Sunday, April 28, 2013

In Search of Roberto Bolaño



There's a soothing cadence to his voice, though I don't understand anything he says.

I feel tired. That's how soothing his voice is.

Smiling and nodding I drift away to a very comfortable place. The room dims and we go from talking about Roberto Bolaño to Roberto Bolaño and I talking about Roberto Bolaño. In a room full of Roberto Bolaño readers, the writer and I are anonymously invisible as we sit on gray folding steel chairs. Only one of us is talking and only one of us is thinking in English.

That's no matter.

I've had conversations with Bolaño when he was alive and...ever since. It is what it is, as my good friend jessica would say. If you believe, you can understand. We've always had an understanding. Not Jessica and I but rather Bolaño and I.

A book of memories is being read from the dais. The memoir is being passed around like a joint and we each take turns reading select passages from Bolaño's life. This communal sharing is something that I have not done since sharing Li Po with the Dharma Bums of Barra de Navidad. Bolaño is noticeably uncomfortable. He just wants to be left alone.

Bolaño reads of his childhood in Chile as if he is discovering his own past. He fidgets and sweat begins to bead on his forehead. What seems to him an eternity is only a minute and a half in Mexico time. He nervously passes the book along and hears about his move away from home. It dawns on Bolaño that in a room full of Bolaño fans and look-alike middle-aged men with attitude Bolaño is less than his imitators.

Gaining his confidence, he bcecomes more animated. He actively joins the discourse of his life and his writing. He wants to discuss his craft. As is his custom he addresses everyone by their last name. He addresses me by my last name while simultaneously elbowing me in the rooms while patting down his chest looking for a pack of cigarettes. He's excited and wants a smoke. I remind him that I don't smoke and I insist on being called by my given first name. That's always been a bone of contention between the two of us. I don't call him Bobby. We always have these percolating issues that resolve themself until we meet again. I remind him again of my given name as he lights up a smoke bummed from another soul.

Bolaño has risen.

Drinking. Women. Smoking. The holy trinity of prose. Write about any one of the three he would tell me and you have one third of your audience in rapt attention. They will be on the edge of their seats before they even read a single word. He explains the restless nights, the failed relationships, the consequences of a quest. He weaves a tale of art and life grabbed by the throat and wonders aloud if it was all worthwhile.

He returns to his seat as others continue to examine his life. Bolaño still frets about how he is perceived.

"I worked hard at my craft," he tells me wearily. "But the myth of me is self-perpetuating. What can I do to be taken seriously?" What could he do? He's been dead too long to be heard.

The resignation in his voice is depressing and I change the subject by asking him if he ever went to the famed Mutualista in Guadalajara. He has. Bolaño then regales me in a tale of drink, women and of a smoke so thick that it would leave a white shirt beige while dancing. Everyone smoked in Mexico back then. Everyone danced.

He tells me that he would lean against the wall by the women's lavatory. Partly to feel the night breeze rush in through the 19th century windows left ajar to circulate the cloud of smoke. Partly. But mainly he stood their all casual cool to ask every woman who came out of the restroom if they wanted to dance. Most would say no owing to various reasons and excuses such as being accosted by a stranger by the restroom. Yet in the course of an evening he could find at least ten partners. Tonight, the stature of these women grew in Bolaño's retelling. They were the most beautiful, the most rhythmic and they became legends, immortalized in Bolaño's own nicotine stained words.

"That is the problem," I say shaking my head in dismay. "Your personal stories fascinate. That's why you are where you are. You complain about the stories of your life and that they pale in comparison to the stories of your art but you perpetuate these stories." Our discussion then devolved into an argument on censorship and self-censorship.

Bolaño was incapable of censoring himself. That is why his legend grows. The more that he would protest, the more the people wanted to hear his stories and not read his stories. As fascinating as the fiction was it is the fiction of his life that lives on more than his written words.

"You know that I never had a drink in my life," he says defiantly running a hand through his thick hair.

"Neither have I," said I raising my drink in toast. "Neither have I," I repeat and we both begin to laugh.