Roberto Bolaño’s The Spirit of Science Fiction: a little disappointing
To say this book is the perfect introduction to the late Chilean writer’s style is too generous; it’s more like his small-stage practice before his big performance pieces
US singer Patti Smith poses in front of a giant poster of late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño in Madrid in 2010. Photograph: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images
The Spirit of Science Fiction
Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer
It’s fitting that Roberto Bolaño’s body of work has become, for readers, a treasure hunt in a labyrinth. The sprawling novels he published in his lifetime, including the masterful tome The Savage Detectives, were full of quests, intrigue, and tormented poets. Since Bolaño’s death in 2003, several books of fiction and poetry have been published from manuscripts managed by his heirs and the eventual executor, the Wylie Agency. The Spirit of Science Fiction, a short book described as an “introduction for readers uninitiated into the thrills of Roberto Bolaño’s fiction”, is the latest to emerge. Despite its billing, The Spirit of Science Fiction reads less like something new and introductory, and more like a promising turn taken too soon.
The Spirit of Science Fiction follows Jan Schrella and Remo, two young writers living the bohemian life in a rooftop room in 1970s Mexico city. Jan spends his time writing fan letters to his sci-fi author heroes – the likes of James Tiptree Jr, aka Alice Sheldon, Ursula K Le Guin and Forrest J Ackerman. Transcripts of these letters are dispersed between Remo’s narrative. Remo’s chapters are a mix of flash-forwards to his future poetic success, and memories of urban adventures with his friend and fellow poet, Jose Arco. Remo recalls his virginal days, all-night parties with yet more poets, among them his eventual lover. And of course, he recounts a quest.
On Jose Arco’s crumbling motorbike, the two earnest poets hunted for the enigmatic Dr Carvajal from whom they sought an explanation. The doctor held the evidence to back up a lofty claim: in Mexico city, while illiteracy grew by 0.5 per cent annually, the production of poetry journals rose exponentially, to the absurd tally of 661.
Remo is also the narrator of the final section entitled “Mexican Manifesto”. This chapter, an essayistic love story, was published as a standalone in the New Yorker in 2013. It’s a significant pivot from the rest of the book which allows two possible readings: either everything was building up to this story, or the previous two sections are atmospheric to the point of superfluous.
At first glance, The Spirit of Science Fiction as introductory Bolaño is fair because the book presents ideas that appear in his later work, particularly The Savage Detectives. Like that novel, there’s the hunt for an elusive poetic figure in Mexico city; the character of Jose Arco calls to the virile Ulises Lima; the Eloísa Ramírez prize honours a dead daughter and poet, the same as the Laura Damian Poetry Prize; there’s a fictionalised version of the author in one of the characters, Jan Schrella. Bolaño used the homonymous character Arturo Belano in several works; a postscript note by the author revealed that the narrator of 2666 is, in fact, Belano. Jan returns to the chorus “I dreamed about…” to tell filigreed stories of meeting his sci-fi heroes. In Bolaño’s poetry collection Tres, most of the brief poems begin with the same phrase; one of the poems is about falling in love with Alice Sheldon.
On a broader stylistic level, The Spirit of Science Fiction also presages Bolaño’s use of superimposed storytelling structures: a character retelling another man’s tale; diary entries; letters, etc. Such devices were how Bolaño played with convolution and reliability. The author’s larger novels and short stories, such as Another Russian Tale and William Burns among many others, are full of these constructions. Similarly, infolding and internal referencing became a trademark of Bolaño’s writing. Characters reappear at various levels of prominence across his books. This interweaving style might be what makes Bolaño’s archives difficult to interpret: are the discovered manuscripts parts of the whole, or are they lab work?
To that end, The Spirit of Science Fiction has its Bolañian amulets. Remo’s love story is charming as it flowers, and then it withers to something bizarre, fascinating, and slightly depraved. Where translation might further complicate the realisation of a deceased author’s drafts, Bolaño’s writing has benefitted from the empathic work of Natasha Wimmer whose translations have received deserved acclaim. Thanks to Wimmer, the English translation of The Spirit of Science Fiction retains the mercurial poetry and quiet, satirical humour of Bolaño’s voice and style.
The book was written before Bolaño began writing on a computer. The handwritten manuscript covered three notebooks, and was discovered with the date “Blanes, 1984” and the day of completion. It’s unreasonable to argue that unless an author leaves precise instructions for a manuscript’s publication – as Bolaño did with 2666 – then they don’t wish for the book to be published. The Spirit of Science Fiction, however, was written around the same time as works published during the author’s lifetime, including Monsieur Pain and The Unknown University. Moreover, it’s clear Bolaño developed many of the book’s ideas to something stronger in later work. The author’s decision to not publish Science Fiction seems deliberate, humble, and self-aware.
The complexity of Bolaño’s later writing works because it is precise. The Spirit of Science Fiction lacks this precision. To say it’s the perfect introduction to Bolaño’s tactics, tricks, and motifs is too generous and wrongly uses his style as a delicate prop. Ultimately, we’re encountering problematic framing. Presenting this book as “a new Bolaño novel” sets up both the new reader and the diehard for disappointment – but for different reasons. The new reader will be left confused, wondering where all the hype about “the most significant Latin American literary voice” came from. The diehard will be dismayed to read a supposedly finished novel that feels more like an imitation. Publish this book as an annotated manuscript, a portrait of process, and the readers for whom it’s already better suited (completists, diehards, apostles), will be fascinated rather than dissatisfied. The new reader will start where they should-somewhere else.
When asked why Bolaño didn’t type up Science Fiction and send it to publishers, the Wylie Agency replied that it’s believed Bolaño didn’t think the book would be published, that he lacked confidence. The two shy young poets in The Spirit of Science Fiction succeed in their quest and find Dr Carvajal. The jaded doctor tells them, “All my life, I’ve believed that Evil practices her pirouettes on a small stage before making her debut”. Perhaps there is some instruction to be found here. Bolaño does his signature pirouettes around the pages of The Spirit of Science Fiction, but they are his small-stage practice. The true performance was yet to come.