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The Bolaño Syllabus: A Final Reckoning

Four years ago, in an attempt to help readers navigate the flood tide of Roberto Bolaño books appearing posthumously in English, we at The Millions put together a little syllabus. Little did we know how rash our promise to update “as further translations become available” would soon seem. Within two years, the release of six additional titles had rendered the first version nugatory. And since then, six more have become available.

Indeed, it’s hard to think of another figure in the history of weltliteratur whose catalogue has made it so quickly to these shores, or whose literary executors have been speedier – not to say more punctilious – in publishing his archive. Though Bolaño’s imagination seems inexhaustible, it’s hard not to greet the news of yet another “lost work” or “early work” or “lost early work” with fatigue. (Or even, given the overlap between certain editions, suspicion.) Yet the most recent publication, the poetry omnibus The Unknown University, is a major work, and should be the exclamation point at the end of the Bolaño boom. (Though there was that new story in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, so maybe Andrew Wylie knows something we don’t… And there’s always Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic, co-written with A.G. Porta in 1984.)

At any rate, this seems an opportune time to revisit, once and for all, our Bolaño syllabus, which has more than doubled in size since 2009. Where originally we arranged the list as a kind of guided tour, it seems most worthwhile at this point to divide the available work into tiers: what you need to read, what you might want to, and what you can pass over without losing sleep.

The Essential

1. The Savage Detectives
2666 may be more admirable, but The Savage Detectives is more loveable (think Moby-Dick vs. Huckleberry Finn). As such, it’s the Bolaño book I tend to urge on people first. Read The Savage Detectives all the way to the end, and you’ll understand why one might want to try to read this writer’s entire corpus. (See our review).

2. 2666
There is no other novel of the last decade that I think about more often, years after having read it. My enthusiastic take here now seems to me embarrassingly inadequate. A bona fide masterpiece.

3. Last Evenings on Earth
The best, by a whisker, of the five collections of short fiction available in English – largely because New Directions can’t have foreseen how big Bolaño was going to be, and so raided his Anagrama editions for the best stories. Highlights include “Dance Card,” “Sensini,” “The Grub,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” and “Gomez Palacio.”

4. The Return
Another strikingly good collection, overlooked perhaps because of its appearance in 2010, when the Bolaño marketplace was already flooded. Between it and Last Evenings on Earth, you end up with the whole (I think) of the two collections published in Spanish during Bolaño’s lifetime. I especially love the title story. And for those inclined to read the Bolaño oeuvre as a roman-fleuve, you get here the porny “Prefigurations of Lalo Cura.”

5. Nazi Literature in the Americas
This early “novel,” a biographical encyclopedia of invented writers, offers our first glimpse of the ambition that would effloresce in the two big books. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to Bolaño’s peculiar sense of humor, which enjambs the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. Come to think of it, it’s probably his funniest book. (See our review).

6. Distant Star
This is my favorite of Bolaño’s short novels, and the other book I tend to recommend to neophytes. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives.

7. The Unknown University
This beautiful dual-language edition purports to include “all of the poems of the great Roberto Bolaño.” Perhaps that should be “all of the great poems of Roberto Bolaño”; a quick comparison reveals some titles in The Romantic Dogs that I can’t find here. But you get most of that collection, plus Tres, plus the novel in prose-poems Antwerp, as well as a couple hundred other poems. As with The Secret of Evil and Woes of the True Policemen, the “history of the book” Bolaño’s executors provide here is weirdly hard to parse, but concerns fall away in the reading. At every turn there’s a sense that this manuscript was indeed the life’s work in poetry of a writer who valued poetry above all other genres. Verse narratives like “The Neochileans” have the impact of Bolaño’s best short novels. The lyric poems lose more in Laura Healy’s translation, especially as Bolaño likes to deal in fragments. As Jeff Peer noted here, the shorter pieces veer, albeit with a charming kind of indifference, between notebook and dream journal, genius and juvenilia. And because there are so many of these short poems, displayed one to a page, the book looks more tomelike than it is. Still, it is very much greater than the sum of its parts, and some of those parts are already very great indeed. The addictive element in Bolaño, more than anything else, is his sui generis sensibility, and this book is that sensibility distilled.

8. Between Parentheses
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s four genres Bolaño excelled in: the meganovel, the novella, the poem, and the short story. What are the odds that his collected nonfiction could be indispensable? Especially when most of it consists of occasional speeches and short newspaper work? Well, odds be damned. This book is great, in a way that reminds me of Jonathan Lethem’s recent and similarly loose-limbed The Ecstasy of Influence. There’s something fascinating about listening in as a writer talks shop, more or less off the cuff. Parts two through five do double-duty as an encyclopedia of Latin American fiction. And “Beach,” actually a short story, is one of Bolaño’s best.

9. By Night in Chile
Bolaño’s most formally perfect short novel, it is also the most self-contained. It offers a torrential dramatic monologue by a Catholic priest implicated in torture during Chile’s U.S.-backed Pinochet era. Some readers I respect think this is his best book. Though it plays its source material straighter than is typical in Bolaño, it might be another good one for norteamericanos to start with.

The Merely Excellent

1. The Third Reich
This was another book that I thought got a bit lost in the shuffle of 2009-2011, when an astonishing 1,800 pages of Bolaño’s prose made their way into English. Otherwise, it might have been recognized as one of the best novels published in English in the latter year. Certainly, it’s the strongest of Bolaño’s apprentice books. Here, the master seems to be David Lynch; all is atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere, as the failure of a plot to precipitate becomes itself a source of terrible foreboding. I’m also a sucker for the “visceral realism” of Natasha Wimmer’s translations, though I can’t speak to their accuracy.

2. Amulet
Amulet on its own is a wonderful reworking of the Auxilio Lacouture monologue from The Savage Detectives, and a chance to get to spend more time with that book’s presiding spirits, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. It also contains some of Bolaño’s most bewitching sentences, including the one that seems to give 2666 its title: “Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.”

3. The Insufferable Gaucho
Here you get the sublime Kafka takeoff “Police Rat” and a sort of cover version of Borges’s “The South,” each approaching novella length. However, the decision to pair the five stories (a version of one of which also appears in Between Parentheses) with two (excellent) essays gives this collection as a whole a distinctly “odds and sods” feel.

4. The Secret of Evil
Another posthumous gallimaufry, but one I found totally delightful. Notwithstanding the magician’s indirection with which the “Preliminary Note” attempts to justify the book’s publication, it’s pretty clear that much of what’s here is in rough form. But as with Between Parentheses, it’s thrilling to see Bolaño at work, and to see where he might have gone next. And it’s always nice to see a little more of Ulises and Arturo.

5. Antwerp
One of Bolaño’s earliest pieces of fiction, Antwerp’s not much like the others, save for a hunchback who will also pop up in The Skating Rink. But it’s one of the greatest avant-garde “novel in fragments” out there (see our review). In fact, as the inclusion in The Unknown University of a slightly different version (titled “People Walking Away”) suggests, the prose here is close to poetry. So why “merely excellent” instead of “essential”? Well, if you already have a copy there, why buy the stand-alone version?

6. The Last Interview
Like many non-Anglophone writers, Bolaño treated the interview less as a promotional opportunity than as a form of performance art. That makes this entry in Melville House’s “Last Interview” series less illuminating, but also more fun, than it could have been. And of course the posthumous cash-in angle is right there in the title. In addition to Marcela Valdes’s long and brilliant introduction – one of the best pieces of critical writing on Bolaño available in English – you get four interviews. Though caveat emptor: the actual last interview also shows up at the end of Between Parentheses, so again you may be paying for what was already yours to begin with.

Necessary For Completists Only

1. Woes of the True Policeman
There was a concerted effort to market this first as a “missing piece” of 2666, and then as a novel proper, but it’s pretty clear that what Woes of the True Policeman truly is is an early stab at the big novel. The Amalfitano who appears here is a different character, but an equally deep one, and that and the rhetorical pyrotechics are the real selling points. (Am I the only person who finds the opening here really funny?) Still, aside from specialists and scholars, there’s something a little unsettling about pretending that what the writer didn’t think deserved our attention deserves our attention. Our review is here.

2. Monsieur Pain
When the jacket copy for Keith Ridgway’s forthcoming Hawthorn & Child calls it “the trippiest novel New Directions has published in years,” it must mean three years – since this one came out. And damned if I can make heads or tails of old Mr. Bread. It concerns an ailing César Vallejo and some mysterious policemen…or something. Bolaño wrote this in the early ’80s, and may have been surprised to be able to sell it to Anagrama in his breakthrough year, 1999. The most notable feature, for me, is formal: the “Epilogue for Voices” seems to anticipate the structural innovations of The Savage Detectives.

3. The Skating Rink
More straightforward than Monsieur Pain, this early novel seems like another pass at the material in Antwerp/”People Walking Away.” It’s a quick, entertaining read, but for me the strange characterological magic that makes the voices in the later novels come alive never quite happens in this one.

4. The Romantic Dogs
On its own, The Romantic Dogs is a fine collection. The same poem-to-poem unevenness that mars The Unknown University is present here, but because the selection tends toward the longer, more narrative poems, more of Bolaño makes it through the translation. Still, if much of what’s here is included there, this edition would seem to have been superseded for all but the most ardent Bolañophiles. See also: Tres.

5. Tres
See The Romantic Dogs.

The Bolaño Syllabus, Updated

Though the great Roberto Bolaño fever of 2008 appears to have moderated somewhat, this year saw new Bolaño titles pop up in American bookstores with the frequency of periodicals. We’ve probably passed that point in the hype cycle – and in Bolaño’s own back catalogue – where we might look for critical consensus: in January, reviewers seemed hesitant to gainsay Monsieur Pain; by autumn, The Return was getting a decidedly mixed reception. (In between, no one except our own Emily St. John Mandel seemed to know what to do with Antwerp.) So where was a Bolañophile to turn first?

We first tried to answer this question with our original Bolaño syllabus. With the aim of offering continued guidance to newcomers and enthusiasts alike, we’ve updated it below to take into account the two most recent novels and the thirteen stories in The Return. The Insufferable Gaucho will be added shortly. We continue to feel, hype notwithstanding, that this is one of the most important authors to emerge in the last decade, and we’ll try to stay on top of the work yet to appear: an essay collection, a book of poetry, and The Sorrows of the Real Policeman (a.k.a. the “sixth part of 2666.”)

Updated 1. “Dance Card” and “Sensini” (from Last Evenings on Earth) and “Detectives” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

Together, these three stories offer a précis of the personal mythology that animates Bolaño’s most important writing. The first explores Latin American – and especially Chilean – politics in the 1960s and 1970s and their impact on a generation of young writers. The second finds a Bolaño-like narrator many years later, in artistic and geographic exile. The third offers a finer-grained look at “Arturo Belano’s” brief but transformative stint in Pinochet’s prison system.

2. Nazi Literature in the Americas [1996]

This early novel, a compendium of fictional writers, offers our first glimpse of the hugeness of Bolaño’s ambition. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to his peculiar sense of humor, which compacts the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. It’s a favorite (See our review).

3. Distant Star [1996]

When it was published, this probably constituted Bolaño’s most compelling narrative to date. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives. Another favorite.

4. “Last Evenings on Earth” and “The Grub” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

Tales of young Arturo Belano, I’m guessing. The former provides one of Bolaño’s rare glimpses of fatherhood; the latter introduces the Caborca knife and Villaviciosa, the town of assassins. Both are implicated in Bolaño’s later work.

Updated 5. Antwerp [1980s – 2002]

New Directions’ decision to publish this 90-page novella as a hardcover initially roused my suspicions, but it amply repays the investment. It is a total avant-garde freakout, and has to be among the most linguistically beautiful things Bolaño wrote. Initially, it presents as an aleatory collection of prose poems, half Nicanor Parra, half David Lynch. Quickly, though, it develops into a kind of quantum murder mystery, in which we’re trying to identify both the perpetrator and crime. In its enjambment of poetry and mayhem, a perfect set-up for…

6. The Savage Detectives [1999]

What remains to be said about The Savage Detectives? Once you read this book, you’ll want to read everything else this guy wrote (See our review).

7. “Photos” (from The Return) [1999]

A moving coda to The Savage Detectives, this story finds Arturo Belano in exile, as usual.

8. The Romantic Dogs [1980 – 1998]

Now that you’ve read The Savage Detectives, you’re probably wondering: why all this fuss about poetry? You’re probably also willing to bear with this collection, which mingles wheat and chaff, cream and crop, as it further adumbrates Bolaño’s personal mythology. It’s worth noting that Bolaño’s gifts as a poet – narrative, character, and a dreamlike vision – are identical to his gifts as a novelist.

Updated 9. “Henri Simon LePrince,” “A Literary Adventure,” and “Anne Moore’s Life” [2001]; “Phone Calls,” “Vagabond in France and Belgium,” and “Days of 1978” [1997] (from Last Evenings on Earth), “Meeting With Enrique Lihn” (from The Return) [2001]

The first three of these stories read like minor-key variations on Nazi Literature. The second three share a narrator, B, who in some incarnation – protagonist or revenant – haunts most of Bolaño’s fiction. And the third offers us a literary dream that feels almost like a dry-run for “Sensini.”

Updated 10.”Cell Mates” and “Clara” (from The Return) [1997]

Two of Bolaño’s most straightforward and accessible stories about love, these nonetheless manage to be mysteriously harrowing.

11. The Skating Rink [1993]

I humbly dissent from Wyatt Mason; this isn’t a masterpiece. It is Bolaño’s first published novel, however, and is one of his most technically accomplished. It won a regional writing contest, back in the days when (per “Sensini”) Bolaño was entering scores of them. By this point, such things are probably interesting to you.

12. “Joanna Silvestri,” “Snow,” “Buba” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

This triumvirate is, for me, the heart of The Return. Whereas the earlier Bolaño collection in English circled around the author’s fictional mirror image, these three – concerning a porn star, a gangster, and a soccer star, respectively – look outward, with spectacular results.

13. “Gomez Palacio,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” “Dentist” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

To hell with technique; here the other side of Bolaño holds sway. These pieces are not so much crafted as dreamed into being, and the hallucinatory intensity of the latter two serve as a perfect warm-up for 2666…

14. Amulet [1999]

…As does this novella-length expansion on an incident from The Savage Detectives. I don’t think this one is as successful as Distant Star, but by now, you’re willing to forgive that, right? Arturo Belano features heavily here. And the heroine, Auxilio Lacoutre, feels like a sketch for Florita Almada of 2666…about which Auxilio (like Césarea Tinajero) seems to be having visions…is anyone else getting dizzy?

15. “Enrique Martin” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [2001]

This is one of my two or three favorite Bolaño stories. Enrique seems to have contracted his numerological delirium from Auxilio and Césarea.

16. 2666 [2004]

Supernova and apotheosis. You can read my take here.

Updated 17. Monsieur Pain [1981 – 1982]

Again, I dissent from the newspaper reviews. Monsieur Pain strikes me as the least essential of Bolaño’s novels to appear in English. It’s palpably an early work, and far less incendiary than Antwerp. Atmospherically, it has affinities with his best short novels, but in historical drag that somehow cuts against Bolaño’s usual sense of suspense. At this point you may be willing to put up with that.

Updated 18. “William Burns,” “Murdering Whores” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

Speaking of inessential, I wasn’t particularly taken with these two.

Updated 19. “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura” (from The Return) [2001]

This story, on the other hand, deserves mention alongside the stronger “Joanna Silvestri” for its enthusiastically gritty take on the porn industry. Curiously, this Lalo Cura is not the same as – or at least doesn’t share parents with – the character of that name we meet in 2666. Hence “prefiguration?”

20. By Night in Chile [2000]

Some people think that this short, late novel is Bolaño’s finest, and though I don’t agree with them, it’s always good to save something for dessert. Of all Bolaño’s books, this one seems to have the fewest connections with the others, and so perhaps it would be as good a place to start as to end.

Updated 21. “The Return” (from The Return) [2001]

This story, at once revolutionary and relaxed, suggests to me where Bolaño might be headed were he still alive to day…which is to say, everywhere.

A Bolaño Syllabus

If I could read just one book by Author X, which would it be? This may be the hardest question we can ask a fellow reader, insofar as it assumes that we can teleport straight to the heart of aesthetic experience, rather than journeying there over weeks or years. In fact, we often come to the books we love – and learn to love them – by way of other books: Dubliners primes us for Portrait, which shapes our expectations for Ulysses, which earns our indulgence for Finnegans Wake.

In this way, the justified hype surrounding the English publication last year of late Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (If you read only one book this year…) may have done some readers a disservice. Like Joyce’s, Bolaño’s is a sensibility that demands immersion, and for the kind of person who prefers to adjust to the swimming pool by inches rather than jumping straight into the deep end, the massive 2666 may have felt a lot like drowning.

Further complicating the approach to Bolaño is the suggestion of a single roman-fleuve that glimmers around the edges of the work, now brighter, now darker. A knife in the story “The Grub” resurfaces in The Savage Detectives. The first mention of the number 2666 appears in Amulet, while a note among Bolaño’s papers announces that the narrator of the former is none other than Arturo Belano, protagonist of the latter. (And is Belano the same “B” who features in the short stories of Llamadas telefónicas? Or is that Bolaño himself?)

Moreover: like our own universe, Bolaño’s continues to expand long after the Big Bang that birthed it has gone dark. As Wyatt Mason recently noted in The New York Times,
In addition to the eight [books] that have swiftly and ably arrived in translation in the six years since his death in 2003 at age 50, four new books by Bolaño are scheduled to appear in 2010 (two novels, two story collections) with three others promised for 2011. What’s more, according to recent reports out of Spain, another two finished novels have been found among Bolaño’s papers, as well as a sixth, unknown part of . . . 2666.
And so, to help acclimate newcomers to this odd and essential author; to continue mapping the Bolañoverse, as Malcolm Cowley mapped Yoknapatawpha; and to impose some order on the flood of  Bolaño releases, The Millions offers the following syllabus, which we’ll update as further translations become available, and as we take comments into account.

1. “Dance Card” and “Sensini” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

Together, these two stories offer a précis of the personal mythology that animates Bolaño’s most important work. The first explores Latin American – and especially Chilean – politics in the 1960s and 1970s and their impact on a generation of young writers. The second finds a Bolaño-like narrator many years later, in artistic and geographic exile.

2. Nazi Literature in the Americas [1996]

This early novel, a compendium of fictional writers, offers our first glimpse of the hugeness of Bolaño’s ambition. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to his peculiar sense of humor, which compacts the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. It’s a favorite (See our review).

3. Distant Star [1996]

When it was published, this probably constituted Bolaño’s most compelling narrative to date. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives. Another favorite.

4. “Last Evenings on Earth” and “The Grub” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

Tales of young Arturo Belano, I’m guessing. The former provides one of Bolaño’s rare glimpses of fatherhood; the latter introduces the Caborca knife and Villaviciosa, the town of assassins. Both are implicated in Bolaño’s later work.

5. The Savage Detectives [1999]

What remains to be said about The Savage Detectives? Once you read this book, you’ll want to read everything else this guy wrote (See our review).

6. The Romantic Dogs [1980 – 1998]

Now that you’ve read The Savage Detectives, you’re probably wondering: why all this fuss about poetry? You’re probably also willing to bear with this collection, which mingles wheat and chaff, cream and crop, as it further adumbrates Bolaño’s personal mythology. It’s worth noting that Bolaño’s gifts as a poet – narrative, character, and a dreamlike vision – are identical to his gifts as a novelist.

7. “Henri Simon LePrince,” “A Literary Adventure,” and “Anne Moore’s Life” [2001]; “Phone Calls,” “Vagabond in France and Belgium,” and “Days of 1978” [1997] (from Last Evenings on Earth)

The first three of these stories read like minor-key variations on Nazi Literature. The last three share a narrator, B, who in some incarnation – protagonist or revenant – haunts most of Bolaño’s fiction. (One wonders when all of Phone Calls (from which these three stories are excerpted) will appear in English.)

8. The Skating Rink [1993]

I humbly dissent from Wyatt Mason; this isn’t a masterpiece. It is Bolaño’s first published novel, however, and is one of his most technically accomplished. It won a regional writing contest, back in the days when (per “Sensini”) Bolaño was entering scores of them. By this point, such things are probably interesting to you.

9. “Gomez Palacio,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” “Dentist” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

To hell with technique; here the other side of Bolaño holds sway. These pieces are not so much crafted as dreamed into being, and the hallucinatory intensity of the latter two serve as a perfect warm-up for 2666…

10. Amulet [1999]

…As does this novella-length expansion on an incident from The Savage Detectives. I don’t think this one is as successful as Distant Star, but by now, you’re willing to forgive that, right? Arturo Belano features heavily here. And the heroine, Auxilio Lacoutre, feels like a sketch for Florita Almada of 2666…about which Auxilio (like Césarea Tinajero) seems to be having visions…is anyone else getting dizzy?

11. “Enrique Martin” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [2001]

This is one of my two or three favorite Bolaño stories. Enrique seems to have contracted his numerological delirium from Auxilio and Césarea.

12. 2666[2004]

Supernova and apotheosis. You can read my take here.

13. By Night in Chile [2000]

Some people think that this short, late novel is Bolaño’s finest, and though I don’t agree with them, it’s always good to save something for dessert. Of all Bolaño’s books, this one seems to have the fewest connections with the others, and so perhaps it would be as good a place to start as to end.

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