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Visits to the near and far

The gorgeous three-volume boxed set of Roberto Bolano’s massive “2666" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is surely the year’s most adventurous bit of paperback publishing. This shocking and violent tour de force, based on the unsolved murders of hundreds of women near the Mexican border, attacks the contemporary world head on.

Simon Armitage’s superb translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (W.W. Norton) takes us back to Arthurian Britain and Camelot. “Now grasp that gruesome axe and show your striking style,” says the ghostly Green Knight, moments before young Gawain takes up the challenge. Then: “The cleanness of the strike cleaved the spinal cord / and parted the fat and flesh so far / that that bright steel blade took a bite from the floor. / The handsome head tumbles onto the earth / and the king’s men kick it as it clatters past. / Blood gutters brightly against his green gown, / yet the man doesn’t shudder or stagger or sink / but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs / and rummages around, reaches at their feet / and cops hold of his head and hoists it high.” What follows is a year-long quest, during which Gawain must prove his courage and worth. Written by an unidentified hand sometime around 1400, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is one of the founding narratives of English literature. That sounds stuffy, but not here.

The theme of “Gawain” concerns humankind’s relation with nature, a very modern subject, when we think about it. The work of the great Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert shoulders a broader political and moral responsibility, as evidenced by “The Collected Poems 1956-1998" (Ecco). This huge and handsome volume proves that Herbert wasn’t just a Cold War figure but a modern and always accessible titan, comparable to W.H. Auden or Seamus Heaney. His work glows: “Lord / help us to imagine a fruit / a pure image of sweetness / and the touching of planes / those of dusk and dawn / fish from the sea’s folds / a bass of the pure depths / and also a girl / blind as destiny / a girl singing -- bel canto.”

Last, a new original paperback, “Quantum of Solace” (Penguin) collects all the James Bond short stories, rounding out Penguin’s complete set of Ian Fleming, who no longer feels like a guilty pleasure: We’re so familiar with the 007 movies that we’ve forgotten what a fine writer Bond’s creator could be. “The thud of the engines stopped and the anchor chain roared down into the quiet bay,” concludes “The Hildebrand Rarity,” a still unfilmed story included here. Fleming wrote quickly and without fuss but with occasional grace, as well as an abundance of sex and violence and concrete detail. No wonder Raymond Chandler admired him so much.

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Rayner’s Paperback Writers column appears monthly at latimes.com/books.


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