Was Roberto Bolano a poet at heart? ‘The Unknown University’ says yes.
As busy as Roberto Bolaño’s afterlife has been — he’s published 19 books in English since his death in 2003 — his time on Earth was even busier.
Bolaño, who died at age 50, had a life that was rooted in three continents. He was born in Chile, the son of a boxer; he came of age in Mexico City and became a poet there; and he later moved to Barcelona, where he wrote the works that would make him a celebrated novelist.
Best known to U.S. readers for two novels — “The Savage Detectives,” first published in Spanish in 1998, and the posthumous “2666" — in the years since his death Bolaño has earned a global following as a prose stylist with rampant narrative ambition. As a novelist, he’s capable of entering the most varied landscapes and finding the lyricism, the humanity and the cruelty in all of them.
“The Unknown University,” a new anthology of Bolaño’s poetry, reads like a series of fragments from a diary of this epic artistic journey. It’s a book filled with sorrows and joys and discoveries as Bolaño the poet takes up themes that are repeated often in his novels. For him, writers are men and women engaged in a sacred search, with poets the purest seekers of all. It’s a pursuit that’s all the more noble, given that Bolaño knows that the immortality writers seek is unattainable.
“In a thousand years nothing will be left / of all that’s been written in this century,” Bolaño writes in one poem. In another, he celebrates the true writer’s indifference to monetary and even critical success. “The poet doesn’t wish to be greater / than others…Not wealth or fame… Simply waiting for someone or something in the ruins.”
“The Unknown University” gathers nearly 800 pages of Bolaño’s poems and prose poems in a bilingual edition. Bolaño set out to be a poet in the 1970s; one of many characters in “The Savage Detectives” is a young writer in the tumultuous Mexico City poetry scene who serves as Bolaño’s alter ego.
Poetry did not bring Bolaño much success while he was alive. He published two poetry collections during his lifetime but only after he started to win Spanish literary prizes for writing novels, a craft he is said to have undertaken to help support his family.
In an afterword in this new volume from the author’s widow, Carolina Lopez, we learn that Bolaño began to assemble the poems in “The Unknown University” after being diagnosed with a serious illness in 1993. Some observers have criticized Lopez for mining her late husband’s archives for seemingly every possible fragment that can be sold and published. But it’s hard to quibble with the decision to bring “The Unknown University” to print. Among other things, it’s a book that illuminates the personal struggle behind one of the great literary careers of our times, a career that has come to define a global literary aesthetic.
“Dreams took him to that magical country called Mexico City,” Bolaño writes in a poem called “Roberto Bolaño’s Devotion,” which, like many toward the end of this anthology, reads like a retrospective farewell. “And from it he gathered a bit of strength and courage / Mexico, the phosphorescent steps in the night…"
The urban landscapes of Mexico City and Barcelona are both ever-present in this anthology as the dark and hopeful setting of Bolaño’s poetic and emotional encounters. “They visit you in the darkest hours / all of your lost loves,” Bolaño begins in one of his most admired poems, called “The Ghost of Edna Lieberman.” It’s another work he wrote later in life, remembering a Mexican writer and former lover who appears in several of his books. “And you wake up silently / and Edna’s eyes / are there./ Between the moon and the ring of fire / reading her favorite / Mexican poets./ And Gilberto Owen?/ Have you read him?”
Gilberto Owen is one of dozens of writers, famous and obscure, to make a cameo in “The Unknown University.” Bolaño read voraciously, which explains the unlikely roster of poet-heroes whose names are peppered through this work. There’s Frank O’Hara of the New York School of poets; the 12th century French poet and troubadour Giraut de Bornelh; the Argentine science fiction writer Adolfo Bioy Casares; and the German playwright Hans Henny Jahnn, among dozens of others. They are Bolaño’s instructors in the school of poetry and hard knocks, his metaphorical “unknown university,” a phrase that’s repeated several times in this anthology.
One of the most poignant moments in “The Unknown University” comes near the end. Bolaño has been diagnosed with a terminal illness at about the same time he becomes a father. In two poems, Bolaño lays out advice for his young son, Lautaro.
“Read the old poets, my son / and you won’t regret it,” he writes in one. “Between the cobwebs and rotten wood / of ships stranded in Purgatory / that’s where they are / singing!”
One can only hope that Bolaño, dead a decade but more famous now than he could have ever dreamed, is not stranded in purgatory. Here on Earth, his words are alive and in print, and have as good a chance as any of making it to the next millennium.
The Unknown University
New Directions: 766 pp., $39.95
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