Wednesday, 13 July 2016


Tres - Roberto Bolaño
Translated by Laura Healy

Tres is a collection of three poems by Bolaño, although two could just as easily be called prose fragments. Indeed the first 'poem' is called Prose from Autumn in Gerona and the third "section" is called A Stroll Through Literature, a title that might seem more at home in a middlebrow essay collection. The central poem is called The Neochileans and centers on a tour by a band of that name. It is a short book, despite it's 170 plus pages, as many pages contain just one short paragraph and the facing pages feature the original Spanish texts.

What is surprising (or not) is that the work fits seamlessly into Bolaño's oeuvre, and readers who have read a number of his works will find themselves again in that large reverberating echo chamber which all his books seem to exist in. Partly it is that the writer's life is stitched into his work and partly the language and the fascination with geometry. Bolaño often seems to see the relationships between characters and the effect they have on each other in terms of a geometric theorems, as if a formula could be derived of the forces pulling the characters together, or apart. The word features in the very first paragraph of Prose from Autumn in Gerona.
"A woman - I ought to say a stranger - who caresses you, teases you, is sweet with you and brings you to the edge of a precipice. There, the protagonist gasps or goes pale. As if he were inside a kaleidoscope and caught sight of the eye watching him. Colours arranging themselves in a geometry far from anything you're prepared to accept as okay. And so begins autumn, between the Oñar river and the hill of las Pederas."

The kaleidoscope, the woman, the protagonist, all reappear, rearranged, throughout the poem. It concerns the struggle to write, to exist, to connect, to understand. It is particular and general. Dates and places are named but they are only sketched schematically. We see it all through the kaleidoscope but we also see the eye looking through the kaleidoscope, the eye of RB looking back at his passport from 1981 with a visa to live but not work in Spain for three months.

A woman breaks the surface of his loneliness and then sinks from view like the lost city of Atlantis. A man remembers looking in a mirror, remembering his face remembering her face in it. What does poetry mean in the face of war? Where does it fit in the urban landscape. Prose from Autumn in Gerona is all this and more. I've read it twice and will certainly return to it. It is a very close relative of Antwerp. Both are full of empty rooms, loneliness and unfinished tales. It feels like one of the first steps of a writer trying to believe in his feet.

"THE KALEIDOSCOPE OBSERVED. passion is geometry. Rhombuses, cylinders, pulsing angles. Passion is geometry plunging into the abyss, observed from the depths of the abyss."


"This is like a vapor trail
Straight out of 
World War II"

The Neochileans is a far more conventional in form. It looks like a poem. pages filled with adumbrated lines. It concerns the journey of a band through Chile and north into Peru. It is a fever dream of a journey, a journey into identity, through countryside both real and imagined, full of the febrile philosophies of hallucinogenics: the what ifs and the sci-fi fantasising...
"And if we weren't
In Peru? we
Asked ourselves one night.
And if this immense
That instructs
And limits us
Were an intergalactic ship.
An unidentified 
Flying object? 
And if Pancho Misterio's
Were our fuel
Or our navigational device?"

The journey is both real and a fantasy. Perhaps Bolaño truly appreciates that the past is always both real and a fantasy, and the future is not real at all.
"We left Arica
And crossed the border
Of the Republic.
By our expressions
You'd have thought we were crossing
The border of Reason.
And the Peru of legend
Opened up in front of our van
Covered in dust
And filth
Like a piece of fruit without a peel, 
Like a chimeric fruit"

It clearly echoes the works that were yet to come, particularly The Savage Detectives. The band resemble the poets; both share journeys into the landscape. It also echoes 2666, with an undercurrent of violent sex providing the backdrop in some of the most isolated places the band tour through.
"..the screams that came
Through the windows and
Echoed though the cement courtyard
Through outhouses
Between stores full
Of rusted tools
And sheds that seemed
To collect all the moon's light,
Made our hair
Stand on end.
How can so much evil exist
In a country so new,
So minuscule?"

The journey is one of discovery, but the band's singer Pancho Ferri (who changes his name to Pancho Misterio) seems to be losing rather than finding his. The whole thing may be a wild goose chase, a lost cause. That which they wish to express is fading from their grasp as they express it.
"A friend of don Luis Sánchez,
Asked what the fuck we were trying to say
With all that Neochilean shit.
New patriots, said Pancho,
As he got up 
From the table
And locked himself in the bathroom."

And, of course, there is geometry:
"Our home
Positioned within the geometry
Of impossible crimes"

There are echoes of the Beats in this poem. On the Road seems to worm its way into most reviews and its easy to see why. Ken Kesey's trip with the Merry Pranksters seems an even closer precursor. I enjoyed this poem immensely. It is both immediate and memorable...


The last of the three pieces, A Stroll Through Literature, represents another trend that runs through all of Bolaño's work, the referencing of many writers and the sense that books and writing are fundamental, essential things.

The poem is made up of 57 numbered passages of ranging from single short lines to half page paragraphs. They detail a landscape of dreams filled with writers. It starts and finishes with a dream featuring a three year old Georges Perec, and the many other writers referenced include: Alonso de Ecrilla; Manuel Puig; Macedonio Fernández; Efraîn Huerta; Enrique Lihn; Stendhal, Thomas de Quincy, Aloysius Bertrand, Gui Rosey, Li Po, Archibald McLeish, the Goncourt brothers, Gabriela Mistral, Philip K. Dick, Archilochus, Nicanor Parra, César Vallejo, Martin Adan, Virgil, Paulin Joachim, Franz Kafka, Mario de Sá-Carneiro, Anacreon, Mark Twain, Alice Sheldon, Anais Nin, Carson McCullers, Alphonse Daudet, Robert Desnos, Roque Dalton; Walt Whitman; Boethius; Theodoric; Pascal; The Marquis de Sade; Marcel Schwob; James Matthew Barrie and, of course Roberto Bolaño.

Once again identity, and the difficulty of writing and the search for love are central:
On Identity: "Sometime I'd look at myself casually in a mirror and recognize Roberto Bolaño."

On Writing: "I dreamt I was translating Virgil with a stone. I was naked on a big basaltic flagstone and the sun, as fighter pilots say, hovered dangerously at 5 o'clock." / "I dreamt I was translating the Marquis de Sade with axe blows. I'd gone crazy and was living in the woods."

On The Search for Love: "I dreamt I was fucking Carson McCullers in a dim-lit room in the spring of 1981. And we both felt irrationally happy."

Apocalypse stalks the landscape, and home is a lost place, "I dreamt the Earth was finished. And the only human being to contemplate the end was Franz Kafka."

It's tempting to see this section as a reiteration of the first where the kaleidoscope is literature and Bolaño is learning how to use and maim the methodologies and revelations of other writers; making something that became his.

He succeeded, here and repeatedly, to find the stubborn alchemy that gives a voice to the world in such a way as to change how we see it.

Laura Healy deserves a mention. The language is delicate, precise, robust, alive and elastic. Whether it is accurate or not this mono-linguist cannot tell.

Further Appendix
This is my first contribution to this year's SpanishLitMonth hosted by Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad's Blog. My favourite literary blog event on the calendar.


  1. Yesterday was a great Bolaño day for me. I picked up two of the few (supposedly lesser) works by him I haven't yet read--at half price new!--and then went home to find this post awaiting me. Glad to hear you enjoyed these three poems or pseudo poems so much since this is another volume by B still unread/unowned by me. "Bolaño is learning how to use and maim the methodologies and revelation of other writers; making something that became his." Sounds exciting! Thanks, too, for your kind words about Spanish Lit Month. It's very rewarding to hear such enthusiasm for the event from one of my favorite bloggers.

    1. At last I get to a Bolaño before you! I'll be watching out for The Romantic Dogs after this. Have you read it? I also still have a few more novels and the short stories to read.

  2. This sounds like a Bolaño I could get on board with. Well, certainly the fist two - I particularly like your first quote from Autumn in Gerona. Will keep a lookout for this in the library. One of these days I'll get around to trying The Savage Detectives, a book I picked up at a table sale for the princely sum of £1.

    1. Even when sterling was strong £1 for The Savage Detectives has to be exceptional value per page!

  3. The kaleidoscope is a great perspective to view this collection against his body of work. The prose bits and poetic pieces sure bump against each other to form different configurations.

    1. Yes, it is an ever shifting pattern full of familiar pieces.