by Roberto Bolaño
trans. Laura Healy
‘Paradise, at times, appears in the general arrangement of the kaleidoscope. A vertical structure covered in gray blotches. If I close my eyes I’ll see dancing in my head the reflections of helmets, the quaking of a field of spears, that thing you called jet. Also, if I cut the dramatic effects, I’ll see myself walking through the plaza by the cinema toward the post office, where I won’t find any letters.’
– Prose from Autumn in Gerona, 1981
Kaleidoscopic will always be a good way to describe both Bolaño’s life and his work, so it’s fitting that he returns to the word repeatedly in this long prose poem from early in his career. Each page contains a paragraph or two which at first appear to be unconnected to those prior or following. Reading through it is like turning the kaleidoscope though, and you soon notice patterns and phrases reappearing, shifted slightly, with light shinning through them in different ways. Over and over they reveal the author as a man who is lost, puzzled by the workings of life but not entirely without hope, even if ‘this hope isn’t something I’ve sought.’
This is true as well of the two other pieces that round out Tres – a long poem called The Neochileans, and another prose poem called A Stroll through Literature, both from 1993. They are full of Bolaño’s vivid imagery and knack for telling a story in a few quick scratches of the pen, and they’re also desolate and weary, and momentarily funny.
Prose from Autumn in Gerona is a portrait of a relationship failing and other aims and dreams not quite getting off the ground. The Neochileans follows the haphazard adventures of a group of musicians, driving north in search of something – anything – to put their energy into. And A Stroll through Literature is a series of dreams where Bolaño fails to be helpful to any of the famous literary figures he comes across during their times of crisis, beginning and ending with a 3 year old Georges Perec whom he is unable to console.
There is a personal feel to these poems that digs deeper than what I’ve experienced with The Savage Detectives or The Skating Rink. There’s an autobiographical element to all of Bolaño’s work, but in these poems he seems especially cut open. When he wrote these, he was not the mystery or legend that he’s now become – had barely even been published, in fact – and he seemed fearful and uncertain. Or feared and was certain that he would remain the old, sick detective of his dreams.
‘I dreamt that a man was looking back over the anamorphic landscape of dreams, and his gaze, though hard as steel, splintered into multiple gazes, each more innocent, each more defenseless.’
– A Stroll through Literature
In the end he did get sick, although he never got old, and he turned that splintered gaze upon the world and reported his findings. He might not have saved the faceless man that Mark Twain sought, or gotten little Georges Perec home, but he effectively placed me inside his kaleidoscope, where things are governed by chance.
Leapt like a metallic
From between his fingers:
Heads, to the south,
Tails, to the north,
And we all piled into
And the city
– The Neochileans
Tres, published by New Directions 8 years after Bolaño’s death, is as uncomfortable a read as I’ve come to expect from him – which means it made me laugh and sigh, annoyed me and perplexed me, made me shiver with the pain of it, with the beauty. As usual, when it comes to Bolaño –
‘Crack, goes your heart.’
– Prose from Autumn in Gerona