Surrounded by the tumultuous charge of emotion abundant throughout the 20th century, producing a package of fine literature from the Americas involved exhaustive determination and a steely conviction for the survival of the South American wordsmiths. Roberto Bolaño, today viewed as one of the greats to emerge from Chile, made his name only years after first dabbling in the opportunistic yet cut-throat industry of writing. Many of his works gained the majority of their acclaim following his death in 2003, yet perhaps only now are the ingrained references to the struggles of becoming a successful writer in the Hispanic continent becoming increasingly obvious.
Certainly one of these references is apparent in his 1997 work The Return. Reprinted in 2012, the new edition appears as a hardback collection of short stories, a trademark of Bolaño’s formatting. Themes such as youth, infatuation, sex, murder and the enthralled musings of the organism of female behaviour are explored, together with the author’s supposed fascination into the interconnection between death and rebirth. Bolaño evokes attitudes in his characters which offer the reader an insight into the misfortunes and the vast expanse of destinies man chooses, or perhaps is forced, to follow through life. From the match-fixing youth in ‘Snow’ at the hands of a ruthless ringleader he had mistaken to be a friend, to the young man reminiscing over his childhood as the son of a prominent adult film actress, Bolaño navigates the reader through an assortment of personalities with a sense of casual precision. As in his bestseller The Savage Detectives, Bolaño adopts an intermittent style of rambling, seemingly endless sentences. The tale ‘Photos’, featuring a writer sadly flicking through nostalgic pictures of the ‘great’ poets whilst abandoned in a deserted African settlement, manifests as one entire sentence; never ending, never stopping for a moment until the final word, as if Bolaño felt his own outpourings were approaching an abrupt climax to which he was preoccupied with reaching.
Transitionally, ‘Detectives’ appears as a conversational piece without any hint of narrative. All of which can be learnt is discovered through the eyes – and dialect – of a pair of police officers travelling on a journey to presumably the next call. Perhaps for all the mistakes in life his characters make, the reader’s own shortcoming is the power of presumption. Through the detectives’ reminiscent journey, Bolaño may be subconsciously referring to his own path, his own reflection on a life filled with a struggle to make himself be heard for his sole life’s passion.
The final story in the collection ‘Meeting with Enrique Lihn’ speaks from his own perspective. Bolaño is the character through whose eyes the reader senses the events. Bolaño speaks of himself as an aspiring writer to which he meets a poet – Lihn – who himself has made his own impressionable name in the world of recording imagination. Bolaño comes to realise that Lihn is dead, that is, to say he is returning from the dead to prepare Bolaño for the success he is to achieve. After all the characters Bolaño has stripped and studied, from the lover discovering that in later life his elusive former girlfriend is riddled with cancer, to the footballer whose fortunes soar following the arrival of a superstitious midfielder with an darkly uncanny knack of enforcing black magic to win matches, only his own character remains for Bolaño to reveal.
No matter the theme, what is unfailingly clear from delving into Bolaño’s back-catalogue is that his characters are born from a mind so conscientiously complex and yet so undamaged by the social expectations ever tightening its belt upon modern writing. Although scenes depicting the experiences of adult film actresses are not for the fainthearted, Bolaño’s insistence to pepper this collection with explicit descriptions in the face of professionalism and simply earning a livelihood represent the daring tenacity of this writer’s endurance. To those who both read his works and to those tirelessly attempting in vain to link their sole passion to success, as in Bolaño’s early years, The Return serves as a stark reminder of the gaping hole this great mind of literature has left behind.