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  • Repeating Translation, Left and Right (and Left Again)Roberto Bolaño's Between Parentheses and Distant Star
  • Gavin Arnall (bio)

"Like all men, like all living things on earth, Borges is inexhaustible [inagotable]" (Bolaño 2011, 187/2008a, 174). This is how Roberto Bolaño opens a brief text from Between Parentheses that recounts, rewrites, and repeats Jorge Luis Borges's short story "The Rose of Paracelsus." Bolaño will go on to inform the reader that the version of the story that he will replicate is already a repetition, that the story included in his copy of Shake-speare's Memory (Borges 1982) had been previously published elsewhere.1 This is an important detail insofar as the miraculous repetition of something with no clear beginning or end is at the heart of the story itself.

In Borges's story, a stranger visits the sixteenth-century occultist Paracelsus and promises to become a faithful disciple if Paracelsus will perform a miracle for him. The miracle entails reanimating a rose after it has been [End Page 237] burned to ashes by a hearth's fire. This request sparks a philosophical debate about the nature and problem of change. Paracelsus argues that something cannot be turned into nothing, that what exists cannot be absolutely destroyed, while the stranger insists that the rose can in fact be destroyed by fire. "'If you cast this rose into the embers,' says Paracelsus, 'you would believe that it has been consumed, and that its ashes are real. I tell you that the rose is eternal, and that only its appearances may change. At a word from me, you would see it again'" (Bolaño 2011, 188). The stranger asks once more for a demonstration of this conversion process, but Paracelsus refuses, at which point the stranger tosses the rose into the fire, watches it burn to ashes, and waits for Paracelsus to revive it. This does not occur, however, and the stranger leaves disheartened. "Alone now," Bolaño writes, rewriting Borges, "Paracelsus scoops up the ashes and utters a single word in a low voice. And in his hands the rose springs back to life" (189).

Bolaño's retelling of the short story sheds some light on why Borges, along with all living things, is enigmatically described as inagotable or inexhaustible. Just as Paracelsus turns to language to restore the eternal rose, Bolaño's use of language renews the eternal Borges. The author of Shakespeare's Memory, who died just four years after the volume's publication, accordingly remains alive in and through the words of others, which are also Borges's own words rewritten, reworked, and reorganized, that is to say, translated. Indeed, Bolaño's essay is to be read as a meditation on Borges and translation that simultaneously performs a translation of Borges. In translation, Bolaño demonstrates by example, something lives on even as it changes its appearance, there is repetition but with difference, and life gives way not to death but to afterlife, or, even more radically, true life never gives way at all but rather inexhaustibly endures modifications, eternally becoming new versions or drafts of itself. In this way, Bolaño repeats one of Borges's central propositions on translation: the original is not a stable or "definitive" text but rather one of a potentially unending series of drafts or versions of the same "mutable fact [hecho móvil]" (Borges 2000, 69/1996, 239).2

To many of his readers, this Bolaño will likely sound very unfamiliar, since the author of works like The Savage Detectives and 2666 has often been read and interpreted as a melancholic leftist chronicling the tragic waves of [End Page 238] destruction that signal the defeat of political revolution in Latin America.3 Although Bolaño is typically associated with repetition, what returns again and again in his fictions is rarely life but death piled on top of more death. Brett Levinson, for example, writes: "It is noteworthy, in fact, that all violence in 2666 is serial. Each act of brutality is the repetition of other such acts in the text. … The accounts pile detail upon detail, name upon name...