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Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Unknown University: A newly translated collection of Bolaño's great works in his preferred medium

Though most English-speaking readers of Roberto Bolaño may primarily associate the late, great Chilean with his daunting, intricate, and weighty volumes of fiction, he was also a poet, and in fact considered poetry to be superior to all else. As one of the characters in 2666 (one of said weighty volumes) pronounces, "Only poetry—and let me be clear, only some of it—is good for you, only poetry isn't shit".

Up until now, from the Anglo vantage point, glimpses into Bolaño's poetic output have been provided by The Romantic Dogs and Tres, (and, arguably, Antwerp). These translations have felt a little like sidenotes beside his far better-known works of fiction. The publication of The Unknown University by New Directions, with translation by Laura Healey (who also translated two of the aforementioned collections), might finally establish Bolaño as a poet in English-speaking minds. It assembles all of Tres and Antwerp, and parts of The Romantic Dogs, along with a couple hundred more poems. It is a beautiful volume, too, its weight as comforting as that of 2666.


After a posthumous dud or two (ahem, Woes of the True Policeman), The Unknown University is a return to translating material that Bolaño actually wanted people to read, as opposed to dredging up half-finished fragments that he had never intended to publish. Also, the bilingual nature of the collection is a real joy for those of us to wish to "experience" the poems in their original Spanish, but who require a maddening amount of dictionary-parsing in order to arrive at any semblance of understanding.


If you feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of Bolaño's work made available in English after his death, this post at The Millions provides a very helpful overview of "the essential", "the merely excellent", and that which is "necessary for completists only" - and highly recommends this collection!

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