The Romantic Dogs Review – The Cadaverine Magazine

In Poetry Reviews on November 4, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Latin America is the insane asylum of Europe. Maybe, originally, it was thought that Latin America would be Europe’s hospital, or Europe’s grain bin. But now it’s the insane asylum. A savage, impoverished, violent insane asylum, where, despite its chaos and corruption, if you open your eyes wide, you can see the shadow of the Louvre.’ – RobertoBolaño

Roberto Bolaño was, in no particular order, a writer, activist, vagabond, addict and family man. It is essential to understand him as a man tangled in a muddle of multifaceted identities and obligations, before one may understand his curiously oblique work.

His rebellious life permeated his writing. In his short fifty years, Bolaño hurled himself into the heart of the political turmoil in Latin America. Born in Santiago in 1953, he was a skinny, bookish, dyslexic child – fresh meat for school bullies. He acknowledged his identity as an outsider from an early age. In 1968, his family moved to Mexico City where he survived as an unusual cosmopolitan auto-didact through shoplifting books. He soon dropped out of school, became a journalist, then a left-wing activist.

In 1970s, Bolaño the Trotskyist, helped found the minor poetic movement infrarrealismo – a vanguard attempt to symbolise the rupture with the traitorous Mexican elite literary establishment. He then abandoned Mexico for Chile to ‘help build the revolution’ led by Allende’s socialist regime. The shadow of his ideological allegiance seems to haunt Bolaño’s poetry. In Atole, Bolaño recalls ‘Mexico’s lost poets’ engulfed within

The Mexico of solitude and memories

Of the late night subway and Chinese cafés

The ghostly silence of these bohemian souls resonates throughout his work. He rescues these people and places from their tumultuous surroundings and from obscurity. The poem begins thus,

I saw Mario Santiago and Orlando Guillén

Mexico’s lost poets

Suckered by atole

Is this first line not reminiscent of Ginsberg’s Howl? Is Bolaño suggesting they were beguiled into a false comfort? The unrhymed free verse echoes the refurbished Romantic poetry of the Beats yet has its own idiosyncratic aura of nostalgia and mourning. ‘Suckered’ seems to imply so. However, Bolaño does not make it clear. Resonating, vibrating silently and sinisterly behind every utterance is an uncanny attempt to grasp onto memory. In an almost hallucinogenic appeal to communicate with the past, he watches, ‘as if in slow motion’ his vision of a utopian society disintegrating around him. The commodification of what he and his literary comrades stood for becomes as cheaply and widely sold as the literature he opposed:

Before they were living inside the labyrinthine mural

Appearing and disappearing like true poetry

That which the tourists now visit

Drunk and stoned as if written in blood

Now they disappear into the geometric glory

That is the Mexico to which they belong

Bolaño’s lack of punctuation is ambiguous. Are the tourists or the poets ‘drunk and stoned’? Who is he criticising? His poetry leaves you with a distinct urge to grab an Encyclopaedia and perhaps have a search engine nearby, because it is inextricably linked to the context in which it was first conceived. Bolaño’s honesty in dealing with bohemian idealism in the face of gritty urban realism explains the political filter within his poetry. His editor Jorge Herralde recalled that he was indeed, a literary enfant terrible, ‘a professional provocateur feared at all the publishing houses even though he was a nobody, bursting into literary presentations and readings.’ This was probably as much to do with his leftist orientation as with his hectic life. His literary style on the other hand is more controlled than a direct stream of consciousness. It is a beautiful, flowing oscillation of real sincerity and pure prophetic anticipation. When reading The Romantic Dogs, one feels as if his whole life and soul is contained within the pages. Bolaño is his poetry.

Bolaño is famous for being a novelist, yet he only turned to fiction in his early forties to support his family. He moved to Europe in 1977, and eventually went to Spain where he worked as a dishwasher, campground custodian, bellhop, and garbage collector – working by day and writing at night. He always considered himself a poet, explaining, ‘I blush less when I reread my poems.’

For most of his early adulthood, Bolaño drifted from Chile, Mexico, El Salvador, France, and Spain.

Despite his nomadic lifestyle and hauling himself from home to home, Bolaño’s last ever interview, with MexicanPlayboy revealed his intense feelings of displacement. He regarded himself as Latin American yet he said ‘my only country is my two children and perhaps, though in second place, some moments, streets, faces of books that are in me.’ His poetry punctures holes in various strata of society for the reader to glimpse through; the people he meets, the sex, the love, the politics, the dreams, the abandoned dreams.

To have all forty three of his poems bound together in a volume that contains the original Spanish close to hand, truly honours Bolaño. They span nearly twenty years, from 1980-1998. The Romantic Dogs documents the failures and sacrifices of an inspirational, revolutionary generation hidden beneath complex and contradictory realities.Considering the volume draws from Bolaño’s whole career, some more information about the dates of composition or publication for individual poems would only serve to enhance this understanding. Though some critical schools would argue otherwise, surely the reader’s interpretation of Self Portrait at Twenty would be enriched by knowing whether it was written when the poet was twenty, or by an older man looking back. Regardless of facts and dates, this collection of poetry is a complete journey through Bolaño’s life. As you read in English, Bolaño’s direct Spanish wording on the left side of the page invades your mind and stares back at you as inescapably as what he is trying to say. Time and death do not stop Bolaño from divulging his philosophies to you as you privately read about such a public world.

Roberto Bolaño


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