The newest collection of the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s short stories to be translated into English reads like a Cliff Notes introduction to the world he traveled in—and in his literature—populated. The Return is stuffed with whores and hit men, poets and porn stars, Communists and black marketers, ghosts and conjurers, and (of course) detectives.
The book kicks off with a pair of stories about misplaced foreigners in Russia, one by choice, and the other by bureaucratic snafu. In Snow, a Chilean ex-pat living in Barcelona tells the story of when he was “a trainer’s assistant for a man of dubious and disconcerting moral character” in post-Soviet Moscow.
Rogelio Estrada falls in with a gangster called “Billy the Kid” né Misha Pavlov and ends up procuring young women for him. “Pavlov’s taste in women was for athletes: long jumpers, sprinters, middle-distance runners, triple jumpers … but his real favorites were the high jumpers. He said they were like gazelles, ideal women, and he wasn’t wrong.”
Herein lies the rub: one Natalia Chuikova, who Estrada lovingly describes as “five-foot-ten and can’t have weighed more than 120 pounds. She had brown hair, and her simple ponytail gathered all the grace in the world. Her eyes were jet black and she had, I swear, the longest, most beautiful legs I have ever seen.” Let’s just say, that’s not the healthiest attention to detail for a hired goon to have.
Bolaño follows one tragic folly with another sketch told by the subject of 2666’s The Part about Amalfitano. Another Russian Tale follows a Spaniard captured while fighting with the Nazi Germans in a World War II footnote that I was unaware of. The Spanish Blue Division was a volunteer force sent by fellow fascist Franco on (according to Wikipedia) “condition they would exclusively fight against Bolshevism (Soviet Communism) on the Eastern Front, and not against the Western Allies or any Western European occupied populations.” Within such a historical anomaly lies the kernel of a tragic novel in its own right, but Bolaño purposefully crash lands the premise, turning the man’s fate on a linguistic misunderstanding of a sputtered epithet.
Detectives, the piece in this collection that best shows off Bolaño’s singular talent is written entirely as an extended dialogue between two policemen pulling duty in a Chilean jail. Bolaño slips in exposition, politics, and world history all without letting the conversation seem forced or false. His own literary counterpart, Arturo Belano—co-founder of Visceral Realism and co-hero of The Savage Detectives—makes an appearance as little more than an apparition, but one real enough to shake one of the detectives out of his comfortable stupor.
In one of the most heartfelt examples of Bolaño’s ability to bring the seedy underbelly of society to life and make it seem as valid a way to live as any other—perhaps even more valid, as hypocrisy must be one of the first vices to burn away in the fires of Earth-bound hell—he chronicles the story of an Italian porn star, Joanna Silvestri, who returns to Los Angeles in 1990 after AIDS has run rampant and rocked the industry. Its “biggest” star, a barely disguised John Holmes still haunts the valley, a walking shell of his former self.
Silvestri knows “Jack” from the old days and looks him up in a tender scene that stands out no less for being surrounded by work-a-day debauchery. Her matter-of-fact accounting of her chosen trade is at first shocking but soon begins to make sense. Porn, for the professional who makes it, must end up being just another day at the office, and in the end (no pun intended) don’t we all whore ourselves out in search of the all-mighty dollar?
And while we’re on the subject, Murdering Whores paints the gruesome picture of a prostitute who singles out a guy coming out of a soccer match, kidnaps him, and tortures him to death. I read somewhere that this collection was originally named after this story: Putas Asesinas. I think it sounds better in Spanish.
Ghosts real and imagined flit thematically throughout these tales, some of them merely glimpsed and some of them fully present and pissed off. The way that the specter of death hangs over this book, one can’t help but wonder if Bolaño was working through his own approaching mortality, picking it up and observing it from every angle. One hopes that he didn’t become like the ghost that narrates the title piece. “I have good news and bad news,” he begins. “The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.”
I’ll leave it to the porn star to sum up what Bolaño finally discovered while turning his imminent death into The Return. “I’m temped to tell him that we are all ghosts, that all of us have gone too soon into the world of ghost movies, but he’s a good man and I don’t want to hurt him, so I keep it to myself. Anyway, who’s to say he doesn’t already know?”