By Roberto Bolaño
Translated by Laura Healy
Reviewed by Juliet Wilson
Published by Picador
Roberto Bolaño was a Chilean novelist and poet, who travelled and lived in Mexico, El Salvador, France and Spain. He saw himself primarily as a poet, setting up infrarrealista an anarchic school of poetry. He later turned to writing novels as a way of supporting his family.
The Romantic Dogs, a collection of his poetry written between 1980 and 1999, was published in 2006 and this bilingual edition, with translations by Laura Healy came out in 2008. The poetry is varied in style and content, some of the poems are long narratives, while others are fragments, some are clearly inspired by political events, while others seem to be based on personal experiences. The poet’s obsessions quickly become clear, particularly in a sequence of five poems about detectives.
‘I dreamt of frozen detectives in the great
refrigerator of Los Angeles.’
from Dirty Poorly Dressed
‘Detectives who stare at
Their open palms,
Destiny stained by their own blood.’
from The Lost Detectives
These poems stand by themselves but many readers who aren’t familiar with Bolaño’s life or his fiction (including his short story The Detectives and his novel The Savage Detectives) would probably appreciate a biographical or contextual note here (he was arrested, after Pinochet’s coup in Chile, on suspicion of terrorism and then gained his freedom through the intervention of some old classmates who had become detectives. In addition, he had an abiding interest in the interrelationship between poetry and crime).
Knowing that I lack some of the political context to many of the poems, I most enjoyed Bolaño’s ability to come up with a striking image:
‘If we look, however, with X-rays inside of the man,
we’ll see bones and shadows; ghosts of fiestas
and landscapes in motion as if viewed from an airplane
and from Half Baked, a poem that, additionally, uses repetition particularly well to evoke atmosphere, we have this:
‘Like embers defoliated like an onion
beneath the Latin American detective’s baton.’
My favourite imagery though comes in the poem The Donkey, a poem inspired by a road trip with Mario Santiago on his black motorcycle:
………………………… Our bike
Is a black donkey dawdling
Through lands of Curiosity.
……………………… A donkey from another planet
That is the unrestrained longing of our ignorance,
This is poetry that intrigues and dazzles, taking the reader into surreal parallel worlds, where things probably aren’t what they seem. This means that it is poetry to enjoy reading over and over, with each reading revealing more, particularly to the reader who is prepared to do some background reading.
It is worth a note about the translation. I find Spanish to be a much more naturally poetic language than English. Lines such as:
‘En el camino de los perros mi alma encontró
a mi corazón. Destrozado, pero vivo’
flow much more beautifully than the (entirely accurate) translation:
‘On the dogs’ path, my soul came upon
my heart. Shattered but alive.’
and sometimes I did wonder if the poetry could have been translated in such a way as to preserve more of this flow of the original Spanish, without compromising the meaning in the English. That said, Laura Healy's translation is expert and correct.
I would be very interested in a bilingual edition of this book with contextual notes and The Savage Detectives is definitely on my reading list now!