Between Parentheses by Roberto Bolaño, reviewed by Joshua Willey

The latest release in the saga of Roberto Bolaño translations from New Directions is an expansive, remarkable volume as varied in content as it is consistent in form. Between Parentheses collects incidental writings from the deceased Chilean’s brief period of fame and fortune, that is from the smash of The Savage Detectives in 1998 until his death in 2003. During this time he also wrote his masterpiece 2666 and the specter of a major work certainly hangs over these fragments. The wandering, wistful cadence of the book will surely secure a devout long term following, as it falls into a rare and prized tradition, that of Montaigne, Breton and Wilson (Orhan Pamuk and Zadie Smith have both released somewhat similar, though less impressive, texts in the past year).

Bolaño mixes memoir, criticism, journalism, and fiction freely, and the resulting hybrid texture recalls a Herzog documentary or a DFW essay collection. Many of the pieces read like straight book reviews, and unless you are a scholar of Spanish and Latin-American poetry and prose, you’ll likely find yourself frequently opening your web browser. But even these are not to be trusted. Bolaño claims sections of James Ellroy’s memoir “are the best things written in the literature of any language in the last thirty years.” (223) Either he’s never read Sebald or he’s joking, right? Bolaño paints pastoral portraits of Blanes, the Costa Brava town in which he spent much of the last part of his life. In “Beach” he offers a four-page sentence which might be most touching description of overcoming heroin addiction ever written, in any language.

For Bolaño fans this is obviously essential, but the author’s love of literature and his faith that it can save us all, can redeem us, makes it a worthwhile read for anyone still clinging to the transformative power of the humanities. He describes the lives of countless writers, wretched and saintly. He loves Phil Dick and Aristophanes with equal fervor and trepidation. He pokes fun at Isabella Allende and Chuck Palahniuk. There are travel essays, acceptance speeches, half-cooked ideas on geopolitics. In a word, as with most good collections, particularly those curated by talent on the level of Echevarría and Wimmer (who translated 2666), there’s something for everyone. It will be nearly five months until FSG drops Wimmer’s translation of Bolaño’s early novel The Third Reich, so make this one last.

People who are confused or even angered by the Bolaño fad might find some answers here as well. Bolaño does not offer the narrative complexity of modernism nor does he deliver the philosophical or meta content of postmodernists. He is not looking to entertain or educate. His approach to fiction is almost phenomenological, existentialist, concerned not as much with literature as an art as with literature as a tool to pierce the spatial-temporal constrictions of material reality, and inaugurate a realm of pure possibility, where contingency is as much a blessing as it is a curse. After reading Between Parentheses one might return to fiction with new eyes. Bolaño does not front, he is interested in what is most important and nothing else. By refusing to kowtow to a literary world mired by hype, distraction, identity politics and businessmen, Bolaño maintains a critical purity and playfulness which is rare. He was in the game for all the right reasons.

Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003
by Roberto BolañoIgnacio Echevarría (editor); Natasha Wimmer (translator)
May 2011; New Directions (390 pg.)

Joshua Willey is a writer from California. He’s currently working on a novel about hitchhiking.