In one of the monologues that make up the long middle section of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, the eccentric architect Quim Font attempts a taxonomy of reading. There are books, he tells us, for when you’re happy and when you’re sad, for when you’re bored and when you’re calm. There are books for the mature, imagined as staid, proper men who frequent novels and literary magazines (“a cool-headed, mature, educated man leading a more or less healthy life”). And then there are the opposite, books for the puerile, which are not the same as books for kids. Rather, they are books written for the desperate of all ages—young readers who became suicidal upon reading Werther or old readers who never grew out of that stage, to use Quim’s own example. These are readers who take words to heart, too much so, readers who can’t separate the world of fiction from the world at large. “Books for when you’re desperate”—these are the books, the architect avers, that the novel’s eponymous detectives, like their real-life counterparts Mario Santiago and Bolaño himself, wanted to write.
Quim speaks dismissively of this sort of literature, which is odd considering that he himself had painstakingly designed and published Lee Harvey Oswald, a poetry journal written by the desperate and for the desperate. His split sympathies aside, however, the category itself—along with the fact that it is identified with the young Bolaño and his Mexico City literary comrades—is illuminating. It underscores the ambition, central to much of the Chilean author’s fiction, of finding ways to make life and literature unfold together. Quim’s desperate readers might be juvenile, but they are also lucid (“lucidity gushes out in great cold spurts”). They imbue their lives with the experimentation they find in books. And not coincidentally, their ambitions to yoke life to literature also constitute one of the signal fantasies of the twentieth-century avant-gardes, movements to which Bolaño was both heir and archivist. There is high drama in this hallucination, which for better or worse does have an adolescent edge to it. In its grips, literature becomes an urgent, life-and-death matter, the place of everyday ecstasies and miseries.
A Little Lumpen Novelita—the last of his novels that Bolaño lived to see published, now translated by Natasha Wimmer—has, at least on the surface, little to say about literature but lots to say about desperation. Set in Rome, it opens in cold cinematic style, with the first-person narrator, whose name is Bianca, relating her circumstances in a few words: “Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime. My brother and I had been orphaned. Somehow that justified everything. We didn’t have anyone. And it all happened overnight.” From this first brief paragraph to the next, the portent and vagueness of her opening lines are suspended, as she recounts the details of her parents’ death in a car accident outside Naples, their yellow Fiat mangled beyond recognition, even its color transformed. It isn’t difficult to imagine her words accompanying a camera as it pans a landscape and a scene of wreckage, the screen fading to black when she pauses, the lens finally alighting on her face framed by a mechanic’s garage door as she opens her mouth to ask, this time in direct dialogue, about the car’s color: “Wasn’t it yellow?” The question triggers a well intentioned but inept response from her unnamed brother, who stammers something about the collision changing the color or maybe the way color is perceived. Bianca doesn’t understand: “I didn’t know what he meant by that. I asked him. He said: light . . . color . . . everything. Poor guy, I thought, he’s taking it harder than me.” This opening passage outlines or anticipates everything that follows—Bianca’s strength of character, her blank emotional tone, the promise of an ominous unfolding, the shadows of epistemological uncertainty.
The plot proceeds as Bianca had foretold. The two siblings don’t exactly mourn their parents, sliding rather into an indifferent, melancholic fatalism, which is this short novel’s dominant emotional tenor. Denied the full state benefits to which they are entitled, their economic prospects turn grim. They drift forward, more or less aimlessly. He gets an odd job at a gym, while she, predicting a future horizon of boutique consumer experiences, finds work with a hair stylist. In one of the book’s few moments of hope, she dreams briefly of someday owning her own salon. They both drop out of school and end up watching a lot of TV. Their day-to-day existence is marked by boredom, even if not by disorder or carelessness. The first of the sixteen short chapters ends with a description of Bianca’s routine:
Around four in the morning I usually woke with a start. I would get up from my chair, clear the dirty dishes from the table, wash them, straighten the living room, clean the kitchen, put another blanket over my brother, turn down the TV, go to the window and look out into the street with its double row of parked cars, and I couldn’t believe that it was still night, that this incandescence was night. It made no difference whether I closed my eyes or kept them open.
The nights are bright as day, and sleep is intermittent. Life proceeds as if lit by the glow of the television screen.
One day, the brother arrives with two visitors, bodybuilders he’s met at the gym. One is from Bologna, while the other looks vaguely to be from the Maghreb. They could be brothers, Bianca speculates: “But they looked like twins. Same head, same nose, same eyes.” Everything about them, like so much in this novel, is unclear—which of the two Bianca has occasional sex with, why they are hanging around the apartment, when they will leave, what exactly they do at the gym, even what their names are. None of these questions is unanswerable, but Bianca never really bothers to inquire. It is indifference, rather than mystery, that marks her relationship with those around her.
This indifference dissipates only sometime after she begins to visit Maciste, a blind ex-film actor and bodybuilder who becomes the mark for a robbery plotted by Bianca’s brother and his shady friends. The plan is for Bianca to visit him as a sexual companion, which will give her the opportunity to learn the whereabouts of a safe that the group of conspirators will subsequently raid, allowing them to live in relative prosperity. The operation falls apart—not because Bianca develops genuine feelings for Maciste, though she does, but because there is no safe. Under scrutiny for her failure to find it, Bianca tells her brother’s companions to leave and not come back. They can take care of Maciste themselves, if they can muster up the courage.
This unfolding underscores something crucial about this novel: Bianca is the only really active character. She is the one who keeps her job (her brother quits or is fired from his), the one who repeatedly visits Maciste in preparation for the robbery, the one who eventually reasserts control over what remains of her family. And she is the narrator of the entire novel, framing the full story. As David Kurnick has noted about the original Spanish-language version, Bolaño wrote this book while he was working on 2666, the posthumously published, five-part novel whose plot turns on the femicides of Ciudad Juárez. Kurnick writes insightfully that Bianca, “with another roll of the geopolitical dice,” could have been one of the dead, voiceless women that populate 2666. In this light, “Bianca’s voice, and her safety, read like a small fantasy of retribution” against that violence.
At the same time, Bianca’s actions and attitude simultaneously allow Bolaño to highlight something else—the productivity of limits over possibilities. The circumstances inherited by the siblings are tragic, nothing if not limiting, and their responses are not inspirational in any conventional sense. This is not a novel of empowerment in the face of adversity. However, Bolaño endows Bianca’s character with a complex, expansive vitality. Yes, she sits night after night in front of the TV with her brother, just as she accepts her assigned role as a sexual emissary to Maciste’s house. But her passivity is only surface-level. She taps into the flux of an uncertain, often hostile world, allowing herself to be transformed by experience. Above all, she grows in terms of perceptive capabilities. Since her parents’ deaths, she can see in the dark, and she also feels the vulnerability of others with great sensitivity. Observing Maciste greet her brother and his friends and ask after their health, she tells us that “in that brief how are you I sensed an incredible fragility, a fragility like a manta ray falling from the ceiling, the dark foyer the bottom of the sea and the manta ray watching us from above, halfway between the sea floor and the surface.” Like a manta ray falling from the ceiling—one flat surface (the ray’s body) slowly and involuntarily coming unstuck from another (the ceiling). Bolaño is a master of the simile, and this one is utterly perfect and vivid. Through it Bolaño exhibits the uniquely poetic perceptive capabilities of Bianca—capabilities that emerge through her experience of loss, limitation, and vulnerability.
Given Bianca’s poetic sensibility, we might wonder whether, in the end, A Little Lumpen Novelita does have something to say about literature. On the one hand, cultural consumption in the novel revolves around commonly derided genres like trash TV (the kind that might be on at the gym), VHS porn from the rental store, and magazines with quiz questions like “What actor would you date?” and “What actor would you marry?” That said, the novel’s epigraph comes from the rarified world of experimental theater, concretely from Antonin Artaud:
All writing is garbage.
People who come out of nowhere to try and put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs.
All writers are pigs. Especially writers today.
Writing is garbage, expression is repulsive, and writers are pigs—with an author as clearly and explicitly engaged with literary practice as Bolaño, and in a novel composed largely of one character’s attempt to give form to her own thoughts and feelings, this sentiment feels jarring. But perhaps it need not. If, as many observers have noted, literature is understood as a serious, almost sacred endeavor throughout Bolaño’s remarkably cohesive oeuvre, it is also—quite often—the object of obscene profanation. Literature, Bolaño writes in one of the essays collected in Between Parentheses, “has everything to do with a strange rain of blood, sweat, semen, and tears.” Like the world itself, writing has four elements, and this time they are all bodily fluids. Literature is made of such secretions, Bolaño suggests, which flow like garbage in ostentatious excess. It is an important, elevated undertaking, precisely because of the fact—not despite it—that it’s made of such base stuff.
In this sense, the quotation from Artaud intensifies, rather than contradicts, the sense of literature as an exalted endeavor. If writers are pigs, all the better, since it means they’re closer to the cloudy liquids that literature is made of. And similarly, if self-expression is offensive, an adequate response isn’t to remain silent but rather to speak otherwise, to access the depths or the heights that lie beyond oneself. Perhaps to speak something like the storm that Bianca perceives in the novel’s final lines—“a noiseless, eyeless storm from another world, a world that not even the satellites in orbit around the Earth could capture, a world where there was a place that was my place, a shadow that was my shadow.” It’s a blind storm with nothing to say (“noiseless, eyeless”), raging without thought or direction, which is why Bianca can see herself there (mediated by a shadow or the place itself). Its voiceless anonymity represents a model for expression beyond the confines of herself.
Bianca is in quiet contact with forces like that storm. Her narrative advances as if blown by the wind—not because of the novel’s pacing, but because of the suggestion of impulses that lie outside the characters and their words. It’s easy to feel, in this novel, a complex churn of forces underneath every superficial action. Bolaño gives us a protagonist who engages these forces through an apparent indifference that is actually a form of soft or muted exploration. When she finds out Maciste’s real name, Bianca adds the caveat that “real only stands for a different kind of unreality, a less random, more fleshed-out unreality.” Her comment is likely not a reference to the celluloid simulacrum of show business, Maciste’s climb from his successive reigns as Mr. Italy, Mr. Europe, and Mr. Universe to big screen stardom. Rather, Bianca seems to be hinting that her world, like every possible world, is itself unreal—arbitrary, shifting, ill defined. To explore such a world involves less a forthright quest after truth than a slow, distracted sinking into its surface (fingers into a bin of beads, toes into wet sand). Bianca’s distracted manner, in this sense, represents a mode of real engagement, not avoidance.
The exploration of what exceeds oneself is certainly not unique, among Bolaño’s works, to A Little Lumpen Novelita. Typical of many of his most memorable characters is their curiosity, their lust for the beyond. But that lust often translates into ecstatic experiences that are foreign to Bianca’s narrative. Her story, that is, doesn’t have many moments like this one:
Oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park . . . Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystalized spiderwebs or the briefest crystalized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.
Such are the effects felt by Liz Norton, a British academic in 2666, upon reading a particular book. She feels the universe transformed, its transformations mirrored in her own body. The experience involves a close identification between a reader and the literary world drawn by an author. It is a model for the intensity experienced by the desperate readers mocked by the architect Quim Font. The literary energies set in motion in this scene are exhausting. They erase the line between the life of the book and the life of the body.
Bianca’s experience is different—less ecstatic and entirely unmediated by books—and yet the category of desperation remains instructive. The immature, desperate reader can’t correctly separate fiction from reality, but Bianca knows that sane, sober living confuses them constantly. She narrates her life as if it were a blur of emotion and shock, mediated by tedium or distraction. Within the fuzzy contours of that blur, desperation isn’t a way of being in the world, but rather the foundation of all experience. “I didn’t like my life. The nights were still crystal clear, but I had become less of an orphan and I was moving into an even more precarious realm where I would soon lead a life of crime.” A Little Lumpen Novelita doesn’t narrate the drama of desperate readers and writers, like Bolaño’s best known novels often do. It rather takes desperation, and the emotional life it generates, as its point of departure.
This dynamic is perhaps best staged in short forms, like the novelita. After all, the length of a novel tells us something about the durability of the voice or voices narrating it. A novel told from a place of desperation—rather than one that describes the lives of the desperate—might necessarily be short. Both of Bolaño’s most celebrated novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, are very long books, and this fact places them alongside those titles—In Search of Lost Time, The Magic Mountain, Les Misérables, and War and Peace—that Quim identifies with serious, respectable, decidedly non-desperate readers. The brevity of A Little Lumpen Novelita, on the other hand, affiliates it with other textual objects from Bolaño’s oeuvre—his short stories, for example, or also the ultimately mute poems written by Cesárea Tinajero that were discovered in The Savage Detectives (and which appear also in Antwerp). Those poems are wordless, really just lines (straight, wavy, and jagged)—a limit case of speechlessness in literature. While Bianca’s story doesn’t go to that extreme, its brevity marks its difference from Bolaño’s more encyclopedic works.
In other words, A Little Lumpen Novelita is not a chronicle of reading and writing as ways of living. The desperate romance of stealing books (poetically) and dealing drugs (poetically) and fleeing into the desert (poetically), all of which adds so much to the appeal of The Savage Detectives, is here replaced by the still desperate flatness of regular crime and regular loss. This flatness remains poetic, but it is sung in a minor key or retold through a bad cough. “I had to do things and not die,” Bianca says toward the end of the novel. The economy and frankness of this statement correspond to the narrative arc of her survival, while its simplicity and urgency are exemplary of her voice. “My brother’s friends listened to me in silence, shaken by the path I was revealing to them. Or by the terrible path they could see for themselves.” Her voice is blank, we can imagine, matter-of-fact, and it tells terrible, disturbing things. Or rather it amplifies and directs what is already terrible and disturbing out there in the world.
Craig Epplin is an assistant professor at Portland State University, where he teaches classes on Latin-American literature and visual arts.