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A vibrating porn star. A petty henchman in love with his crime boss’ long-jumping girlfriend. Two Chileans arguing about knives. These are the kind of unexpected and darkly flawed characters that litter the short stories of Roberto Bolaño’s collection, The Return, which is newly translated by Chris Andrews.
These masterful works are haunting snapshots of the lives of the unfulfilled and unrequited. Often, when we leave them they have come to some sort of brutal end, though occasionally one of Bolaño’s characters will rise above the emotional muck and the worst of luck to brokenly triumph. But even if they do manage to achieve a minor victory, it is never without a great cost that leaves greater scars, both tangible and intangible. One story, “Clara,” ends with its narrator admitting, “From his voice and the turn the conversation was taking, I could tell that what he needed from me, or someone, anyone, was friendship. But I was in no condition to provide him with that solace.”
Despite the fact that Bolaño’s stories and characters neither intersect nor intertwine, he nonetheless manages to create his own dim-lit world in The Return. These 13 pieces draw you in to their dark clutches in such a subtle way that you don’t realize you’ve passed over into another reality until you suddenly find yourself witnessing an ignorant and innocent sorche (rookie) having his teeth ripped out by an interrogator from the Russian cavalry. But when you look back on the path that brought you to that moment, it all makes sense, even if you weren’t quite sure you had wandered down it in the first place.
Bolaño’s deftness as graceful navigator and imaginative creator of alternate realities is on par with that of director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy). Sometimes stories seem to start off as straightforward retellings of events that may or may not be based on something Bolaño witnessed, but then suddenly the story transforms into a warped fantasy where all bets are off and nothing is for certain. The one thing that is always for certain with The Return is that these stories are not for the squeamish or lighthearted. The reader must commit to Bolaño’s perverse underworld and not look back—-not that you can tear your eyes away from his unlikely anti-heroes and their violent, melancholic dramas.