Review: Roberto Bolaño’s ‘The Spirit of Science Fiction’

by Ralph Dumain


I finished reading Robert Bolaño’s newly translated novel with the intriguing title The Spirit of Science Fiction, that is, if you can call my experience reading. Actually, I was unable to focus on the narrative, and I know what I read only from the description on the inside front of the dust jacket:

From a master of contemporary fiction, a tale of bohemian youth on the make in Mexico City

Two young poets, Jan and Remo, find themselves adrift in Mexico City. Obsessed with poetry, and, above all, with science fiction, they are eager to forge a life in the literary world–or sacrifice themselves to it. Roberto Bolaño’s The Spirit of Science Fiction is a story of youth hungry for revolution, notoriety, and sexual adventure, as they work to construct a reality out of the fragments of their dreams.

But as close as these friends are, the city tugs them in opposite directions. Jan withdraws from the world, shutting himself in their shared rooftop apartment where he feverishly composes fan letters to the stars of science fiction and dreams of cosmonauts and Nazis. Meanwhile, Remo runs headfirst into the future, spending his days and nights with a circle of wild young writers, seeking pleasure in the city’s labyrinthine streets, rundown cafés, and murky bathhouses.

This kaleidoscopic work of strange and tender beauty is a fitting introduction for readers uninitiated into the thrills of Roberto Bolaño’s fiction, and an indispensable addition to an ecstatic and transgressive body of work.

Some people may find this interesting, but to me it’s trite, and would at least have been an interesting tale if I were capable of focusing my attention on it long enough to follow it. Fiction about writers, their milieux and ambitions, is not necessarily compelling to me, not in this case, despite Bolaño’s international celebrity. (This sort of avant-garde fiction seems to be especially prevalent in the Spanish-speaking world – in Latin America, also in Spain.) My attention was briefly held by a description of a BJ on page 86, and then again on page 96 when a woman says she has seen maybe 15 testicles in her lifetime.

Otherwise, I was able to pay attention to the amusing letters that make no sense written by Jan to these American science fiction authors:

Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.)
James Hauer (who the hell is he?)
Forrest J. Ackerman
Robert Silverberg
Fritz Leiber
Ursula K. Le Guin (2 letters)
James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon)
Philip José Farmer

The novel is divided into three parts: the third part has a title: “Mexican Manifesto,” which consists of accounts of sexcapades in bathhouses—mildly interesting.

That’s it. Boring. Also, this is about as far removed from the spirit of science fiction as can be. Presumably there is a meaning to having Mexican writers writing weird fan letters to American science fiction writers, but I don’t know what it is. And when all is said and done, I don’t care.

Avant-garde writers writing avant-garde fiction about avant-garde writers can make for some tedious reading, but sometimes something can be learned from it. But given Bolaño’s reputation and my anticipation of reading something exciting, The Spirit of Science Fiction was a major disappointment. The experience reminded me of another novel I reviewed harshly: The Illogic of Kassel by the Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas.

24 February 2019,
edited 24 February 2021


NOTE ON BJs

I’m finding that Roberto Bolano’s newly translated novel The Spirit of Science Fiction fails to hold my attention. My mind kept wandering till I got to page 86:

There, against the wall, in a space behind the bushes hidden to passersby but visible to from the exact spot on the balcony where I was standing, Lola Torrente brought Hector Gomez’s cock to her mouth and began to suck it, as if she had been waiting for me.

But this was no ordinary blow job: shrine suddenly alight, soon all that existed were Lola’s hands, one around Hector’s penis, the other between his legs, and Hector’s fingers buried in her hair—her beautiful, strong head of black hair—and Lola’s mouth and shoulders and knees on the black grass or black earth or shadow, and the smiles that weren’t smiles, every so often discreetly directed at each other.

So after this blow job, I got bored again till I reached this bit of dialogue on page 96:

“What do you know about testicles? How many balls have you seen in your life?”

“Not a lot, true,” admitted Colina. “Maybe fifteen.”

23 February 2019


Beyond Bolaño

Beyond Bolaño: The Global Latin American Novel by Héctor Hoyos is quite illuminating regarding the effects of globalization, politics, and changing communication technologies on Latin American literature. Much of the avant garde literature I have been reading I find tedious, but reading about it is fascinating.

The book begins with Borges' "The Aleph" as a symbolic depiction of globalization. I don't buy it, but the chapter gets more interesting. At first there's that pretentious lit crit shtick, but then it gets more interesting. Particularly, why did Bolano become the international Latin American superstar, and what is his work about? Hoyos sees The Savage Detectives in the context of the end of the Cold War and the disorientation of the world order of that time, as well as what it represents in terms of reconfiguration of the Latin American literary orientation to barbarism domestic and imperialistic. How does the local reflect and more significantly impact our understanding of the global? Hoyes aims his book at and beyond professional Latin Americanists, even to the general public readership.

It is quite interesting seeing 'world literature' (Weltiteratur) in the era of globalization through the lens of Latin American writers. Of these Bolaño is the contemporary writer who broke through the disadvantaged cultural market of that region and has been internationally recognized and celebrated. The implications of Bolaño and lesser known (even if translated) writers are analyzed herein.

25 February - 31 March 2019


The Pointless 'Illogic of Kassel': A Review
by R. Dumain

An Ars Poetica? (excerpts) by Sergio Pitol

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web

‘World Literature’: A Bibliography


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