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Roberto Bolaño

As the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño well knew, with Hepatitis C you are either counting your days, stacking them like coins found in a drawer or under the cushions, or spending them like a drunk man with too much loose change; just as your viral count—whether 750,000 or a few million—could be viewed as either a weight on your soul or the hoped-for advance for your next novel.

In any event, it's the thing that swims in your blood, that destroys the integrity of the largest organ in your body, that could well bring you down. It's a little gift from your past, when, in a moment of reckless indecision, you went to the wrong connection to get a five-dollar fix, or innocently was given a life-saving transfusion of blood donated by an unrepentant junkie. The thing about Hep C is that you have a pretty good ideal of when it's going to reign triumphant. There's something to be said for being a writer with something like this hanging over your head. Talking about raising the stakes...

I mention this because Roberto Bolaño wrote his last and greatest novel, 2666, when he was awaiting a liver transplant, knowing that without it he might well die before completing this masterwork, originally meant to be sold in separate volumes, so as to better help his widow and children in tough days ahead. He made a choice, and decided to write until the very end, perhaps knowing no transplant was on the horizon.

Like Marcel Proust (whom Bolaño read and admired), who suffered for years from a panoply of ailments, some real—asthma, for instance—some imagined (his editor at Gallimard in Paris said that Proust died of not being able to open his window and letting in some fresh air), for whom time was not just a theme for his great novel but also the monster that sat on his shoulder for all the years of writing his masterpiece, Bolaño in his fiction grappled with the darker notions of time passing, though in his case—and he was a man who lived a vastly different life from the bedridden and financially-comfortable Frenchman—he brought to his work an array of experiences that gave him a glimpse into the dark ragged edges of life, where life itself fades to gray and then black as it gives way to death itself.

He lived like some dodgy people I knew all too well in the Sixties: wandering, hitchhiking, waking in strange apartments, accepting gifts from people heretofore unknown in the form of things to smoke, to shoot (in both senses), to swallow or snort—all of which bear their own risks. These were people who'd vanish from your life for eight months or a year, only to return with wild stories of characters met in mountain cabins, or communes in the Californian desert, of bodies found and revolutions fought, They would as easily shed the skin of one life and becomes absorbed by another as you or I might get in a car and drive to visit a relative, putting on a smile and a pleasant face to fit into their world. These were people who returned with glazed eyes and a shade of paranoia that made them jump at the least sound, and who avoided whole cities and neighborhoods because of the malign forces they knew for sure reigned there. And just maybe they had also brought back with them something of the truth.

2666 is about death. Specifically, it deals with the notorious area just south of the US-Mexican border that the author renames Santa Teresa, where the bodies of more than 430 women and girls have been found since 1993, most of them raped, sodomized, beaten and tortured before they died. Clearly Bolaño sees this not just as a crime scene but as some great wound in the world, a kind of terrestrial black hole where all values, all belief, all hope, vanish into it, leaving behind the corpses and bones of innocent people, young and old, demanding both anger and pity from those who survive to read the facts.

The novel has been much discussed at length in many of the major reviews of it, and so there's no need to rehash the plots, such as they are. And though I've so far read all of Bolaño's prose available in translation (and I'm only halfway through 2666, hence the title of this piece), there's something about this man's fiction that strikes me as both truly original and genuinely, in the literal sense of the word, haunting. Once read, his voice enters your dreams and his people are never very far off from your nightmares. Worse, some of these people seem a shade too familiar to me. 

I first came across him while waiting in a railway station. I believe it was the first (or maybe second) story of Bolaño's the New Yorker had printed, and though I tend to avoid most of the fiction in the magazine (as it all reads very much alike to me), this caught my eye. It was about a man and his son who wander into a bar in Mexico. Not much happens, and yet they're about to be introduced into an equation already in place: a series of variables and symbols that add up to something tragic, a knife pulled in the backroom of a bar, a sordid death in the wrong place at the wrong time. They have stumbled into their own mortality.

When I finished it I read it again. And then a third time when it was published in a collection of some of his short fiction. This was something new, I thought. New and original. This wasn't fiction to make you feel good (and in any case, if you want to feel good there are quicker remedies at hand: fiction, as Kafka famously said, has to be the axe for the frozen sea inside us), as all too many novels these days are designed to be. But neither does it make you feel wretched. You come out of his work feeling as if you've touched something of life as it's lived, something both pure and impure, dangerous and safe all at once. 

There's a passage in the fourth volume of Proust's novel, when the narrator suddenly turns to address the reader: "I can testify that everything happened in this fashion, I, the strange human being, who while waiting for the time when death delivers him, lives behind closed shutters, knows nothing of the world, remains as motionless as an owl, and like the latter, peers dimly into darkness."

It's an eerie moment when you sense that while he was writing his book he anticipated you reading him. He knew he might well die before this volume was published, and yet suddenly he's there, talking to you, alive on the page and back from the past—his own present. Like Santa Claus, who according to the song, and like someone out of Orwell, knows what you've been thinking, who knows if you're awake, Proust, who bears a very different bushel of gifts, has got his eye on you. I have a feeling, as I make my way towards the end of 2666, that Roberto Bolaño does, as well.

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Like Santa Claus

What a nice Christmas gift, JP! Thanks for this one. You are rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors!

 Jennifer Van Bergen

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Thank you, Jennifer. Much appreciated!