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A Devious Odyssey: Roberto Bolaño’s Anti-Epic

Adviser: Angel G. Loureiro

Alejandro Perez

Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures

“The thesis is less for me about the grueling hours one spends with a novel and more about the dialogue you enter into not only with your adviser and other scholars but also with your classmates.”

perez-alejandro

Alone at Princeton for the New Year’s holiday, I read the final pages of the novel about which I would write my thesis. Only two weeks before, I had expressed my concerns to my thesis adviser Professor Angel Loureiro: “I do not think I am making progress in my thesis topic about the Spanish Civil War, and I think I would like to write it on a novel.” Although I could see behind his oval-framed glasses that he was a bit concerned, he suggested a few authors and told me to make a decision before the winter holiday was over.

As I lay there, reading Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean writer known as the last bohemian, one who was completely and hopelessly consumed by his work, I knew that this was the novel on which I would write my thesis because I laughed unabashedly and related to the characters’ sense of displacement. Although the precise topic was not wholly conceived at that moment, I knew that my thesis would explore the idea of the epic in the novel. 

Even though I chose my topic during the winter break of my senior year, my journey began across an ocean, in a city of bridges and baguettes. Only a semester before, after waiting half an hour in the crisp winter breeze of Paris for the library to open, I finished my first analysis of a novel. My theoretically oriented readings set the foundation for not only my junior paper but also my thesis, for which I would prepare by taking a literary theory course in my senior fall. Finishing my first long essay away from the stress of Princeton, where people, it seemed, pulled all-nighters to complete an assignment, taught me the value of setting aside some time every day to work on a project about which you were truly excited. 

When my spring semester arrived, I began reading other epics, like The Odyssey and Ulysses, to build a framework from which to compare my own work. In addition, other scholars’ analyses of The Savage Detective, Bolaño’s masterpiece, helped orient me in the right direction, but probably the most important reading I did for my thesis was Bolaño’s conversations and correspondence with other writers. These letters and interviews represented the key discoveries of my thesis because in them the reader really perceived the way Bolaño approached literature—essentially his own theory from which he imagined in the novel the travels of two eccentric poets. 

What at first began as an exploration of the portrayal of the bohemian poet in the novel soon evolved into one of the permutations of the epic Bolaño imagined. Eventually, once you read about a certain topic, you gauge how feasible your analysis is and whether it is the direction you want to take for the rest of your project. At other times, as you begin writing the first draft of certain chapters, the thoughts organically drift toward the essence of your thesis, in my case, displacement, journey, home, and wandering. 

Throughout this epic journey I was taking myself, my adviser played an important role in organizing my own jumbled bohemian work, pointing out key ideas that needed to be expanded and explored further. Professor Loureiro, the tall Spaniard who was probably the most intimidating figure in my department, met with me at least once a week, a feat that showed his dedication to my project. Despite his busy schedule, we always managed to fit in at least 15 minutes to talk about the weekly progress. Of course, this meant that I had to make progress every week, which ultimately helped me avoid the thesis crunch that leaves all the seniors looking like zombies in the sun. 

Contrary to my previous academic endeavors (some of which did leave me in a sleepy stupor), my thesis was one of the most rewarding and challenging. Organizing such a project seems overwhelming until you start writing drafts and afterward scrutinize where your ideas edge into others. At a certain point, I forced myself to start writing despite the fact that there was still a lot more outside reading to finish, but as in every project, there is always more reading to do. Thus, balancing writing and further reading proved to be an essential part of my thesis progress, because for previous papers I simply read until I felt prepared to write. In the case of my thesis, some days were spent in the library searching for more books and ordering others while other days—especially the rainy ones—were spent by my desk typing more words on a page. 

To my surprise, finding the connection between Bolaño’s work and some of the great influences of his life—James Joyce, Homer, and Julio Cortázar—was one of the most surprising parts of my thesis. The interconnectedness of literary works is truly inspiring because as a literary scholar you must stitch your own analysis based on the commentary of others and the work itself. Being able to hear the echoes of Bolaño’s predecessors, some of whom I was very fond of myself, taught me that a thesis is not just a project about your topic; it also is a project about other novels, ideas, and topics. Reading sociology books about exiles and psychology books about displacement were just as essential as the literary analyses.

The thesis is less for me about the grueling hours one spends with a novel and more about the dialogue you enter into not only with your adviser and other scholars but also with your classmates. Although the conversations with your adviser will prove to be some of the most beneficial, the others you will have with your friends and family will create a camaraderie that carries on even today. I met so many seniors during spring break, when most of us were finishing the final touches on our theses while others were just beginning the first draft. Sitting in a circle in the Trustee Reading Room in Firestone Library, we drank our cups of coffee while taking notes on books, typing intermittently, and stretching our arms. Eventually, we would take breaks together and inhale the perfume of cherry blossoms while conversing about our progress, frustration, excitement, and sometimes boredom. These moments more than any others still vibrantly persist in my memory. 

Now, as I work in New York City, I doubt that I made any major contribution to my field of study, and I am certain that no one will travel to the crypts to check out a tome once written by a 22-year-old poet. If anything my work about Bolaño emphasizes the importance of intertextuality, I hope it is the web of texts from different languages found within one work. Being a Spanish major does not mean you only read Spanish texts; instead it is a stake that marks the starting point, perhaps a Chilean novel or perhaps a Spanish poem, for a journey that never ends, even after you leave Princeton. 

If I have any advice for current students, it is to enjoy the voyage. The most important lesson you learn through your thesis is that one must learn to let go of any particular direction in which you stubbornly desire to go. Instead, it is more rewarding to let your project evolve naturally from the changes in your ideas, the growth that occurs within a year of good-byes and hellos. Of course, there is practical advice, like do not leave your thesis to the last minute, talk to your adviser about your expectations for the relationship between you and him or her, and stay warm with a cup of tea. But every individual will choose his own way of completing the thesis, so it is best for me to simply say that your Ithaca will not be what you expected it to be, and once you are there you will only dream of embarking on another voyage similar to the one you just completed. In an odyssey that represents the end of your time at Princeton, there is no perfect thesis, no impeccable work of art, only your work and what you did in between your work. Good luck and bon voyage!

A Devious Odyssey: Roberto Bolaño’s Anti-Epic

Alejandro Perez

Angel G. Loureiro

Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures

“... unfailing trust in my advisees stems from knowing that among the many senior theses I have directed, there is not a single case in which the student did not grow intellectually by leaps and bounds in just a few months.”

One of the greatest pleasures of directing senior theses is that each case is always different from the previous ones. Each thesis must be unique, but so is each senior’s researching and writing process. It is not simply that each student has his own style and rhythm of research, but something that while being unique in each case is also a common experience for all seniors. That is so because the thesis is never for a student just the fulfillment of a degree requirement but always a process of personal discovery. A senior thesis is not a milestone but a rite of passage, an intellectual adventure; a struggle, yes, but one that ends up unlocking unsuspected mental powers, taking students to new intellectual highs. Ultimately, writing a senior thesis is an act of empowerment for every student, and as such it has lifelong consequences. In my opinion, the thesis adviser is just the facilitator of that process, a sort of provocateur who encourages students to go even further, to be unafraid of exploring new territories, to find a topic that will challenge their abilities and push them into unknown territory. The adviser also must be a reassuring figure who should manifest an unhesitant belief in the students’ abilities, in many cases even before the students believe in themselves, or are even convinced that they are up to the task. The adviser has to offer assurances to the students that the effort—and it takes a lot of effort to write a thesis—will pay off. In my case, the unfailing trust in my advisees stems from knowing that among the many senior theses I have directed, there is not a single case in which the student did not grow intellectually by leaps and bounds in just a few months. That is why I became a firm believer in the senior thesis, although when I started teaching at Princeton I was somewhat skeptical about it.

Starting with our first meetings when he was a junior, Alejandro Perez distinguished himself for his intellectual curiosity, his enthusiasm for research, his joy at learning new things, and his lack of fear at reading a difficult book. I have never met a student who has shown such wonder and elation upon discovering a new writer, an innovative idea, or a brilliant line of poetry. My impression was that the world of books and ideas was for Alejandro a gigantic candy store, a vast repository of dazzling invention, an infinite library in which each stack offered the promise of life-changing ideas. When Alejandro decided to take my 500-level course of literary theory in his senior year—the only undergraduate in a room full of seasoned graduate students—I had full confirmation that he was intellectually fearless. However, restlessness can often be the other side of the coin of endless intellectual curiosity.

The uniqueness of directing Alejandro’s thesis sprang from his restless search for a topic, and his ultimate lack of conviction in several ones he initially explored. At first, he did a considerable amount of research on the politics and culture of memory in postdictatorial Chile and Spain. However, although he found the topic challenging and intriguing, after several weeks of work he came to the conclusion that it did not speak to him forcefully enough to devote a full year to it. Far from being a setback, this initial exploration led Alejandro to conclude that what truly moved him most deeply was literature, a discovery that in itself was already a step forward, a first victory. A key to being a helpful adviser is not to “direct” students in preconceived directions, but simply to help them patiently find their way to what truly motivates them. Encouraging the students to start working on the thesis as early as possible, and preferably in the summer after junior year, gives them the much-needed time to embark in this process of search and discovery, so integral to the senior thesis-writing adventure.

Once Alejandro saw clearly that he wanted to write a thesis on a literary topic, and I realized that he was especially attracted to contemporary, edgy fiction, I suggested the names of several writers that could interest him. Alejandro spent some time reading the works of some of those writers, but for a while none of them thrilled him enough. Then, he discovered the works of the Chilean Roberto Bolaño, an enigmatic writer whose novels were being received with high acclaim all over the world after his premature death in 2003. In our first meeting after Alejandro had started reading Bolaño, the elation, joy, and amazement that he displayed talking about the Chilean writer were for me an indubitable sign that he had found a topic that spoke deeply to him, a companion for the long journey ahead.

The trouble at that point was not that we were already in January and time was running short—my experience directing theses and Alejandro’s intellectual commitment and enthusiasm for his topic assured me that time would not be a problem. The main obstacle was that Bolaño is an elusive, slippery, highly self-conscious writer whose encyclopedic knowledge of literature led him to engage in a type of writing that, while being easy to read, can be extremely challenging to interpret. Coming on the heels of such daunting luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and an array of many other stellar Latin American writers of the late 20th century, and writing in the wake of the murderous dictatorships that afflicted Argentina and his own Chile in the sixties, Bolaño set himself to find a type of writing that would separate him from his imposing predecessors while also responding to the historical catastrophes that had interrupted the lives of so many young members of his generation. The challenge that Alejandro set for himself was to find the literary and historical keys to crack Bolaño’s literature, a high-wire act that walks a fine line between mockery and mourning.

After an initial slow period in which Alejandro’s main task was to find the theoretical entryways into Bolaño’s maze, he produced a superior thesis that clearly evinced his amazement at Bolaño’s invention while also providing an array of insights into his work. However, of all the challenges Alejandro had to face in the process of writing a thesis, shedding light on Bolaño’s complex work was not the lesser one, but it was not the most consequential either, because the work of interpretation, the actual work of writing the thesis, was just the last leg of a superior, more significant endeavor. I want to think that it was not a chance but a rightful coincidence that Alejandro focused this research on Bolaño’s lengthy and labyrinthian The Savage Detectives, one of whose main threads is the protagonist’s search for an enigmatic figure, a pursuit that sets him out on a prolonged, adventurous journey. The parallel between the protagonist’s travails and Alejandro’s convolutions and detours in his quest for a suitable topic is unmistakable. One of Alejandro’s favorite poets, Constantine Cavafy, condensed in a poem the perils of the search, but also the true significance of Alejandro’s long and arduous but enduringly rewarding journey of writing his thesis: “As you set out for Ithaka / hope the voyage is a long one, / full of adventure, full of discovery. / Laistrygonians and Cyclops, / angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them: / you’ll never find things like that on your way / as long as you keep your thoughts raised high, / as long as a rare excitement / stirs your spirit and your body…. / Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. / Without her you would not have set out.”