A kaleidoscopic jumble

Stencil in Barcelona of Roberto Bolaño (Farisori, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Spirit of Science Fiction
(El espíritu de la ciencia-ficción)
by Roberto Bolaño,
translated by Natasha Wimmer (2018).
Picador 2019.

It’s sometime in the last quarter of the 20th century. Two poets reside in a couple of rooms on the top of an apartment block in Mexico City. One, Jan Schrella, is in his late teens and effectively a recluse, penning letters to North American writers of SF; the other, Remo Morán, is 21 and supports the pair with occasional journalism.

The Spirit of Science Fiction consists of a series of episodes, mostly recounted by Remo, interspersed with the text of letters sent to the likes of Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr, Robert Silverberg, Philip José Farmer and Ursula K Le Guin. The novella ends with what feels like an incomplete and inconsequential coda set in Mexico City’s bathhouses which testifies to this being an early unfinished work published posthumously.

As a whole it comes across as a kaleidoscope of autobiographical elements, magical realism, hedonism and streams of consciousness, defying the reader to make sense of it all yet conveying very vividly the kind of Bohemian life that Bolaño knew well when he travelled from his native Chile to Mexico and elsewhere.

Old Library, Ipswich © C A Lovegrove

The story consists of a series of quixotic quests, some unreliably told and others even less so. We get random glimpses of the caretaker of the Potato Academy for Alimentary Research in Chile’s Santa Bárbara who is somehow connected to the Unknown University (which happens to be the title of Bolaño’s own poetry collection). We also follow desultory investigations into editors of catalogues listing ephemeral poetry magazines:

“Photocopied sheets, mimeographed sheets, even handwritten sheets, the output of poetry workshops for self-proclaimed orphans, modern-music fanzines, song lyrics, a drama in verse on the death of Cuauhtémoc, all with the occasional spelling mistake, all humbly situated in the very center of the world . . . Ay, Mexico . . .”

Bolaño 2019: 133

Then there is a running thread about Remo acquiring a stolen motorbike and learning to ride it while continuing to have discussions with José Arco, author of a poem entitled Eros and Thanatos. In fact those two poetic themes represented by the Greek personifications of Love and Death may be said to form the backbone of this unfinished work, as Remo searches for a lasting relationship and Jan spends his days and nights virtually entombed in their basic and cramped flat.

Have no doubt: this is a rich and imaginative piece, full of images both mundane and erotic and imaginative ideas fit for poetic contemplation. Is it satisfying though? No, because it lacks resolution: this jumble of incidents and tableaux and whimsy and youthful yearnings feel like tentative trials of themes to be fully developed at some future point (and I gather that this was indeed the case); it’s a cabinet of curiosities, exhibits for which we vainly search connections.

Bolaño’s enigmatic Monsieur Pain — written around the same time this title — I quite enjoyed, and his well-regarded novella By Night in Chile (2000) is planned as my next read of his work. I’m pleased to have read The Spirit of Science Fiction because, even in its incomplete state, it gives an insight into the writer’s obsessive themes, producing visions that linger after the book is closed.

12 thoughts on “A kaleidoscopic jumble

  1. Intriguing. This sounds like a set of sketches that link to The Savage Detectives, a fictionalised account of Bolaño’s time in Mexico as part of a group of radical poets, which is the only Bolaño I’ve read so far. I really enjoyed it, but haven’t sought out any of his other books yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re probably right, Jan, and commentaries I’ve seen from when this was first published suggest that too, pointing to the same themes emerging in different manifestations in the works published in his lifetime. I’m looking forward to more of his work, though I’m a bit leery of 2666, from what I’ve read!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, 2666 seems a daunting prospect! By Night in Chile, which Annabel mentions, is the other book that gets mentioned alongside The Savage Detectives and 2666, so I might try that one. One day!

        Liked by 1 person

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