‘Clara’ by Roberto Bolaño


Clara by Roberto Bolaño, 1997

The magic trick:

Detailing a relationship that isn’t often written about – a long-term dull obsession that isn’t quite love or heartache

One would think this is a story about Clara. And it is to some extent. But mostly she serves as a kind of mirror for the narrator. This is a story about him. This is a story about what she came to represent for him.

So it goes along detailing Clara’s life, beginning with her brief romantic relationship with the narrator when they she was 18. It moves along from there, checking in on her life from afar but with intimate insight. All the while, you never feel as if you really get to know her. You’re not sure there is much there to even get to know. She has become an ideal for the narrator. Of what I don’t know. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even know. It’s not youth, beauty, or even possession. Maybe it’s a little of all of those things.

It has a grip on him, though, that’s for sure. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a story that addresses such an odd, misty kind of love. Maybe Stuart Dybek a little. Maybe Nabokov. Yet this isn’t like either of those writers. This story is its own animal entirely, and it will stick with you for awhile after reading. And that’s quite a trick on Bolaño’s part.

The selection:

On one occasion, for reasons irrelevant to this story, I had to spend a night in Clara’s city. I called her from my hotel, told her where I was, and arranged to meet her the following day. I would have preferred to see her that night, but after our previous encounter Clara regarded me, and perhaps with good reason, as a kind of enemy, so I didn’t insist.

She was almost unrecognizable. She had put on weight, and in spite of the makeup her face looked worn, not so much by time as by frustration, which surprised me, since I’d never really thought that Clara aspired to anything. And if you don’t aspire to anything, how can you be frustrated? Her smile had also undergone a transformation. Before, it had been warm and slightly dumb, the smile of a young lady from a provincial capital, but it had become a mean, hurtful smile, and it was easy to read the resentment, rage, and envy behind it. We kissed each other on the cheeks like a pair of idiots and then sat down; for a while we didn’t know what to say. I was the one who broke the silence. I asked about her son; she told me he was at day care, and then asked me about mine. He’s fine, I said. We both realized that, unless we did something, the meeting was going to become unbearably sad. How do I look? Clara asked. It was as if she were asking me to slap her. Same as ever, I replied automatically. I remember we had a coffee, then went for a walk along an avenue lined with plane trees, which led directly to the station. My train was about to leave. We said goodbye at the door of the station, and that was the last time I saw her.


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