The Bolaño Boom: On Javier Serena’s “Last Words on Earth”

November 1, 2021   •   By Aaron Bady

Last Words on Earth

Javier Serena

I’M STUCK ON the fact that the fictionalized version of Roberto Bolaño in Spanish novelist Javier Serena’s Last Words on Earth is not from Chile, but from Peru. This is not the central fact of this novel (now deftly translated by Katie Whittemore for Open Letter Books). It may not be what you find most interesting, and I can’t imagine it’s what Javier Serena thought was crucial, or that he would have expected it to be my or anyone else’s punctum. But it is. It’s the seam I want to pick at, the scab I can’t leave alone.

Why is he Peruvian?

But first things first: This book is about Roberto Bolaño. It affects a certain coyness — beginning with the words “I’ll call him Ricardo, Ricardo Funes, although that isn’t his real first name, or last” — but the back cover gives away the game, along with the publisher’s note, and any piece of promotional text or review you’re likely to see. Funes and Bolaño are similar in many ways, much like Bolaño’s “savage detectives” were the Infrarealists but with different names. Both spend the 1970s as young and rebellious (and probably totally unbearable) avant-garde poets in Mexico City, exiled from the country of their birth because of a (loosely-alluded-to) dictatorship; both eventually leave Mexico, washing up in Spain, where after years of working-class jobs — and writing poetry no one reads — they marry and have a family. There — having spent their lives devoted to literature, but without publishing much of anything, supported by their sisters, mothers, and wives — both abruptly produce a wave of novels whose global success makes them the subject of this meta-hagiographic novel’s scrutiny. And then both of them die.

On first read, you can be forgiven for thinking you are reading a roman à clef, that only the names are changed. The Infrarealists, for example — who became the “Visceral Realists” in The Savage Detectives — have here become “Negacionismo,” but what’s in a name? So many careful little biographical details are preserved from Bolaño’s life, from the literary competitions our hero enters to make money to the broad outlines of his domestic situation, his incessant smoking, and his obsession with strategy games and World War II. We even have the sudden death of the author’s longtime best friend and comrade, just as he completes his great novel about their life together. But Serena’s careful fidelity to most biographical facts makes his changes stick out. Why take such care on certain aspects of the man’s life only to transform it in others? Why make him so similar in so many respects, and then make, for example, a Chilean into a Peruvian?

In an interview, Serena said that “the skeleton of the novel, the main trajectory of his life, is the same […] while the scenes, everything inside that body, is my invention.” But what is skeleton, and what is body? What is the core truth, and what is merely superficial? On my second read, I started to wonder whether changing Chile to Peru — making our hero’s birth country as superficial and arbitrary as a name — tells us something about this novel, and about the literary economy which makes it both possible, even inevitable, to write a novel about the idea of “Roberto Bolaño.” I started to wonder if it means something that Spain (and what it represents) cannot be replaced by another country; that Mexico (and what it represents) cannot be replaced by another country; but that, precisely because of what it represents (or doesn’t?), Chile absolutely can be replaced by Peru.

(I also started to wonder whether this novel is neoliberalism, though I’m going to keep that safely between parentheses until I can figure out what I mean by it. When I said something like that to my Chilean partner, she said, “But wait, doesn’t neoliberalism mean something more like the Chicago boys and privatization?” And if I were going to fictionalize her in a novel, and have her say something similar, but with more of a Bolaño spin on it, I might push the point further and have her say something like: “Doesn’t neoliberalism in Latin America come at the barrel of a gun? Wasn’t what neoliberalism felt like, on the ground, wasn’t it a little more like murder than literature?”)

Last Words on Earth is a good novel. It works. It’s a kind of fan fiction, though perhaps we won’t call it that because fan fiction is low class, and Bolaño is high and literary (and instead of recycling the author’s characters, it’s the author himself who is raised from the dead and reanimated). But like fan fiction, it works because it satisfies, because it answers questions that otherwise go unanswered in the holes and omissions (and final foreclosure) of Bolaño’s life story. In other words, one reason this novel exists is because of the particular shape and character of Bolaño’s posthumous fame. He is an author who constantly wrote about authors “like” himself — who repeatedly fictionalized his own life story — but who became globally famous at almost exactly the moment when death took him, making it impossible to ever go back to the origin and source. This is particularly true in English — since Bolaño died barely five months after his first novel was published in English translation and well before the “Bolaño Boom” swept through the states — but even in Spanish, Bolaño’s actual autobiography tends to be projected through a hall of fictive mirrors (often of his own making). The incredible seven-year novelistic corpus he produced on what it meant to be a writer in Latin America on the apocalyptic brink of late 20th-century neoliberalism is all we have to go on, with no authoritative authorial voice to guide us through it. This lack is why it’s so satisfying when Serena puts him on the page, a very concrete Funes we can see and hear, and who even speaks directly to us.

At first, like the long middle section of The Savage Detectives — or Mónica Maristain’s Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations — Serena’s novel is structured like an oral history, the kind of Borgesian quest through the archives that Bolaño had so much fun with: putting the reader in the position of a detective, we search for the connections that will make this mass of information into a plot. And as with so much of Bolaño’s own work, this obsession with tracking down the truth of the writer — the real writer, when all other writers turn out to be frauds or fake — is too late, frustrated by death. By the time you catch up with him — by the time he makes it — he’s already gone.

However, in a very un-Bolaño twist, Serena’s writer is not only found, but shows up, as a ghost, and tells the reader his own story, straightforwardly, without artifice or evasion. Bolaño’s death might render him inaccessible, but “[i]t’s only from death that I can see, with absolute clarity, the moment I chose the path that was to determine my very existence,” Funes says at one point; at another, he says that only in death can you talk “without hints or nuances, and reveal the clean bones of the truth.”

(Let me hide another stray thought here, between parentheses: doesn’t a ghost showing up to tell his story seem like the sort of thing you’d find in one of the magical realist novels Bolaño loved to insult? Houses might be filled with spirits in the work of Isabel Allende, for example — who he derisively called an escribidora — but there are not so many ghosts in Bolaño’s writing. When there are, as in a story like “The Return,” he uses the conceit to make jokes about necrophilia. Most of the time, the dead are just dead. In 2666’s “The Part about the Crimes,” for example, the very point is that the dead do not tell their own stories. In fact, I tend to think that a big part of Bolaño’s aesthetic argument with the “Boom” was his realist distaste for fantasies of this type, for the rather optimistic idea that the past could never really be buried and silenced, even in death. I think part of Bolaño’s response to all the people who were killed and disappeared in the 1970s and ’80s — so many that Spanish required its own word for los desaparecidos — was to insist on death’s horrible finality, and to meditate on the silence and unsolved mysteries it leaves in its wake. And I think that might be why so many of his novels are about unsolvable mysteries, about voices forever lost in the archives; I think he believed that death was real, and final, and that it was, for precisely that reason, unutterably tragic.)

(It is almost too obvious to say this, but it’s still relevant to point it out: this novel would never have been written if Roberto Bolaño hadn’t died. This is a novel about the idea of Roberto Bolaño which, in his absence, becomes available to be animated. And that makes me think of something Carmen Boullosa once said, for Maristain’s biography, about how readers are besotted with the romantic idea of the writer dying young. “The truth is that it upsets me greatly,” she said; “It upsets me because I knew Roberto, because he was a very dear friend to me and I don’t at all like the idea of him being dead. […] If Bolaño had got his liver, he’d still be with us writing wonderful books.”)

(“They made him into a statue very quickly,” she said. And if he was still alive, one can easily imagine the pugilistic Bolaño pushing back on all that hagiography. But of course, if he was alive, they wouldn’t have made him into a statue in the first place. If he was alive, this novel would never have been written.)

(This isn’t even the only novel that fictionalizes him. Cristina Zabalaga’s Pronuncio un Nombre Hueco fictionalized him 2012, and he shows up in the middle of Javier Cercas’s 2001 Soldiers of Salamis.)

One mystery that Javier Serena’s novel uses fiction to resolve is the question of Bolaño’s drug use. Bolaño died of liver disease, which can be a result of chronic heroin use, something an autobiographical-seeming short story (confusingly collected in Between Parentheses, Bolaño’s nonfiction) seemed to indicate that Bolaño struggled with. In The Savage Detectives, the Visceral Realists do support themselves by selling drugs, and, after all, isn’t that sort of the whole Beat-poet vibe? Doesn’t heroin seem like the sort of thing a writer like the mythologized Bolaño would have done? One might speculate, then, that his liver failed him because of the sins of his poetic youth; one might posit that his was therefore a kind of romantic death, the wages of a life of excess. And so on.

If you look for confirmation in his real life, you find his wife and friends denying that he ever used heroin. You only ever find (as you so often do with Bolaño) the circularity of fiction being cited as fact, a writer who wrote stories about himself, who gave himself new names, and who often claimed to have done things that those who knew him would deny. You will not find out the answer.

Serena clears it up: Funes’s only drug is cigarettes; the Negacionismos traffic specifically in tobacco, not harder drugs; and when Funes dies of lung cancer — not liver disease — the undeniable connection neatly expresses the unbroken continuity of his life, from the cigarettes the poets smoke to the epistolary poems the Negacionistas read once and burn. We have all the information the Bolaño story denies us; with a Chekhovian faith in the author’s choices, we can presume that the act one cigarette in our hero’s mouth goes off in act three. Serena’s novel is satisfying, in other words, not merely because it fills in the gaps, but because it streamlines, or even corrects, the messy incompleteness of the Bolaño archive, rearranging the story into something more coherent and composed than the real facts of any life — much less Bolaño’s — would usually allow.

Indeed, Serena is quite explicit about making Bolaño’s life into something archetypal, into “the hero’s journey”:

In his life there are three phases: at first, being very young, he wanted to be a visceral, revolutionary, subversive writer, and to succeed worldwide. He went into exile, to Mexico, then to Spain, and for years he led a nomadic and bohemian life, he was a street vendor, he worked in bars, on a campsite; later, for another ten years, he practically lived off his wife, in a town on the Catalan coast; and finally, when he triumphs in literature, it is seven years before he dies, and that triumph is complete, worldwide. It seems to me that it is the hero’s journey: there is a very daring and enthusiastic adventure, a very long penalty and an encounter with his dream and his initial purpose, that triumph in literature, which completes him, although in his case, it is a bitter triumph, because when that happens, you know you are sick and you are going to die.

This is a two-phase story, from visceral youth in Mexico to Spanish success. And perhaps nothing is more predictable than that Serena leaves out where our author-hero went into exile from. So firmly identified as a writer in exile, without a homeland, who famously declared that the Spanish language was his homeland, how could Bolaño be anything so specific, so prosaic, as a Chilean? “[E]very writer becomes an exile simply by venturing into literature, and every reader becomes an exile simply by opening a book,” he once wrote. But if every writer is an exile, the word detaches from any specific place of origin, lost home, or trauma. Latin America, dictatorship, the details get fuzzy; he might as well be Peruvian, or Uruguayan, or anything else.

In Serena’s novel, Funes being Peruvian doesn’t amount to much. The first page introduces him as “from Peru and never forgot that he was an exile,” but you can easily read this novel and forget that he is Peruvian. If a dictatorship is offhandedly framed as the precipitating event for his exile, the (very different) details of these two countries’ political histories remain obscure. As with Bolaño’s own father, Funes’s father simply moves the family from Lima to Mexico, early, for other reasons, and the son puts down roots elsewhere. But Bolaño would return to Chile, at least once, and the story of 1973 finds its way into a great many of his novels. When Funes writes a novel called The Aztec, on the other hand, there’s no reason to wonder why he didn’t call it The Incan. There’s no sense that he’s as haunted by Sendero Luminoso as Bolaño was by Pinochet, or that any analogue to that psychic shadow exists. In this novel, “Peru” is just a name.

Instead — as Serena’s emphasis on “the hero’s journey” indicates — the novel is primarily interested in the (unanswerable) question of Bolaño’s “triumph.” How and why, in the last years of a life marked by literary obsession, poetry, and a kind of stubborn and willful professional failure, did our hero suddenly and abruptly write a series of universally acclaimed novels, achieving the heights of success? The cool clarity of death allows “Ricardo Funes” to perform his own autopsy, and he gives us the results.

(Read the novel if you want to know what Funes thinks it is. It is, as I said, a good novel.)

With respect to Roberto Bolaño’s “success,” it’s a central tenet of the legend that Bolaño considered himself a poet at heart, but started writing fiction so that he could support his family financially; it’s something he said in a variety of ways, but also something he never quite put with the blunt directness that one finds in various articles about him. It would be a strange decision to make; imagine choosing novelist as a money-making career! And yet Bolaño’s novels absolutely have supported his family financially; as his estate has been shepherded by the Wiley Agency, he has continued to posthumously publish, novel after novel, year after year.

But this seems less strange if we consider that, by the time he did interviews, he had already become a quite startlingly successful writer, and had already managed to provide for his family through his novels. No one interviewed the penniless failure he had been (or the romantic outcast, depending on your perspective); other than a few texts like his Infrarealist manifesto — or anecdotes from friends — there simply isn’t much of a paper trail for the person he had been before he became successful, before The Savage Detectives won a very important prize, before his work was translated, and before the Bolaño myth was born. By the time readers of his novels noticed that he had spent most of his life as a radically unprofessional poet, in other words, he had become something else, quite successfully turning his unpublished past into literary commodities that sold well on the marketplace.

Which is to say, Serena raises the question of whether success, as such, is heroic. Serena might have written a novel about how this author decided to radically shift his aesthetic, how he chose to turn away from the unpublishable poetry of his youthful rebellion to the kind of prose writing that demonstrably did sell. This might have been a novel about how, after a kind of prose apprenticeship — submitting short stories to regional literary competitions, like the Beatles playing 16-hour sets in Hamburg — Funes cracked the code, figured it out, and became a remarkably successful crafter of narrative. It might have asked the question of whether something was lost, or whether there was ever anything to be lost in the first place. It does not: in Serena’s novel, there is no conflict between success and obscurity, no aesthetic shift to be narrated, and certainly no crisis of the soul. Instead, Funes is always faithful, the last to keep “the strict codes of nobility by which the Negacionistos lived”; of his comrades, he is always the most unyielding, the most inflexible “in his demands that others adhere to his principles of loyalty.” He is anguished at “witnessing how the old members of his Negacionist sect forgot their youthful vows,” until only he and his last comrade, Domingo Pasquiano, are left; we see his incredible loneliness when Pasquiano dies, and only Funes is left to keep the flames burning.

We do not, however, really see what those “strict codes” actually are. Beyond vaguely gestured-toward expressions of loyalty and faithfulness, a reader of this novel would be hard-pressed to say what a Negacionista vows to do. A former member enrages Funes by erasing evidence of his involvement in the Negacionismo — so as to “enjoy a cushy bureaucratic position” — but if his betrayal earns the novelist’s contempt, I’m not clear as to what, exactly, he betrayed. Funes curses “the sellout of the moment,” but what, exactly, has been sold? If he and Pasquiano wrote manifestos, we do not learn what is in them.

If you know the Infrarealists — even if you only know them as the “visceral realists” in The Savage Detectives — you can infer the answer: that the refusal of publishing, of bourgeois living, and of the marketplace of literature is what is at stake. You can deduce that when Pasquiano and Funes exchange poems by mail — which they read once and then burn — their willful refusal to publish is exactly the point of the exercise. That’s what it was for the Infrarealists: to not allow their poems to become commodities or to be co-opted, and to refuse even the possibility of “success.” This is why the Infrarealists notoriously went to bookstores to steal books, and performed their poetry in the streets, not in print; this is why the first two lines of Mario Santiago’s Infrarealist manifesto are “WHAT DO WE PROPOSE? TO NOT MAKE WRITING A PROFESSION.” And you find this throughout the record of Bolaño’s avant-garde salad days: “Publication was never the main goal of Infrarrealismo,” as Rubén Medina writes in Perros habitados por las voces del desierto: Poesía infrarrealista entre dos siglos:

In fact, on several occasions — during the final years of the 1970s and the entire following decade in Mexico — we, the infrarrealistas, consistently refused to be included in the anthologies and magazines of that time, either as a group or individually. The goal, to be precise, was to maintain our ethics: the ethics of writing even if it implied self-marginalization, a fragile existence as poets, remaining unpublished and in the black holes.

What Serena does, in other words, is smooth out one of the most interesting questions one can ask of Roberto Bolaño, the question so much of his work suggests, even demands, we ask: was it a betrayal of his literature to be so successful at it?

Of course, it wasn’t really “success” as such that the Infrarealists railed against. Their major critique of the establishment writers they hated — people like Octavio Paz, whom they spent a lot of time hating — was that they had become tools of the state, co-opted by the very same government that had massacred students at Tlatelolco. The same interior minister who sent the army into the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1968 — which Bolaño would make his protagonist’s primal traumatic scene in Amulet — was, as president in the ’70s, heavily engaged in using patronage, prizes, scholarships, workshops, and publications to incorporate potentially dissident writers into the establishment. The Infrarealists wrote those manifestos because, at that time, at that place, to be paid as a writer meant getting money from the same government that was conducting a dirty war. This was, in practice, what “professionalism” meant. As Medina puts it:

[A] main tenet of Infrarealism continues to be the rejection of state dependency. Infrarealists broke with the traditional practice of Mexican writers throughout the twentieth century of pursuing job positions in state institutions as a way to facilitate their writing activity […] Breaking with state dependency, Infrarealism broke with the image of the writer as an apolitical social climber.

I don’t think anyone would accuse Bolaño, as novelist, of pursuing institutional stability, or of using his writing to “climb.” And yet what are Bolaño’s politics? What made him — or what allowed him to be — so wildly, oddly successful?

A strange thing about coming back to Bolaño, after about a decade since I last read a lot of these books, is how distinctly of his moment he now seems to me to be, both in the broader cultural contours of Latin American history and in the world as a whole. He produced essentially all of his well-known works in a blazing seven-year period — 1996–2003 — so it’s easier to say this than it would be for an author who has decades to breathe and evolve and grow and change: everything one tends to read, when one reads Bolaño, was written by a middle-aged baby boomer at the end of history, in the moment of neoliberalism’s total ascendence and hegemony. This is why, then, for Bolaño a word like “millennial” means something precisely different than the newly doomed generation of strangely utopian young people we use it to describe; he wouldn’t live to see the pink tide in Latin America, much less the decade of street protests and struggle in Chile that has led to what was once unthinkable, the rolling back of neoliberalism and a new constitution. It’s just a feeling, I guess, but it is how his work makes me feel now: so much that might have seemed so securely closed and dead in that Yeatsian, millenarian moment in which Bolaño wrote — when democracy had been allowed to return to Latin America, provisionally, defanged, because the revolutionaries had been routed and buried — well, it now seems a lot less finished, a lot less secure. History doesn’t seem over anymore.

It makes me read Bolaño differently to think of him this way. The writer whose literary footprint took the place once given to Gabriel García Márquez and the Boom was deeply pessimistic; he wrote about the end of the world, the destruction of his generation’s youthful idealism, and the apocalyptic wasteland that fascism had made of Latin American democracy. And he wrote about how literature becomes complicit, how it gets co-opted; he even wrote about how it becomes impossible. He makes it impossible, in short, to see literary success as anything but the kind of betrayal we are left with, here, after the heroism of youth has been shown to be, and to have always been, a kind of fraudulent fantasy. Bolaño is the kind of noir detective who, when he figures out who the killer is, also realizes that there’s no such thing as a “justice” to which the killer can be brought. Or worse: That the detective is himself the killer. One of Bolaño’s great themes is the insufficiency of literature to be what it wants to be — what he needs it to be — and of the failure and corruption and cowardice of The Latin American Writer, including himself.

This might not be what you think of when you think of Bolaño, of course. But that might be because The Savage Detectives is usually the “first” Bolaño novel one comes to, or hears about (and often the last); it is the book that, for most people, shows them how to read Bolaño and tells them what he’s all about. Sometimes that place is taken by 2666, which fulfills a similar function, and is a similar book in a few crucial ways: in both of these Big Important Novels — that for a few years in the early 2000s were required reading in High Literary Society — Bolaño gives us a small galaxy of writers and critics, all circling the drain of some evil, apocalyptic nameless horror, in northern Mexico, on the border (which they, and we, never quite find). But both books position the reader in more or less the same place: we are reading a chronicle of the search for an artistic holy grail, the real writer, the truest (lost) avatar of literature. It is therefore possible to take from these novels — from the innocence of Juan García Madero, from the historical example of Cesárea Tinajero, and from the mastery of Benno von Archimboldi — a belief, a desire, and even a faith in the importance of literary achievement, and the imperative to search for it.

(This is more or less what Serena does with Bolaño; his Funes “wrote novels and stories filled with young people proclaiming their intense love of life, adolescent poets fervidly roaming the streets of Mexico City […] prophets whose only commandment was to renounce all forms of cynicism and cowardice.” His Funes might have written The Savage Detectives, or at least parts of it; his Funes would never have written Distant Star or By Night in Chile, those incredible portraits of the Chilean writer as doomed to cynicism, cowardice, and fascism.)

If your entry point for Bolaño is Nazi Literature in the Americas, on the other hand, and if you frame his career through what he was saying about the club he was writing himself into, you get a very different picture. It was this Borgesian 1996 experiment that really unlocked the novel for him. Nazi Literature in the Americas is the cynical and pessimistic counterpoint to the nostalgic idealism of The Savage Detectives, which came two years later, and that dissonant harmony is the “Bolañoesque,” the friction, the conflict, and the crisis where his scathing and unrelenting cynicism about The Literary combines with (or reveals, or flows out of, or necessitates) his incredible, bottomless romanticism about Art. It’s the way his critique of the practice only becomes more zealous and obsessed with the ideal as a result, the way he spends all his time trying to talk himself out of writing, and failing. We find this in the timeline of both Bolaño himself and his literary doppelgängers (both the ones he wrote and the ones he didn’t), in the story of a youthful revolutionary poet who, as he rails against all the frauds and fascists that make up the literary landscape, makes sure that the establishment will reject him by rejecting them first … until suddenly he turns to writing novels about writers, which are, strangely, extremely successful.

This is the question Serena does not want to ask: did Bolaño give up “the strict codes of nobility by which the [Infrarealists] lived”? Would some version of Ricardo Funes have raged at how Bolaño “forgot [his] youthful vows”? After all, when the once-vagabond poet settles down in Spain, when he marries, has kids, and when he explicitly writes novels to make money, to provide for his family — instead of living in the romantic, dirty poverty of the forever rebel, who abandons it all again as the Infrarealist manifesto demands — there’s a very boomer story we could tell, if we wanted, about the end of youthful revolutions against the establishment, about how the ’60s gave up and made money, the kind of generational story though which a phrase like “sell out” becomes comprehensible in the first place. And in his speeches and interviews, Bolaño always framed the novels of his middle age as chronicling a youthful moment that had not only passed, failed, and been murdered, but also a youth which — from the vantage of that middle age — had always, also, been doomed. In a much quoted section from the speech he gave on receiving the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, he came closest to summing up his literary career:

[T]o a great extent, everything that I’ve written is a love letter or a farewell letter to my own generation, those of us who were born in the 1950s and who at a certain moment chose military service, though in this case it would be more accurate to say militancy, and we gave what little we had — the great deal we had, which was our youth — to a cause that we thought was the most generous cause in the world and in a certain way it was, but in reality it wasn’t.

If Bolaño is the great post-Boom Latin American writer, it’s in part because his relationship to the revolutionary ’60s is framed by this kind of bitterness, this pessimism. But when Bolaño became the Latin American writer most celebrated by the establishment, when — in endless inevitable blurbs and comparisons — he became representative of what the establishment is, was that a betrayal?

According to at least some secondhand reports, this is how a few of his onetime comrades saw it. It’s not hard to understand why. After co-founding a radical movement that eschewed publication (and flouted establishment success) in favor of living poetry, in the streets, in bars, and in homes, Bolaño had turned to that ultimate bourgeois form, the novel, and had done it explicitly to make money. Instead of disrupting official literary culture, as the Infrarealists notoriously had, he embraced it and participated. After Mario Santiago died, still keeping the faith, Bolaño was going on chat shows and winning awards for telling stories about his onetime comrades, whom he had left behind.

To be clear, I don’t particularly like this way of thinking about him. I like Bolaño and his novels. Who can blame him for wanting to make money from his writing, for wanting his family to be okay after his death, for wanting to be “a success”? Who could blame him, in the late ’90s, for having a dim view of alternatives to neoliberalism? Who, in their 40s, still practices exactly the ideals and beliefs of their maniac 23-year-old self?

(The answer is: Javier Serena’s Ricardo Funes. He is the first Negacionista, and also the last. He doesn’t worry about money. He keeps the faith after no one else did, when he has been abandoned by all the others. He is betrayed, never betrays.)

It has to be said, though, that Bolaño was definitely not the last Infrarealist. He always talked about the movement in the past tense; he once declared that he and Mario Santiago had dissolved it in 1992, and another time that they had dissolved it in 1977. Meanwhile, a group of poets in Mexico continued to publish things using that name. They even, for a while, had a website. If his Mexican youth had been in exile from Chile, it was Mexico that he never went back to, preserving the memories of his youth, unchanged and unchangeable, while his comrades continued to be Infrareal without him. Indeed, calling the Bolaño who wrote all those novels a writer in “exile” might be a way of avoiding the admission that his onetime comrades continued on without him, after he left them.

When Bolaño’s editor described how he had “abandoned his parsimonious beatnik existence” after his son’s birth made him “decide that he was responsible for his family’s future and that it would be easier to earn a living by writing fiction,” the word “abandoned” feels like a deliberate, if ambiguous, reference to the title of Bolaño’s Infrarealist manifesto. So I’m curious: Did the Infrarealists he left behind feel abandoned? What did they think of his novels? I wouldn’t call him a sell-out, but then I didn’t write those manifestos; what did the people who did write those manifestos think of The Savage Detectives? What did they think of Internationally Famous Novelist Roberto Bolaño, giving speeches at conferences and going on TV chat shows? What would Mario Santiago have made of Ulises Lima? Perhaps more to the point, what would the young Bolaño have made of who the middle-aged Bolaño had become?

It’s not a wild leap to suggest that the middle-aged Bolaño also thought about this question, and that a lot of his fiction is him thinking about this question. There are often two Bolaño figures in his novels, both a young one and an old one. Arturo Belano is Roberto Bolaño, of course, but so, in a way, is Juan García Madero, the young, callow poet in the first part of The Savage Detectives. And in By Night in Chile, the “wizened youth” who rebukes the narrator — calling him a corrupt, cowardly, semi-fascist social climber — will also turn out to be the younger self of that very same dying writer. Indeed, the novel’s twist is that revelation, that the “wizened youth” is simply the perpetual rebuke — from the young man that the narrator once was, to the man he has tragically become — making the entire novel a kind of deathbed confession. But is it only the deathbed confession of “the most liberal priest in Opus Dei,” reflecting on a lifetime of art spent in complicity with fascism? Might it also reflect another dying Chilean author’s most searchingly unforgiving critique of his own life? Perhaps a little?

(Bolaño always disparaged his novels; “The only novel that doesn't embarrass me is Antwerp,” he said about the anti-narrative prose-poem which he wrote when he was 27, and didn’t publish until the year before his death; in an interview, he explained that “when I wrote that novel I was another person, in principle much younger and perhaps braver than now. And the exercise of literature was much more radical than today, because now I try, within certain limits, to be intelligible. Back then, I didn’t give a damn if I was understood or not.” In the 2002 introduction to Antwerp, Bolaño reflects on the 1980 Bolaño who wrote it, who never tried to publish it; “I wrote this book for myself,” he says, and, “I wrote this book for the ghosts who, because they are outside time, are the only ones with time.”)

(I tried to read Antwerp, but I didn’t try very hard — and who has time to read all of Bolaño? — so I didn’t get much past the introduction.)

In Javier Serena’s novel, the younger Funes does not disparage his novels or feel embarrassed by them. He doesn’t recall his youthful militancy with that mix of nostalgia and condescension that so many boomers learned to adopt in the neoliberal era (in part because it’s not clear Funes was ever a militant at all). Instead, his novels are a clear and simple continuation of his youthful poetry, and it is this continuity that makes his success after a lifetime of labor heroic. It is a culmination of the faith he has kept; when he was a failure, as a young man, that failure weighed heavily on him: even as he was railing against his onetime comrades for their defections, he was also “compar[ing] his age with the authors who were already publishing with prestigious houses,” and beginning to “[doubt] his prospects for future triumph.” He does eventually get it, of course, but it’s the fact that he wanted it, as a young man, that makes him so distinct from the Infrarealist Bolaño of that Antwerp introduction. Indeed, it is precisely Bolaño’s success that makes him a hero for this novel; the great novels that we all read, that have become such valuable commodities on the international marketplace, make Last Words on Earth a novel that could be written. Those novels are what made all of it worthwhile, the works of a patriarch who, by his art, supported his family, and there is no real ambivalence or contradiction about that. And yet if Bolaño raced against his own death to leave a literary oeuvre behind — as a stock of capital from which his family could draw dividends — Serena gives us an author to whom money could not matter less.

Bolaño was a little more complicated. And what I’m getting at is that this might be exactly the contradiction that makes Bolaño interesting, as a thinker, as a figure, and as an mytho-autobiographer of the figure of The Author. There might not be much left of his novels, if you removed the tension between youthful idealism and middle-aged bourgeois conformity; a Bolaño who didn’t hold authors in contempt, and who didn’t, also, believe that literature was the only thing that mattered, well, that just wouldn’t be Bolaño.

It would be Ricardo Funes, who is what is left when you remove this tension, whose ghost recalls that he “wanted to write books about characters who raised themselves up as heroes, like statues on horseback, sabers drawn and pointing in life’s true direction, the models I hoped would ultimately inspire my children.” But I don’t see many inspirational protagonists in Bolaño’s fiction; I see a lot of writers who are fascists. And it tells you a lot about what kind of writer you think Bolaño is if you look at him and see The Savage Detectives as the central text, and describe it in the terms Ricardo Funes’s ghost describes his writing, as a romantic celebration of youth. (Another way into his work, as I’ve described, would be Nazi Literature in the Americas, the novel that overdetermines the revelations, in 2666, about what the great Benno von Archimboldi did in the years 1939–1945, and about how all of his writing stems from that buried fact.)

When I look at Bolaño, I see, first and foremost, a Chilean writer. Partly this is because By Night in Chile was the first book I read by him, and remains my favorite. And partly this is because I find myself married into a family of Chileans. But mainly it’s because he simply was a Chilean writer, and because — for all his global perambulations — his story of himself as a Latin American writer was inextricable from the story of Chile in the ’70s, the story we get in novels like Distant Star, a story that Ricardo Funes would never have written. These are the stories that determined what I am somewhat crassly calling his neoliberal pessimism, stories about how the market won in Chile, how Allende was killed, and how all those youthful revolutionaries were tortured, murdered, and sent into exile, about how a generation’s utopian hopes disappeared even as their commercial prospects improved. When Bolaño wrote his novels, the dictatorship may have ended, and Chile may have had democratic elections, but it was Pinochet’s constitution which remained, enshrining Milton Friedman where Allende had once been.

All of which is to say, the crucial thing that goes missing if you make Bolaño not-Chilean is that he can’t be haunted by the death of Allende, by Chile’s 9/11. If Funes is a Peruvian, and if Peru did not have a coup in 1973, then Funes never saw the first democratically elected socialist president in Latin America killed to make way for a radical experiment in free market governance, a.k.a. neoliberalism at gunpoint; he didn’t return to Chile in 1973 to fight for socialism, and wasn’t detained for eight days as a foreign terrorist (as Bolaño either did or spent his life claiming he did but feeling survivor’s guilt because he didn’t); he didn’t flee overland back to Mexico, and he didn’t stay away from Chile for over 25 years.

Instead, Ricardo Funes isn’t even particularly Peruvian in Last Words on Earth, or at least his “being Peruvian” doesn’t seem to mean anything in particular. It doesn’t signify a link to the Movimiento Hora Zero, as far as I can tell; if it’s a riff on the way Mario Santiago became Ulises Lima in The Savage Detectives, it’s a pretty weak joke. It mostly seems to express his not being several very particular things: being Peruvian allows him to be not-Mexican when he is a young man in Mexico, for example, and not-Spanish when he lives in Spain, at the end of his life, things he has to not be so that he can be a writer “in exile.” But most importantly, being Peruvian doesn’t become a story in this novel, in exactly the way that being Chilean was always a central part of Bolaño’s sense of his life. In this novel, it simply registers the erasure of that story. Being Peruvian means not being Chilean.

I think being Chilean was a very specific thing for Bolaño; I think being Chilean, and the historical experience of his generation of Chileans — for so many of whom “neoliberalism” named the very specific reason they also went into exile — is a crucial context for his writing, without which much of it loses its definition. That might be because By Night in Chile is my favorite of his novels, a novel about how an author attacks himself for sitting out the revolution, for merely writing instead of doing something; that might be because I think that there’s at least a very good chance that Bolaño lied about returning to Chile in 1973, that he was never detained. “I understand why he lied,” Carmen Boullosa once said, “because he was remorseful at having missed out, at not having been there.”

In an interview with Héctor Soto and Matías Bravo, when asked about his relationship to the world he describes in novels like The Savage Detectives, Bolaño said that as “a survivor” perhaps “I’ve been attempting to forgive myself.” Would we have his novels without that guilt? I am glad, I must admit, that he survived. A statue, after all, can’t write novels.

That’s why, in the end, it’s worth emphasizing that Bolaño was a Chilean writer, not only because it so often gets forgotten, or gets reduced to being simply a name; it’s worth emphasizing because it helps us disentangle the Bolaño who born in Chile from the idea of Bolaño who was born, in the 2000s, in hagiographies and in the hubbub around endless posthumous releases. That second Bolaño — the Bolaño who lives on in the Wiley Agency, who shows up in other novels, and on blurbs, who continues to thrive as a best seller in the United States — might just as well have been born in Peru. Being from Latin America is part of that writer’s story, since an exile needs somewhere to have been exiled from, but where he went was more important than where he came from, so we don’t need to worry too much about whether it was Chile or Peru. Once he’s arrived, his point of origin has become as arbitrary, as superficial, as a name, and as easy to change.


Aaron Bady is a writer in Oakland.