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the complete review - fiction
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- Three Novellas
- Spanish title: Sepulcros de vaqueros
- With an Afterword by Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas
- The three pieces are:
- 'Cowboy Graves' ('Sepulcros de vaqueros', ca. 1995/8)
- 'French Comedy of Horrors' ('Comedia del horror en Francia', ca. 2002/3)
- 'Fatherland' ('Patria', ca. 1993/5)
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B+ : scattered but still impressive examples of his work
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The NY Rev. of Books
|The NY Times Book Rev.
From the Reviews:
- "Solo un gran artista puede moverse con tal libertad por los territorios de la imaginación. Bolaño se acerca a una puerta, la abre, e intenta averiguar qué hay al otro lado y cómo de lejos puede llegar por este camino. Y sigue maravillándose a sí mismo, alimentándose de sus propias imágenes, como uno de esos árboles tropicales que brotan de sus propias ramas." - Andrés Ibáñez, ABC
- "Pese a su condición inacabada, en cierto modo residual, los textos reunidos en Sepulcros de vaqueros poseen -- como tantos de Bolaño -- una extraordinaria potencia, un encanto irresistible. Son casi todos material de primera. (...) (I)mporta subrayar que la extraordinaria calidad y la potencia de los textos que integran Sepulcros de vaqueros justifican sobradamente su publicación. Y que constituyen una lectura estupenda." - Ignacio Echevarría, El Cultural
- "Like virtually everything the incomparable Chilean wrote, a newly excavated trio of unarguably minor novellas, Cowboy Graves, is companionable, exotic, witty and glamorously suggestive. One drawback to the continued publication of posthumous works, some of them in a clearly unfinished state, is that the newcomer might take them as a starting point and, not seeing what the fuss is about, thereafter steer clear of Bolaño. (...) Cowboy Graves may be the most plainly autobiographical fiction Bolaño ever wrote. (...) Cowboy Graves is a minor chamber in the labyrinth of Bolaño's fiction, but it's one with many doors." - Rob Doyle, The Guardian
- "Meisterlich beherrscht schon der junge Bolaño die Kunst, in leichtem Duktus und klarer Sprache rhizomartig Rätsel sich ausbreiten zu lassen. Über der literarischen Apotheose des Überbaus der Welt geht nie vergessen, dass im Untergrund Gewalt lauert. (...) Die dunkle Seite der Dinge übte auf ihn eine Faszination aus, der er sich nie entziehen konnte. Im Schönen lauern immer auch das Monströse und die Gewalt, und die Literatur vermag die Dinge zu beschreiben und zu benennen, doch sie zu entschlüsseln oder gar zu bannen vermag sie nicht. Gegen das Pathos allen Bescheidwissens hat Bolaño stets Komik und Ironie, Groteske und Absurdität gesetzt. Literatur als Spiel mit Fakten und Fiktionen, Stilen und Traditionen ist ihm ein Mittel zur Verrätselung, eine heitere Methode, das Widersprüchliche der Dinge und das Aporetische von Situationen herauszuarbeiten." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "At their best, the posthumous books collectively expand our sense of Bolaño's network of novels and stories as a living system, as illogical and abrupt as the world we inhabit. Cowboy Graves, the most recently published, is (...) a harvesting of drafts and fragments that, despite their often sketchy and incomplete nature, shed light on Bolaño's creative process and fill in spaces that were previously underexplored in his published oeuvre." - Andrew Martin, The New York Review of Books
- "The gem here is the title piece, an account of the lost youth of Bolaño’s fictional double, Arturo Belano. (...) The effect of “Cowboy Graves” is less the piecing together of a puzzle than the recentering of a whole, mythic world. (...) One needn’t exalt every fragment as a puzzle piece, or every story as a novella, to be staggered by his feats of resurrection." - Garth Risk Hallberg, The New York Times Book Review
- "(L)os tres ofrecen algo único y a ratos fascinante: la oportunidad de ver a un escritor del talento de Bolaño abriéndose camino a través de sus textos, comenzándolos de cierta manera sólo para descubrir que su desarrollo exigía abandonar la premisa inicial, dejándose llevar por la dirección que sus criaturas y sus desplazamientos frenéticos le imponían. Toda la literatura de Bolaño se articula en torno a la contradicción inherente al deseo de fijar el movimiento, y Sepulcros de vaqueros permite constatar su entrega a ese movimiento; como tal, es una de las raras oportunidades que se ofrecen al lector de asistir a la creación de una obra aparentemente inagotable." - Patricio Pron, El País
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Cowboy Graves collects three works by Roberto Bolaño that were not published during his lifetime.
'Cowboy Graves' ('Sepulcros de vaqueros') is from 1995-8, 'French Comedy of Horrors' ('Comedia del horror en Francia') a late text, from 2002 or 2003, and the earliest, 'Fatherland' ('Patria') from ca. 1993-5.
The publishers have packaged these as Three Novellas, but that's something of a stretch; still, these are more than fragments, and while not complete works of fiction in and of themselves, they are polished short works (offering tantalizing suggestions of what they might have become).
Bolaño did use some of this material in his other work, but these are not simply cast-offs, with each showing considerable potential of being worked into a larger work but also standing quite well as is, on their own.
The title-piece is the most cohesive and self contained, four chapters from Bolaño's formative years, his frequent stand-in Arturo Belano the narrator: "My name is Arturo", the piece begins, but the life described is clearly Bolaño's own.
The stations here are the familiar ones from his biography, from the late 1960s and early 1970s, beginning with the family -- mother, sister, and Arturo/Roberto -- at the final stage (which still proves to be something of a hurdle) of preparing to move to Mexico from their native Chile in 1968 (as the family actually did) to reunite with the children's father, whom Arturo had only met twice previously.
Arturo is already in the thrall of poetry; among his last ambitions in Chile is to say good-bye to a poet he has never met, Nicanor Parra -- a typical unrealistic ambition that he nevertheless pursues.
As throughout, there's a remarkable ease and naturalness to Bolaño's prose here: these chapters, in particular, have the polish of finished pieces.
Arturo's narrative seems to ramble about, covering a great deal but doing so effortlessly and naturally: in a relatively small space he conveys a remarkable amount about his family and their circumstances.
In the first chapter, the family is set to fly to Mexico, and he notes how unusual traveling like that still was for those times -- some of his classmates had had sex by then, but none had ever flown in a plane, for example; neither had any of his teachers -- but the experience of the flight itself is little more than incidental; Bolaño is interested in other details -- and that works very well here.
Bolaño ranges far in his mix of the general and small details; he'll acknowledge, too: "The rest of my memories are confused" -- as he beautifully captures this sense of looking back to an earlier time, when some (often small and insignificant-seeming) things remain crystal clear and other, larger ones are all fog.
The second chapter of 'Cowboy Graves' describes the adolescent's time in Mexico City, and his routine, of skipping school, as instead:
I devoted the first half of the morning to books and walking around and the second half to movies and sex.
The third chapter, 'The Trip', describes Arturo -- who reveals he's been: "expelled from two high schools and my college future was as bleak as a hopeless old bolero" -- traveling back to Chile, to support the revolution.
This chapter is focused entirely on the part of the voyage where he travels by ship, and the people he meets and interactions he has on board.
Here Bolaño also slips in a (quite detailed) description of what Arturo considers his best story, "about an extraterrestrial invasion", which he recounts, at length, to a Jesuit he meets on board; typically, too: "The story was unfinished. I might expand it and turn it into a novel, I said to the Jesuit".
(Nice touch, too: "The Jesuit said nothing".)
The last of the four chapters is 'The Coup', a brief description of the shattering events of 1973 which begins with the artist whose house Arturo is staying in delivering the news: "The military has risen up, he said, it's all over".
Arturo, who had been worried that it might be bad news about his family from Mexico, admits: "My first feeling was relief. My mother was fine, my family was fine"; what steps he then can take, to be involved, are little more than impotent, succinctly presented.
In the final of the three would-be novellas in the collection, 'Fatherland', Bolaño returns to 11 September 1973 and the coup.
This section is the most fragmentary of the three texts, a collection of shorter pieces with some connection and continuity between them, but the individual pieces more concise and varied, both in style and form (including letters, a funeral oration, and transcribed dreams).
The narrator here is now Rigoberto Belano -- but fundamentally still the same author stand-in.
Here, too, the announcement in one of the early pieces that: "the Chilean Army was on the move" shakes everything up; Rigoberto is at a gathering where he recites some of his poems, but: "The minute the announcement was made, the stampede was on" (and Rigoberto simply passes out).
A slightly older girl drives him away in her car (to a: "house that looked like the house from Psycho"), but there's barely time for a relationship to bud; she becomes one of the victims of the coup -- though Bolaño treats this too almost elliptically.
Another chapter, 'Family Plot', looks at the: "Effects of the coup on the family unit" -- moving also away from the more strictly autobiographical, as the family and its situation Rigoberto describes here differ in numerous ways from Bolaño's own.
The episodes extend to 1988; they also include two chapters covering the skywriting Messerschmitt -- "the crown jewel of the Luftwaffe" -- familiar from the novel Distant Star.
And among the most successful chapters is one involving the interpretation of a poem, 'The Oarsman of Fate', entirely in (sharp) dialogue.
The middle novella -- the one that was written last --, 'French Comedy of Horrors', is the most fictional, and reads like the start of a promising novel.
The narrator is seventeen-year-old would-be poet Diodorus Pilon, and is set in Port Hope, Guyana; it begins with a solar eclipse and a group of "the friends of Roger Bolamba" waiting for the spectacle; Bolamba is Diodorus' poetic mentor.
Afterwards, walking to where his mother has her food stand, Diodorus takes a different route than usual -- and comes across a ringing public telephone.
When he answers he finds himself talking to a representative of the Clandestine Surrealist Group (and/or the Surreal Group in Clandestiny).
The caller advises: "Bury your mentors" and makes his own pitch, with his own stories about the surrealist movement -- "Official surrealism is a whorehouse, Diodorus. [...] Since Breton died, there's no enduring that crowd" -- and his organization's doings.
Diodorus is invited, three months hence, to join them in Paris .....
It's a neatly surreal episode, nicely bookended by the eclipse; it even works just as is -- but, of course, is even more tantalizing as a possible beginning, a first chapter of the adventures Diodorus might have .....
Cowboy Graves is a loose collection -- not a quite story (or novella) collection, but certainly more than just leftover pieces.
As so often with Bolaño, the writing is remarkable -- it all seems so natural and simple -- and the various (and many episodes) are truly engaging.
The only real difficulty -- one can hardly call it a fault -- is the lingering sense of incompleteness to the three 'novellas' -- not in the sense that the pieces are too rough and unedited -- almost everything here feels polished to publish-readiness -- but rather that one suspects he wanted to add more to them; one can understand why Bolaño didn't publish them, as is, in his lifetime.
Even though certainly the first two sections, 'Cowboy Graves' and 'French Comedy of Horrors', can seem to stand on their own, there's a sense that they should continue, rather than come to the halts they do.
One might think that a posthumous volume like this is of greatest interest to Bolaño-completists, but there's actually a good case to be made for this being a good introductory collection for those new to the author, offering as it does both the basics about Bolaño's formative years (specifically in 'Cowboy Graves', though also elsewhere) as well as a good but not overwhelming sampler of what he can and likes to do in and with his fiction.
Regardless, Cowboy Graves is worth reading, confirming yet again what an amazing talent Bolaño was.
- M.A.Orthofer, 8 February 2021
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Other books by Roberto Bolaño under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Chilean author Roberto Bolaño lived 1953 to 2003.
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© 2021 the complete review
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