Angélica and Lola Torrente prefigure Angélica and María Font, José Arco anticipates Ulises Lima and a toothless Tiresian poetess named Estrellita gives a foretaste of Tinajero; but these characters, archetypes for Bolaño, are integrated here into a narrower time frame. At the Torrentes’ house, Remo falls in love with a girl named Laura, and a chapter about their visits to Mexico City’s bathhouses, which appeared out of context in Bolaño’s posthumous poetry collection, “The Unknown University,” forms a natural coda here. It can be reckless to draw connections between an author’s life and his work, but this book invites such comparisons. Late in the novel, when Jan writes a letter to another sci-fi hero, he signs it with the pseudonym “Roberto Bolaño.” The reader thrills at this revelation, one of many “coded messages” in this playfully difficult, gem-choked puzzle of a book, and the most nakedly exposed. “The Spirit of Science Fiction” serves as a key to Bolaño’s later work, unlocking clues to his abiding obsessions.
From 1968, when he was 15, to 1977, when he moved to Europe, Bolaño lived mostly in Mexico City, where he read incessantly, caroused, fell in love, wrote poetry and scathing reviews, lurked in cafes, and founded a vigorous yet vague literary movement called “infrarrealismo.” The “infrarealists,” young rebel poets, artists and writers like himself, liked to stage provocations — for instance, disrupting a reading by the Mexican giant of letters Octavio Paz by shouting “Paz is an idiot!” In Mexico City in the ’70s, Bolaño’s Sancho Panza — the model for José Arco and Ulises Lima — was the poet provocateur Mario Santiago Papasquiaro. Decades later, this fraternity re-emerged in “The Savage Detectives” as “visceral realists.” But they got their first outing, without a name, in “The Spirit of Science Fiction.” The mayhem and energy of their embrace of the poetic life — intellectual (and hormonal) passion wedded to judgmental idealism, clinched by a sense of the absurd — vibrates on the page.
[ Read an excerpt from Bolaño’s last interview. ]
By now, Bolaño’s international reputation is secure, but he only started publishing novels in the 1990s, late in his short life. He came to the attention of most English readers in 2003, the year he died of liver failure in Barcelona, when his exquisite allegorical fiction “By Night in Chile” was translated into English by Chris Andrews. By the time that book appeared in English, the “myth” of Bolaño, as Vargas Llosa calls it (appreciatively, not derisively), had already spread throughout the Spanish-reading world; now it crossed over. “By Night in Chile” is narrated by a Jesuit priest, critic and failed poet named Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, who gutlessly lends his learning to the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. A dissolute literato named Farewell justifies Urrutia’s sellout by telling him the tale of an Austro-Hungarian shoemaker who wasted his life attempting to erect a mountaintop monument to every single hero of the past, present and future. It’s a metaphor for literature, one that Farewell rejects. “What’s the use,” he asks Urrutia. “What use are books, they’re shadows, nothing but shadows.” But to Bolaño, a shadow was never nothing. His books are peopled with shadows that have as much, or more, vitality as living beings.
The posthumous release of “The Spirit of Science Fiction” in Spain, 13 years after Bolaño’s death, provoked controversy among the author’s loyalists, but there is no disloyalty in bringing this work to light. It is not unripe juvenilia; it is a hardy forerunner that stands on its own. In it, Bolaño enfolds the adventures of Jan, Remo and José Arco — along with Jan’s sci-fi letters and digressions — into a rich and wry second narrative, packed with enigmatic, funny allusion. This interleaved narrative takes the form of an interview between a young, cynical literary prizewinner and a wide-eyed female journalist, who plays Remo to the writer’s Jan, allowing him to unspool the Borgesian plot of his book — which concerns the caretaker of a Potato Academy in southern Chile who makes endless didactic radio broadcasts on potato cultivation, not knowing if anyone hears them. It is a gesture as futile, and as glorious in its futility, as building a monument to all the world’s heroes in Mitteleuropa, or printing magazines no one will read.
As the journalist clamors for information, the author is distracted by the rowdy literati around them. “Who would’ve thought renowned intellectuals … could make such a racket?” he asks her; and later, “Do you really think this is normal?”
“It’s true,” she says. “The celebrating gets out of hand. That’s the way it always is.”
Back in Mexico City, José has persuaded Remo to buy a motorcycle of his own. Together they traverse the shadow streets of Bolaño’s memory at dawn: “The geometric landscape of the neighborhoods, even the colors, had a provisional look, filigreed and full of energy, and if you sharpened your gaze and a certain latent madness you could feel sadness in the form of flying sparks,” Remo thinks. “Not a melancholy sadness, but a devastating, paradoxical sadness that cried out for life, radiant life, wherever it might be.”