Roberto Bolaño burst onto the scene with The Savage Detectives, and his posthumous masterpiece2666 confirmed his place as a giant of Latin American literature. The Insufferable Gaucho was the last book he prepared for publication before he died in 2003. Unpredictable and daring, highly controlled and yet somehow haywire, the five short stories included here are some of Bolaño's best. Whether they concern a stalwart rodent detective trying to investigate the mysterious deaths of his fellow rats, an elderly judge giving up his job in the city for an improbable return to the family farm in the pampas, or a confrontation between an elusive film-maker and the little-known Argentinian novelist whose work he's plagiarized for years they are as haunting as they are enthralling. In addition, The Insufferable Gaucho offers, for the first time in English, two essays by Roberto Bolaño: 'Literature + Illness = Illness' and 'The Myths of Cthulhu'. Provocative and often scathing, Bolaño's essays are alive with his trademark humour, violence and utter faith in the power of the written word. Roberto Bolaño is undoubtedly, as Susan Sontag said, "the real thing and the rarest".
This year’s offering is The Insufferable Gaucho—a slim but powerful collection of short stories as well as a pair of essays in which he elliptically explores his own approaching mortality and place in the pantheon of Latin American literature.
Bolaño’s Police Rat revisits Franz Kafka’s hidden world of Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk. Pepe the Cop, a nephew of Josephine’s who, like his famous aunt, has a sensitivity that raises him a cut above the common rat, is on the tail of a killer in their midst. Unfortunately for Pepe—and as we have learned through countless police stories—individuality isn’t necessarily a trait that is appreciated by superior officers.
As Josephine’s star wanes, Kafka’s narrator muses, “She is a small episode in the eternal history of our people, and the people will get over the loss of her.” One has to wonder if Bolaño was winking at us from his own position as a singing rat of some renown and one fully aware of his own demise. Perhaps it was a poke back at his own growing fame in the years right before he died when he chose the epigram for this book from the end of Kafka’s story: “So perhaps we shall not miss so very much at all.”
If Martin Scorsese ever decides to direct an animated movie for Pixar, I’d like to see Police Rat on the big screen. I could just imagine Robert De Niro doing the voiceover for Pepe: “Have you ever taken on a weasel? Are you ready to be torn apart by a weasel?” Maybe it’s time for the studio to leave behind Lady and the Trampist fare like Ratatouille, and get real. I digress.
In Literature + Illness = Illness, a many-faceted facing of the terminal disease that cut his life short at 50, Bolaño writes, “Books are finite, sexual encounters are finite, but the desire to read and fuck is infinite; it surpasses our own deaths, our fears, our hopes for peace.” It is a shout back from the ragged edge of things, and about as true as anything I’ve ever heard.
This is one rat that will miss Bolaño when publication finally catches up to his work’s inevitable conclusion.
Fortunately, this book offers some true, classic Bolano, and serves - in places - as an almost perfect introduction to his style. "The Insufferable Gaucho" is an excellent meditation on identity and madness; "Police Rat" is a police procedural set in the sewers; and "Alvaro Rousselot's Journey" is a Borgesian delight. There are missteps - subjectively speaking - such as "Jim" and "Two Catholic Tales", although the latter is worth rereading to figure out the overlap between the two pieces.
Bolano did not achieve acclaim for his essay writing, which besides does not always survive the translation away from Spanish. But "Literature + Illness = Illness" proved quite fascinating, especially with its focus on the interplay (and importance) of sex, books, and travel.
All in all, an excellent collection that deserves its place on the bookshelf next to 2666 and By Night in Chile.