Book Review: The Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño

Erich Mayer

This is not a science fiction novel but rather an exuberant account of two young people discovering life in Mexico City.
Book Review: The Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolano's The Spirit of Science Fiction.

Roberto Bolaño died aged 50 in 2003. Six years later a number of his unpublished novels were discovered, including The Spirit of Science Fiction. It was written in 1984 and translated from the Spanish by Natasha Winner in 2018. As a result, English speakers have the opportunity to read a newly published work by a dead author which, in spite of its title, is not a science fiction novel but rather an exuberant account of two young people discovering life in Mexico City.

Bolaño regarded himself primarily as a poet and turned to writing fiction as a means of providing financial security for his family. In the Spanish speaking world, he has been described as the most significant literary voice of his time, a tribute based on his many novels more than on his poetic works.

The Spirit of Science Fiction features many colourful characters, such as the man who regularly broadcasts lectures about how to grow and cook potatoes. It also features the poet Don Ubaldo Sánchez, editor-in-chief and publisher of the magazine ‘My Enchanted Garden’, which ‘launched attacks on nearly every writer in Mexico.’ The protagonists are two young men, Jan Schrella, aspiring science fiction writer, and Remo Morán who wants to be a poet. They have recently arrived in Mexico from Chile. Jan rarely leaves the rooftop room he shares with Remo. It is the latter who, with the help of a parental allowance, earns enough to keep them financially afloat by writing articles for the arts supplement of a newspaper and for ‘a magazine of pseudohistory’. 

Jan pens many letters to famous science fiction writers such as Ursula K. La Guin and James Tiptree Jr. He poses questions, suggests activities, philosophises and reveals things about himself: ‘I write letters and drafts of something that one of these days might become a science fiction novel. It’s not easy, I admit. I try to learn, study, observe, but I always come to the same conclusion: it’s not easy . . . and to add insult to injury, I was born in Chile’. There are nine of these letters dispersed through the novel. It is interesting to read them both in context and one after another without the intervening material. Jan becomes less introverted as the novel progresses although his obsession with science fiction grows.

Remo becomes active in the intellectual life of Mexico City. He attends a poetry workshop and starts to make friends, particularly with José Arco, who becomes his drinking companion. José loves his black Honda motorbike and eventually persuades Remo to acquire a Benelli, which they named the Aztec Princess. Remo revels in the milieu of Mexico City, enjoying life with aspiring poets, intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals, and getting drunk at parties. He falls in love with a sophisticated woman, Laura, who introduces him to the world of public bathhouses: ‘Just as the hidden faces of other cities may be theaters, parks, docks, beaches, labyrinths, churches, brothels, bars, cheap movie houses, old buildings, and even supermarkets, the hidden face of Mexico City is its enormous network of public baths, legal, semilegal, and underground.’

It seems likely that Bolaño never intended The Spirit of Science Fiction to be published. It is also likely that parts of this book inspired some of his later work. Although The Spirit of Science Fiction has the feel of a work in progress, there is much to enjoy in it – the dialogue, in particular, is nothing short of brilliant. Further, interspersed with the action, are episodes when someone tells a story. These brief tales are typically mystical or dream-like and are shining gems in a beautiful setting. Bolaño is a superb story-teller, and while this novel has much more to offer than these mini-masterpieces, The Spirit of Science Fiction is worth reading for them alone.

Rating: 4 stars ★★★★
The Spirit of Science Fiction
By Roberto Bolano
Translated by Natasha Wimmer

Pan Macmillan
Category: Literary Fiction
Release: 7 Feb 2019 
176 Pages
Picador
ISBN 9781509851928

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog humblecomment.info