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The Unknown Universityby Roberto Bolano
The late Roberto Bolaño envisaged himself a poet above all else. Despite being accomplished as both a novelist and short story writer, Bolaño only ever took to fiction following the birth of his son Lautaro — and only then to secure the financial well-being of his family. As a founding member of the Infrarrealismo movement (or "visceral realists," as they appear in The Savage Detectives) in the mid-1970s, Bolaño and his friends (Dada/surrealism enthusiasts that they were) set about agitating the Mexican poetic establishment, often disrupting readings and rebelling against traditional literary convention (with Octavio Paz as a favorite target). Though the erstwhile Infrarealists did not endure, their contrarian and iconoclastic ethos persisted onward throughout so much of Bolaño's writing (see also Distant Star, 2666, and any number of short stories and poems). The vagabond poet, the obscure poet, the forgotten poet, the missing poet, the enigmatic poet, the criminal poet — all figure prominently within the realm of Bolaño's fictional universe. Beyond mere archetype or aspiration alone, the poet is an ideal of dissidence, the heretical devotee, or perhaps even the libidinous visionary. "Poetry is braver than anyone." Indeed.
The Unknown University is a bilingual edition that collects nearly all of the poetry Bolaño composed, spanning the years between 1978 and 1994. In 1993, 10 years before he succumbed to liver failure (despite apparently being near the top of a transplant recipient list), Bolaño "set about organizing and classifying his poetry." Different versions and typewritten manuscripts were found in abundance amongst his archives after his passing (a more detailed explanation of The Unknown University's origins may be found in an afterword of sorts, "Brief History of the Book," penned by Carolina López, Bolaño's widow — as well as in an accompanying and untitled series of notes from the author himself).
Divided into three parts, The Unknown University collects more than 300 of Bolaño's poems and is further apportioned into 16 sections that correspond with his original handwritten notebooks (Bolaño wrote all of his poetry by hand). For those familiar with Bolaño's fiction, similar themes abound throughout his poetry, including sex, death, police, detectives, age, time, courage, crime, corruption, Mexico, Spain, the dilapidated and disregarded, forgotten and obscure writers, old friends, lighthouses, knives, and hunchbacks (to name but some of the more recurrent motifs). For those who have immersed themselves more fully within Bolaño's oeuvre, it will be easy to recognize portions of The Unknown University from his previously published works. Nearly all of the poems contained within The Romantic Dogs, for example, are contained herein, but are situated within their original assemblages. Two of the three pieces that comprise Tres, "Prose from Autumn in Gerona" and "The Neochileans," also reappear in this collection. The 56 short chapters that make up Antwerp (written while in his late 20s and considered by Ignacio Echevarría, Bolaño's literary executor, as the "big bang" of his friend's fictional universe) are included under the title "People Walking Away" with but the slightest variations from the version that was originally published in 2002.
It seems unlikely that Bolaño's poetry will ever garner the acclaim that his novels and short stories have so deservedly attracted. While much of the dark, foreboding, obsessive, and dimly lit fringes that so characterize his fiction are ubiquitous in his poetry, the (perceived) challenges of poetry in general are likely too many for some (and perhaps, sadly, irredeemably so). Like all great artists that work across more than a single medium, however, Bolaño's fiction and poetry complement, augment, and interplay with one another. One cannot rightly claim to have read Bolaño if they've spurned or dismissed what for the author himself was the truest and most natural form of his writing. Had Bolaño not fallen so gravely ill, perhaps he never would have turned to fiction at all — but instead remained one of the vagabond poets of esoterica that he wrote so admiringly about. It was, of course, his fiction that allowed him to ascend to the heights of literary eminence, but he likely would not have ever scaled even the least formidable of peaks if not for his poetry and poetic sensibilities as essential foundation.
As epic and voluminous in its own way as The Savage Detectives and 2666, The Unknown University is also as indispensable to understanding the Bolaño mystique. Were this collection the entirety of his literary output, it still would, in its own right, be a most notable achievement. The shared, recurrent imagery, the autobiographical infusions, and the permeable sense of inevitable dread ever lingering just off-scene make The Unknown University as characteristic and indicative a work as any of his others. With only a few unpublished or untranslated pieces remaining, it appears as though the reserve of Bolaño's prodigious output has been quite nearly exhausted. It seems fitting, then, that the coda to a feverish decade of published translations (some 19 books in total) should conclude with what Bolaño himself may well have considered his most accomplished effort. The Unknown University is deserving of as exalted a place in the Bolaño canon as either of his two masterworks, and, with the others, should solidify his stature as a veritable titan of literature well into perpetuity.
Synopses & Reviews
Perhaps surprisingly to some of his fiction fans, Roberto Bolaño touted poetry as the superior art form, able to approach an infinity in which “you become infinitely small without disappearing.” When asked, “What makes you believe you’re a better poet than a novelist?” Bolaño replied, “The poetry makes me blush less.” The sum of his life’s work in his preferred medium, The Unknown University is a showcase of Bolaño’s gift for freely crossing genres, with poems written in prose, stories in verse, and flashes of writing that can hardly be categorized. “Poetry,” he believed, “is braver than anyone.”
A deluxe edition of Bolaño’s complete poetry.
About the Author
Author of 2666 and many other acclaimed works, Roberto Bolaño(1953-2003) was born in Santiago, Chile, and later lived in Mexico, Paris, and Spain. He has been acclaimed “by far the most exciting writer to come from south of the Rio Grande in a long time” (Ilan Stavans, The Los Angeles Times),” and as “the real thing and the rarest” (Susan Sontag). Among his many prizes are the extremely prestigious Herralde de Novela Award and the Premio Rómulo Gallegos. He was widely considered to be the greatest Latin American writer of his generation. He wrote nine novels, two story collections, and five books of poetry, before dying in July 2003 at the age of 50.
Laura Healy has received a Master's in Spanish from Harvard. She is the managing editor of Harvard Review and the web editor of Zoland Poetry.
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