Roberto Bolaño: Dissecting the Fetish

Every now and then the literary world—like any other business community—is swept by a new fashion, an often overriding phenomenon that can be stylistic or aesthetical, thematic or geographical, but that inevitably carries significant commercial connotations. At least since 2007 Roberto Bolaño, the undisputable luminary in the constellation of contemporary Latin American writers, has singlehandedly dominated a segment of the literary establishment, cementing his position as a modern icon.


For the best part of the last decade the arrival of every new title by Roberto Bolaño—and there’s been over a dozen—has been eagerly awaited with the sort of nervy, almost anxious anticipation that is usually reserved to major natural phenomena—a solar eclipse, a blue moon, the passing of a comet or Mac launching a new iPhone. In some sense this ought to be the case: though belatedly, Bolaño’s work might be argued to have had rather cataclysmic effects on the global literary scene (if such scene even exists), effectively shaking its ground in a fashion only suitable to a man originating from Chile, the land of earthquakes. But even if that is the case, it remains relevant and—as a matter of fact—edifying to inquire further into the reasons why the Bolaño fetish is as widespread, as incontestable, as it seems to be.


To a large extent, Bolaño’s success is down to the cunning and the smart business mind of one woman, Carolina López, a civil servant from Barcelona who met Bolaño in 1980, married him in 1985, bore him his first child in 1990 and put Carmen Balcells in charge of his literary estate first, before switching over to Andrew Wylie, a notoriously hard-nosed negotiator—the Scott Boras of the world of literature.


Carmen Balcells. Photo: wikipedia

The significance of these connections goes far beyond the anecdotal, and some context will illustrate why: Carmen Balcells, one of the most influential literary agents around, was practically the inventor in the 1960s of a literary movement that wasn’t such: the Latin American Boom—a catchy label with which she fused into one the highly contrasting writing styles of a bunch of South American writers, among them García Márquez and Vargas Llosa, of course. When Carolina López approached Balcells in the mid 2000s, the Boom was not so much a thing of the past, it was almost prehistoric; and though the agent was already in her seventies her natural instinct for talent was still intact and her equally natural drive for economic remuneration was also alive and kicking. In other words, the world, Balcells and the Bolaño family were all ready for a new Boom.


Balcells immediately optioned the English language rights of Bolaño’s most emblematic work, Los detectives salvages, to Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Savage Detectives first came out in 2007, and that was the start of a love affair between the English-speaking intellectual establishment and Roberto Bolaño that is still going strong. Not least through the intervention of Andrew Wylie, who took Bolaño’s estate over from Balcells in 2008 and who has since merged his agency with the Catalan businesswoman’s. Under Wylie’s stewardship Bolaño’s work has gained the visibility of the sun—it is actually quite hard not to come across some Bolaño somewhere—and just about every word he wrote has been translated to English and been published either by FSG or by the much smaller publisher New Directions.


But that only tells half of the story—no, not even that: it maybe tells a third of the story, maybe even just ten percent. There is something else, there is much more, in the figure of Bolaño that has elevated him to the status of a pop star: Bolaño’s life story appeals because it evokes so many clichés it almost invites our imagination to run wild. Born in Chile in 1953, Bolaño moved with his family to Mexico City in 1968, the same year of the Tlatelolco massacre in which the authorities killed dozens of protesting students in the city. A high school drop out Bolaño soon started the itinerant existence, from job to job, from place to place, that would define his literary career (cliché number 1). Fed by left-leaning political views and inspired by Allende’s rise to power in his homeland, Bolaño set out on an actual journey that would take him across the entire continent in order to join the ranks driving the social revolution (ka-ching! Cliché). He arrived in Santiago in August 1973. Pinochet’s coup came on September 11 that same year. Disillusioned by the twist of fate endured by Chile, he retraced his steps on yet another long journey back to Mexico, where Bolaño founded together with his friend Mario Santiago Papasquiaro a radical poetic movement—Infrarealism—that essentially challenged the merit but above all the attitude of the (conservative) literary establishment in Mexico, aptly represented in the figure of the great master Octavio Paz.



After years of sabotaging the literary scene in Mexico, Infrarealism died an unceremonious death in the departure lounge of some airport in France, when Mario Santiago Papasquiaro went his way while Bolaño headed toward the hallowed Catalonian coasts. In Barcelona Bolaño experienced the thrill of the fledgling Spanish democracy contaminate the air and shape the actions of a population that had lived under the autocratic rule of a despot for over 35 years. Always on the fringe of just about everything, Bolaño lived through La Movida not in Madrid but in Barcelona, walking in the shadow of the great figures of the Boom who had all lived and worked there but who had all, with the exception of José Donoso, moved elsewhere (is that even a cliché? It doesn’t matter, I’ve lost count anyway). Over the next decade Bolaño would struggle financially, moving from Barcelona to Casteldefells, Girona and finally Blanes—always in Catalonia—and engaging in every unskilled job imaginable to keep afloat—just barely. In other words, they were in all likelihood the good old years!


Bolaño’s progression also took him away from poetry and in the 1980s he started developing his first novels. One of the most widely disseminated stories about Bolaño is how in the eighties and nineties he would submit the same short story simultaneously to several literary contests, contravening the conditions yet skirting away from trouble merely by changing the title. According to the most romantic interpretations of that legend he was able to survive for some time from the income he generated this way—though in reality he most likely lived from Carolina López’s salary as a civil servant.


Another urban legend—I have no way of verifying its truth, nor any inclination to do it either—is that for years Bolaño indulged a heroin habit, which ultimately wrecked his liver and cost him his life. Whatever the cause of his liver failure, he certainly succumbed to it in 2003. Having only recently obtained literary recognition and financial security, he was reportedly afraid of a transplant, which meant he delayed the operation, which in turn has led to the next speculative theory: that had he acted more urgently he might have survived, that perhaps he didn’t do so deliberately—that Bolaño’s death might have been the perfect suicide in disguise.


Which, of course, is nonsense: after a long period of struggle, Bolaño finally achieved in 1998 and at the age of 45 what all writers aspire to: profitability. Savage Detectives, his fourth published novel, earned him the Premio Herralde first, an award that along with prestige brought two million pesetas to the bank (roughly US $13,000 at the time), and one year later it also merited him the most important literary award in Latin America, the Premio Rómulo Gallegos, with a whopping US $60,000 price tag. The road ahead seemed clear for Bolaño, who finally appeared to have made it. He published Amuleto in 1999, re-issued an earlier novel under the name of Monsieur Pain that same year, produced By Night in Chile in 2000, had his second child, Alexandra, in 2001 and finally published his most experimental novel, an exercise from the early ’80s called Antwerp, in 2002, while all the while overseeing the translation into English of By Night in Chile—the only one of his works he would get to see translated—and developing what he thought would be his greatest literary work, the unfinished and encyclopaedic novel 2666.



But there is more, there is a lot more to Bolaño’s appeal than just a tale of struggle and fate, more than the laborious rise of the self-destructive genius and the abrupt fall of the hero to the cruel hand of destiny. There is something I cannot attest to—I wasn’t ever even near knowing Bolaño—but that I can see in those who did know him. I have seen the eyes of Jorge Volpi glitter in admiration when he speaks about Bolaño, and I have heard Santiago Gamboa get lost in a boundless labyrinth of praise and melancholy when he was supposed to reveal the key to understanding the life and works of his friend, Bolaño. Even the ever smart and witty Andrés Neuman, whose words are there for all to read online in a number of sites and journals, turns taciturn, almost solemn, when he writes about the Chilean writer, whom he befriended during the final three years of his life—when he was already famous.


In the transcription of the interviews he conceded, Bolaño comes across as good-natured and humble, he is decidedly knowledgeable—like most South American intellectuals, he clearly feels he must be familiar with the literary tradition of The West, not just of a specific country or even language—and continuously stresses the importance of reading over writing. But there is something that cannot be expressed in transcriptions or captured in an interview, something at the same time more natural and more primitive than intellect, something perhaps connected to what we mean when we say someone is “a good person,” something I find hard to identify or define, but something I have seen in other’s eyes.


And yet there is more, of course there is more. How couldn’t there be? There is the most important thing (or, is it?): there is Bolaño’s unorthodox, melodic, complex, hypnotizing, and altogether challenging prose. A writer unwilling to conform with the norm but at the same time someone fully aware of what the norm dictates; a writer intent on engaging in a playful relationship with the reader which nevertheless risks becoming violent, abusive; an experimental writer who refuses to turn away from the reader, who is still eager to please. Bolaño’s novels are sometimes abrupt, sometimes hard work: Savage Detectives starts as a teenage adventure, a bildungsroman about to marry the internal voyage of the protagonist with the physical journey told, before it randomly shifts, 150 pages into the text, towards a fragmentary narrative of an unsuccessful and nonsensical quest. Like the literary equivalent of hide-and-seek, Bolaño often conceals or altogether discards his characters, who suddenly emerge explicitly or obliquely in an unrelated tale in some other novel. He is masterful in his technique of disguising while unveiling, essentially maintaining the balance of what can be seen at any given moment, but turning the periscope slowly, progressively, such that by the time we get a clear picture of one end of the landscape we have fully lost sight of the other.


In this regard, Bolaño’s consecration as one of the beacons of contemporary literature is (also) justified by his development of a non-linear style, less noble that Foster Wallace’s, less chaotic than Pynchon’s, which results in an uncertain and at times even uncomfortable reading experience rendered palatable only by the beauty of its form—truly the words of a poet. Nowhere is this more evident than in his celebrated novel By Night in Chile, quite literally the transcription of a long, dream-like reflection by a collaborationist priest in Pinochet’s government which in a diluted form of stream of consciousness takes the reader through a tedious, allegorical and ultimately draining self-confession. Nevertheless, the novel is so beautifully, so impeccably resolved that in the end reading it conjures precisely the painful process of examination and reconciliation explored by the narrative, bringing the protagonist and the reader together in a shared experience—almost quite literally a physical sigh of relief—on the final page.


Thus, it seems to me that more than a rebel Bolaño was a libertarian; a man obsessed with literature who was nonetheless more concerned with living; a man whose legacy has of course landed safely at the infallible factory of success that is the triumvirate Herralde-Balcells-Wylie; a brave man whose defiant attitude checks all the boxes of the fantasies of the vast majority of us, who lead safe, prosaic lives; an imperfect writer in an imperfect world whose extraordinary literary explorations have fed a seemingly inexhaustible and contagious fetish—a fetish that is grounded in a series of complex reasons and that, after all is said and done, seems to me to be entirely deserved.



Published by the Weekender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on June 27 2015.

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