Roberto Bolaño, in several interviews, confesses that his entrance to literature was through writing opoetry. In his books of pose and in his novels we find recurrent lyrical figures, who plot below the main story a pictorial, sensitive substory, which woul condense in the image of the Unknown University, a nightmare enclosure frozen in the time, like the myriad experiences that shake Amparo in her novel Amulet: locked in a bathroom while the dictatorship cracks down on the university system.
The book ‘The Unknown University’ crystallizes, thus, a whole poetic universe of which we have already had samples in several novels, in well-known stories – but with an overflowing freedom, almost childish, that resorts to constant images to build a global spectrum of terror. Why Bolaño stands out as the narrator par excellence of horror, of the ominous splinter of everyday experience, but that is there crouched within each gesture, awaiting the estrangement that awakens him. In this book, that horror is told in various ways. We are at the beginning of a series of poems, soon followed by an extract entitled People in Exile, in which a series of impressions describe the writer’s particular world, centered on his experience in Chile. These impressions, evidently, can be twinned with those of the cursed poet Rimbaud, but with respect to their contrast, since those of Roberto Bolaño are subsumed by the dismal, horrified atmosphere of a whole generation that belongs to that Unknown University of uncertainty and terror, the marginal and what is almost declared illegitimate.
These impressions are followed by an amazing story, embedded in a cloudy and crystalline atmosphere, which has certain eccentric and wonderful ideas, centering on the public bathrooms of Chile as the precincts that have the air mystery, tucked away in the dirty part of the city- but also the most authentic part, the one that promises a certain revelation, without ever presenting it except by means of indications.
The last poems are a warning. It is possible to say, to anyone who hesitates whether or not to read this book, whether or not to find Bolaño as a poet, if it is worth it (horrible criterion) or not to scroll through its pages, to read The Unknown University in reverse, to start with the last incantations, these last manifestos of Bolaño’s lyrical world. If there is any doubt about this book, you could say that you should start reading from page 391, finish it, go back to the beginning. It will be enough to convince yourself. To enter the immediate vicinity, in the endless corridors that run through the unknown university, the one that trained an entire generation, the silent ones, which have a peculiar anatomy, which chains the bodies to its wild, numbing, alienating rhythm and at times, terrible and true.
The Unknown University by Roberto Bolaño, Laura Healy (Translation) Hardcover, 888 pages Published July 11th 2013 by New Directions (first published 1993)