Between Parentheses: Hit and miss, but distinctly Roberto Bolaño

As well as being an immensely popular novelist, Roberto Bolaño was also a prolific but sometimes dull essayist, as is revealed in this new collection of his non-fiction work.

Between Parentheses
Roberto Bolaño
New Directions
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Fans of Roberto Bolaño know that although he is renowned for his fiction, he first considered himself a poet. What is neglected in this dichotomy is Bolaño the essayist, a role that was thrust on him as his fame increased and the invitations for lectures, articles and miscellaneous projects piled up. Almost all of Bolaño's non-fiction output - mostly written during the last four years of his life - is collected here in the newly translated, 380-page volume Between Parentheses.

The collection opens with what Ignacio Echevarría, the literary executor and volume editor, has playfully termed three "insufferable speeches" because they are spiritual kin of the famous essays in Bolaño's The Insufferable Gaucho, "Literature + Illness = Illness" and "The Myths of the Cthulhu". In these sterling lectures, easily among the volume's strongest work, we are in the presence of a coy, worldly and serious style cousin to that in Bolaño's fiction. The Chilean's playful voice fuses with the lecture form to create something resembling the hybrid fiction/nonfiction that many of Spain's best contemporary authors have taken up. This expository, malleable form suits Bolaño well, as it lets his natural affinity for irony upset expectations while communicating much of value:

And now I think I've said all I had to say about literature and exile or literature and banishment, but the letter I received, which was long and detailed, emphasised the fact that I should talk for 20 minutes, something for which I'm sure none of you will thank me and that for me could become an ordeal, especially because I'm not so sure I read the wretched letter correctly, and also because I've always believed that the best speeches are short. Literature and exile, I think, are two sides of the same coin, our fate placed in the hands of chance.

That tricky, erudite voice is an ideal vehicle for Bolaño's blend of monologue, literary criticism and personal musings on the life of the author. The insufferable lectures seem destined to last.

They also point towards the quality shared by most of the worthwhile items in this volume: they are carried by Bolaño's inimitable voice. It is that voice that allows Bolaño to get away with a line like "the best thing about Latin America is its suicides, voluntary or not". Such a sentiment, which might otherwise be offensive or nonsensical, takes on a new logic in the context created by Bolaño's non-fiction voice, articulating a version of the truth that one finds more and more commonly in the works of Bolaño's friends and peers, among them Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Cercas. It is a voice distinguished from the novels by its willingness to play games with the line between fiction and non-fiction, yet similar in that Bolaño launders his own thoughts through a heavy wash of irony.

Where that voice begins to suffer is in the masses of Bolaño's newspaper commentary, a form he seemed to have varying degrees of interest in. Such writing makes up the bulk of Between Parentheses, and Echevarría has done yeoman service in corralling the chaos of Bolaño's journalistic writings, along with sundry other work, into headings like "Scenes" and "The Brave Librarian". The vagueness of these headings gives some indication of how loosely this work cleaves together, as well as its fundamental unsuitability for publication in book form.

The book's fat middle - a 126-page expanse simply called Between Parentheses - collects the columns Bolaño wrote in three stints between 1999 and his death in 2003. As Echevarría admits, his newspaper column was something Bolaño had mixed feelings about, and it shows.

The best of these columns, lumped together in the second of three sections, form a celebratory series in which Bolaño pays tribute to 40 of his favourite writers. He lives up to his reputation as a voracious, eclectic reader, praising such a diverse crowd as Thomas Harris, author of the pulpy bestseller Hannibal, as well as William S Burroughs, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Vila-Matas, Ernesto Cardenal, Max Beerbohm, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Philip K Dick, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Swift, and even the writing of the famous Cubist Georges Braque. One would become fatigued were the portraits here not so sharp, cruel, delightful and unexpectedly hilarious, Bolaño scattering gems such as this remark on Carlos Pezoa Véliz's begetter: "He had a mother who was less a mother than a gypsy curse." His ability to evoke a vivid, penetrating image in just a few words with freakish consistency does each of these writers a service by making them distinct and memorable.

One warning: as useful as Bolaño's pocket introductions to many Spanish-language writers still poorly known in English are, I feel they must be taken with a grain of salt. Not only does Bolaño's desert-dry prose require it but one has hardly forgotten the drubbing that César Aira - easily among Latin America's top living writers - takes in "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom" (he "maintains a grey, uniform prose that … is mostly just boring" than we hear Bolaño praise him without restraint as "one of the three or four best Spanish-language writers alive today". Caveat lector.

Reading the columns, one is reminded that one of Bolaño's strengths was his ability to combine his rare dedication to literature with a barricade-rushing political sensibility. Pieces such as "Translation is an Anvil" do him proud, yet many of the columns make for some strange results. Again and again poets and suffering artists are singled out as both uniquely brave and uniquely able to endure pain.

"If I had to hold up the most heavily fortified bank in America, I'd take a gang of poets," Bolaño tells us, and I am nearly convinced he means it. It is this unflinching idolisation of artists that gives Bolaño's literature its considerable appeal in a world thirsty for authenticity, and reading Between Parentheses, it is obvious that Bolaño's non-fiction extends the obsessions and mythology of his fiction: all worthy art is inspired by the void, true poets achieve a Christ-like grace, politicians are deplorable, commerce debases all, our world is fallen.

While this elemental stridency works well in the fiction - where one more easily accepts exaggerated viewpoints - in the essays it has some liabilities. The writing here is constantly in danger of falling into the fatuousness that Bolaño so harshly skewered, even if the tipsiness caused by Bolaño's thick irony frequently shields him from sounding too overwrought. Read one way, lines such as "the cowardly don't publish the brave" sound quite good. But if you are not as equally convinced as Bolaño is of literature's importance - or if you like to see your world in shades of grey - then he will almost certainly sound at times like he takes himself much too seriously.

Still, after reading the far-too-many turgid pieces that one must conclude were only collected here for completeness's sake, such overwrought passion begins to look distinctly palatable. One wonders at the value in such dull work as "Town Crier of Blanes", a speech Bolaño read to open a holiday festival in 1999, or "Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories", a rambling, one-page collection of half-serious remarks Bolaño wrote to fill space in a magazine. These and various prologues to novels that Bolaño seemed to have dashed off to cash a cheque only serve to fatten out this collection.

Still, there is much here to satisfy, and any good reader could gain by reading at least half of this book. But it seems that the hit-or-miss nature of Between Parentheses is a testament to the great role that passion played in Bolaño's literature. The workings of passion in the life of an author was the great theme of his fiction, and the energy with which he threw himself into the creation of a prodigious body of work in just 10 years' time testifies to passion's centrality in his life as a writer. I don't know of any novel Bolaño published that wasn't written with this passion, but it's quite clear when Bolaño writes these non-fiction pieces from passion and when he writes them from necessity. The former will be of interest to true readers everywhere, the latter to the kinds of scholars Bolaño so harshly belittled.

Scott Esposito is the editor of the Quarterly Conversation, an online literary journal.