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August 7, 2017 | by  | in Books |
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The Return — Roberto Bolaño

The Return (2010) is a collection of 13 stories, drawn from two of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s earlier published volumes, Llamadas Telefonicas (1997) and Putas Asesinas (2001), and translated by Chris Andrews. Published posthumously, and following the earlier translated collection Last Evenings on Earth (2007), the title is felicitous.

Reading the stories, in fact reading all Bolaño’s work, there’s the sense of being in the same night, with familiar shadows playing upon familiar objects. Each story, if topically and formally different, is a return to the same, potentially subterranean, world.

In “Meeting With Enrique Lihn” we encounter the author, Bolaño, recounting a dream from 1999 in which he met playwright Enrique Lihn. The meeting takes place in a bar “in a city that could well have been Santiago, bearing in mind that Chile and Santiago once resembled Hell, a resemblance that, in some subterranean layer of the real city and the imaginary city, will forever remain.”

The distancing between the real and the imaginary occurs in the stories carefully constructed so as to be told at a remove: the meeting with Enrique Lihn occurs in a dream; the narrative of “William Burns” is told to the narrator by his friend Pancho Monge who heard it from William Burns; “Snow” is recounted by a narrator who heard the tale in a bar in Barcelona five years ago. By failing to connect to the material world, the stories occur in a shadow land of memory, speculation, dream — one that is coherent in Bolaño’s thematic treatment of politics, sex, and violence.

In “Detectives”, hurtling somewhere in a car, maybe nowhere, two detectives talk.

“What kind of weapons do you like?”

“Any kind, except for blades.”

Their conversation proceeds, unsettled only by interjections about driving too fast, through the Chilean night and into the past and the cells during ’73. A political prisoner, Arturo Belano — another Bolaño — is taken by one of the detectives before a mirror which refuses to reflect: “I saw a swarm of faces, as if the mirror was broken, though I knew perfectly well it wasn’t.” The unsettled detective considers murdering Belano, but doesn’t, and the story ends.

What is the point? Each story feels like a walk in the dark, finger-tips out, brushing objects which might help find a lightswitch. Each is a trip down a quaking path. “Invariably harsh. The path that leads into or out of hell.”

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