A Review of “Cowboy Graves” – Chicago Review of Books


It’s an unexpected delight to be able to review previously-unseen work by the late Roberto Bolaño 18 years after his death. Bolaño—the Chilean poet-novelist perhaps most known for his books The Savage Detectives and the already-posthumously published 2666, both translated into English by Natasha Wimmer—left an abundant back catalog of poetry and prose after his untimely passing in 2003. A number of previously unpublished works were found among his papers after his death, some of which have been collected into the collection Cowboy Graves, once again translated by Wimmer. Billed as three novellas, Cowboy Graves contains writing completed over a period of 10 years, and features many of the touchstones Bolaño was known for: semi-autobiographical narration; a humorous, fragmentary style; and the sort of intrigue that grabs hold of you and never lets go, despite offering no easy answers.

The second story in the collection, French Comedy of Horrors, is the most approachable of the book. In it, Diodorus Pilon answers a ringing pay phone in an unfamiliar neighborhood after witnessing an eclipse, and is instantly summoned into a world of mysterious benefactors and sewer dwellers. The caller on the line tells Diodorus about the CSG, the Clandestine Surrealist Group, whom the caller claims to serve. The group is a sort of bizarre artists collective, for only the most dedicated among them, who embody their mission by living in the dense maze of catacombs and sewers beneath Paris. The caller gives Diodorus the brief history of their group, before inviting him to come to Paris to join their ranks. 

Bolaño’s powers are on full display in French Comedy of Horrors. While the phone call is the majority of the story, even more intriguing is the eclipse, the effects of which bookend the novella. Diodorus encounters a party of three at the restaurant he’s at with his friends to celebrate the eclipse, who burst into spontaneous dance while staring at the sun, and allegedly go blind due to prolonged exposure: “I remember the guy because when the eclipse started he got up from his table and started to dance, staring straight at the sun […] a dance that was somehow anachronistic but at the same time terrifying, and that, according to Bolamba, was known only deep in the northern rain forests, in other words the poorest and most remote parts of the country, the malarial forests, the half-abandoned villages near the border where dengue and superstition ruled.”

Though Diodorus escaped unscathed (as far as we know), it’s not hard to understand that the eclipse’s power far outlasts its short duration, seeping not only into the dancers and Diodorus, but into the world itself, coloring all the possibilities moving forward.

French Comedy of Horrors reads like the first 40 pages of a full novel, and I’m saddened it won’t eventually be fleshed out. Across its scant pages, Bolaño builds a whole world, only cracking the lid on a Pandora’s Box, the effects of which can only be inferred.

As enticing as French Comedy of Horrors is, the real stars of the show are the two other novellas, Cowboy Graves and Fatherland. According to the notes following the text, both were written in the 1990s, and the narratives share many similarities. Both are written from the perspective of one of Bolaño’s alter-egos, first Arturo and later Rigoberto Belano,and are concerned primarily with Augusto Pinochet’s right-wing coup of Chile in 1973.

Written only a few years apart, the end notes suggest Fatherland was written first, between 1993 and 1995, followed shortly by Cowboy Graves written between 1995 and 1998. Fatherland is fragmentary in every sense of the word: consisting of more than 20 parts, some under a page long, it’s an elaborate mosaic of life in the chaotic days following the coup. In it, Belano (a young poet and would-be revolutionary, like many of Bolaño’s semi-autobiographical characters) falls in love with a woman he meets at a party named Patricia, the daughter of a painter. In the tumult brought on by the coup, she disappears. Only a few short sections later and left to fill in the blanks ourselves, we’re given a section transcribed from her funeral. Not long after this, Belano finds himself in prison, where another prisoner is possessed by the appearance of a Nazi plane in the skies overhead.

The fragments jump between tones, some written from Belano’s perspective, some taking on the voice of Belano’s acquaintances, and some presented as pure narration. But where some authors might be tempted to simply cover the same incident from multiple angles, for Bolaño, what happens off the page and between sections is as important as what’s written.

The effect is dazzling, amplified by how the writing matches the mental state of the characters as the tragedy unfolds. “The silence, as I was saying, is almost total. Every so often there’s a bit of news, not in the papers or on the televisions, but in the magazines, like stories of flying saucers. We know it exists, but the reality is so awful that we’d rather pretend we don’t.” says a character named Macaduck, in a section that’s meant to be a transcribed lecture.

While the individual sections are independently beautiful, where the collection soars is in the conversation between the first and third section. The first section, which lends its title to the collection, narrates semi-autobiographically from Bolaño’s life (here as Arturo): as a young man in Chile before he moves to Mexico, and finally back to Chile to support the government of Salvador Allende. He rides horses with his father, a man who has been distant to him for years. He pines for a girl, but they never connect. He hangs out with a man named Grub, who gifts him a knife before disappearing. And the revolution he returns to Chile to join is over before it can even begin.

These two sections, Cowboy Graves and Fatherland, resonate so closely together, that French Comedy of Horrors feels a bit out of place sandwiched between them; almost acting as an intermission. Cowboy Graves leads up to the coup, and Fatherland follows it. The overall effect is a deepening of the work, as each section becomes a lens through which to view the other. 

What this collection offers is something so rare; not only new work from a beloved and still-resonant deceased writer, but a look at writing itself, as afforded through these incomplete and transfixing works. We see Bolaño’s pen, tracing the same lines, diverging slightly, drawing again. Even beyond the larger context of Bolaño’s work, these three pieces in concert have their own vocabulary, their own rules. As Bolaño explored similar spaces across these sketches, we are given a much more complete view of the picture he may have come to paint, as much through what he didn’t write as what he did.

The second story in the collection, French Comedy of Horrors, is the most approachable of the book. In it, Diodorus Pilon answers a ringing pay phone in an unfamiliar neighborhood after witnessing an eclipse, and is instantly summoned into a world of mysterious benefactors and sewer dwellers. The caller on the line tells Diodorus about the CSG, the Clandestine Surrealist Group, who the caller claims to serve. The group is a sort of bizarre artists collective, for only the most dedicated, who embody their mission by living in the dense maze of catacombs and sewers beneath Paris. The caller gives Diodorus the brief history of their group, before inviting him to come to Paris to join their ranks.

Bolaño’s powers are on full display in French Comedy of Horrors. While the phone call is the majority of the story, even more intriguing is the eclipse, the effects of which bookend the novella. Diodorus encounters a party of three at the restaurant he’s at with his friends to celebrate the eclipse, who burst into spontaneous dance and allegedly go blind due to prolonged exposure. Though he escaped unscathed (so far), it’s not hard to get the sense that the eclipse’s power far outlasts its short duration, seeping not only into the dancers and Diodorus, but into the world itself, coloring all the possibilities moving forward.

French Comedy of Horrors reads like the first 40 pages of a full novel, and one I’m saddened to not have the rest of. Across its scant pages, Bolaño builds a whole world, only cracking the lid on a Pandora’s Box, whose effects can only be inferred.

As enticing as French Comedy of Horrors is, the real stars of the show are the two other stories, Cowboy Graves and Fatherland. According to the notes following the text, both were written in the 1990s, and the stories share many similarities. Both are written from the perspective of one of Bolaño’s alter-egos, first Arturo and later Rigoberto Belano. And both are concerned primarily with the right-wing coup of Chile by Pinochet in 1973.

Written only a few years apart, the end notes suggest Fatherland was written first, between 1993 and 1995, followed shortly by Cowboy Graves written between 1995 and 1998. Fatherland is fragmentary in every sense of the word. Consisting of more than 20 parts, some under a page long, it’s an elaborate mosaic of life in the chaotic days following the coup. Belano falls in love with the daughter of a painter whom he meets at a party. Of course, she soon disappears, and her death follows Belano. Belano finds himself in prison, where another prisoner is possessed by the appearance of a Nazi plane in the skies overhead.

The fragments jump between tones, some written from Belano’s perspective, some taking on the voice of Belano’s acquaintances, and some presented as pure narration. But where some authors might be tempted to simply cover the same incident from multiple angles, for Bolaño, what happens off the page and between sections is as important as what’s written.

The effect is dazzling, amplified in how the writing matches the mental state of the characters as the tragedy unfolds. “The silence, as I was saying, is almost total. Every so often there’s a bit of news, not in the papers or on the televisions, but in the magazines, like stories of flying saucers. We know it exists, but the reality is so awful that we’d rather pretend we don’t.” says a character named Macaduck, in a section that’s meant to be a transcribed lecture.

While the individual sections are independently beautiful, where the book soars is in the conversation between the first and third section. The first section, also called Cowboy Graves, narrates semi-autobiographically from Bolaño’s life (here as Arturo), as a young man in Chile before he moves to Mexico, and finally back to Chile to support the government of Salvador Allende. He rides horses with his father, a man who has been distant to him for years. He pines for a girl, but of course they never connect. He hangs out with a man named Grub, who gifts him a knife before disappearing. And the revolution he returns to Chile to join is over before it can even begin.

These two sections, Cowboy Graves and Fatherland, resonate so closely together, that in fact French Comedy of Horrors feels a bit out of place sandwiched between them; almost as an intermission. Cowboy Graves leads up to the coup, and Fatherland follows it. The overall effect is a deepening of the work, as each section becomes a lens through which to view the other. What Cowboy Graves offers is something so rare; not only new work from a beloved and still-resonant deceased writer, but a look at writing itself, as afforded through these incomplete and transfixing stories. We see Bolaño’s pen, tracing the same lines, diverging slightly, tracing again. Even beyond the larger context of Bolaño’s work, these three pieces in concert have their own vocabulary, their own rules. As Bolaño explores similar spaces across these sketches, we are given a much more complete view of the picture he may have come to paint, as much through what he didn’t write as what he did.

FICTION
Cowboy Graves
By Roberto Bolaño
Penguin Press
Published February 16th, 2021



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