Roberto Bolaño has recently become one of the new stars of Latin American fiction, which is made all the more tragic by his death in 2003. His mammoth novel 2666 was a posthumous smash hit in both North and South America, and although much of his work was available in translation, New Directions is now publishing what’s left of this formidable author’s work.
The Insufferable Gaucho is his latest collection of writings, compromised of five short stories and two essays. Each piece is remarkably different in both content and form: “Police Rat” is written from the point of view of a rat in the sewer. “Two Catholic Tales” is written as if verse from the Bible. And the essay “Literature + Illness = Illness” connects fragments of vaguely related ideas like the faulty cause-and-effect thinking of one in a fever dream. These are just a few examples in which Bolaño is willing to explore the myriad ways in which fiction can be constructed, and reading each piece shows how rewarding such an experience is. A story ostensibly about rats, when talking about death and “humanity” become much more powerful when told from the point of view of a rat than an actual human being:
Rats are capable of killing rats. The sentence echoed in my cranial cavity until I woke. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I knew it was only a question of time. Our capacity to adapt to the environment, our hard-working nature, our long collective march toward a happiness that, deep down, we knew to be illusory, but which had served as a pretext, a setting, a backdrop for our daily acts of heroism, all these were condemned to disappear, which meant that we as a people, were condemned to disappear as well.
And what may be even more interesting is how the two essays in the back of the collection are written in a way that feels almost more like “fiction” than the actual short stories do. Too bad the actual subject matter at hand is not nearly as interesting as the way Bolaño writes it, once you sift through his bag of literary tricks.
Bolaño is certainly a talented writer, but he writes with the cynicism of someone who maybe knows a bit too much for his own good, so at times he comes off as kind of a smart-ass. I don’t think the reader would find the eponymous “insufferable gaucho” quite so insufferable otherwise, and Bolaño’s namedropping of his favorite (and least favorite) writers can grow tedious, if you forget that, like any writer, this is someone who really loves literature. On the bright side, award-winning Chris Andrews’ translation is practically seamless, and save for one in text translation of some song lyrics, the reader could go through the whole book without realizing they were reading a translation.
The Insufferable Gaucho is certainly an interesting set of pieces that show that Bolaño is capable of many different feats with his writing. When it works, it really works, and the stories “Jim,” “Police Rat,” and “Alvarro Rousselot’s Journey” show how good Bolaño can be. But overall I found the collection to be a mixed bag, and for someone who hasn’t already contracted Bolaño-mania, it just quite wasn’t enough for me to join his growing throngs of fans.
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