nly a very few of the paintings in Glitter and Doom move us as great paintings do, yet they have something

in common with great art, which is the ability to make the world reveal itself as another manifestation of the artist's vision. Spend some time with Glitter and Doom, then spend a day in any American city or town, and you see those Weimar faces everywhere. It's probably unwise to look at Dix's portraits of doctors the night before your annual checkup; you start seeing reality through these painters' eyes, whether you want to or not. One evening, after I'd spent the day looking at Weimar art, I happened to turn on the TV news. The lead story, about the fact that three hundred people had been killed in Iraq in the past two days, was immediately followed by another report-this one about the shopping frenzy that caused

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near-riots in stores on the annual socalled Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. One minute, an Iraqi woman was scrabbling in the dirt and throwing sand in her own face in an agony of grief. A minute later, a woman was nearly trampled by people struggling with boxes of flat-screen TVs. It was what, I suppose, might be called a Weimar moment, an unfortunate proximity that the New Objectivity artists would have instantly grasped: the wounded passing right alongside the gluttonous patrons of the pork store. I wondered who might have been watching that particular journalistic segue, if perhaps there was an artist somewhere responding to, and transforming, those incongruent images-if there was an attentive, observant guest at the cabaret who had the rage, the desire, and the talent to show the future what our moment looked like. _

Roberto Bolano's nomadic fiction

By Siddhartha Deb
Discussed in this essay:

Distant Star, by Roberto Bolario. Translated by Chris Andrews. New Directions. 149 pages. $14.95 (paper). By Night in Chile. by Roberto Bolario. Translated by Chris Andrews. New Directions. 130 pages. $13.95 (paper). Last Evenings on Earth, by Roberto Bolario. Translated by Chris Andrews. New Directions. 224 pages. $13.95 (paper). Amulet, by Roberto Bolario. Translated by Chris Andrews. New Directions. 184 pages. 21.95. The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolario. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 592 pages. $27. t the age of twenty, an aspiring writer goes back to his home country to "help build socialism," an ideal that comes to a premature end with a right-wing coup. After a brief period of imprisonment, the young man begins a wanderer's existence, crossing countries and contiSiddhartha Deb is the author of The Point of Return and An Outline of the Republic (Eeco).

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nents, finding fellow exiles scattered in large cities and provincial towns, gathering moments of existential qualm that are transmuted into fiction. His stories are full of wine and tobacco smoke, fittingly so for an author often photographed pondering over a cigarette. At fifty, just when he begins to make a reputation as a writer, he dies in exile, waiting for a liver transplant. It sounds, at first, like a thumbnail sketch from some lost age of litera-

ture, closer to the world of Parisian exiles and the International Brigades than the world we know, but the Chilean writer Roberto Bolario was born just over half a century ago. Considerably younger than the celebrated writers of the Latin American "boom"-Gabriel Garda Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa-s-Bolano died in Barcelona in 2003, so that what initially seems anachronistic about his life is nothing other than the disorientation created by literary circumstances that we in the West are no longer quite familiar with. These include the idea that writing, and the life within which such writing is shaped, must often function without a safety net; that literature must engage with politics even when politics has foreclosed literature; and that a writer will often have to subvert established forms in order to capture the nature of contemporary reality. These are not new perspectives, but they seem to have been abandoned over the past twenty years, especially in the sphere of AngloAmerican letters. Here, writers as diverse as Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen, and Zadie Smith tend to guide readers along a cultural superstructure that might offer occasional glimpses of politics but in fact rises far above it, displaying an exuberance of style that suggests an exuberance of lifestyle. Bolario's life, by contrast, doesn't seem to offer a model worth celebrating; this is a writer who was so short of money and hygiene during his wandering years that he had lost most of his teeth by the end of his travels. Still, Bolano's life would not, by itself, be capable of shaking up our received ideas of literature and forcing us to reconsider what we have come to accept as the limits of fiction. If we perceive strange, asynchronous notes in his biographical details, they are really reverberations of the sound one hears in his work, satisfying and disturbing in equal measure. Reading Last Evenings on Earth, a translated volume of Bolafio's stories compiled from two separate collections, one might come away with the impression of uniformity. Many of the stories are narrat-

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ed in the first person, often by a fictional stand-in of Bolano's who goes by the name of Arturo Belano or B. They are largely about literature and the creation of literature, and the characters who populate the pages are usually members of a forgotten diaspora of left-wing Latin Americans afloat on their own continent or in Europe. Yet this impression of obviousness, of an author belaboring a point, is an illusion. The range of Bolano's stories

Berlin between two acquaintances. The narrator knows The Eye from the mid-Seventies, when they were part of the Chilean diaspora that had ended up in Mexico after the overthrow of Salvador Allende's democratic socialist government. Many years have passed when the narrator comes across The Eye again, sitting in a Berlin square near the narrator's hotel. They go out drinking, carrying on "a confessional and melancholic dialogue" about how they have

began to talk. I remained standing and lit a cigarette. The circular temporality, the idea that they are undertaking a repetition (but with a slight variation), owes something to Borges. It also evokes a variation on the phobia that the Germans call Platzangst: the illusion that one has made no progress at all while attempting to cross a vast, unending square. But most of all, The Eye's story and the

is remarkably fluid, from thirty pages summing up an entire adult life to pieces that are almost sketches, in which alphabets denote characters and the action is traced in swift, engulfing sentences. ("Two days later I went to his boarding house to look for him and they told me he had gone up north"; "Over dinner with a Chilean couple, B discovers that U has been committed to a psychiatric hospital after having tried to kill his wife.") But it is Bolano's characters who are especially beguiling, from the minor Spanish poet who descends into the world of paranoid UFO sightings in "Enrique Martin" to the errant teenager who strikes up a friendship with a Mexican gunfighter in "The Grub." We are inundated with details of their lives, and yet in the end they are not much more than silhouettes glimpsed in the fog and rain of Barcelona or Mexico City. When the characters bow out of the story, our understanding of them is never quite equal to their mystery. "Mauricio ('The Eye') Silva," for instance, is about an encounter in

coped with the years and the distance. The Eye, whose homosexuality made him an outsider even among the exiled left-wingers, abandoned Mexico to work as a freelance photographer. He drinks more than he used to, the narrator says, but in other ways he remains "stoic and amiable." It gets late and they walk back toward the hotel, heading for what might be the point of closure in a more conventional short story. Instead, The Eye begins to talk about an experience of his in India, when he rescued two boys from a cult that had castrated one of them as a sacrifice to some unknown, malevolent deity. The dialogue becomes a monologue, and a crack appears, separating the narrator's account from that of The Eye: He sat down on the very bench as before, I swear, as if I still hadn't arrived, as if I hadn't yet started to cross the square and he was still waiting for me and thinking about his life and the story that he was compelled, by history or destiny or chance, to tell me. He turned Lip the collar of his coat and

way it is brought into the larger narrative show that Bolario's exiled characters frequently encounter a strain of Platzangst no matter where they go. They repeat the same generous impulses and face similar, horrifying outcomes, so that even as The Eye emphasizes how strange India was for him, the reader begins to feel that it was not very different from Chile; that as a nonviolent man running away from the violence of his country, The Eye was only running toward another realm of upheaval. The story within a short storyrepeating, embellishing, clarifying, or obscuring the main theme-is an unusual choice, but it tells us something about Bolario's use of narrative. It shows us, and the other pieces in Last Evenings reinforce this display, that the short story can be as capacious a form as the novel. It can pause or diverge, and even pick up a subplot or two along the way. In Bolafio's hands, the short story often needs to do so: his narrators are obsessive storytellers, handling an abundance of material and offering

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Illustration

by Richard Beards

their own version of Platzangst in the way they seem unable to traverse the boundless tracts of fiction. "Anne Moore's Life," one of the longest pieces in Last Evenings, ranges across thirty years, has an itinerary that includes the United States, Mexico, and Spain, and brings in two dozen characters. The progression of its many elements is so relentless that it threatens to derail our understanding, were it not for how the accretion of details is at the very heart of the story. People cut loose from their moorings, whether by choice or destiny, are often seen as traveling light. But in other ways, Bolafio suggests, they carry such weight and collect so much experience that sometimes only an external observer can discern a pattern in their chaotic lives. This is true of the way Anne is presented to us, as a Sixties flower child whose string of relationships comes perilously close to self-abuse, and who often seems far too absorbed in immediate predicaments to reflect upon her life in its entirety. But Anne's life comes to have a shape of sorts in the hands of the narrator, a man who devours her diaries and absorbs the details of her adventures, converting formless experience into a narrative with design and intention. Like the figure in the Berlin square listening to The Eye, the narrator in "Anne Moore's Life" is a necessary adjunct to the protagonist, a figure whose storytelling and patternmaking is so compulsive that it can bridge the protagonist's gaps in selfknowledge. And because this storytelling is constantly on the lookout for material, it is sensitive even to the experiences residing inside peripheral characters. At the end of "Anne Moore's Life," therefore, when the narrator goes to Anne's old attic room in Girona to see if there are any traces of her, he meets a Russian who could easily turn into another narrative fulcrum, and who is kept to the margins of the story only with some effort:
A very old man came to the door, walking with great difficulty and the aid of a spectacular oak stick, which looked a bit 'like it had been designed for ceremonial occasions or combat. He remembered Anne Moore. In fact he remembered almost all of the

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twentieth century, but that, he admitted, was beside the point. a short story by Bolafio can be f forced to do the work of a novel, his novels can also aspire to the condition of other forms. The short story, the prose poem, the dramatic monologue: these are all possibilities that come to mind when reading the three novels that have been translated into English by Chris Andrews. By Night in Chile, the first of these translations, is narrated as the deathbed confessional of Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a Jesuit priest and literary critic. An extended monologue of more than a hundred pages in which the only paragraph break comes before the final sentence, it contains bit roles for Augusto Pinochet (keeping his dark glasses on even when indoors); Ernst Junger (discussing evil in occupied Paris while pouring out cognac from a silver hip flask); and Pablo Neruda ("reciting verses to the moon"). The novel is at once a feverish recollection on Father Urrutia's part, a final bid to wrest a semblance of meaning from a life lived deceitfully, and a narrative superbly modulated by Bolario, introducing an aside, a shift of scene, or an almost selfcontained vignette just as the narrator's obsession gets unbearably claustrophobic. Distant Star, an earlier work (but one that came later into the hands of anglophone readers), is simpler in some ways, grafting a story about fascism and art onto the structure of a detective novel. Set for the most part in the psychotropic nightmare of Pinochet's Chile, it reconstructs the career of a minor poet named Carlos Wieder. An untalented if mysterious figure before the coup, Wieder is elevated to a position of importance by the Pinochet regime, writing poetry in the sky from a Nazi-era fighter aircraftverses that are larger than life and yet evanescent in the wind. In the stories, the intersection between politics and art serves as a backdrop, as a kind of nagging memory borne by the figures stranded in Europe. In the novels, however, which are set for the most part in Latin America, politics and art are magnetic poles that create a field of

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stress, laying down an axis of disturbance along which the human protagonist quivers and then goes still. By Night in Chile's Father Urrutia, caught in the torque of politics and art, decides to ignore politics entirely, taking recourse in GrecoRoman classicism when confronted with the possibility of dissidents being tortured in basements; in Distant Star, Carlos Wieder enjoys the tension so much that he replicates the domination and terror of the political system in his art. Wieder is the poet coming at the reader in jackboots, truncheon in hand, a Chilean version of the artists F. T. Marinetti envisioned in his Futurist manifesto: We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer's stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.... We will sing of ... the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd. This artist-the one who instead of challenging a repressive political system chooses to become its storm trooper-seems to have haunted and fascinated Bolano in equal measure, so much so that he envisaged an entire body of right-wing literature in the novel Nazi Literature in the Americas (which will be published next year), a work to which Distant Star is meant to be an appendix or coda. The idea may appear outdated to us, sounding, once again, that anachronistic note we heard before: Who takes artists, even fascist artists, so seriously anymore? But art, for Bolano, is a belief system that comes into its own in the Americas, stirring into anarchic life in Mexico City and Santiago long after it has been domesticated and neutered in Europe. It functions just like politics and religion in Latin America, engendering a special kind of fervor, producing mythologies and creating deities and saints, devotees and heretics. mulet, the third of Bolafio's novels to be translated into English, is unusual in that it is built around an artistic fervor that nurtures rather than destroys. Centered loosely around the student protests of 1968 in Mexico, it is a curiously joyful

novel that delights in its storytelling even as it struggles with the question of how art might be sustained under conditions resolutely opposed to it: when an authoritarian state squeezes out dissent, when the economy marginalizes art, and-this perhaps the hardest and most familiar condition of all-when an individual who is committed to art appears inconsequential even to other artists. The figure around whom all these factors converge is Auxilio Lacouture, the female narrator of Amulet, who calls herself the "mother of Mexican poetry." It is an unusual selfdescription, made all the more so by her marginal position among the producers of Mexican poetry. An illegal Uruguayan migrant in Mexico City, self-appointed cleaner at the houses of famous poets, and part-time assistant at the university's Faculty of Philosophy and Literature, she is an outsider among outsiders, a "female Don Quixote." Lacouture's particular act of quixotic courage at the beginning of the novel is to remain in the women's bathroom when the riot police break into the university to evict all professors and students. She stays there for nearly two weeks, without food, reciting poetry to herself. When she finally emerges, her act will become part of the collective memory of 1968 in Mexico (which involved, among other things, the killing of as many as three hundred student protesters in Tlatelolco square on October 2): Often Iwouldhear my storytold by others, who said that the woman who had gone without foodfor thirteen days,shut in the bathroom, wasa medical student, or a secretary from the administration building, not an illegal alien from Uruguay,with no job and no placeof her own to lay her head. Sometimes it wasn't even a woman but a man, a Maoist student or a professorwith gastrointestinal problems. The protest in the women's bathroom is not merely a dramatic episode or the encapsulation of a theme, containing ideas to be expanded or echoed in the rest of the novel; it also functions as a shared act of resistance between Lacouture and the readers. Since the entire novel is narrated from the

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vantage point of Lacouture's confinement, her stream of consciousness ranging into the future as well as the past, the reader is forced to share her incarceration. Our point of view, too, is the woman's stall, the toilet paper, the stained mirror, and the moon tracing patterns on the tiles. Only through Lacouture's recollections of the past and her visions of the future can we experience the streets and cafes of Mexico City, though we are never entirely sure which events have taken place and which have been imagined. In many ways, such a narrative choice creates a coherence that makes Amulet the obverse of The Savage Detectives, a magnum opus of serial narration and collective testimony that features dozens of voices (Lacouture's included), hundreds of events, and various settings in Mexico, Los Angeles, Paris, Barcelona, Tel Aviv, and Liberia. A work that established Bolafio's reputation in the Spanish-speaking world as a successor to Borges, Garda Marquez, and Julio Cortazar, this 600-page novel has finally been published in English in a translation by Natasha Wimmer. Although it lacks the intimacy of Amulet, it is an extraordinary work; obsessive, uneven, and magnificent, The Savage Detectives is a picaresque of late capitalism that demands utter submission from the reader as it presents an account in multiple voices of the adventures of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, founders of a short-lived poetry movement called "visceral realism." Ostensibly about a quest by Belano and Lima for a mythical woman poet from the 1920s, The Savage Detectives is a hustler of a book. It is not surprising that the two poets are also drug pushers, supplying the artistic circles of Mexico City with Acapulco Gold marijuana, and that their visceral realist movement is less notable for the writing it produces than for the destabilizing effect it has on virtually everybody who comes into contact with it. By contrast, Lacouture's unheroic, feminine incarceration in Amulet binds us to her even as the story spirals outward, driven by a sense that such narrative play with perspective, temporality, and genre is the only possible way to

fashion art under repressive conditions. "This is going to be a horror story," Lacouture says in the first line of Amulet, and although she imrnediatel y qualifies herself, her suggestion shows us that one way of writing about reactionary terror is to exploit popular genres. It is not hard to see how realism and the equanimity of the conventional bourgeois novel might falter when the everyday world includes disappearances, killings, prisons, torture chambers, and assassinations. But the reference to popular genres is not an attempt to simplify this horrific world into a formula or to ratchet up the register of the prose. It is a declaration that the writer intends to demolish the usual walls between the past and the present, the imagined and the experienced, the conscious and the subconscious. So we have the story of the King of the Rent Boys, one of the many episodes in Amulet that releases us momentarily from the women's bathroom and the soldiers waiting outside, only to propel us into a world with the characteristics of a dream. As Lacouture foresees it-for the episode takes place in 1974, well after the siege of 1968-the event begins with the return of Arturo Belano from his journey to Chile and his brief imprisonment there. At a bar where Belano has just been toasted for his escape from Chile's "Horror Zone," a young poet called Ernesto San Epifanio asks for Belane's help. San Epifanio has slept with the "King of the Rent Boys in Colonia Guerrero, a guy known as the King, who had a monopoly on male prostitution," and has thus entered into an unending bondage. San Epifanio believes that Belano can persuade the King to release him. With Lacouture following behind, the two writers make their way to a rundown hotel at the Colonia Guerrero. In a room upstairs, the King and his heavies are counting cash, while on a bed behind them lies another of the King's boy victims. The King, surprisingly, backs down before Belano. He releases San Epifanio from his servitude, and the writers leave, taking the unknown boy with them. It is an episode that possesses greater power than what is suggested by the

The Test
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bare plot; the seedy realism of Mexican bars and hotels is shot through with a mythical, fairy-tale element, a combination captured perfectly in the phrase "King of the Rent Boys." To this Bolafio adds the suggestion that there is another, more horrifying story about Chile and torture that cannot be told here, and yet manages to direct a sordid tale of violence and sexual exploitation toward a more hopeful ending. And the episode is powerful in other ways as well, a resonant echo of something we have come across before. For the story of the King of the Rent Boys is another version of The Eye's account of rescuing the boys in India. It contains a similar convergence of homosexuality, love, criminality, and thirdworld urban spaces, but whereas the modest, self-effacing Eye was the character on the run in the short story, here it is Belano on the run with the modest, self-effacing Lacouture as narrator. It can get dizzying, this endless reflection and overlap of stories and themes, but it also explains Bolario's attraction to popular genres, which depend on fundamental tropes like the murder, the killer, and the detective. In telling a similar story in different ways, Bolario is in some sense working over the unsolved case of Latin American violence, suggesting several versions of the crime in order to get closer to the truth. This affinity for popular genres is accompanied by a feel for the older, deeper structures of storytelling contained in mythology and folktales. The poet visiting the King of the Rent Boys, or The Eye traveling to an Indian brothel, is also Orpheus journeying to the underworld, hoping to rescue the beloved with no more than a few songs at his disposal. venwithout political repression, the modem world is indifferent to the writer's craft, to the way the writer salvages material from times past and present, from places near and far, and is driven, as it were, to grasp everything human lives are made of. It is not a heroic profession, at least not as characterized by Roberto Bolano. Auxilio Lacouture in Amulet is the most self-effacing of storytellers, denying any authorial ambition, covering her mouth with her hand when

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she speaks so as to hide her missing teeth, saying to herself in a "tiny little voice" that she's "had it with adventures." But she cannot close herself off from the world and the people she loves, or from the work they create, which is why she will follow each of her demurrals by showing us another combination of artistic ambition, sexual desire, and political repression. She will go on being the mother of Mexican poetry, a surrogate mother to Arturo Belano, and, in the final mystical vision that provides the climax of the novel, mother to an entire generation of Latin America's "ghost-children," who are marching toward annihilation. The stories in Last Evenings take place at a greater distance from such holocausts, but the struggle of the writer is no less poignant for that. In "Sensini," the narrator enters into a correspondence with an Argentine writer whose son (named Gregorio in homage to Kafka's Gregor Samsa) is one of the many "disappeared." Both the narrator and Sensini are exiled in Spain, and their friendship begins when they win prizes at a literary competition, leading to a correspondence between them that revolves partially around the subject of literary contests. It is characteristic of 80lafio that he should take this most banal aspect of literature for his subject and still succeed in slashing open the veins of a writer's life. Sensini and the narrator are not untalented or superficial writers, but the quality of their craft or the pain of their exile is of little relevance to their entries. The stories, when sent out to the municipal councils, credit unions, and railway companies sponsoring the contests, inevitably become something other than art. They enter a world in which a writer submitting a story is like a traveling salesman offering a low-grade product. Even success, in this world, will bring no more than a minor reward. This unflinching account of the discrepancy between the various aspects of a writer's existence is made bearable only by the friendship between the two characters, by the ability of each to perceive in the other the promise of literature. For Bolano, this also seems to mean the promise of being human. Although the act of writing estranges, or leads practitioners like Father Urrutia and Carlos Wieder

to embrace the "Horror Zone," it also allows people to know one another and keep on living. "Dentist," perhaps the finest story collected in Last Evenings, offers such a redemptive vision of writing, with its long, somewhat shapeless, and slightly feverish account of the narrator's visit to a provincial Mexican town, where he stays with a dentist friend. The friend is depressed, maybe because of the death of an old Mexican-Indian woman at a cooperative medical clinic where he volunteers. But there are other possible reasons for his depression, if we can trust the narrator, who himself is burdened by the breakup of a relationship. The dentist tells a strange story about being insulted and threatened by an artist whose works he admired. The dentist might be gay and reluctant to admit it. The dentist could be in a relationship with a teenage Indian boy who lives on the outskirts of town, in a darkness beyond an "unreal landscape" that looks like "a cross between a garbage dump and an idyllic picture postcard of the Mexican countryside." In a way, "Dentist" is a story about the collapse of ideals, of love, and, most of all, of art. Both the narrator and his friend agree, during one of their interminable barhopping sessions, that their "insatiable appetite for Culture" has been exhausted, with each mouthful leaving them "poorer, thinner, uglier, and more ridiculous than before." Yet the two characters are not ridiculous, in spite of their ineffectual posturing and their hopeless excursions into a city that, when not decrepit, is remarkably sad. They visit Jose Ramirez, the Indian boy. He is apparently a writer, and the dentist claims that he is better than any of Mexico's famous writers. One expects this drunken claim to be dispelled, but it isn't. At the Indian's dwelling, the narrator reads one of the boy's stories: "The story was four pages long; maybe that's why I chose it, because it was short, but when I got to the end, I felt as if I had read a novel." That, of course, is the effect of many of Bolano's stories. Bur what is striking is that Bolano doesn't attempt to explain how it is possible that in the Continued on page 106

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large-scale entropy of culture, a poor Indian can be one of the best writers in Mexico. And Bolario doesn't need to explain, because there is nothing in the experience of reading the story that makes one suspect he is merely using Ramirez to make a political point and to render explicit the opposition between modern and premodern, wealth and poverty, fame and obscurity. The Indian and his genius seem an inextricable part of the world Bolario has created, a product of the same strange vision that has given us the forlorn narrator, the depressed dentist, and the uncanny provincial city where they meet. That artistic promise should exist on the same plane as cultural exhaustion can seem like a trite conclusion. But Bolario makes "Dentist" go beyond such obviousness, primarily because the world he has created is, like Kafka's, perfectly logical in its strangeness, quite believable even though we can never see where its horizon lies. A story that reads like a novel about a story that reads like a novel naturally resists boundaries. It inevitably blurs into Bolario's other works, and it is astonishing to think how much of that work is still unknown to us. His untranslated oeuvre spans essays, poetry, short stories, and six novels, including the thousand-page 2666 that will be published next year in English, a novel that refers back to The Savage Detectives by beginning its story at the place where Belano and Lima end their quest. "We never stop reading, although every book comes to an end, just as we never stop living, although death is certain," says the narrator in "Dentist." As each translated book appears in our hands, offering new perspectives on characters and episodes we may have already encountered, it is possible that we will begin to feel like Bolano's narrators, starting afresh on a story whose end we thought we knew, seeking patterns and correspondences in work that is both familiar and strange. Books and lives end, but the act of storytelling goes on. It is one of the pleasures we can depend on in our state of exile. -

106

HARPER'S MAGAZINE / APRIL 2007

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