘because these fragments (like Bolaño’s characters) are in constant motion and because they always lead us back to the larger body of his work, we must speak of puzzle pieces rather than fragments.’ ‘Fatherland’ rejigs the puzzle pieces of Distant Star (which were themselves borrowed from the final chapter of Nazi Literature in the Americas) via its allusions to Carlos Ramírez: the poet-cum-pilot who writes fascist slogans across the sky in a Third Reich fighter plane. Belano’s confidant Bibiano O’Ryan is renamed Bibiano Macaduck, and the ill-fated Garmendia twins have become Lisa and Edna Pons. The promise of violence – bubbling up like lava in the gaps between Bolaño’s prose — spares the murdered victims of these previous works for an equally grisly denouement, with Latin American children ‘carted off to the slaughterhouse’ to have their organs removed and trafficked around the globe.

Given that ‘Cowboy Graves’ and ‘Fatherland’ were both written in the nineties, it makes sense that they exhibit such a strong biographical strain. Like most of the of works completed during this period (The Savage Detectives, Distant Star, Last Evenings on Earth), Bolaño’s blurring of fact and fiction makes it impossible to gauge where each one ends and the other begins, bespeaking his commitment to a ludic, semi-mythic poetics designed to withstand the voracious gaze of the historian. That said, there are moments of openness on display here when the veil appears to slip: ‘Each time we moved,’ Belano tells us in ‘Cowboy Graves’, ‘my father followed us like a ghost, from town to town, with his clumsy letters, with his promises.’ Has the reflective pull of Bolaño’s youth finally taken the reigns? Or do we find ourselves deeper in his web of inconsistencies, ready to be (re)enlightened come the next posthumous release?

Central novella ‘French Comedy of Horrors’ is a more allegorical affair, evoking the surrealist aesthetic of Monsieur Pain and the unparalleled short story ‘Police Rat’ (from The Insufferable Gaucho). Here, however, the question of form feeds directly into the diegesis, with the narrative built around André Breton’s suggestion that ‘maybe the time was coming for surrealism to return to the catacombs.’ The novella introduces us to Diodorus Pilon: a seventeen-year-old poet and resident of Port Hope, French Guiana, who — after watching a solar eclipse with his friends — is recruited via payphone into the Paris-based Clandestine Surrealist Group: ‘the sewers are as big as Paris,’ Diodorus’ interlocutor tells him, describing the new home of surrealism, ‘an inside-out Paris, except in this Paris, instead of citizens there are the waste products of citizens.’ Only Bolaño would revive an artistic movement by relegating it to a cesspit brimming with human shit.

As always, what distinguishes Bolaño from the majority of his contemporaries is his refusal to succumb to literary convention. Sentences often dissipate in a hallucinatory flourish (‘I imagined the heehee bird hidden on some branch . . . the smile of an old joker with the words trickery and blood hanging from it like worms’ [‘French Comedy of Horrors’]), and where others might strive for a conclusion, Bolaño is content to leave us hanging (‘International terrorism was summoning our compatriot to other tasks. . .’ [‘Fatherland’]). Frustrating as this may be for the first-time reader, it is precisely Bolaño’s subversion of narrative expectation that lends his work an exhausting, often life-affirming generosity. After all, what good is a story once it considered ‘complete’, forever frozen in the grip of its structural determination? Bolaño’s practice, I sense, is an attempt to overcome such inertia — a mining of the indefinite space between life and literature, the proven and the possible.

Midway through ‘French Comedy of Horrors,’ Diodorus is quizzed about the ‘masterwork’ of the new surrealists. ‘Preparing the revolution?’ he conjectures. ‘Laying the foundation for the literature of the future?’ In privileging questions over answers, and thus working against historical capture, Cowboy Graves suggests a literary futurity that has yet to be conceptualised, still beyond our collective powers of description. All we can do is keep searching. And reading. Perhaps by the time of Bolaño’s next offering (if there is one), we might be one step closer to knowing what this literature of the future looks like.

Josh Weeks is a writer based in Madrid. He is currently researching a PhD on Roberto Bolaño.