IN A POSTHUMOUS PUBLISHING BOOM, 2010 has seen the translation and release of five titles from acclaimed Chilean author Roberto Bolaño (The Savage Detectives, 2666), with New Directions Publishing promising six more on the way. These so far include novellas, early novels, and this week a short-story collection, The Return.
Drawn from two smaller collections, The Return is a nicely structured if uneven sequence of stories. While some contain a simple scene that could fuel a one-act play, most of the stories are longer character studies (a few of them from his novel The Savage Detectives, appearing here in their own stories). The individualized voices are distinct and unique, though always talking in Bolaño's usual rambling and conversational style.
These voices are the main pleasure of reading Bolaño. The Return offers characters as varied as the European porn star of "Joanna Silvestri," who, while working in Los Angeles, pays a visit to the dying John Holmes—it's a tale of fading glory set in the strange world of pornography. There's also the frightening, menacing speaker of "Murdering Whores," a homicidal maniac lecturing a bound captive. While achieving an uneasiness, this story is more confusing than scary.
Other standouts include the title story, narrated from beyond the grave by an unremarkable man who watches his body become the subject of necrophilia. It's an unsettling backdrop for a story essentially about empathy and forgiveness. The same sort of contrast is on display in "Buba," a story about soccer players who find their success while engaging in a mysterious blood ritual with an African teammate. While the narrator experiences unprecedented success at the game, the secrecy of the ritual, kept hidden from the characters and the reader, casts a story of triumph in a menacing pall.
Bolaño is at his strongest when working within the characters. Toward the end of the collection are some unfortunate additions, including an extended narrative based on a dream Bolaño had, which is about as interesting as someone trying to explain a dream to you usually is. Bolaño's short stories display his strengths nicely, but after thoroughly enjoying his longer novels, they felt more like an after-dinner mint than a full course.