“The Unknown University” by Roberto Bolano (New Directions, 766 pages, $39.95)
As busy as Roberto Bolano’s afterlife has been — he’s published 19 books in English since his death in 2003 — his time on Earth was even busier.
Bolano, who died at age 50, had a life that was rooted in three continents. He was born in Chile, the son of a boxer; he came of age in Mexico City and became a poet there; and he later moved to Barcelona, where he wrote the works that would make him a celebrated novelist.
Best known to U.S. readers for two novels — “The Savage Detectives,” first published in Spanish in 1998, and the posthumous “2666” — in the years since his death Bolano has earned a global following as a prose stylist with rampant narrative ambition. As a novelist, he’s capable of entering the most varied landscapes and finding the lyricism, the humanity and the cruelty in all of them.
“The Unknown University,” a new anthology of Bolano’s poetry, reads like a series of fragments from a diary of this epic artistic journey. It’s a book filled with sorrows and joys and discoveries as Bolano the poet takes up themes that are repeated often in his novels. For him, writers are men and women engaged in a sacred search, with poets the purest seekers of all. It’s a pursuit that’s all the more noble, given that Bolano knows that the immortality writers seek is unattainable.
“The Unknown University” gathers nearly 800 pages of Bolano’s poems and prose poems in a bilingual edition. Bolano set out to be a poet in the 1970s; one of many characters in “The Savage Detectives” is a young writer in the tumultuous Mexico City poetry scene who serves as Bolano’s alter ego.
Poetry did not bring Bolano much success while he was alive. He published two poetry collections during his lifetime but only after he started to win Spanish literary prizes for writing novels, a craft he is said to have undertaken to help support his family.
One of the most poignant moments in “The Unknown University” comes near the end. Bolano has been diagnosed with a terminal illness at about the same time he becomes a father. In two poems, Bolano lays out advice for his young son, Lautaro.
“Read the old poets, my son / and you won’t regret it,” he writes in one. “Between the cobwebs and rotten wood / of ships stranded in Purgatory / that’s where they are / singing!”
One can only hope that Bolano, dead a decade but more famous now than he could have ever dreamed, is not stranded in purgatory. Here on Earth, his words are alive and in print, and have as good a chance as any of making it to the next millennium.