Chile spring: an installation of 10,000 clay flowers by the Chilean artist Fernando Casasempere at Somerset House in London, 2012. Photo: Getty
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Flowers from beyond the grave: The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño’s books are still appearing and we have not finished understanding them. 

The Insufferable Gaucho 
Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews
Picador, 176pp, £14.99

Last year, I asked Carolina López, Roberto Bolaño’s widow, what it had been like to watch her late husband’s work spread far beyond Spain towards global renown. At first I thought she replied that the “explosion” of his work had been a bad time for her. (“Because Roberto wasn’t there,” she added.) In fact, she hadn’t said anything about an explosión but had used the similar-sounding word eclosión, which means something more like flowering or blooming.

López’s term is apposite. Bolaño’s books are still appearing and we have not finished understanding them. In the UK, we lag behind the Spanish versions by between five and ten years, so we are still catching up with works that were published in the author’s lifetime or just after. This new collection, which includes five stories and two essays, is said to have been the last book he prepared before his death in 2003.

The title story features rabbits that may have murderous designs. Manuel Pereda, a lawyer from Buenos Aires, has a political awakening and returns to a ruined family ranch on the pampas. He stops washing and takes to riding his horse into bars, where he slurps eau de vie and spits on the floor. Pereda’s son, a debonair novelist from the city, visits at one point with his publisher. Pereda and the publisher are out riding one day when a rabbit leaps up out of nowhere and bites the publisher’s neck. “From where he was, all Pereda saw was a dark shape springing from the ground, tracing an arc toward the publisher’s head, and then disappearing.”

Bolaño traced a similar trajectory. The Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas has said that Bolaño’s great early novel The Savage Detectives did not emerge from nothing, as some have thought, but from the “implacable machine of anonymity”. The years of thankless scribbling in the critical dark, Vila-Matas argues, gave Bolaño an unstoppable energy and creativity. (He was about to revise the drafts of 2666, widely regarded as his masterwork, when he died.)

He appeared, delivered his mordant message and vanished again only too soon. It was mordant but not unmitigated: in Bolaño’s work, humour often functions to undermine the sense of threat. The literary world is a frequent butt of this bathos. When one of the son’s friends, another ambitious literary type anxious about his connections, sees blood on the editor’s neck, he exclaims, “Son of a bitch! . . . Your dad’s gone and killed our publisher.”

Writers often teeter on this knife edge between violence and absurdity in Bolaño’s work. They either come across as charlatans or as anarchic, Rimbaldian prophets not yet properly understood. It is up to the reader to pass judgement. In the first story, “Jim”, the narrator sees a friend of his watching a fire-eater in the street. Jim is so transfixed by the spectacle that he is still watching the performer when all the other bystanders have moved on. It is as though he alone has understood; the fire-eater (or the writer) is performing exclusively for him.

Other stories explore the writer’s anxiety over whether he will ever be understood. In “Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey”, the novelist Rousselot, at first irate that a film-maker called Morini seems to be plagiarising his plots, is then crushed to see further Morini films that bear no resemblance to his succeeding novels. Rousselot is “preoccupied by the thought that he had lost his best reader, the reader for whom he had really been writing, the only one who was capable of responding to his work”.

The pair of stories in “Two Catholic Tales” are from a different mould. Devoid of the humour that flashes through the other pieces, they evoke the sinister, hallucinatory atmosphere of the sections of The Savage Detectives narrated by Joaquín Font as he languishes in a psychiatric hospital. “The Myths of Cthulhu”, the final essay in the collection, finds Bolaño on more typical form, showing off his caustic wit, complaining that writers are not the hedonistic tearaways they used to be: “Vargas Llosa never gave a better lesson in literature than when he went jogging at the crack of dawn.”

This is the armour of the posturing Bolaño: the competitive shell that keeps us out of his non-fiction. In the fiction there is more nuance. Bolaño knew that, like all writers, his eventual fate would be oblivion. Whether his work bloomed like a flower or exploded like a bomb, the dust would some day settle on it. Rousselot is described at one point as “one of the five rising stars among the nation’s younger writers”. Two senten­ces later, even that (gently ironic) honour is tainted: “It is common knowledge that the rising stars of any literary world are like flowers that bloom and fade in a day; and whether the day is literal and brief or stretches out over ten or twenty years, it must eventually come to an end.”

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses