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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Unknown University

Roberto Bolaño

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To purchase The Unknown University

Title: The Unknown University
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Genre: Poetry
Written: (2007) (Eng. 2013)
Length: 821 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Unknown University - US
La Universidad Desconocida - US
The Unknown University - UK
The Unknown University - Canada
The Unknown University - India
La Universidad Desconocida - España
  • Spanish title: La Universidad Desconocida
  • First published in 2007, most of the poems in this volume were written before 1993, when Bolaño assembled the manuscript on which this edition is based
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the Spanish originals
  • Translated by Laura Healy
  • With an afterword by Carolina Lopez

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Our Assessment:

B+ : slightly overwhelming, but has its charms

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 12/7/2013 Hector Tobar
The NY Times . 10/7/2013 Dwight Garner
World Lit. Today . 11-12/2013 Andrew Martino

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Unknown University, a new anthology of Bolaño's poetry, reads like a series of fragments from a diary of this epic artistic journey. It's a book filled with sorrows and joys and discoveries as Bolaño the poet takes up themes that are repeated often in his novels." - Hector Tobar, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The bulk of the poems in The Unknown University were written when Bolaño was in his 20s, however, and very often they read like juvenilia -- the unrhymed free verse of a man who was equal parts poet and poet manqu&ecute;, a word-drunk literary drifter still finding his voice. (...) A handful of these poems are something akin to sly masterpieces. (...) The sound The Unknown University mostly makes is that of a promising young writer seeking his way in the world of words." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "The book is classified as poems, but this may be misleading, as I’m not sure we should really read these as poems at all. Of course, there are poems here, and more than a fair share of prose poems. Most of the work here is unpolished and raw, and thrilling. (...) This work is not Bolaño at his best -- his novels provide that for us -- but they are essential works by an author we are just beginning to understand." - Andrew Martino, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Unknown University collects a heap Roberto Bolaño's poetry, organized into a manuscript by Bolaño himself, apparently in 1993 (though he apparently also tinkered with it later, as also the inclusion of poems such as 'Portrait in May, 1994' suggests). Admirably presented here in a bilingual edition, the Spanish originals facing Laura Healy's English versions, it makes for a weighty book of over 800 pages -- yet it's a surprisingly light and easy read too. Much of the poetry here is the work of a young author, and there's a youthful exuberance to to it, even as he often struggles with difficult circumstances and uncertainty. His work here is decidedly experimental, an author still figuring out what kind of author he wants to be, how and what he wants to write. Few of the poems adhere to any strict form, and quite a few are prose-poems that pass more readily for stories than any sort of poem.
       Bolaño mentions the idea of 'the unknown university' in several poems, including a beautiful one that ends:

[...] and the people I
thought I was with really
don't exist or are faces floating
at the table next to mine
where I'm alone and drunk
spending my money on one edge
of the unknown university.
       The idea comes from Alfred Bester's story, 'The Men Who Murdered Mohammed', where the main character is a "professor of Applied Compulsion" at Unknown University -- "a center of learning only in the Pickwickian sense". The protagonist is typical of those at UU:
They were geniuses who paid a high price for their genius because the rest of their thinking was other-world. A genius is someone who travels to truth by an unexpected path.
       One can see -- especially in the various different attempts in this collection -- how Bolaño would be attracted to the notion; the fact that UU is essentially entirely a creation of the mind -- "Nobody knows where Unknown University is or what they teach there" -- helps too.
       Bolaño gives a parenthetical nod to Bester in one of the poems:
(Dear Alfred Bester, at least
I've found one of the wings
of the Unknown University !)
       And another section ends more poignantly with this poem:
This hope isn't something I've sought. This silent wing of the Unknown University.
       Many of the poems describe scenes from Bolaño's life, as a twenty- and thirty-something struggling to find his path, and struggling as a writer. There's the occasional self-pitying, young author's despair:
Who the fuck cares what I write ?

Who will be the least bit served by what I write ?
Not counting myself, conversely ruined by my own writing.

       He deals with his relationships in many of the poems, characters (generally real, and including his son, Lautaro, to whom the collection is dedicated) repeatedly addressed or written about. At times his narrative pieces suggest a life of the simplest routine (from which, as he makes clear in many of the poems, he also tries to free himself, mainly through his writing), such as in the poem that begins:
I brush my teeth, wash my face, arms, neck, ears. Every day I go down to the post office. Every day I masturbate. I devote a large part of the morning to cooking food for the rest of the day. I kill time sitting, flipping through magazines, I try, over repeated cups of coffee, to convince myself that I'm in love, but the lack of tenderness -- f a certain kind of tenderness -- suggests the contrary. Sometimes I think I'm living somewhere else.
       Writing doesn't always seem to be an answer -- "It makes no sense to write poetry" -- or, in part, closed off to him, as in his suggestion:
I can't be a science fiction writer because my innocence is mostly gone
       There's some arresting verse, too, especially in the more personal pieces, from the poem here titled 'The Romantic Dogs' (presented as 'Self Portrait at Twenty Years' in the collection, The Romantic Dogs) to pieces such as:
Violence is like poetry, it doesn't correct itself.
You can't change the path of a switchblade
nor the image of dusk, forever imperfect.

Amidst these trees I've invented
which are not trees
am I.
       Overall it's an odd collection, a jumble of practice-pieces and more polished ones, grouped in a variety of different ways; surprisingly, it does, after a fashion, cohere. This isn't what one would expect in a 'collected works'-edition -- there are too many stray pieces that a rigorous editor would likely have cut -- and yet everything seems to belong, and even the not-quite-so-good-stuff fits in a volume that makes a decidedly greater impression as a whole than its parts.
       The Unknown University offers a fascinating glimpse of Bolaño -- worthwhile for the biographical insight alone (in lieu of the still-missing standard biography), as well as the outlines of much of his later fiction, prefigured here -- as well as good doses of much of what readers of his prose have come to expect. Amusing, fresh, often touching, this is rarely truly great poetry, but it is -- especially as a whole -- an engaging work. His was a fascinating writing-mind, and much of it is well-exposed here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 August 2013

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The Unknown University: Reviews: Roberto Bolaño: Other books by Roberto Bolaño under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean author Roberto Bolaño lived 1953 to 2003.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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