Frontier Psychiatrist

Bolaño’s Blog of B-Sides: A Review of Between Parentheses

Posted on: January 9, 2012

Roberto Bolaño is best known for his epic novels The Savage Detectives and 2666, which were translated from Spanish into English to wide acclaim after his death in 2003. In the final years of his life, in poor health and laboring to finish 2666, the indefatigable Bolaño wrote a series of columns for newspapers in Spain and Latin America. Between Parentheses includes more than 100 of these columns, plus several speeches, and an interview in the Mexican edition of Playboy. While his fiction is filled with darkness and despair, these short and sweet pieces read like a feisty literary blog by a playful curmudgeon: a Latin cross between Mark Twain and Christopher Hitchens.

Like the most memorable critics, Bolaño rarely pulls his punches. Early in the book, he muses: “I don’t have anything against autobiographies, so long as the writer has a penis that’s twelve inches long while erect.”  Elsewhere, he slams popular Latin American writers like Isabel Allende and Paolo Coelho, and says Argentine writer Osvaldo Lamborghini  “should have gone to work as a hit man, or a prostitute, or a grave digger, which are less complicated jobs than trying to destroy literature.”

Like his fiction, Bolaño’s essays offer a merciless critique of Latin America, “a cross between a swamp and Las Vegas.” He’s particularly brutal about his native Chile, where he was imprisoned for eight days as a young man during the 1973 military coup that ousted President Salvador Allende. After a brief return to his homeland later in life, he declares: “This is no country for me.” Still, you get the sense that his anger masks sadness and disappointment in a country (and a continent) steeped in violence and oppression.

Although he lived the latter half of his life in Spain, Bolaño takes pains to avoid the label of “exile,” which he calls an empty and reductive term.  And while he seems to enjoy his quiet, bookish life with his family and friends in Catalonia, he takes playful jabs at his adopted homeland. “It’s well known that the Spanish, like Latin Americans, aren’t just poorly educated, but no good in bed.” Like his fictional characters –many of whom are marginal writers–Bolano shows little love for the literary establishment. One piece begins: “Editors tend to be bad people…but writers are often worse.”

But if Bolaño attacks his enemies, he also lavishes hyperbolic praise on his heroes. That list includes a high-low mix of canonical luminaries like Cervantes, Borges, and Swift, and American mass market writers like Walter Mosley, Thomas Harris, James Ellroy, and Phillip K. Dick, whom he calls “Kafka steeped in LSD and rage…Thoreau plus the death of the American Dream.” And throughout Between Parentheses he praises dozens of obscure Latin American writers, including many of his friends and acquaintances. While many of these will be unfamiliar to American readers, his zealous enthusiasm suggests we should expand our horizons.

In one of the most memorable (and fanciful) columns, Bolaño declares: “If I had to hold up the most heavily guarded bank in Europe and I could choose my partners in crime, I’d take a gang of five poets, no question about it. Five real poets, Apollonian or Dionysian, but always real, ready to live and die like poets. No one in the world is a brave as a poet. No one in the world faces disaster with more dignity and understanding.”

Like any essay collection, the pieces in Between Parentheses can be enjoyed in small doses or from cover to cover. If the book has a soft spot, it’s the section of travelogue pieces near the end. While pleasant and observant, they lack the  vitality and urgency of Bolaño’s pieces about  writers and books.

While Bolaño scoffed at memoir as a genre, Between Parentheses is the next best thing, a companion to (but certainly no substitute for) his often autobiographical fiction. For him, literature was life and life was literature. Or as he puts it: “Books are the only homeland of the true writer, books that may sit on shelves or in the memory.”

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently reviewed The Third Reich, Bolaño’s latest novel published in English translation. For more reading recommendations, see his Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011 and Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2011.

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7 Responses to "Bolaño’s Blog of B-Sides: A Review of Between Parentheses"

Great review. Roberto and Ernest would be proud.

[…] Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent reviews include Between Parentheses and The Third Reich, both by Roberto Bolaño. For more reading recommendations, see his Top 10 […]

[…] Psychiatrist. His recent reviews include Sex on the Moon and two books by Roberto Bolaño: Between Parentheses and The Third Reich, bot. For more reading recommendations, see his Top 10 Fiction Books of […]

[…] His recent reviews include Adam and Evelyn, Sex on the Moon and two books by Roberto Bolaño: Between Parentheses and The Third Reich. For more reading recommendations, see his Top 10 Fiction Books of […]

[…] His recent reviews include Adam and Evelyn, Sex on the Moon and two books by Roberto Bolaño: Between Parentheses and The Third Reich. For more reading recommendations, see his Top 10 Fiction Books of […]

[…] co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent reviews include Adam and Evelyn, Sex on the Moon and Between Parentheses. For more reading recommendations, see his Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011 and Top 10 Nonfiction […]

[…] published work in English translation and reviewed The Skating Rink, The Third Reich, and Between Parentheses. He is the grandson of a New Jersey narcotics detective and a New York copywriter, both of whom he […]

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