THE ROMANTIC DOGS (WITH AN UPPERCASE 'R')


Roberto Bolano - The Romantic Dogs,
tr. Laura Healey
(143 pp, 8.99, Picador)


The title is a dead give-away I know, but I didn't realise how important the word 'Romantic' would come to be in the reading of this collection, or my understanding of it, but the more and more I read it, the more I found myself describing it as Romantic, or post-Romantic, or whatever new name we're supposed to give this kind of work these days. Beat seemed to obvious, and I get funny about this, but then I could attach all manner of names to these poems; 'New Confessionalism' is something else I jotted down in the margins, but now I'm starting to think that adding these labels is somewhat defeatist and missing the point of this collection entirely. However, bear these terms in mind, because I will no doubt use them in the writing of this review, and you can even play a game with yourself whereby you take a drink (or a pull on an opium pipe, perhaps) every time I use the word Romantic to describe this collection.

So, the first thing I have to mention about this book is its intrinsic Romantic themes. There's a certain pretentiousness to the poems, but it is a pretentiousness that is aware of itself and therefore acceptable, and I couldn't help but feel that Bolano's poetry has all the swagger of a Spanish, beat-generation Byron or Shelley, exploring the constant themes of sex and death in graphic detail as he does. As a rebours
as poets endeavour to be, it is impossible to ignore the fact  that sex and death are the two constant themes in life, and for poets, poetry is the third. There is poetry in sex, there is poetry in death, and Bolano is unapologetic about exploring any of the three constants in detail.

The poems are free-flowing and prosaic, and are often punctuated by the fiercely academic. It's hard to know why, at first, but the more I go into Bolano's writing the more I see that - whether this is the  reason or not - this only serves to highlight the coarseness of the writing further, and seems to varnish pleasantly a collection of poems that are so concise and yet so evocative that they feel warm and sticky even to read. For example, in 'Fragments':

     Crushed detective . . .  Foreign cities
     with Greek-named theatres
     The Majorcan boys committed suicide
     on the balcony at four in the morning
     The girls leaned out upon hearing the first shot
     Dionysus Apollo Venus Hercules . . .

The Greek imagery used is academic without being overtly pretentious, and often Bolano intersperses these academic references with his depictions of sex and death, so that the effect of one seems to double in protest of the other. So sure, it's a little pretentious but who ever said that was a bad thing?
The language, as you can see, is simple, and makes no apologies for itself, however it is subtle and carries itself poetically and elegantly. For example, in 'The Nurses':

     A trail of nurses start heading home. Protected
     by my sunglasses I watch them come and go.
     They're protected by the sunset.
     A trail of nurses and a trail of scorpions.
     Come and go.

Bolano uses half-rhymes and repetition, and the vaguest sense of meter, which all hold the book together with a definite certainty; these are the devices Bolano uses with which to pin his ethereal poetry indelibly onto the page.

As the collection continues, it seems to sedate the reader into an unfamiliar sense of jamais-vu as he explores themes of transience and instability, and the world he lulls us into seems like a slightly altered version of the one we already know. Whilst discussing intimate encounters with teenage prostitutes, he's talking about noises outside, he's talking about books he's read. Everything is fragmented and as a result, everything seems quite hallucinogenic, and put me in mind of fellow Beatnik Brion Gysin's 'The Process' with its stream-of-consciousness, hyperreal, solipsistic tone.

Followers of Bolano's prose will not be disappointed by his verse which glimmers and is grimy at the same time. He is audacious and Romantic with his treatment of reality, reminding us all that life is brilliant and unkind but that this is all part of a necessary process. This collection didn't so much flow as it unfolded; as it the themes unfurled, a new light was shed, but all leading to a series of frustrated and unfinished epiphanies... but then, what were you expecting? Something romantic (with a lowercase 'r')?

    Sian Rathore 2011