Newly translated fiction from the celebrated Chilean novelist.by Roberto Bolaño / May 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
© Luke Best
When he died in 2003, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño was barely known in the English-speaking world. Since then, he has come to be recognised as one of the finest writers of his generation, winning praise from literary critics including James Wood and Susan Sontag. His most celebrated work is the 900-page postmodern epic 2666, which was described by novelist Jonathan Lethem as “a landmark in what’s possible for the novel as a form.”
A newly translated book of short stories The Return (published by Picador on 30th August) offers a less daunting but equally rich introduction to Bolaño’s huge body of work. “Another Russian Tale” is taken from this collection.
Once, after a conversation with a friend about the mercurial nature of art, Amal?tano told a story he’d heard in Barcelona. The story was about a sorche, a rookie, in the Spanish Blue Division, which fought in the Second World War, on the Russian Front, with the German Northern Army Group to be precise, in the vicinity of Novgorod.
The rookie was a little guy from Seville, blue-eyed and thin as a rake, and more or less by accident (he was no Dionisio Ridruejo, not even a Tomás Salvador; when he had to give the Roman salute, he did, but he wasn’t really a fascist or a Falangist at heart) he ended up in Russia. And there, for some reason, someone started calling him sorche for short: Over here, sorche, or: Sorche, do this, Sorche, do that, so the word lodged itself in the guy’s head, but in the dark part of his head, and in that capacious and desolate place, with passing time and the daily panicking, it was somehow transformed into chantre, cantor. How this happened I don’t know, let’s just say that some connection dormant since childhood was reactivated, some pleasant memory that had been waiting for its chance to return.
So the Andalusian came to think of himself as being a cantor and having a cantor’s duties, although he had no conscious idea of what the word meant, and couldn’t have said that it referred to the leader of a church or cathedral choir. And yet, and this is the remarkable thing, by thinking of himself as a cantor, he somehow turned himself into one. During the terrible winter of ’41, he took charge of the choir that sang carols while…