The release of a posthumous non-fiction collection by author Roberto Bolaño provides new insights into the mind of a modern master through articles and columns written during his last five years.
If you were lucky enough to make it to Galapagos Art Space on Monday, June 13th to celebrate the release of Roberto Bolaño’s new book Between Parentheses by New Directions, you are likely still musing over this glimpse into the non-fiction world of a great writer. Translator Natasha Wimmer, novelist Francisco Goldman, writer and The Believer editor Heidi Julavits, Harper’s contributing editor Wyatt Mason, and The Paris Review editor Lorin Stein each read and discussed their favorite excerpts from the book as an eager audience absorbed them for the first time in English.
In order to provide some context on this collection of essays, Francisco Goldman pointed out that many writers in Latin America and Spain make their money from writing columns in newspapers rather than teaching at universities, as writers tend to do for steady income in the United States. These articles and essays provided Bolaño with a platform to showcase another side of his writing that is equally alive, if not more so, than his fiction and poetry. Natasha Wimmer adds that perhaps Bolaño would not have written any non-fiction had he not been asked to do so and describes his columns as a type of “literary shock theatre” for readers. Because this format is much different than a novel, short story, or poem, and is much more deadline-driven, the result is that Bolaño’s columns read like a shot of literary adrenaline.
Goldman went on to joke that people try to “domesticate [Bolaño] like a McSweeney’s writer” and that this collection of Bolaño’s writing is not meant to serve as an autobiography, though readers will surely become more familiar with his thoughts on just about everything including the works of other writers like Isabel Allende, Cormac McCarthy, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Bolaño’s opinions are inconsistent and will often make us laugh, but for this reason his spirit comes alive in this collection. It seems perfectly suited to Bolaño for his opinions to remain in flux almost ten years after his death in 2003.
Wyatt Mason adds that Bolaño helps to fill a void in the overall lack of comedy in the literary canon. As Mason pointed out, we do not read Dostoyevsky or other literary masters to have a laugh. I believe Bolaño succeeds with comedy because he makes us laugh in a way that does not feel contrived and as if we are in the companionship of a friend rather than line after line on page after page. There is something very unassuming about his comedic timing and energetic quips on life. His humor isn’t there for its own sake, but is born out of some fundamental insight into the absurdity and consistent incongruity of our various realities.
As Natasha Wimmer read an excerpt, I couldn’t help but wonder about her very distinct connection with Bolaño. The words she read were also hers, which made the experience even more interesting. For those unable to read in Spanish, she successfully provided a bridge to an author that feels very much alive in her mindful translation.
Readers had the opportunity to purchase Between Parentheses at the event and after hearing such enticing samples from the panel it is hard to imagine any books remained unsold. I do hope that Bolaño fans purchase the book rather than steal it, in imitation of their hero in the essay “Who Would Dare?”, a memoir of the author’s adventures in book thievery. Though if your touch is as light as his was, you just might be able to get away with it.
Monica Adame Davis is a freelance project editor, photo researcher, and writer living in New York City.