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NEW YORKER Stories

Roberto Bolaño   

"William Burns"

February 8, 2010

The latest sheaf of pages by Robert Bolaño to appear in The New Yorker makes me wonder how many times the late author was turned down by the magazine while he was alive. Never, perhaps; perhaps it never came up.

"William Burns" is about fiction. I've read that the Latin-American writers of Bolaño's generation rejected the magic realism of their predecessors, but Bolaño in any case is often just as unrealistic. To some extent, this is a matter of translation. Chris Andrews may render Bolaño's language in fluent English, but there is no way to naturalize his insistently inconsequential manner of telling a story.

After a while I couldn't stand it anymore, so I got up, cleared the table, and shut myself in the kitchen to wash the dishes, but I could hear them even there. When I went back to the living room, the younger woman was lying on the sofa, half-covered with a blanket, and the other one was talking about a big city; it was as if she were talking up some big city, saying what a great place it was to live, but in fact she was running it down. I could tell, because every now and then both of them would start sniggering. That was something I never got with those two: their sense of humor always seemed false and forced. The bottle of whiskey I'd opened after dinner was half empty. That bothered me; I had no intention of getting drunk, and I didn't want them to get drunk and leave me out. So I sat down with them and said that we had to talk a few things through. "What things?" they asked, pretending to be surprised, or maybe they weren't  just pretending. "This house has too many weak points," I said. "We've got to do something about it." "What are they?" one of the women asked. "OK," I said, and I started by reminding them how far it was from town, how exposed it was, but I soon realized that they weren't listening. If I were a dog, I thought resentfully, these women would show me a bit more consideration.

"So I sat down with them and said that we had to talk a few things through" — maybe that is what William Burns does in Spanish, but he can't do it in English, because English deploys that kind of vagueness ("a few things") for entirely different purposes, such that no realistic Anglophone would think the thought behind the clause. Since when, by the way, is sitting down and talking things through the best way of keeping a whiskey bottle half full?

And what about the two women? At the beginning of his single-paragraph narrative, William Burns recalls the time in which his anecdote is set. He speaks as though years, and possibly decades, have passed since then, although we'll learn at the end that it can't have been more than six months. "I was going out with two women. That I do remember clearly." What seems to be casual two-timing becomes far more difficult to understand when Burns tells us that the two women live in the same house — with him. At this news, it is impossible not to giggle, distracted as we are by reminiscences of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a Woody Allen film that feels inspired, in a manner of which the Chilean writer would probably disapprove, by Bolaño's unmagical fabulism.

For Vicky Cristina Barcelona is about the kind of story that it is telling, too; a story notable not so much for its plot as for its peculiar characters and their impenetrable motivation. The dashing, priapic artist; the complaisant but neurotic ex-mistress; the blank-slate American girls. These people don't exist, and their situations don't exist, except in the stories that people tell about them later. Which is a great part of the fun of the film. Bolaño wants to tell a story about an investigator up to his eyeballs in improbability, but he does not want us to have any fun. "William Burns" is a Latin American daydream of Raymond Chandler, but in Chandler the line about the consideration bestowed upon dogs — you could say that the story is about dogs — would be delivered with a rueful, swallowed laugh. There is only resentment in Bolaño — the narrator's resentment and the author's impatience.

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