Roberto Bolaño's fame as a major novelist in the Spanish language shot up in 1998 after the publication of The Savage Detectives and after his winning back-to-back major awards in Latin America: the Premio Rómulo Gallegos and the Premio Herralde de Novela. His fame in the English-speaking world will begin gradually, and then suddenly, beginning with the publication of his first translated book (By Night in Chile, tr. Chris Andrews) in 2003.
His first English-translated short story, however, appeared early on. It was probably "Phone Calls," from Llamadas telefónicas, that was to also appear (in a new translation) in Last Evenings on Earth. Translated by Mark Schafer, "Phone Calls" was published in 1999 in Issue 67 ("Fire") of the now-defunct magazine Grand Street. It was later to be reprinted in the magazine's Issue 72 ("Detours"). Mark Schafer is a visual artist and translator of poetry and fiction, most recently of Belén Gopegui's novel, The Scale of Maps (2011). Belén Gopegui was one of the writers admired by Bolaño.
"Phone Calls" starts as a love story of B and X. Then it suddenly metamorphosed into a murder story. The sudden plot shifts in the story create an atmosphere of vertigo. It condenses the novelist's universe in miniature.
Here's an excerpt from "Phone Calls" in Schafer's version.
At night X invites him to share her bed. Deep down, B has no desire to sleep with X, but he accepts. When he wakes in the morning, B is again in love. But is he in love with X or is he in love with the idea of being in love? The relationship is problematic and intense: X borders on suicide from day to day, is in psychiatric treatment — pills, lots of pills, which nevertheless do nothing to help her. She cries often and without any apparent reason. So B takes care of X. He cares for her tenderly, diligently, but also awkwardly. His ministerings imitate those of a person truly in love. B realizes this right away. He tries to lift her out of her depression but only succeeds in leading X down a dead-end street or one X judges to be a dead end.
Here's the same excerpt in Andrews's version.
That night X invites him to share her bed. B doesn't really want to sleep with X, but he accepts. When he wakes up in the morning, he is in love again. But is he in love with X or with the idea of being in love? The relationship is difficult and intense: X is on the brink of suicide every day; she is having psychiatric treatment (pills, lots of pills, but they don't seem to be helping at all), she often bursts into tears for no apparent reason. So B looks after X. His attentions are loving and diligent but clumsy too. They mimic the attentions of a man who is truly in love, as B soon comes to realize.
The stories can be read in full at the following links:
"The Slaughter of the Ponies" (João Guimarães Rosa)
Stairway to hell: Two translations of "Rashōmon"
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