| Paul Di Filippo |
WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) – The sheer number of Google results for Roberto Bolaño are a testament to the Chilean author’s popularity, even if that interest only emerged four years after his death when his first major novel, The Savage Detectives, was translated into English.
He died in 2003, at the too-young age of 50, which means he’s entirely missed the mix of passionate editorial curation and genuine readerly fascination that ensued. In recent memory, perhaps only Philip K Dick has experienced such a posthumous explosion in academic canonisation and popular esteem.
This kind of after-death revolution in literary standing always prompts a search for unseen material to satisfy demand – whether those trunk treasures prove to be gems or paste. Bolaño’s newest, The Spirit of Science Fiction, is such an item, and happily for us, it’s a minor gem. Published for the first time in 2016 in Spanish, it was written in 1984, when Bolaño considered himself primarily a poet. Aside from its intrinsic narrative pleasures, the book can be seen as a template for The Savage Detectives.
That novel channeled aspects of JD Salinger, JP Donleavy, Thomas Pynchon, Haruki Murakami and more. Detailing the gritty, poetry-besotted lives of a score of bed-hopping young adults – the “visceral realists” – in Mexico City and elsewhere from 1975 to 1996, the book revelled in a granular mundanity that approached the fantastic. Sneering yet endearing and melancholy yet comedic, the book resembled a cinematic fusion of the old-school absurdism of Luis Buñuel and the neon transgressiveness of Pedro Almodóvar.
In The Spirit of Science Fiction we find another duo of young literary aspirants at the story’s core. Alternately confused and clearsighted, utopian and nihilistic, Jan and Remo live the archetypical bohemian life in Mexico City, occupying squalid digs and barely getting by. Jan is 17 and more visionary and impractical than Remo, 21. Jan seldom leaves their apartment, preferring to spend his time writing letters to American science-fiction authors: James Tiptree Jr, Ursula K Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Philip José Farmer. Remo brings in some paltry cash as a journalist. A third pal, José Arco, fills the role of street-wise but sensitive brawler, knowing how to handle a motorcycle or win a fistfight, and where to find a great sandwich at 3am. Additionally, a bevy of sexy, capricious and idiosyncratic women wander into and out of the boys’ lives. As in The Savage Detectives, a pair of sisters – Angélica and Lola Torrente – embody contrasting attitudes about life.
Plotwise, there’s not a lot of linear velocity. It’s a picaresque by a poet more concerned with notating startling moments than crafting a multibraided saga. By the time he wrote The Savage Detectives, itself a rather baggy-pants tale, Bolaño had a better command of storytelling. Here, he’s flying without instrumentation and with no real destination in mind.
The lads look for love and meaning amid the daily hurly-burly. Arco’s motorbike breaks down and has to be fixed. Remo falls in love with another man’s girl leading to some soap-opera-type melodrama. The boys become fixated on the fact that Mexico City hosts more than 600 literary zines – they think it might be connected with the mysterious Unknown University – and they visit a scholar to get answers, but receive an enigmatic parable instead. The book concludes with a manifesto on the virtues of public bathhouses for sex and hygiene.
The Spirit of Science Fiction never attains the full dimensions of heartbreaking tragedy of which Bolaño is capable. Jan and Remo suffer no great losses, but are left suspended on the cusp of subsequent unspecified adventures. And the smaller remit of this early novel does not allow for the huge colourful portrait of Mexican urban life and the populace of grifters and madmen, dreamers and hustlers that we find in the later work.
But this early foray does offer a unique angle on the cultural role of science fiction during that era. Jan’s passion for pulp is front and centre, bringing to mind Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction (SF)-loving protagonist, Eliot Rosewater. Jan’s letters to his SF heroes are basically a plea to be recognised, a demand that this medium – at the time seen, rightly or wrongly, as a quintessentially Anglo domain – open its gates to other cultures, other countries. Jan’s solidarity with his distant American mentors and their visions is all one-way. He adores them, but they do not even know he exists. The ache to remedy this unrequited love affair is palpable.
Bolaño wrote this book around the same time the cyberpunk movement was getting underway, with its similar insistence on dragging old SF paradigms kicking and screaming into a hipper future. And while Bolaño’s book is by no means a cyberpunk novel, it bears a spiritual affinity to that genre.
Bolaño’s lusty, laughing passion for art and literature, for women and Mexico City, is tangible here, but would find its richest expression only with the author’s maturity.