Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

The Spirit Of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño

reviewed by jim hepplewhite


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"An hour later, the gunfire begins."

Chilean/Mexican/Spanish writer Roberto Bolaño was last decade's major literary sensation. I discovered his work through 2666, the 900+ page behemoth that you really shouldn't start with. I loved the man's writing all the same. His style is a combination of Borges (mostly Borges), Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and James Joyce. Fast forward twelve years or so, and the world cooled on Bolaño.

Following his death just before the English version of 2666, his bibliography became a gold mine. In 2010, more works were discovered and subsequently published. Those works included The Third Reich (Bolaño's absolute worst novel, I can say this because I've read every single one), Woes Of The True Policeman (2666 b-sides), and The Secret Of Evil (a short story collection, Bolaño was great at those).

And now, about seven years later, Penguin Press releases Bolaño's first novel titled The Spirit Of Science Fiction. After I read …Science Fiction for the first time, I thought it was one of Bolaño's worst novels, and gossiped privately that FSG and New Directions dodged a bullet by not publishing it.

(It goes without saying Natasha Wimmer did another fantastic translation job. When I see her name on a book, I always feel like I’m reading the author in their native language. The Spirit Of Science Fiction is no exception.)

"'Sure: I've squandered my adolescence in seedy movie theaters and pestilent libraries. To make matters worse, my girlfriends always leave me.'
'Now everything might change. A bright future lies ahead of you.'
'Do you say that because of the prize?'
'Because of everything the prize entails.'
'You poor naive reporter. First you mistake this room in the middle of some random forest for a crystal palace on a hill. Then you actually predict a bright future for art. You don't realize yet that this is trap. Who the hell do you think I am, Sid Vicious?'"

In the process of writing this review and re-reading a couple moments from …Science Fiction, I'm now not so sure. Yes, it reads like a first attempt at The Savage Detectives, Bolaño's first hit in English. Everything …Science Fiction does, Savage Detectives does better. Everything. Publisher's Weekly's capsule review encapsulates most of my thoughts. …Science Fiction does feel thin and it does not congeal like his later works.

But there's Bolaño's magic all the same. …Science Fiction concerns itself about two young men who move to Mexico City to become writers. One becomes a hermit and writes letters to science fiction writers, and the other goes the opposite route and has a social life. Bolaño doesn't end the story well, there's not really a natural ending point so much as I feel like Bolaño ran out of scenes. My favorite of Bolaño's Borges aping is the subplot that a city with a comically low literacy rate also has 600+ poetry journals in it. How?

"Dear Robert Silverberg:

Are you on the North American Committee of Science Fiction Writers in Support of the Third World's Neediest Cases? If not, here's my suggestion: join up, affiliate yourself, form subcommittees in San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland, at universities where you're booked as a speaker, at bars in three star hotels. If your body still has the energy that you've poured into your work, become part of the committee and rev it up … But it's your turn now, and you can bring along your writer friends, brighten the day of the secretary-general who sits alone and bored in a dreary little room in San Francisco. Call him on the phone, let the black phone ring and the trembling hand lift the receiver. Is Harlan Ellison on the case? Is Phillip José Farmer on the case, or is he masturbating up on the roof? … The scene, my dear Robert, is this: dog-colored dawn, spaceships appear over the mountains on the horizon, Chile goes down along with the rest of Latin America, we become fugitives, you become killers."

Bolaño's my comfort food. I'm happy to return to Bolaño's intricately connected world of doomed, earnest poets. I miss Los Suicidas mezcal even though it doesn't exist and I hate mezcal. I miss his exiles. I miss passionate men and women arguing about poetry, literature, politics, and then fucking each other or not fucking each other. I miss his world.

I miss a Bolaño novel and thank God (or the winning bidder for the English publishing rights) there's one more.

You shouldn't start with …Science Fiction. It's uneven, and what it promises, you can just buy instead, because Bolaño did a better version of it called The Savage Detectives. But if you're like me, and you need one last goodbye, here you are. It's called The Spirit Of Science Fiction.