Introducing Roberto Bolaño’s ‘The Spirit of Science Fiction’

This month, we’re reading Chilean poet and novelist Roberto Bolaño’s ‘The Spirit of Science Fiction,’ a story of young Bohemian writers in Mexico City.
cover of the book The Spirit of Science Fiction

Happy April! For our Babbel Book Club selection this month, we’re traveling back to 1970s Mexico City in The Spirit of Science Fiction by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. The novel tells the story of two young Bohemian poets, living and writing in Mexico City, from three different vantage points (more on that below), and it puts a spotlight on Latin America during the time of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

We’ll start with an introduction to the book, followed by some details about its author, translator and original language (Spanish!). Finally, we’ll provide some discussion questions to keep in mind as you read. If you’re not already a member of our Babbel Book Club Facebook group, it’s never too late to join!

The Spirit of Science Fiction: The Book

The Spirit of Science Fiction follows 19-year-old Jan and 21-year-old Remo, two writers who moved to Mexico City to escape the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Bolaño alternates between three storylines — of sorts — to give a full picture of the city’s Bohemian poet scene and how these young men become part of it.

The first of these threads presumably takes place in the future and in it, a science-fiction writer (perhaps Jan?) is being interviewed about the plot of his novel after winning an award. In the second storyline, we follow Remo’s adventures around Mexico City, as he makes friends and finds love in the poet community. Meanwhile, Jan holes up in their shared rooftop apartment, writing letters to acclaimed science-fiction authors — the interspersed third piece of the narrative. In the letters, Jan often laments American military intervention in Latin America, which creates an underlying tension throughout the novel.

The Spirit of Science Fiction was originally handwritten, found in a series of spiral notebooks left behind by Bolaño after his death. Apparently, he intended to make further tweaks to the manuscript before publication. The book was posthumously published in 2016, and translated into English in 2019.

The Author

Roberto Bolaño is a Chilean poet and novelist. He was born in Santiago, Chile in 1953, and later lived in Mexico City, Paris and Spain. Bolaño started off writing collections of poetry but transitioned to novels after his marriage and the birth of his son. His most famous novel is Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives), which was published in 1998 and the recipient of the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize. Bolaño is considered by many to be the greatest Latin American writer of his generation. He died in Barcelona, Spain, in 2003.

The Translator

Natasha Wimmer is an American translator, who was raised in Iowa and studied Spanish literature at Harvard University. Wimmer has translated several of Roberto Bolaño’s novels, in addition to works by Mario Vargas Llosa and other Spanish-language authors. She’s received a PEN Translation Prize, an NEA Translation Grant and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The Language

This is the third Babbel Book Club selection that’s been translated from Spanish, after The Book of Emma Reyes and Comemadre. The first two authors were Colombian and Argentine, respectively, but Bolaño’s Spanish is somewhat different because of his Chilean upbringing and time spent living in Mexico and Spain.

With more than 400 million native speakers, Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world. Spanish is also the second most-translated language (after French) in the realm of United States publishing.

Discussion Questions

  1. What’s your favorite science-fiction novel? Does it make any commentary on society or politics?
  2. Have you ever written a letter or email, or even a tweet, to a celebrity or one of your role models? What made you decide to send it despite being unlikely to get a response?
  3. After moving to Mexico City, Remo explores and meets new people, while Jan tends to keep to himself. How do you approach moving to (or visiting) an unfamiliar place?
  4. Who do you think is the award-winning author being interviewed in the book’s future storyline? Is it Jan? What do you think is the significance of this interview?
  5. Apparently, Bolaño wasn’t quite finished with this work but died before he could make the final tweaks. Did the novel feel complete to you? What, if anything, is missing?
  6. Have you ever read any of Roberto Bolaño’s other novels or poems? How do they compare to The Spirit of Science Fiction?
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