ROBERTO BOLANO'S BETWEEN PARENTHESES, his latest book to be translated into English, is a collection of essays, speeches, and nonfiction curiosities written between 1998 and 2003. These were the years just after the publication of The Savage Detectives, the book which propelled Bolaño from regional obscurity to international renown. It was also the period when the Chilean novelist was writing his posthumously published masterpiece, 2666. (He died of liver failure at the age of 50 in 2003.)
Between Parentheses is the closest Bolaño came to writing an autobiography, although he loathed the genre:
I've always thought autobiographies were odious. What a waste of time trying to pass a cat off as a rabbit, when what a real writer should do is snare dragons and dress them up as rabbits. I take it for granted that in literature a cat is never a cat, as Lewis Carroll made clear once and for all.
However Bolaño may have distrusted self-revelation, Between Parentheses is an intriguing time capsule of the novelist's thought in his final years, just as international fame knocked on his door and he recognized that his life was almost over. The writer's ill health colors his ruminations and a personal map appears, not unlike the wayward maps followed by the characters in his novels: crumpled, illuminated with a vagabond's cigarette lighter, better consulted on a park bench than a sofa, and at times purposefully deceptive.
It is here we read, for instance, the hotly contested assertions that he was a heroin addict, and that he was imprisoned in Chile in 1973, during the military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power. In 2009, the writer's widow denied that he had ever used heroin. More recently, fellow poets who knew him in the seventies cast doubt that he was in Chile during the pivotal months surrounding Pinochet's coup.
By its very nature, the life of an exile — and Bolaño may be remembered as the consummate exile — is fraught with jarring shifts that play havoc with memory. What's interesting is that he embraced his sense of displacement as if it were the ultimate source of strength. He seemed less interested in his (and his characters') past, in verifiable dates and events aired out for analysis, than he was in the experiential portfolio derived from mental and physical peregrination.
Probably all of us, writers and readers alike, set out into exile, or at least into a certain kind of exile, when we leave childhood behind. Which would lead to the conclusion that the exiled person or the category of exile doesn't exist, especially in regards to literature. The immigrant, the nomad, the traveler, the sleepwalker all exist, but not the exile, since every writer becomes an exile simply by venturing into literature, and every reader becomes an exile simply by opening a book.
Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile in 1953, the son of a truck driver. His childhood, as he remembered it, was one of not belonging: He was dyslexic, an indifferent student, and a weakling targeted by school bullies. The writer seldom revisits his childhood in Between Parentheses, but when he does it is usually in the form of snapshots presented with the utmost detachment, as ...