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The Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño

Published in Spain in 2018; published in translation by Penguin Press on February 5, 2019

The Spirit of Science Fiction is an early novel that foreshadows Roberto Bolaño's later and stronger work. It was published posthumously.

While the novel begins with the interview of a writer who has won an award for his book of poetry, most of the novel is set in the past. Jan Schrella is a 17-year-old unpublished writer of science fiction, living in Mexico City with Remo. Jan is Chilean and, as he writes in a letter to Ursula K. LeGuin, Remo also “claims to be from Chile.” The story eventually suggests that Jan is Bolaño’s alter ego, although Remo is the novel’s narrator and main character. The Spirit of Science Fiction certainly has the feel of a fictionalized autobiography, although one wonders whether there might be more of Bolaño in Remo than in Jan.

Remo scrapes out a living writing book reviews and magazine articles about historic crimes. Their parents contribute the rest of their living expenses. Remo socializes while Jan writes letters to science fiction editors and writers. Some are fan letters, some recount his dreams, some contain ideas for stories, some ask the writers to pay attention to Latin America.

To alleviate his boredom (and because this is a Bolaño novel), Remo begins to attend a poetry workshop. There seems to have been an explosion of poetry workshops in Mexico, or maybe that’s just a rumor started by a mimeographed cultural weekly they get from a mysterious woman named Estrellita, who might be a poet and might be living with a son who is an artist, although the details of Estrellita’s life might also be based on rumor. In any event, Remo and José Arco decide to investigate the state of Mexican poetry. They find clues in graffiti. They listen to a professor discuss fate and the lack of meaning in poetry magazines, a discussion that provokes Remo, who believes that South Americans from poor countries are motivated by pride in their national poetry.

Remo meets and instantly feels romantic inclinations toward a woman named Laura, in the tradition of Latin men of romance (within hours of meeting her, she is “gradually turning into everyone and everything”). He pronounces his love for her before the evening is done, while she ponders how to break the news to her boyfriend. Yet Remo can’t get an erection because, paradoxically, their first kiss is too intimate a time for love-making.

Enigmatic characters populate Remo’s life, all of whom seem to have a hidden intellect and a desire to write poetry, including the toothless young mechanic who sells him a stolen motorcycle named Aztec Princess and the woman who complains that Jan has disrespected literature by constructing a table from science fiction paperbacks. The characters and their actions often have a surrealistic feel.

In the novel’s last section, Remo and Laura explore Mexican bathhouses and the erotic (or not) possibilities they inspire when strangers knock on the door. The ending comes across as Bolaño deciding he needed to end the story somewhere, but it abandons all the other characters, giving that section of the story a disconnected feel. Still, the lives of the characters and the atmosphere that Bolaño creates make it easy to recommend The Spirit of Science Fiction, perhaps as a prelude to his outstanding The Savage Detectives.


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