Sentences — December 17, 2008, 4:01 pm

And the Rivers and the Lonely Roads

2666 There are many ways of explaining the sudden, stratospheric popularity of Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. At his essence he was a writer who was always thinking of new ways to use fiction, attempting to get things across to a reader who has seen it all. Bolaño himself was such a reader, and his books cunningly incorporate that awareness of fiction without turning the enterprise too terribly self-conscious (I would argue that The Savage Detectives courts, and sometimes is overcome by, a preening literary self-concsiousness that leaches life from the enterprise it’s trying so vigorously to stimulate, but that’s a 5,000 word conversation for another day). 2666, however (as in his perfect By Night in Chile), evades that tendency. Consider a paragraph from “The Part About the Critics,” from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, in which two men discuss a difficult matter:

The first conversation began awkwardly, although Espinoza had been expecting Pelletier’s call, as if both men found it difficult to say what sooner or later they would have to say. The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain. The word Paris was said seven times, Madrid, eight. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza). The word solution was said twelve times. The word solipsism seven times. The plural, nine times. The word structuralism once (Pelletier). The term American Literature three times. The words dinner or eating or breakfast or sandwich nineteen times. The words eyes or hands or hair fourteen times. Then the conversation proceeded more smoothy. Pelletier told Espinoza a joke in German and Espinoza laughed. In fact, they both laughed, wrapped up in the waves or whatever it was that linked their voices and ears across the dark fields and the wind and the snow of the Pyrenees and the rivers and the lonely roads and the separate and interminable suburbs surrounding Paris and Madrid.

The two men, Pelletier and Espinoza, close friends, both love Liz Norton. The conversation that we are overhearing is the one about the two men’s awareness of the other’s infatuation, as well as their awareness of the other’s carnal involvement with Norton. A difficult talk, and yet the nature of which one could imagine… having seen so-called ‘love triangles’ since the beginning of literary time. To thwart the reflex to cliché that such familiar territory courts, Bolaño has this ingenious notion of rendering the conversation statistically, keeping score with the two players. To those who have written me to say that can’t imagine why I dislike so violently the first sentence of A Canticle for Leibowitz, I offer these sentences as example of what I do like, very much. They leave something to the imagination, while, at the same time, present quite an imagination at work.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

April 2017

You Can Run …

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Never Would I Ever

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The March on Everywhere

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Defender of the Community

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Echt Deutsch

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Boy Without a Country

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The March on Everywhere·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Photograph (detail) © Nima Taradji/Polaris
Post
The Forty-Fifth President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Photograph (detail) by Philip Montgomery
Article
Defender of the Community·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Illustration (detail) by Katherine Streeter
Article
The Boy Without a Country·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Illustration (detail) by Shonagh Rae
Article
Asphalt Gardens·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In a city that is rapidly pricing out the poor, NYCHA’s housing projects are a last bastion of affordable shelter, with an average monthly rent of $509
Photograph (detail) © Samuel James

Amount three New York men owe in restitution for stealing rock lobsters off the coast of South Africa:

$54,900,000

AIDS researchers were working to develop genetically modified tomatoes that naturally produce an edible HIV vaccine.

Trump said that he might not have been elected president “if it wasn’t for Twitter."

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today