A new volume by the late Chilean author includes three tales in which characters resembling the author return to post-coup Chile to fight for socialism, get recruited into a secret society of artists based in Paris, and reckon with a fascist national takeover whilst a Third Reich fighter plane mysteriously writes sky poetry to the protagonist's love interest.
Like virtually everything the incomparable Chilean wrote, a newly excavated trio of unarguably minor novellas, Cowboy Graves, is companionable, exotic, witty and glamorously suggestive ... To an extent, the value and interest of Cowboy Graves depend on a prior familiarity with the sprawling, hyperlinked metaverse of Bolaño’s fiction ... In fact, Cowboy Graves may be the most plainly autobiographical fiction Bolaño ever wrote ... A primary element in the compound that keeps Bolañoites hooked is the voice: it hardly matters what it’s saying, or what the torrent of words ultimately amounts to, when it speaks so seductively (as it does in Natasha Wimmer’s dependably limpid translations) ... Characters, fictional cities and real-life poets recognisable from other novels flicker briefly into sight and then vanish. Cowboy Graves is a minor chamber in the labyrinth of Bolaño’s fiction, but it’s one with many doors.
In effect, the novels are a prelude, the stories an aftermath, each gesturing urgently at the scale of the biographical explosion that must lie in between. It would seem almost a violation of the 'poetics of inconclusiveness' to fill in that missing space. But this is precisely where the novella succeeds ... Our fascination comes mostly from spotting, amid the narrative shrapnel, flashes of future works and roads not taken ... The skywriting Messerschmitt from Distant Star, the escape scene from The Savage Detectives, a shelf’s worth of Nazi Literature in the Americas — all are present, but as what Elena Ferrante has called frantumaglia, the primordial jumble from which the artist slowly extracts and elaborates the work ... Between these two bookends — cool triumph, hot mess — sits an unrelated piece called French Comedy of Horrors. It’s the most recent thing in the book, and, as the title suggests, the funniest — less a novella than a shaggy anecdote ... Even more than the 'oasis of horror in a desert of boredom' (the Baudelairean epigraph to 2666), this is what anchors the Bolañoverse: the loss of youth inscribing a larger loss of historical possibility, in an elegy for a future that never came to be. But at least inside the fiction, the possibility of change, of poetry, isn’t lost for good — just gone underground, like Bolaño himself.
... contains writing completed over a period of 10 years, and features many of the touchstones Bolaño was known for: semi-autobiographical narration; a humorous, fragmentary style; and the sort of intrigue that grabs hold of you and never lets go, despite offering no easy answers ... Bolaño’s powers are on full display in French Comedy of Horrors ... French Comedy of Horrors reads like the first 40 pages of a full novel, and I’m saddened it won’t eventually be fleshed out. Across its scant pages, Bolaño builds a whole world, only cracking the lid on a Pandora’s Box, the effects of which can only be inferred ... As enticing as French Comedy of Horrors is, the real stars of the show are the two other novellas ... These two sections, Cowboy Graves and Fatherland, resonate so closely together, that French Comedy of Horrors feels a bit out of place sandwiched between them; almost acting as an intermission. Cowboy Graves leads up to the coup, and Fatherland follows it. The overall effect is a deepening of the work, as each section becomes a lens through which to view the other ... What this collection offers is something so rare; not only new work from a beloved and still-resonant deceased writer, but a look at writing itself, as afforded through these incomplete and transfixing works. We see Bolaño’s pen, tracing the same lines, diverging slightly, drawing again. Even beyond the larger context of Bolaño’s work, these three pieces in concert have their own vocabulary, their own rules. As Bolaño explored similar spaces across these sketches, we are given a much more complete view of the picture he may have come to paint, as much through what he didn’t write as what he did.