Roberto Bolaño was born in Chile and lived much of his writing life in Mexico and Spain. He was born the same year I was, but died twenty years ago. By that time he’d received all kinds of prizes and accolades, and was widely read all over the Spanish-speaking world, and in translation everywhere else. Most of which I knew before finally getting around to picking up this paperback recently.
It includes three novellas, including the title story. But the one I started with was the second and shortest, “French Comedy of Horrors”. What we have here is a work of surrealism-in-print rather than on canvas. Real places turn eerily uncommon. Strange events unfold that make no sense at all . . . and all the sense in the world once viewed another way.
In the opening scene our protagonist and narrator, Diodorus Pilon, is waiting for the solar eclipse in Port Hope with a group of friends of one Roger Bolamba, a former athlete who has retired to a literary calling. At the next table, a tall, well-dressed man starts dancing with a young woman while “staring straight at the sun” without the “film negatives or special sunglasses” others are wearing. Her mother watches, too, unsettled about something. When the eclipse is over, Roger’s table starts a wave of applause that spreads through the gathered crowd, but is interrupted a moment later as the older woman cries out, “I’ve gone blind!” This turn of events is largely ignored as the after-party mood descends on the crowd.
“The sea below had suddenly grown calm and the tide, according to Roger Bolamba, didn’t know whether to come in or go out. . . . A sound like charcoal against dry wood, like stone against gem, imperceptibly scored the air of the capital.”
Bolamba’s literary crowd moves on to a nearby park, where they recite their poems to one another with Bolamba moving among them, the straw stirring the drink. He eventually leads them in a cheer, “To victory” against the not-so-young poets who hope to replace the old guard while Bolamba and his younger gang go wanting, still waiting their turn.
When Bolamba goes home to take a nap, the crowd moves on, drifting, shedding numbers. Eventually Diodorus is wandering the parks and streets alone, watching as night falls, ruminating on the trees that made:
“strange sounds in the breeze. As if they were talking. As if they were all mulling over the same story. As if the eclipse, which wouldn’t come again for another thirty years, had settled permanently in their leaves.”
When Diodorus happens upon a telephone booth on the opposite sidewalk, it rings and rings and rings as he passes. Eventually he picks up. The caller knows him, though he doesn’t know the caller.
“Would you like to know? Do you want to hear our proposal?”
“’I’m dying to hear it,’ I said.”
What follows is a tale of two warring factions of surrealists, told in a way that is by turns inscrutable, incredible and hilarious. Breton appears in the tale before the young surrealists, explains what Diodorus will be getting himself into if he commits to joining, including who will show him the ropes in the sewers of Paris where he’ll be working with a band of other Clandestine Surrealists, and the elegant women who will bring each of them an envelope of money every month of each year. Diodorus has to get himself to Paris first, and agrees he’ll find a way.
As he steps out of the phone booth, he’s presented with what seems a potential opportunity to raise the money he needs . . . from a familiar but unexpected source.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .