As a kid, one of my favorite toys was a red View-Master that my parents bought for me at garage sale. I’d sit on the floor for hours with my eyes pressed into the lenses, clicking through a disk of Mickey Mouse images until my vision blurred. Really, I enjoyed the fogginess it left in my eyes as much as the story that unfolded with every click. It was my first trippy experience without drugs, and I liked it (more than candy). I remembered that childhood addiction while reading Roberto Bolaño’s Tres for this review. The three part book, that can be most closely categorized as prose poetry, is a page turner by design with narratives that while clear, mess with our senses.
Unlike The Savage Detectives, and the massive 2666, that gained Roberto Bolaño his posthumous popularity, Tres is a stripped down Bolaño. Although he is still up to his narrative tricks that exercise new ways of delivering fiction, in this book Bolaño holds the reader’s attention one page at a time with one or two paragraphs per flip.
In the first section, “Prose from Autumn in Gerona,” the protagonist narrates his experience as a broke writer in Spain, alone, and with three months left before the expiration of his visa. Unexpectedly, he meets a woman who he falls in love with, but who doesn’t love him in return. It’s deceivingly simple—it takes on a clear start, but page after page the story is abstracted. And to further complicate the narrative, this tale of unrequited love is re-imagined as a film by the narrator, and he cinematically guides us through his heartbreak. Bolaño writes on the first page, “A woman—I ought to say a stranger—who caresses you, teases you, is sweet with you and brings you to the edge of a precipice.” At the turn of the page, it takes a short leap, he writes, “The stranger is sprawled on the bed. Passing through love-less scenes (smooth bodies, sadomasochistic toys, pills and grimaces of the unemployed) you get to the point you call autumn and discover the stranger.” Each page reveals more about the characters, but ironically obscures to the development of events. Far from traditional, this Jodorowsky-like literary production, manages to develop the protagonist and stranger’s lives in such a distorted, yet rich style, that it feels like a gift to the reader.
“The Neo Chileans,” a story about a Chilean band, takes on the same View-Master style. Page length poems hold different scenes that build into a narrative about young musicians discovering the past and the present that is shaping the future of their generation. Traveling to the far northern edge of their country, they describe their trip as being “pure inspiration/ And no method at all.” Yet performing in old brothels and crumbling halls, and faced with other troubling encounters, lead them to question, “How can so much evil exist/ In a country so new,/ So minuscule?” This is not your typical band-on-the-road story because it has little to do with the band, their music, or their egos. It is about Chile as an unsolved mystery that they are investigating, and each page reads like a piece of evidence.
If this was any other writer, you’d want to close the book and throw it out the window—especially at the third and final section, “A Stroll Through Literature,” where Bolaño’s narrator shares 57 dreams he has about literary authors—but this book falls in line with the Bolaño brand, and that’s why you won’t toss it. That’s good and bad.
North American publishers created an image of Bolaño as a Latin-American mystique-drunk-struggling-rebel-writer in order to sell his books. The problem is that a talented writer—that only surfaces every some often—like Bolaño, doesn’t need that kind of push. The danger with the commodification of Bolaño is that Tres will be seen as just another Bolaño book, and not read with the respect it deserves. Yet, while he has received the Che Guevara commodity treatment, his writing, a serious work of genius, is an art that can’t be tied down by marketing ploys.
By nature, his bravery on the page tears down any attempts to pigeonhole him. Like Bolaño’s other work, there is way more depth to Tres than what it is sold to be. While it is certainly a puzzle, it is one that in the process of piecing together reveals heartache, the triumphs of solitude, human reliance on imagination for survival, and our own sensibilities as readers.
That’s one good thing about the Bolaño brand—it leads us to see the possible in what we tend to think is impossible. As daring and dizzying as we may encounter some of his work to be, we will read through it because we can trust that Bolaño won’t let us down. Tres sure doesn’t. Its complexities amaze and treat us to an unexpected magical experience that one can sit down reading for hours until our eyes and brain go numb—and you’ll like it.