OCTOBER 11, 2014
IN HIS MASTERWORK 2666, Roberto Bolaño invents a reclusive German novelist named Hans Reiter, alias Benno von Archimboldi. Archimboldi’s novels range from an autobiographical novel set in early 20th-century Prussia to a comic dialogue between the Atlantic Ocean and the Black Sea. Among scholars of postwar German literature, at least, he is mooted as a potential Nobel laureate. At one point, Archimboldi is invited by a French essayist to a house for “the vanished writers of Europe.” The house is idyllic; men serve the food in immaculate whites, and the grounds are beautiful — obvious enough signs in literature and life that something is horribly wrong.
While walking the grounds, Archimboldi sees a sign: “MERCIER CLINIC. REST HOME — NEUROLOGICAL CENTER”:
Without surprise he understood at once that the essayist had brought him to a mental asylum. After a while he returned to the house and went up the stairs to his room, where he retrieved his suitcase and laptop. […] Then he left without a sound and as he crossed the garden again he thought he saw a man in white running full speed along one side of the property and ducking behind tree trunks on the edge of the forest. Only when he was out of the clinic, on the road, did he slow down and try to catch his breath.
2666 taunts the reader with dashed apprehensions like this, both literal and metaphysical: a detective almost corners a femicidal mass murderer; those same mass murders, we are told, hold “the secret of the world.” Bolaño’s cryptic, sinister fiction often thwarts its readers — the book doesn’t commit to what precisely we are to make of those murders, and the corruption, squalor, cowardice, and occasional bravery to which they give rise.
So what is he attempting in his fiction? Bolaño describes his ambition, to make works of art, in “Translation Is an Anvil”:
How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarizers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate? Easy. Let it be translated. Let its translator be far from brilliant. Rip pages from it at random. Leave it lying in an attic. If after all of this a kid comes along and reads it, and after reading makes it his own […].
His definition might qualify as special pleading, since it seems especially amenable to the fragmented form and approach of The Savage Detectives and 2666. Each book is a maximalist exercise in baroque digression, but neither commits to structural integrity or resolution.
Compared to the fictional Archimboldi’s canonicity, the significance of Bolaño’s writings, with frustrated apprehensions and that fragmentation, is far from settled. Two new books, Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations, by Mónica Maristain, and a critical study by his translator Chris Andrews, Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, are major contributions to a secondary literature that might cast some light on the implications of the Chilean novelist’s work.
Bolaño’s biographers face a unique problem. The seductive popular image of him — something like a better-read Burroughs — is at odds with the voice of his fiction and his essays, which tends to be more generous, expansive, and penetrating than his image suggests. Even key events, like his arrest in Pinochet’s Chile or his “heroin addiction,” have been alternately credited as formative aspects of his personality, and discredited by his surviving family, friends, and rivals as erroneous planks of a legacy campaign.
What stands out in his fiction are the riotous voices, the contradictory and implausible characters, the restless equivocations and recapitulations: the polyphony. The first full-length biography in English, Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations, sidesteps “the authoritative biography” trap and attempts to recreate Bolaño-esque polyphony in telling the author’s own story. As the editor-in-chief of the Mexican edition of Playboy, Maristain conducted the last interviews, which appear with other conversations published between 1999 and 2005 in a handy collection, Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview. In those interviews, Bolaño clearly relishes talking about books and contradicting himself and his image. If the interviews are not confiding in the usual sense of personal disclosures, to his credit, he is far more intimate and vulnerable when answering a question about Cervantes than when other authors are sharing sensitive details about their families.
As in the essay collection Between Parentheses, the picture that emerges from the interviews and the biography is a Bolaño that draws from different sources than contemporary Anglo-American literary fiction incubated in the university workshop. In place of Hemingway, Borges and Nicanor Parra; Carver is substituted by Breton; Denis Johnson usurped by Jacques Vaché and Witold Gombrowicz.
In Latin American fiction, he had a similar effect, shifting the terms on which authors would be understood. The critic Ignacio Echevarría explains, in one of the finest interviews in Maristain’s book,
It was still the big stars from the boom that people think of when they think of the Latin American writer. Suddenly Roberto Bolaño, with his romanticism, his myth of the wandering writer and associated exile, his rootlessness, his entirely eclectic literature from Europe, Latin America, Spain, and North America discovered a new language, a new narrative syntax.
“After Roberto Bolaño,” Echevarría concludes, “the public image of the writer exemplified by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Jorge Luis Borges was made to seem obsolete, antiquated.”
Though his derisive attacks on Octavio Paz and Isabel Allende are more well-known, Bolaño also peppers his novels with acid references to the Latin American Boom movement, which many saw as a shill for American foreign policy. In 1967, for example, Mundo Nuevo, celebrated for publishing and sponsoring a wide range of Boom intellectuals, issued criticisms of Castro and the Soviet Union alongside articles that ripped the United States. Some leftists came to the conclusion that the magazine, like other non-Communist leftist periodicals such as The Paris Review, was sponsored by the CIA.
In Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives, it never occurs to the iconoclastic poets to publish a self-serious periodical with a ponderous, fizzy title like Mundo Nuevo. These “savage poets” irresponsibly name their magazine Lee Harvey Oswald (obviously named after the one-time defector to the Soviet Union who assassinated Kennedy) and float it with illicit drug-trade money. The title and funding are not indicative of their politics but their fundamental iconoclasm.
Of course, Maristain’s Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations delivers on an implied promise by prying into the life, too. In the interviews, friends discuss the inspiration of the Larrosa sisters (for the Font sisters in The Savage Detectives) — who have never spoken about the book — and how the writer served guests alcohol, though he didn’t drink, and homemade paella, which he thought was “the best you’ve ever had,” though he was, in fact, a terrible cook. The interviewees speculate on why he had delayed putting his name on a list for a liver transplant, and Jorge Herralde explains how he and Juan Villoro convinced Bolaño to change the title of his best novella from Shitstorm to By Night in Chile. (In Spanish, the novella has a title with a different resonance: Nocturno de Chile.)
The interview Maristain secured with the woman with whom he shared his final years, Carmen Pérez de Vega, makes for extremely uncomfortable and poignant reading. Without any legal security and without self-dramatizing her own challenges, de Vega speaks with candor and pathos about living with a writer, watching him die, and then returning to marginal anonymity as the rights and legacy are ceded to his widow. One of the recurring themes in the interviews is whether Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, by controversially authorizing the release of apprentice or discarded work (such as Woes of the True Policeman), has diminished his legacy. (López, was not interviewed by Maristain.)
Though Bolaño is more or less celebrated for not compromising his youthful zeal, Maristain also captures the subtle ways his outlook adapted to middle age. “I was terrified of him and his friends,” the writer Carmen Boullosa recalls of the time in Mexico when their early careers coincided. “I didn’t like them, I was scared of them. Really, I didn’t mind their poems.”
Years later, 28 by my estimate, Boullosa says, “I had read [The Savage Detectives] and appreciated how well it depicted my city and my generation. I met him in Vienna and we instantly hit it off. We were now writer colleagues and stayed up all night talking.”
Chris Andrews, the poet who translated into English Distant Star, Nazi Literature in the Americas, By Night in Chile, and Amulet, has written an important study of his themes and techniques, Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe. Many of the features that seem enchanting and original in 2666 or Distant Star or Last Evenings on Earth are examined thoughtfully and lucidly. When I first read The Savage Detectives years ago, I was perplexed by the sense of aimlessness and what I considered unfiltered, unshaped nostalgia. Andrews’s chapter on “Aimlessness” is the strongest, in part because it sheds some light on this incoherence:
The artful drifting of Bolaño’s stories suggests a crucially different order or disorder, in which events would follow one another interminably and unpredictably, renewed not just by endless variations on familiar and stable themes but by the metamorphosis of the themes themselves […] giving us no firm grounds for longer-term prediction.
He also successfully helps Bolaño beat the charge made by Sarah Pollack that he is playing to norteamericano assumptions about Latin America, specifically how barbaric and violent his culture is. As Pollack writes, “The Savage Detectives is a very comfortable choice for the United States to represent Latin America and Latin American literature, offering both the pleasure of the savage and the superiority of the civilized.”
To rebut Pollack’s charge, Andrews points out how pervasive violence is without denying the full personhood of individual characters. Bolaño’s poet-protagonists are “endowed with a special kind of courage,” if they are also morally ambivalent in their own ways. Furthermore, he argues cogently that the crimes in Mexico reveal “a human potential that is universal, if more contained in most other places,” and is juxtaposed in his novels to ruthless brutality in Europe, the United States, and Africa.
The “aimlessness” that Andrews explains also leads to fresh juxtaposition and nuance. One implication is that Archimboldi’s meandering path — which includes a brief stint as a courageous Nazi soldier — has its own dark reflection in his nephew, an intelligent, worldly “giant” who is the prime suspect in the mass murders in a fictionalized version of Ciudad Juárez.
Bolaño’s reputation, 10 years after his death, is still largely undecided. Even consensus about the broadest characterization of the work is hard to come by, with significant contradictions between readers. For instance, Marcela Valdes, in the introduction to The Last Interview, quotes the journalist González Rodríguez, “He wanted to believe that there was a rational power that could conquer the criminal.” Valdes concludes, “Such a triumphant ratiocinator appears in all of Bolaño’s novels — except for 2666.”
Andrews, on the other hand, points out how largely intuitive, tentative, “fluky,” and perhaps illusory most of that detective work is — often casting doubt on the conclusions or leaving the apprehension of the criminal offstage. (Another interesting disclosure from Maristain’s book is that Bolaño originally had the Santa Teresa crimes solved by a master detective. He bowed to reality, and the perpetrators go unapprehended at the novel’s end.)
Maristain and Andrews have contributed exceptional books, in the earliest stages of his posthumous career and with limited access to archives, it should be noted. No doubt Bolaño would have been ambivalent, even hostile, to institutional or critical sanctification — many of the friends interviewed by Maristain state as much — but here we are. That passage from 2666 — Benno von Archimboldi mistaking a mental institution for a writers’ colony — is part of a thread in his work. The poet-priest in By Night in Chile who trades on his power as a critic and collaborates with Pinochet, and 2666’s “Soviet Cervantes of science fiction,” Efraim Ivanov, are just two other examples of the writers who compromised their souls for a kind of literary mediocrity and moral repugnance sanctified by institutions.
As Archimboldi reflects when his lover tells him he will be famous when his first book is published, posterity was never the goal. “Döblin was his consolation. Ansky was his strength. Ingeborg was his joy. […] Sometimes they were even everything all together, but not fame, which was rooted in delusion and lies, if not ambition.”
He thinks, “Everything that ended in fame and everything that issued from fame was inevitably diminished. Fame’s message was unadorned. Fame and literature were irreconcilable enemies.”