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In 'Spirit of Science Fiction,' seeds of a great career

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The Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died in 2003, is as influential as a dead man can get. He's a literary giant across the Americas, with a mystique centered on the two massive masterworks: 2666 and The Savage Detectives. In the years since his death, his body of work has slowly emerged in English, primarily translated by Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer. They have worked their way through his perfect array of novellas, his short stories, and the fragments left on his hard drive, which are better than most full-fledged novels I have read. In a way, The Spirit of Science Fiction, which was released posthumously in Spanish and has now been translated by Wimmer, is among Bolaño's fragments. Though it's a complete novel, and one of Bolaño's earliest, any reader familiar with The Savage Detectives will recognize it as practice for that novel's shaggy, raucous first section. The Savage Detectives opens with a young Mexican poet named Juan García Madero, who falls in with a crew of poets called the Visceral Realists. The Spirit of Science Fiction opens with two young Chilean writers, a poet named Remo and a science fiction writer named Jan, settling in Mexico City. Unlike García Madero but like Bolaño himself, they have come to Mexico to escape the Pinochet dictatorship. As García Madero does in The Savage Detectives, Remo joins a poetry workshop, befriends a pair of poet sisters, and falls in love with the younger one. Meanwhile, Jan locks himself in their shared rooftop room and writes. The novel has three strands: Remo's adventures, Jan's fervent letters to American science fiction writers, and a prolonged interview in which Jan, having just won a significant literary prize, describes his novel to a journalist.

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All three strands are freewheeling and festive, and together, they are an unusual pleasure to read. You can almost feel Bolaño shaking out his limbs. The Spirit of Science Fiction lacks the gemlike precision of Bolaño's other short novels, and replaces the latent doom that fills his later work with a sense of possibility. Here, he's especially interested in the tension between the mind's possibilities and the body's. Remo devotes himself to the latter. He's a poet and critic, but rarely thinks about writing. He lacks politics, though his many new acquaintances make what he calls "obligatory remarks about the country I was from." The novel ends with Remo and his girlfriend Laura exploring Mexico City's bathhouses, seeking the best place to have sex. By learning to fully inhabit his body, Remo comes into his own. Jan, on the other hand, learns to fully inhabit his mind, and Bolaño devotes far more of the novel to Jan's wild ideas than to Remo's wild life. Often, those ideas are both science-fictional and political. Jan's novel features a fictional Paradoxical History of Latin America and a secret, possibly Nazi-fighting army. His nightmares about the future include spaceships of the Millennial Reich. He's worried about Pinochet and the shadowy forces of Operation Condor. He's also worried about the global politics of literature. In a letter to an invented writer who has recently declared his intent to form "a committee of American science fiction writers in support of Third World countries," Jan asks what support means: "So do you think that we have any hope of writing good science fiction? Will your committee, God bless it, award grants — Hugo grants, Nebula grants — to the Third World natives who do the best job describing robots? Or...testify on our behalf — in solidarity, of course — on the political stage?" Jan never receives a reply. The Spirit of Science Fiction is, perhaps, the reply he hoped for. After all, the book's last letter ends, "I'm seventeen, and maybe someday I'll write decent science fiction stories... Warmly, Jan Schrella, alias Roberto Bolaño." It's possible to read The Spirit of Science Fiction as one long letter from the 31-year-old Bolaño to his 17-year-old self. Of course, Bolaño never published science fiction. He was a poet first, and to the end of his life, he wished he was a poet foremost. But his literary demands were the same as Jan's. He wrote insistently and obsessively about Nazis. His later novels mounted passionate arguments about contemporary literature, ranking dozens of poets and advocating fiercely for little-known work. All Bolaño's books demanded space for Latin American writers on the world stage. All his books demanded that the reader think about fascism, and reject it. In The Spirit of Science Fiction, Bolaño makes those demands through Jan. In his later work, he makes them more boldly, and he makes them himself. The Spirit of Science Fiction is not the right place to start reading Bolaño. It doesn't have the astonishing force of 2666 and Distant Star, the momentum and humor of The Savage Detectives, or the formal perfection of By Night in Chile and Last Evenings on Earth. But once you've read those books, come back to this one. It's a joy to watch such a brilliant stylist practice his moves, and to see such a brilliant mind expand on the page. Knowing the work that came next only makes the joy deeper. Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.   Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.