Bolaño to Come

The English-speaking world has canonized Roberto Bolaño with astonishing rapidity. It’s not surprising that this consecration has begun to provoke skepticism among Spanish-speaking critics who ...

The English-speaking world has canonized Roberto Bolaño with astonishing rapidity. It’s not surprising that this consecration has begun to provoke skepticism among Spanish-speaking critics who concede Bolaño’s importance but detect a condescension to Latin American writing in the fervor of the Anglo acclaim. Some caution does seem warranted: when a writer earns comparisons to Coltrane, Cortázar, Proust, and the Sex Pistols, the encomia begin to sound less like measured judgment than the symptoms of incomprehension, or the fruit of an overactive PR assault.

The biography is certainly ripe for the distortions of myth. If you’ve looked at a book review section in the last decade you know something about Bolaño’s life and afterlife: the youthful avant-garde hell-raising in Mexico City; the return to his native Chile and the stint in Pinochet’s jails; the period with leftist guerrillas in El Salvador and the travels in North Africa; the possible heroin addiction; the clean-up, marriage, and bourgeoisification in Spain; the 1993 diagnosis of liver disease and the miraculously productive final years (fourteen books in a decade); the embrace by the Hispanophone literary establishment and the speedy welcome by Anglo-American readers; the endless flow of posthumous publications.

It’s easy to picture the film version, with Gael García Bernal handling the Latin American years and Antonio Banderas stepping in when the scene shifts to Europe and middle age; surely they’ll reprise the roles in Julian Schnabel’s lush English-language remake a year later. Like those (for-now imaginary) biopics, Bolaño’s vogue has seemed to some recent commentators a sign of celebrity mongering and US cultural domination. In an astringent essay, Sarah Pollack has suggested that Bolaño’s portraits of “beat” excess play to Americans’ sense of Latin America as shiftless and renegade; Alberto Medina has claimed that Bolaño’s readability signals his work’s erasure of earlier Hispanic avant-gardes. The worry is not confined to the anglosphere: a recent Chilean monograph claims with amazement and just-detectable concern that one in four literature dissertations-in-progress in Spanish-speaking countries is on Bolaño.

Bolaño’s fiction boasts an impeccable claim to status as “global” writing but has none of the bleached-out quality the term conjures.

It’s worth asking questions about the singularity of this hallowing. From a certain angle, Bolaño’s success all too neatly exemplifies the inequities of what Pascale Casanova calls the “world republic of letters,” in which metropolitan publishing centers ratify a severely limited number of writers from less powerful regions. And yet Bolaño’s writing is as knowing as Casanova’s about the workings of world literary prestige, and it seems possible that his popularity among Anglo-American readers bespeaks a hunger for some more ample register of geopolitical comprehension. His fiction boasts an impeccable claim to status as “global” writing but has none of the bleached-out quality the term conjures. In summary Bolaño can sound like any number of postmodern writers with a broad geographic canvas and an inventive approach to form: the fictions feature oddly proportioned chapters, changes in perspective, invented interviews, encyclopedia entries, appendices, and so on. But the writing is utterly lacking in cleverness, and the formal contortions feel less like virtuosic pyrotechnics than expressions of humility, as if born of an attempt to explore all the ways literary structure can fail to explain reality.

The formal ingenuity is matched by an absolute interest in his characters’ experience. Bolaño’s inhabitation of voice and setting is uncanny: he writes without hitting a false note about priests and porn stars and literary critics and campground attendants, about Costa Brava beaches and exurban Los Angeles and wartime East Prussia, about Santiago, Tel Aviv, and Mexico City. The command of local intensities and large-scale formal experiment gives his fiction its distinctive sense of comprehensive gravity. That he so often writes about the aftermath of Latin America’s political catastrophes—a subject North American readers usually encounter through a filter of sensationalism or mythic unreality—makes his popularity here all the more unusual.

The Savage Detectives and 2666, the novels at the center of his achievement, together constitute an ambitious mapping of global modernity. The former, published in 1998, is a chronicle of literary and erotic experimentation spanning two decades, and has been acclaimed by the Mexican critic Christopher Domínguez Michael as the best novel ever written about his country’s capital. The mesmeric middle section comprises scores of apparently transcribed depositions by a series of young and aging literary types—friends, acquaintances, and lovers of two mysteriously vanished poets who may either be geniuses or frauds. The reader senses that the search will be fruitless, but this voiding of narrative tension does nothing to diminish our interest in these stories of seduction, economic frustration, and literary controversy, which seem to obey some ethical exigency—as if to understand the peregrinations of these fifty-odd characters would be to understand the fate of the Western hemisphere in the late twentieth century.

2666, the manuscript of which was left essentially complete at Bolaño’s death in 2003, replaced the choral narration of Detectives with a stoic third-person, and its ludic energies with an unremitting darkness. The book ranges from World War II to contemporary academia, but at its heart is a terrifying account of the murders of women in Santa Teresa, a fictional version of Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez. The killings are both a literal dividend of neoliberalism’s reorganization of the border economy and an emblem of a century’s crimes. Here again, Bolaño gestures at a final understanding that never arrives—any narratable “solution” to these crimes would be obscene—but the novel is compulsively readable. Its prose, devoid of prurience even when recounting the most brutal events, generates a kind of ethical suspense that is not discharged when you close the book.

the tangled bibliography is less of an obstacle to comprehension than it at first appears. Bolaño’s work radiates a sense of having come into the world entire.

And then there’s the rest. Bolaño’s publication history in Spanish is complex (several early books weren’t published until close to his death), and the order of translation into English so staggered, that it’s difficult to reconstruct the career from publication dates. The last three years alone have given English readers Monsieur Pain, a fictionalization of the death of Peruvian poet César Vallejo first published under another name in 1993; Antwerp, an experimental prose-poem that Bolaño wrote in 1980 but refrained from publishing until 2002; and The Third Reich, a novel with German characters and a Costa Brava setting found among his papers and published in Spanish in 2010—not to mention three story collections and two books of poetry. But the tangled bibliography is less of an obstacle to comprehension than it at first appears. Bolaño’s work radiates a sense of having come into the world entire: if other artists have juvenilia and mature work, blue periods, major phases, late style, Bolaño’s fiction is more an expanse to inhabit than a career to read through. “To understand one [of my books] you have to read all the others too, because they all refer to one another,” he told an interviewer.1 He thought this fact would doom him to a small readership. He was, of course, wrong about that; plenty of people are eager to explore el territorio bolañano, even as it expands through posthumous publication.

The Bolaño bibliography in English has almost caught up to the Spanish one: there are now only three published novels that remain unavailable in English. They span his career as a fiction writer. But it is in keeping with the strangeness of his work, in which every part feels contemporaneous with every other, that all three are animated by his characteristic subject matter: the intersection of crime, literature, political suffering, and sex. Read together, they give an extraordinary sense of the single-mindedness of his vocation.

Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce (Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic) announces the birth of some of Bolaño’s durable obsessions, most notably his vision of the physical and moral proximity of artistic practice and state terror. A noir account of an unlikely crime spree undertaken by a Joyce-obsessed Spanish writer and his South American girlfriend over a long Barcelona summer, the book was co-written with Antoni García Porta, a Spanish novelist who remained one of Bolaño’s closest friends at his death; it was the first book publication for both men when it appeared in 1984.

The plot of Consejos is an assemblage of hardboiled tropes: a femme fatale (the South American Ana); a waffling, erotically transfixed hero (the narrator Ángel); a string of crimes culminating in the “one last job” that ends in disaster. Bolaño claimed that the idea of centering a novel on a Joycean killer was his collaborator’s, but he clearly embraced the conceit enthusiastically: in his introduction to the 2006 reissue, Porta quotes a 1981 letter from Bolaño proposing to “do with Joyce (or with J. J.’s Ulysses) what Joyce had done with Homer and the Odyssey. Of course there’s a big difference! But the result could be really interesting, a kind of Pollock drip-painting, the translation of Joycean symbols and obsessions into a short, violent, rapid novel.” In the event, the novel does not demand a refresher course in Irish modernism: allusions to Joyce abound, but they take a backseat to the action (the duo likes to cite Ulysses’s opening lines at the start of each stick-up).

The more intriguing echoes are not of Joyce’s work but of his situation as a colonial writer whose “soul frets in the shadow” of an imperial language that remains his only mode of expression. Ángel narrates in Spanish, but at moments of tension speaks to himself in Catalan. This detail reminds us that Consejos is set only a few years after Franco’s death ended the state’s official discouragement of Catalonia’s language, and points us to the novel’s political subtext (a topic on which José Agustín Pastén has done informative work). At one point Ángel has a nightmarish fantasy that Ana is being raped by cops “dressed in the old style, that is, in gray”—a reference to the uniforms worn by Franco’s state police. While we never learn the facts of Ana’s background (the text refers to her always as “South American”), we know she carries photos of the leftist Chilean singer Violeta Parra and the exiled Argentine performance artist Ángel Pavlovsky—a detail that tempts us to explain her psychopathic bloodlust as a misplaced response to the Southern Cone dictatorships.

Many of Bolaño’s novels might be described as tragedies of adjacent space. All you have to do to get from an art opening to the engine-room of state terror is stumble down the wrong hallway.

If Ángel and Ana’s obsessions with art and crime are stand-ins for a political desire, there’s something in their world, or in their genre, that prevents that desire from finding its articulation. The novel’s gruesome climax plays such confusions for maximum effect. Ana and Ángel’s final job targets the safe-deposit box of an agency that makes “loans on a big scale”—and that shares underground office space, ominously, with “a kind of para-police agency that was involved in selecting personnel.” The sinister vagueness of that description suggests that, even dead or geographically distant, Franco and Pinochet are never really gone, and that their goon squads are possibly recruiting next door to where we’ve gone to seek a loan, or stage a heist. It’s part of the messiness of the cataclysm that we never quite understand which business our protagonists have attacked, and if it matters. The office they hit is engaged in mystifyingly menacing commerce: telexes spit out obscure messages about shipments of blood (“Is it a company for vampires?” Ángel wonders), there is no safe-deposit box, the underground vaults are bizarrely filled with canvases of abstract art—and, of course, those “para-police” join the fray. Bolaño’s readers will recognize here the origins of the conceptual undergirding of Distant Star and By Night in Chile, novels that might similarly be described as tragedies of adjacent space. All you have to do to get from an art opening to the engine-room of state terror is stumble down the wrong hallway.

A few steps further down that hallway bring you to the sentiment expressed in the epigraph to 2002’s Una novelita lumpen (A Lumpen Novella), from Antonin Artaud: “All writing is garbage.” It is only at first glance a surprising salvo for someone at the end of an intensely creative life: all of Bolaño’s art-besotted work radiates an acute awareness of the pointlessness of art; one of his last pieces of writing is an essay called “Literature + Illness = Illness.” Una novelita is the least literary of Bolaño’s books in subject matter: no aspiring novelists, no disappeared avant-gardists, no poètes maudits. Bianca, the young Italian woman who narrates, opens by telling us that she is now “a mother and also a married woman, but not that long ago I was a delinquent.” The story is a brief, haunted account of a period on the financial and social edge, unredeemed by fantasies of Parnassian greatness or even a library card.

Bianca and her brother have lost their parents in a car accident, and they live on in the family apartment in Rome. Vaguely awaiting government assistance that never comes, they work menial jobs, she at a hairdresser’s, he at a gym. Their apprenticeship in the beauty industry feels like rehearsal for the sex work we suspect awaits them; when her brother rents a porn movie for them to watch together—“to learn,” he says desultorily—Bianca accepts his explanation with an air of inevitability. Later he arrives home with two men who work in some undefined capacity at his gym and who inexplicably move into the dead parents’ bedroom. Everything in Bianca’s account of these men is uncertain—not only where they are from (one is Bolognese, the other “Libyan or Moroccan”) but which of them begins to visit her during the night for sex (“I think it was the Bolognese”), whether their sex has been protected (“I thought what he was putting on was a condom, but I can’t be sure”), and whether Bianca experiences it as coercive (she describes it as “making love,” and seems to have power of refusal, but her orgasms are followed by “virulent and unexpected attacks of rage that made me cry bitterly”).

In summary, the story is impossibly grim. But Bolaño gives Bianca’s voice an almost classical clarity even as she narrates the most outlandish events. Her poise serves as a talisman against the darkness of what she has to tell, and it holds even as the proceedings get more bizarre: Bianca’s brother’s friends hatch a plan for her to infiltrate the home of a now-blind former Mr. Universe and to earn his trust by providing sex until she can find the money they are sure he’s stashed away. Despite our fears, Bianca derives a mysterious spiritual strength from her encounters with this shorn Samson—while continuing to search the house for his money. Ultimately Bianca ejects the nameless freeloaders from her house, emboldened by the “almost supernatural … power of conviction or certainty or dissuasion that my gestures had assumed.” It’s worth recalling that when Bolaño published this book he was deep in work on 2666. Bianca, poor and exploited, could—with another roll of the geopolitical dice—easily have been one of the hundreds of women whose corpses turn up in the vacant lots of Santa Teresa in that novel. Much of 2666’s pitiless force derives from the fact that we never hear these victims speak; in the context of that overwhelming novel, Bianca’s voice, and her safety, read like a small fantasy of retribution.

The unfinished Los sinsabores del verdadero policía (The Troubles of the True Policeman), at once the most fragmentary and the most substantial of these books, represents Bolaño’s final attempt to honor his generation’s political and artistic revolutions as consecration overtook him in his final years. Published last year, it is the latest of the posthumous texts Bolaño’s executors have harvested from his computer files; he began the novel in the 1980s and worked on it until his death. The setting shuttles between Europe and Santa Teresa, and its central character is an exiled Chilean literature professor named Óscar Amalfitano who is and is not quite the character of that name from 2666. For these reasons, it’s tempting to read the book as a pendant to the earlier novel, but this would be a mistake. Los sinsabores is a surpassingly moving book in its own right—one that asks what, given the state of the world it illuminates, being moved by a book is worth. It will be available to English readers later this year in Natasha Wimmer’s translation.

In his prologue, the Spanish critic Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas calls Los sinsabores “an unfinished but not an incomplete novel.” This might seem like hair-splitting if it didn’t so aptly define what is distinctive about Bolaño’s best work: its ability to refuse the satisfactions of narrative coherence without making a facile point of this withholding. Far from conveying a “postmodern” sense of story’s futility, Bolaño’s work intimates that all the stories matter, and that he has the patience and the curiosity and the energy to tell them all. In Los sinsabores the US-Mexico border is the spatial correlative to this totalizing imagination; it is the place whose comprehension requires the gathering of all the world’s narrative threads. “Fuck,” thinks one character upon arrival in Santa Teresa, “I’m in the center of the world. The place where things really happen.”

Bolaño spoke of Los sinsabores as a “possessed” book, and his narrator indeed seems maddened by the hope that some pattern might link its diverse plot strands: we learn that Amalfitano is born in Chile on the day in 1942 that the Nazis invade the Caucasus; that the peasant María Expósito gives birth in Villaviciosa the same month in 1968 that Mexico City explodes in student protest and bloody government reaction, and that her descendant will investigate the feminicidios decades later; that a Belgian soldier shipped to the Sonoran desert in the 1860s to support Emperor Maximilian’s imperial adventure there will survive a sexual assault at the hands of Mexican soldiers and return to France to participate in turn in the rape of a teenage Arthur Rimbaud who is on his way to Paris to join the Communards …

A sense of some unimaginably capacious consciousness holding proliferating data in suspension is a hallmark of Bolaño’s work.

Somehow, Bolaño manages to stave off the threat of a dizzying accretion of narrative detail. We feel throughout in the presence of an intelligence in search of an algorithm that could calibrate the relations among the intimate and the global, the North and South, the artistic and the political. This sense of some unimaginably capacious consciousness holding proliferating data in suspension is a hallmark of Bolaño’s work. (The central mystery of The Savage Detectives might be put: to whom are the testimonials occupying the novel’s mid-section addressed—who is recording and collating this evidence?) In Los sinsabores Bolaño locates this consciousness in Amalfitano, who has survived a series of political and personal tragedies—Pinochet’s coup, the dictatorships in Argentina and Brazil, irrelevance in revolutionary Nicaragua, the death of his wife, near-destitution in Paris, an academic sex scandal in Barcelona—before coming to an uneasy rest at Santa Teresa’s university. Amalfitano seems paralyzed by the sheer variety and extremity of his memories. As befits his sense of stunned passivity, he spends much of the book immersed in reading novels whose plots, in a Borgesian conceit, are summarized in beguiling detail.

The most significant difference between the Amalfitanos of 2666 and Los sinsabores is the latter’s homosexualization. Amalfitano’s avatar in 2666 is haunted by a homophobic voice he attributes to his father, but we never learn whether the accusations are based on anything more than paternal disappointment. The later novel’s Amalfitano discovers his gayness only after being widowed, and the belatedness of his realization becomes an additional cause for bewilderment at his unfolding life: in unconscious parody of the novel’s linking of local and large-scale frames of reference, he reasons awkwardly to his daughter that “if the Eastern Bloc had crumbled so could his hitherto unequivocal heterosexuality, as if these phenomena were linked or as if one were the logical consequence of the other.”

The agent of Amalfitano’s awakening is Joan Padilla, a Spanish student in his twenties whose appetites for sex and literature would have made him at home in The Savage Detectives. His affair with Amalfitano in Barcelona and its epistolary aftermath once the older man moves to Mexico frame the novel. Devoid of piety or condescension, alive to the ways people romanticize their desire and are baffled by it, these brief pages are the most interesting depictions I have read of a gay affair by a straight writer. Padilla writes to Amalfitano with wild, alarming eloquence about the sex he is having and the fights he is getting into, about his HIV diagnosis and his research into a possibly imaginary group of French avant-gardists, most of all about his plans for a novel to be entitled El dios de los homosexuales (The God of the Homosexuals). The book sounds like a gay(er) version of The Savage Detectives: “My novel, he said, will be like a strobe light’s emission, with many characters (but drawn blurrily, or with arbitrary strokes dictated by chance) and a lot of violence and wolf moons and dog moons, a lot of erect and greased cocks, a lot of hard cocks and howling.”

The urgency of Amalfitano’s responses to the increasingly unhinged letters suggests something larger at stake, as if nurturing Padilla’s impossible novel and preserving his health have come to stand for the possibility of hope itself. “You have to tell me more about your novel … about your health, about your economic situation, and your state of mind,” Amalfitano writes to the younger man, but reflects to himself that his feelings for Padilla are

a mix of desire, filial affection, and sadness, as if Padilla embodied an impossible trinity: lover, son, and ideal reflection of Amalfitano himself. He felt sorry for Padilla … for Padilla’s dead and for Padilla’s lost loves, which bathed him in a light of solitude: there, on that sorrowful stage, Padilla was too young and too sad and Amalfitano could do nothing to help him. And even though at the same time he was certain—and it was this that most often perplexed him—that there existed a Padilla who was invulnerable, arrogant as a Mediterranean god and strong as a Cuban boxer, the pain remained, the sensation of loss and impotence.

Bolaño began Los sinsabores when he was close to Padilla’s age, and left it unfinished at his death at 50—more or less Amalfitano’s. And yet it would be a mistake to see the novel merely as Bolaño’s love letter to his younger and more savage self; these characters’ tragedies are also those of a generation. Amalfitano and Padilla’s relationship might more precisely be seen as Bolaño’s way of sketching a historical genealogy for the stylistic impulses of his art. In creating Padilla’s almost cruelly casual reportage and Amalfitano’s anxiously custodial relation to it, Bolaño prompts us to recognize the emotional energies informing his colossal artistic project. The cool, one-thing-after-another style, the patient accumulation of seemingly endless narrative strands, the poise with which he relates behavior that might sound simply like madness or excess or silliness—these features of Bolaño’s work stand suddenly lit up with tenderness, rage, sorrow, desire.

Two chapters of Los sinsabores closely echo one another, intentionally or not we can’t know. The six pages of the fifth chapter are occupied by a single first-person sentence detailing Amalfitano’s peregrinations through the death-ridden landscapes of his life. Political tragedy mingles with personal shame in one oneiric rush: “I who predicted the fall of Allende and still took no action to prepare for it … I who was discovered by Joan Padilla the way someone discovers a continent … I who am the butt of jokes … the queen of the Southern Cone …” The sentence is a striking performance of a subjectivity expanding to take in all the brutality and loss it has witnessed. Later in the novel the words are repeated nearly verbatim—now in the third person, as the content of a report the Santa Teresa police have compiled on the suspicious new professor. The long sentence has been chopped into smaller units, the flourishes mostly deleted. The tone is clipped and ambiguous, as if, absent the self-dramatizing perspective, the self-accusations Amalfitano has floated have hardened into finality. “He predicted the fall of Allende and still took no action to prepare for it”: the very form of the chapter tells us that history has caught up with Amalfitano.

This could be the result of the manuscript’s unfinished status. Perhaps Bolaño would have scrapped one of the versions had he lived to complete the book. But as they stand they give us a compact exhibit of fiction’s unrivaled ability to see character from inside and outside, to bring readers close to experience and then make us comprehend its historical conditions. This double vision is nothing new to the history of the novel—it might just be the history of the novel—but Bolaño makes it seem newly invented to capture the political trauma and generational waste that were his obsessive subject. A testament to what one character here calls “the possibility of objectifying that which on the other hand he knew could not be objectified,” these chapters give the best possible introduction to Bolaño’s importance to the history of the form. icon

  1. Andrés Braithwaite, ed., Bolaño por sí mismo: entrevistas escogidas (Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, 2011; 2nd edition), p. 127. This and all translations from the Spanish-language texts are my own.
Featured image: Esténcil de Roberto Bolaño en Barcelona en 2012. Farisori / Wikimedia.