Book Review: ‘The Spirit of Science Fiction’ by Roberto Bolaño or the spirit of Mexico City?

… cuya sonrisa sigue siendo para mí la sonrisa terminal de ese otro México que a veces aparecía entre los pliegues de cualquier amanecida, mitad ganas rabiosas de vivir, mitad piedra de sacrificios

I only recently came to learn about Roberto Bolaño. For me, Mexico City speaks in the voice of Carlos Fuentes. He is Mexico City. But, Roberto Bolaño and Carlos Fuentes do have that in common; their ability to recreate a timeless Mexico City. To mimic its speech. To speak for the young, the restless and thirsty for love and success. To speak for aspiring writers. This particular quote reminded me of Fuentes. Mexico’s identity and longing for a pre-hispanic past was his signature. Other than in these few words, Bolaño sounds nothing like Fuentes. Fuentes is a master storyteller, known for space-time jumps and multiple narrators, for magical realism. But there is a logic, a sequence if you care to find it. There is a continuum. For Bolaño, nothing of that sort matters. The story is a feeling. It has a point, but not a sequence. It is not how it happens, but what happens. At least, that is how ‘The Spirit of Science Fiction’ goes.

This is the story of two aspiring writers, Jan and Remo. Young Chileans who moved to Mexico City. Jan is a fan of science fiction and spends his portion of the novel writing strange letters to Sci-Fi writers. I am not a fan of Sci-Fi so all references went over my head. But the letters are self-centered, full of crazy ideas and more like ramblings of a possibly brilliant ego-maniac.

Remo, is a poet. Nevertheless, a guy with his feet well grounded. He works as a journalist for two different (and not prestigious at all) papers trying to make ends meet while he makes it big. He doesn’t write much all through the novel, but critiques other poets’ work. How good of a writer is he? We will never know. This books is more about him and how he takes on Mexico City. His adventures with love.

Bolaño takes us through a very different Mexico City. While Fuentes focuses on high class living and brothels, the Mexico City of Bolaño is one of young adventurers with very little money. Of cheap coffee shops and Chinese take out, of public bathhouses and endless roads.

I don’t know if Bolaño’s brilliance translates. For me, the beauty is in the language, the narrative, his command of Mexican Spanish and pop culture references that might be lost to those foreign to the city. I found beauty in nostalgia for a time and place long lost to time, and yet, timeless.

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