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Between Parentheses

by Roberto Bolano

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Between Parentheses by Roberto Bolano
© New Directions
New Directions, June 2011

If you have had the opportunity to read Roberto Bolano's masterful 2666, chances are you remember the novel's fourth section, "The Part About the Crimes." In fact, you probably can't forget it. It is there that Bolano nudges readers brutally close to the violent core of 2666 through a seemingly endless and explicit series of brief police reports documenting the unsolved rapes and murders of nearly three hundred women in Ciudad Juarez. Each entry in "The Part About the Crimes" runs no longer than three-quarters of a page and is surprisingly devoid of any concrete evidence that could implicate the perpetrator of these crimes. Although the killer remains unidentified at the close of "The Part About the Crimes," he is hardly still a mystery. By spiraling around this central enigma with such vicious clarity Bolano provides readers with countless nuances about the killer and his technique, just enough to trace a finely detailed shadow.
Between Parentheses is a collection of Bolano's essays, reviews, and speeches from 1998 to 2003, compiled a year after his death. If one were to look specifically at its execution and effect, Between Parentheses reads like a distant twin to "The Part About the Crimes"; let's consider it "The Part About the Author," as this is the closest we'll ever come to understanding the depths of Bolano's private life. Although nothing collected here directly relates to 2666, Bolano's inescapable Rashomon-style narrative form (seen in other novels like The Skating Rink and The Savage Detectives) is discreetly at work here. In a series of short, acrid essays and reviews on the literary circles of Latin America and beyond, Bolano is able to brew up another poetic vortex, but this time around his own mysterious psyche, something Bolano fans have surely been waiting years to uncover.

In response to the critical success of 1998's The Savage Detectives, Bolano received an influx of writing and speaking invitations from various establishments. More often than not, Bolano took these assignments as an opportunity to speak candidly about the literary and political climate of Latin America. Between Parentheses is the product of these long-overdue invitations; the text is spiteful, egotistic, and beautifully written.
The bulk of Between Parentheses is composed of Bolano's newspaper column of the same name. Initially writing for Diari de Girona and then for the Chilean newspaper Las Ultimas Noticias, Bolano used his column primarily to review books, and through these reviews indirectly provides readers with a rare glimpse of his quiet life in the coastal Catalan village of Blanes.

Bolano's reviews lack the critical depth that some readers will expect to find. There is so much material quickly covered in Between Parentheses that many readers will experience a fatigue not so different than "The Part About the Crimes." Bolano's criticisms are riddled with superlatives that weaken much of his claims; it seems that every writer favorably mentioned in the collection is the best of their generation, their region, or their form. Yet, it seems Bolano is not primarily interested in lauding or endorsing these writers with his approval or critically analyzing their work. He's more interested in presenting his own experiences as a reader, discussing not what he reads but how.

Eventually, this distinction is of paramount importance to the success of Between Parentheses. Under their surface, these reviews reveal more about Bolano than they do his subjects, and through his mechanical, icy criticisms we're able to extract heartbreaking traces of an author towards the end of his life. In a column discussing Osvaldo Lamborghini's Tadeys (one of the many novel's mentioned in Between Parentheses without an available English translation), Bolano writes:
"There's no question that it's the most brutal book (that's the best adjective I can come up with) that I've read in Spanish in this waning century. It's incredible, a writer's dream, but it's impossible to read more than twenty pages at a time, unless one wants to contract an incurable illness. Naturally, I haven't finished Tadeys, and I'll probably die without finishing it. But I'm not giving up. Every once in a while I feel brave and I read a page. On exceptional nights I can read two."

There's no way of knowing if Bolano ever finished Tadeys, but there's also no indication of what Tadeys is actually about. We're left instead with a devastating image of an unfinished book and its reader slowly fading into focus.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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