Book Review

Tres by Roberto Bolaño

A glimmer of hope: I am almost able to read in Spanish.

Photo on 12-12-2016 at 21.39 #2.jpg
There, oh there, is that handsome fluffy dog.

Tres is a collection of three long form poetic works published by Roberto Bolaño in the year 2000, translated by Laura Healy into English and put out waaaaay back in 2011.

When I bought this book, 2011 was the recent past, though neither (for me) a happy nor a healthy one.

When I bought this book, Tres was a hot new text, a brand spankan new piece of Bolaño that I thought I – as someone who aspired to being a hotshot literary upstart (lol) – should probably have in my collection, despite having barely read the man.

I started getting into Bolaño back in 2012/2013, when I began learning Spanish and trying to expand my mind out of the middle-England-raised dull-de-sac (that’s a pun on cul-de-sac, if you didn’t get it) worldview that had been forced upon me by birth. I read and loved The Savage Detectives – but then held myself off from ever engaging with the writer on a more serious footing due to my then-developing language skills. If I’ll have novel-reading-level Spanish within a couple of years, I thought, what’s the point in reading this trendy-though-dead writer in translation? Why not wait and do him properly? Do ‘im right?

Well… life doesn’t go the way we plan or hope, does it? Not for me, anyway, or for most of my peers, although many of the less interesting people I went to school and university with seem to be developing very trad, Tory-voting, dull-de-sac lives and seem happier for it. Not me, though, I’m unlikely to ever slip into the habit of successfully completing five-year-plans.

Back in 2013, I thought that within four years I’d have a rolling publishing contract for books, a life outside of England, fluent Spanish, a child or two, a dog (ONE! ONE! I GOT ONE!!!), maybe some financial assets, a car or at least a motorbike, hope for the future, no serious substance abuse issues and friends I could hang out with without being so overwhelmed by anxiety that I wanted to cry. Y’know, standard stuff and the slightly over-ambitious stuff too. I failed, naturally, w/ the overly ambitious aims (due to lack of talent/skill and the afore mentioned issues with intoxication) and as such all the more realistic, normal, aims were abandoned. Why would I want to have a house if to get it I had to work in an OFFICE (eurgh)? Why would I want a car and “financial security” when to get that I wouldn’t get to enjoy any moments of my life at all? Actually, I don’t really enjoy my life as it is, and the regular highlight is oversharing on this gently self-sustaining blog… Maybe if I lived in a tiny town and had an administrative job in a supermarket or something and spent every evening dogging I’d be happier. We’ve been through this before.

If I’d had no aspirations I’d have no sense of disappointment and thus would be happier. It’s easy an easy sentiment to write, but a very difficult one to apply to my thoughts in retrospect so as to improve my mental health.

Sorry, I’ve digressed.

Anyway, I started reading the books of Bolaño when younger and then stopped, presuming my nivel de Español would desarollar al punto que yo tendría la abilidad para leer todo un libro. But then I studied Spanish and studied Spanish and got more and more scared to read a book in the language, terrified that my poor comprehension would break my fragile heart (and back then it was fragile; certainly I was getting a lot of recurring chest pains, which turned out to be a pretty easy “lifestyle problem” to fix). I ended up terminating my Spanish classes because I was working too much, and with it my fantasy of living a second-best life as a transient South American ex-pat got abandoned too, and I acquiesced – for a bit – to what I thought was the best possible life I could have. That’s the life I’m still in now, and it’s strangling me, psychologically.

Thus, I’m starting back up my Spanish classes and am going to make a direct effort to improve my linguistic skills so I can finally fuck off out of nasty, hate-filled #brexitbritain before they start banning international movement and progressive thought. I’ve had enough, I’m committed to leaving. I do not want to die on this shitty little inward-looking island, though the sad fact is that I almost certainly will. #rofl #nohope #loser #lookitsnevergonnahappen #illdiehere #tiredoflondontiredoflife


I picked the long unread Tres out from deep within my biblio-pile1 because it is a bilingual book. By that I don’t mean it is literature in translation, I mean that it is a book containing Bolaño’s original Spanish plus Healy’s translation on the opposite page. I read through it twice, reading the Spanish first and glancing at the translation for any words I didn’t understand, and I did better than I expected to. Although I had a targeted, contextual dictionary open on the opposite page for every sentence I read, today I did something I feared I would never do, and read an entire book in Spanish.

So. What’s it about?

Tres contains three poems, two of which are written in prose. The first one is called (trans) ‘Prose from Autumn in Gerona’, the middle (the verse one) is Los neochilenos and the final is (trans) ‘A Stroll through Literature’. The first deals, postmodernly, with a youngish writer living without a visa in Spain, thinking about lovers and poetry and the form of literature as he whiles away the hours which is legally banned from working in. The second is about a band [of musicians] on tour in South America, their lead singer dying of an undisclosed illness as they drink and drug and fuck prostitutes and groupies on a slow passage northwards out of Chile’s capital, Santiago. The most notable feature of this poem – and of the translation in general – is the clearly deliberate mistranslation of “quince” to “sixteen”, in relation to the age of the prostitutes that the musicians are comporting themselves inside. As an English-language reader, we clearly aren’t expected to accept lusting after 15 year olds, although that’s fine to an hispanohablante, and a few months’ difference makes it A OK to us too. Bizarre.

The third piece in the collection – and the most ambitious – is a second prose poem that follows an individual through dreams as he encounters the writers he admires. He and his friends become the lovers of writers long dead, all is in a dream so all is unreal, but all is about weight and legacy and literature, and thus the poet’s craft is explored on every page.

As examples of experimental prose, the contents of Tres aren’t the most original pieces you’ll ever encounter (unless you’re really fucking staid, in which case why are you reading this?), but all three are solid examples of playful, evocative [prose] poetry. Images are strong, it’s all faces and storms and stone and shadow, it’s dreaming and desire and travel and sadness. It’s box-ticking Latin American writing type stuff. Pleasing, enjoyable, regularly affecting.

It’s a short, minor, book by Bolaño, but I’m glad to have read it and I’ll delve deeper into his oeuvre, especially via any others that have this Spanglish doble lengua action. However, I want to read 2666 too much to wait until I’m fluent.


1 comment on “Tres by Roberto Bolaño

  1. Pingback: Dysfunctional Males by Fernando Sdrigotti – Triumph of the Now

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