‘A joke, but a refined and complex joke, of polyvalent meanings’ – The Romantic Dogs by Roberto Bolano

Some writers, once you’ve read a few books by them, you sort of know the drill. You’ve got a read on them. Ah, you might think. Such-and-such is playing against type this time. Or: such-and-such is going over similar ground to that which he trod in his famous book. Not so with Roberto Bolano. Roberto Bolano is a puzzle.

Reading the preface to The Romantic Dogs, the first collection of his poetry in English, the puzzling nature of Bolano is brought to the fore:

‘A good part of Bolano’s texts, whether prose or poetry, seem to be – and are – a joke, but a refined and complex joke, of polyvalent meanings, that is able to reveal the underside of things and leave us suddenly moved by showing, behind the absurdity of today, the failure and sacrifice of a generation of youth that tried to start a revolution or the rebel pulse of atavistic drives behind the squalid routine of being rounded up on corners from which, day by day, private order and disorder challenge – and this is the essence of the poem – external order and disorder.’

This is a good introduction to what follows. There are poems here that seem to anticipate some of the maybe apocryphal stories that have sprung up about Bolano since his death. In ‘Dino Campani revises his biography in Castel Pulci Psychiatric Hospital’, he writes:

‘I took the trains and boats, I traveled the land of the just

at the earliest hour, with the humblest people:

gypsies and peddlars’

He continues:

‘I worked the lowest jobs.

I travelled Argentina and all of Europe at the hour

                when everyone

sleeps and the guardian phantoms of dreams appear.’

Dreams – as readers of 2666, Amulet, The Skating Rink and Monsieur Pain will expect – play a big part. There is a beautiful circular poem called ‘Luck’ which sees a man ‘coming back from a week of work in the country / at the home of a real asshole’ and he calls a friend and they meet for coffee and make love before he falls asleep and dreams

‘he was arriving at a house in the country and the snow was falling

behind the house, behind the mountains, the snow was falling,

and he found himself trapped in the valley and calling his friend

on the phone and the cold voice (cold but friendly!) told him

from this immaculate grave not even the honest could leave

unless he were very lucky.’

The flipside of dreams is also present as in ‘On the edge of a cliff’ where ‘one guy, half naked’ and a woman – or rather ‘the holographic projection of a woman’ ‘contemplate nightmares or splinters slipped into the sky’. But there is more to Bolano than just dream. In the poem ‘X-Rays’, we follow the path (seemingly) of an x-ray as it travels through a man’s house (‘the ghosts of books in silent shelves / or piled in the hall or on nightstands and tables’ is a recurrent image in other poems) and eventually into the man himself where:

‘we’ll see bones and shadows: ghosts of fiestas

and landscapes in motion as if viewed from an airplane

in tailspin. We’ll see the eyes he saw, the lips

his fingers brushed, a body emerged

from a snowstorm. And we’ll see the naked body,

just as he saw it, and the eyes and the lips he brushed,

and we’ll know that there’s no cure.’

This is not the only intimation of mortality in The Romantic Dogs (and you can’t help but wish for dates at the end of some of the poems – I don’t know if this is a posthumous collection or a collection translated from a previously published collection from Bolano’s lifetime – are these poems a Bolano ‘best of’ or an holistic whole?); alongside poems like ‘The Romantic Dogs’ (which opens ‘Back then, I’d reached the age of twenty’) and the self-explanatory ‘Self-Portrait at Twenty Years’, we have the likes of ‘The Last Love Song of Pedro J Lastarria, alias “El Chorito”’:

‘This is my farewell song

Now that hospitals race through

Breakfasts and teatimes

With an insistence I can

Only attribute to death.’

As ever, there are names of people some of whom are fictional and some of whom are contemporaries of Bolano from his youth (I know some people would feel passionately the other way but this reader would have liked the odd footnote here and there), and there are poems that remains frustratingly obscure (‘Parra’s Footsteps’ for instance concerns ‘the Indian Flanders of our schizophrenic tongue’ – me neither), but the over-riding sense created by The Romantic Dogs is that here is a book that actually helps make sense of the Bolano experience. I’d recommend anyone who has perhaps struggled with Bolano previously, even readers who normally run a mile from poetry, to give The Romantic Dogs a go because it strikes me that this is the closest we’ve had to a compass for the intriguing contradictory world of Bolano so far.

Any Cop?: Another essential Bolano reissue from Picador.

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