The New Yorker Reader: “Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey,” By Roberto Bolaño

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11/28/2007 3:45 PM |

Online here.

(This is last week’s story, of course, but I wasn’t here last week. So, here goes.)

Well, this is the Roberto Bolaño we read about earlier this year, when everybody all at once decided to elevate him to the Spanish-language metafictionist pantheon. And, yep: much like certain of his most prominent works, it’s a kind of literary detective story, where the subject is fiction (more specifically, the national literature of a particular South American country), and certain broad, philosophical questions about its role — the place of the South American author in the global literary community — as addressed via the structures of genre. Here, the title character, an Argentine writer of moderate renown, goes on a sort of odyssey in France in an effort to track down a filmmaker who’s made a couple of unacknowledged adaptations of his works. It’s through these investigations that Rousselot comes to a better understanding of his standing in the literary world.

As in, say, the Woody Allen humor piece “The Whore of Mensa,” the tropes of the investigative genre give structure to a series of musings on literature; both also have fun with the unlikeliness of a narrative-driven form as applied to their rather theoretical subject. Allen’s piece, though, is more fully in the realm of the hard-boiled pastiche; “Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey” is not only a kind of detective story (or, rather, a globe-trotting investigation), but a physical/personal journey narrative, and, increasingly, a bit of a surrealist character sketch (vaguely Kafkan, I think), as its conclusion comes to seem both inexorable and anticlimactic.

It’s also great fun: Bolaño gets to do something a lot of writers love doing, namely, making up books, writers, and their careers. (Think the literary equivalent of the “Liner Note” section of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, or, more recently, most of You Don’t Love Me Yet, in which he invents art installations and the scenes in which they exist, the trajectories of forgotten bands, and so on.) There’s a term called “hyperdiegesis,” which is used predominantly in TV studies, to refer to the way single episodes of cult shows (like Buffy) exist within a fully formed alternate universe, offering viewers the chance to fill in the gaps themselves. You can see Bolaño enjoyed describing the titles and plots of imaginary books written by his author protagonist. Yep, the Bolaño who romps through the hyperdiegesis here sounds a lot like the Bolaño we read about earlier this year: an author who takes fiction as his subject, and compulsively readable storytelling structures as his vehicle.