Sharp Instruments and Lynched Messiahs: TFT Review of Tres
Perhaps surprising to some of his fiction fans, Roberto Bolaño touted poetry as the superior art form, above fiction, nonfiction, and everything in between. In an interview back in 2000, he jeers novel writing, calling it “an imperfect art,” “a vulgar beast,” and perhaps the most disparaging: “like returning to the work of my illiterate grandfather.” He praises poetry, calling it “purity,” and “a great desolation,” able to approach an infinity in which “you become infinitely small without disappearing.”
This is sanctimonious stuff, I guess. Frankly, I’m too proud to hear this kind of plea made on behalf of poetry the art form. No one, including Bolaño, should have to make the case for poetry itself, so I invite Bolaño’s fans to investigate his newest posthumous collection of poems, Tres, without the aid of Bolaño’s meta-commentary. Written in both prose poetry and lineated verse, and translated dexterously by Laura Healy, Bolaño’s Tres peers at the infinite through three series of compelling, surreal, and cinematic poems.
His first section, comprised of prose poetry, is especially cinematic. In this series, Bolaño splices and edits together the scenes of an unrequited romance much like a French New Wave director. Reading “Prose from Autumn in Gerona,” I expect Anna Karina to appear among the images, in a close-up, applying her eyeliner. Through the splicing and jump cuts, we watch a screenplay unfold as it is being written, with all its signal textual formatting:
CLOUDY DAYBREAK. Sitting in an armchair, with a cup of coffee in my hand, before having showered, I imagine the protagonist in the following way: his eyes closed, his face very pale, his hair dirty. He’s lying on the train track. No. Only his head is over one of the rails, the rest of his body stretched out to the side of the track, on top of the whitish gray stones.
Now, this prose section is not a collection of simple narrative screenplays that just so happen to contain poetic language. Conversely, Bolaño injects cinema into these poems, which is why Tres can brilliantly disrupt the traditionally unilateral gaze, thus:
Reader <–gaze–> Bolaño <–gaze–> Screenplay writer <–gaze–> Protagonist <–gaze–> Beloved
(That, dear Bolaño fans, is the power of poetry that takes risks.) The poet, the narrator, the film’s protagonist, the reader (or the you/thou) change places in the kaleidoscopic screenplay, each with a bidirectional, eyes-on-back-of head type of gaze. In summary, it’s trippy.
To complicate matters, Bolaño frames the first section of poems within a kaleidoscope, which dazzles the mind and fractures the scenes. As children, we might gaze upon this geometrical mirrored pattern of beads, shells, stars, stones, or whatever, and trip out on all its rotational symmetry. Inside Bolaño’s kaleidoscope, “in addition to the reflection that sucks up everything, you notice stones, yellow reefs, sand, hair on pillows, abandoned pajamas.” Startlingly, the protagonist might catch sight of the reader’s eye in the reflective mirrors. We gaze upon a reflected and replicated protagonist, and the “Quick fragments of circles, cubes, cylinders give us an impression of his face when the light presses him; his lack of money morphs into love’s desperation; any gesture of his hands morphs into a plea.”
Interestingly, if you dissect the word kaleidoscope’s Greek parts, phoneme-by-phoneme, the word means “a tool for examination of the beautiful form.” The sections are indeed beautiful, and Bolaño remains ever faithful to his favorite form: the catalogue.
I can guess that Bolaño wouldn’t appreciate me calling his work formal. In the same interview mentioned above, he disparages the works of Laura Esquivel, and Alberto Fuguet, dismissing their exportation of a folkloric, “exotic” form of literature, which sucks up to royalty, in so many words. He also declares that poetry, “in its usual metric…is already dead.” Bolaño was a critical maverick, and a petulant one at that. But I think after some arm-twisting, I might convince him that as he abandoned the more established forms, he took up a new form with his catalogues.
Whether Bolaño catalogues a series of diaries written by mediocre, un-famous poets in Savage Detectives, or reports brutal las muertas in the fictional town of Santa Teresa in 2666, or generates an encyclopedia of works written by make-believe writers in Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolaño painstakingly follows the form, unashamedly reporting even the most grotesque or banal. In “A Stroll Through Literature,” his third part in Tres, he leads us through a catalogue of dreams with literary figures. From a hellish dream with the ancient Greek poet, Archilochus, to a wet dream with Anaïs Nin, Bolaño details the subconscious landscape that Hélène Cixous describes as “an extremely inventive hell” in her Dream, I Tell You, an inventory of her own dreams written to Jacques Derrida.
Bolaño’s inventively hellish dream poetry certainly pays tremendous debt to the surrealists. The pages are composed seemingly “automatically” with their strange associations, as if written just after a Magnetic Fields binge. Each dream contains a Freudian mother lode. Here we have the dreamer in his most primitive state: “29. I dreamt I was translating Virgil with a stone. I was naked on a big basaltic flagstone and the sun, as the fighter pilots say, hovered dangerously at 5 o’clock.” Bolaño weaves his detective fixation into a few dreams, one in which the dreamer is “a really old Latin American detective.” He explains, “Mark Twain was hiring me to save the life of someone without a face. It’s going to be a damn tough case, Mr. Twain, I told him.” While conjuring up a hugely eclectic selection of writers, the dreams jump from apocalypse to quietude to comedy.
Bolaño’s comic sense really ascends in the second section. I’d like to call “The Neochileans” a light interlude, an intermission of sorts between the two catalogue sections. However, this longer narrative verse returns to Bolaño’s “great desolation” with a wonderfully severe case of melancholia with comedic characteristics. If we follow the cinematic theme, we would classify his second section as a road trip movie, a more desperate Easy Rider, in which an un-famous band, the Neochileans, whose groupies are teenage prostitutes, tour South America.
The band plays “in empty banquet halls/ And brothels converted/ into Lilliputian hospitals” with a feverish lead singer, who takes on the role of the surrealist storyteller. Writing the poem in Blanes, Spain, Bolaño uses a signature Cervantes technique: the tale within the tale (and also, later, a poem within a poem). The lead singer, sick with god-knows-what, relays the tragic tale of two legendary figures, “Caraculo and Jetachancho,” roughly translated as Assface and Filthymug, as the band wanders the continent. (What a great translation decision among many to keep these names in the Spanish, keeping with their “original” legendary form).
At one point in the tour, the band grows quiet:
And the rain was the only
A strange phenomenon: we Neochileans
Shut our mouths
And went our separate ways
Visiting the dumps of
Philosophy, the safes, the
American colors, the unmistakable manner
Of being born and reborn.
Bolaño quilts together the three sections, interconnecting each discrete series into the whole with a thread of common references and unblinking intimacy. Reading Tres, with all its filth and truth, I thought of an excerpt from the Savage Detectives. Bolaño’s character, Joaquín Font, confident of his knowledge of “Belano’s” artistic intention, posits, “There are books for when you’re sad. There are books for when you’re happy. There are books for when you’re thirsty for knowledge. And there are books for when you’re desperate. The latter are the kind of books Ulises Lima and Belano wanted to write.” “Belano,” in the novel, wished to write for the heartsick and the wretched. And if writing desperation literature, “full of sharp instruments and lynched messiahs,” was indeed the real-life “Belano’s” goal, he hit his mark with Tres.
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