This collection of non-fiction pieces is a treasure-trove for anyone who has read Bolaño's fiction and who came away smitten by the author's full-blooded, mercurial, poetic voice.
Seasoned readers of this author can comfortably enter and enjoy the world of these essays, speeches, newspaper columns, travel articles and other occasional pieces. This is because many elements of Bolaño's novels and stories -- their settings, aspects of their storylines, their narrators or chief protagonists, and their abiding spirit of inquiry -- are grounded in autobiography. Bolaño's friend and literary executor, Ignacio Echevarria, who has assembled the 125 pieces found in "Between Parentheses," acknowledges the open border between the author's fiction and non-fiction in his hearty Introduction: "This volume amounts to something like a personal cartography of Roberto Bolaño and comes closest, of everything he wrote, to being a kind of fragmented `autobiography'."
If the reader perceives anything different in this collection it is that here the voice you've come to expect -- opinionated ("plagiarists deserve to be hanged in the public square"), passionate (his love for his soon-to-be-fatherless son beams bright), and with a tinge of the rapscallion ("one of the best ways to steal . . . I had learned from an Edgar Allen Poe story") -- is closer still to the elusive essence of "I, Roberto Bolaño."
In a piece from 1999, this autodidactic author declares: "I'm much happier reading than writing." His admiration shines forth the many times he notes that some friend or acquaintance "has read everything." The exhaustive scope of his own reading and interests is demonstrated by the nine-page Index that completes "Between Parentheses." The Index contains the names of over 600 persons mentioned in the texts, including musicians, filmmakers, and artists. But mostly there are the authors (including a strong contingent of Americans) Bolaño read with critical fervor.
Bolaño's politics take a back seat to his poetics. When, in the final piece in the book, he is asked by an interviewer what things bore him, he answers: "The empty discourse of the Left. I take for granted the empty discourse of the Right." He's a man of easy humor: Attending a poetry reading, he notices the auditorium is "filled up with freaks who seemed to have just escaped from a mental asylum, which incidentally is the best audience a poet can hope for." Bolaño's free spirit, his dexterity, his elliptical gait, are inescapable. For example, in a speech or essay ostensibly devoted to a specific subject, he'll wander off path, meditate, pursue diversions that lead to further diversions, or serve up a confession or an informal bit of chat. You might wonder, as I did, whether this is related to a physical discovery Bolaño made as a young soccer player -- that his body was "left-footed but right-handed."
The aphoristic bent so characteristic of Bolaño's fiction is on constant display: "Writers write with their hands and their eyes." "Crime seems to be the symbol of the twentieth century." "Literature is basically a dangerous undertaking." Men are at the mercy of "fate -- or chance, that even fiercer beast." Every few pages some pronouncement stopped me short. An example is this biographically-grounded insight crowning his interpretative essay on "Huckleberry Finn": "Twain was always prepared to die. That's the only way to understand his humor."
About the book as physical object: It is compact but not small; it feels sturdy and is comfortable to hold. The book is signature-bound, a traditional bookbinding method that has the practical effect of allowing the opened book to stay flat for your perusal, rather than springing shut. My impression is the editor and publisher meant for this to become a permanent addition to your library -- a plan Bolaño, who was very proud of his personal collection of books, surely would have been pleased with. Please note the book does not come with a dust jacket. Instead, using the same design approach it applied to "Antwerp," the book's publisher, New Directions, has chosen to emboss the title, author, translator (Natasha Wimmer), and other information on the front and back covers, this time using an iridescent raspberry color on a black ground.
In addition to the helpful Introduction and Index, the editor supplies an 11-page "Sources" section featuring explanatory notes that every Bolaño fan will savor.