Roberto Bolano's The Insufferable Gaucho has a memorable essay called Literature + Illness = Illness, written whilst he was waiting for a liver transplant at a specialist hospital in Barcelona. The essay is dedicated to his hepatologist. The essay is essentially a contemplation on mortality, including the writer's own mortality. Thinking about such things in a huge elevator with his Japanese doctor, Bolano thinks of what goes through the minds of people who know are going to die, like himself. What do hey think of before dying? He then writes about the association between illness and things like height, with Dionysus, with Literature and poetry. Where does reading get us, he asks. Reading is like having sex says Bolano. Ultimately it is a finite activity in an infinite sea of books, in an infinite possibility of sex. Essentially he thinks that reading one book is equal to reading all, where does it lead us?
Bolano beautifully paraphrases Mallarme' Brise Marine and Baudelaire's The Traveller. The Mallarme' poem translation that Bolano has chosen is my own personal favourite. The flesh is sad and I have read every book, wrote Mallarme. Taking this further, Bolano says that reading and sex have gotten this reader nowhere. The real essence is in travel. Travelling can be the only saving grace against the ills of the modern world, traveling as a prescription for our neuroses. Not the traveling prescription of modern times but of yore, traveling for months together, for years. Bolano remembers traveling in his fathers truck in a landscape in Chile that he describes as post-nuclear and then in Mexico and later on in Spain, where he lies ill as he writes this essay.
Towards the end of this essay, Bolano is reflectively thinking about Kafka, Kafka having said that " nothing could come between me and my writing". Thinking about this, Bolano thinks that " travel, sex and books are paths that lead nowhere except to the loss of self, and yet, they must be followed and the self must be lost, in order to find it again, or to find something, whatever it may be - a book, an expression, a misplaced object........in order Rodin anything at all, a method perhaps, and, with a bit of luck, the new, which has been there all along".
The concerns of this essay have plagued me since long. But read one must, even if ultimately it is a solitary pursuit unlike sex generally and travel though the latter is an exception. Bolano's concerns are expressed through the prism of reflections of a nearly dead man, a dying man, a terminally ill man and hence this essay reflects that mood. The style is unlike that of his novels which are faster and pacier , unlike this essay which has mellifluous music and the sadness of ennui, the ennui that the Mallarme poem spoke of, the oases of fear that Baudelaire wrote of, the malaise of modern life, the romance of reading, the hope to find something new.
Reading leads us nowhere eventually and gives us no answers. I have read one book means that I have read all the books. The flesh is sad, why did Mallarme write that asks Bolano. It at least may lead us to an abyss eventually even if that abyss too is unrevealing.