Bolaño, Roberto 1953-2003

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Bolaño, Roberto 1953-2003

PERSONAL: Born 1953, in Santiago, Chile; died of liver failure, July 15, 2003, in Barcelona, Spain; married; children: two.

CAREER: Writer and poet. Had worked in various jobs, such as salesperson and night watchman.

AWARDS, HONORS: Premio Municipal de Santiago de Chile, c. 1998, for Llamadas Telefónicas; Rómulo Galegos Prize, 1999, and Herralde Prize, both for Los Detectives Salvajes.


Muchachos Desnudos Bajo el Arcoiris de Fuego: 11 Jo-venes Poetas Latinoamericanos, Editorial Extemporaneos (Mexico), 1979.

(With Antoni García Porta) Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce, Anthropos, Editorial del Hombre (Barcelona, Spain), 1984, reprinted as Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce; Seguido de Diario de Bar, Acantilado (Barcelona, Spain), 2006.

Fragmentos de la universidad desconocida, Excmo. Ayuntamiento de Talaverna de la Reina (Talaverna de la Reina, Spain), 1993.

La Pista de Hielo, Alcalá de Henares, Ciudad Universitaria Centenario (Alcalá de Henares, Spain), 1993.

La senda de los elefantes, Ayuntamiento de Toledo, Concejalía del Area de Cultura (Toledo, Spain), 1993.

La literatura Nazi en America, Seix Barral (Barcelona, Spain), 1996.

Estrella distante (novel; title means “Distant Star”), Editorial Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain), 1996, translation by Chris Andrews published as Distant Star, New Directions (New York, NY), 2004.

Llamada telefónicas (short stories; title means “Phone Calls”), Editorial Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain), 1997.

Los detectives salvajes (novel; title means “Savage Detectives”), Editorial Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain), 1998, translation by Natasha Wimmer published as The Savage Detectives, Farrar (New York, NY), 2007.

Amuleto (novel), Editorial Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain), 1999, translation by Chris Andrews published as Amulet, New Directions (New York, NY), 2006.

Monsieur Pain (novel), Editorial Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain), 1999.

Tres, El Acantilado (Barcelona, Spain), 2000.

Los perros románticos: Poemas, 1980-1998, prologue by Pere Gimferrer, Editorial Lumen (Barcelona, Spain), 2000.

Putas asesinas (short stories; title means “Murderous Whores”), Editorial Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain), 2001.

Una novelita lumpen, Mondadori (Barcelona, Spain), 2002.

Amberes, Editorial Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain), 2002.

Nocturno de Chile (novel), University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 2002, translation by Chris Andrews published as By Night in Chile, Harville Press (London, England), 2003.

El gaucho insufrible, Editorial Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain), 2003.

Entre pareéntesis: Ensayos, artículos y discursos (1998-2003) (essays, articles, and discourses), edited by Ignacio Echevarrí, Editorial Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain), 2004.

2666 (novel), Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain), 2005.

Jornadas homenaje Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003): Simposio Interacional, Icci (Barcelona), 2005.

Last Evenings on Earth (short stories), translation by Chris Andrews, New Directions (New York, NY), 2006.

La universidad desconocida, Editorial Anagrama (Barcelona, Spain), 2007.

Also author of the poetry collection The Romantic Dogs. Contributor to books, including La Fugitiva Contemporaneidad: Narrativa Latinoamericana, 1990-2000, Corregidor (Buenos Aires, Argentina), 2003, and Palabra De America, Seix Barral (Barcelona, Spain), 2004.

SIDELIGHTS: Although he spent much of his life as an expatriate, Roberto Bolaño was one of the most respected and acclaimed Chilean authors of modern times. After living in Mexico as a teenager, Bolaño returned to Chile with his family in 1973, the year Salvador Allende’s government was overthrown. Bolaño consequently fled to Spain. Starting off his literary career as a poet before turning to novels, he initially worked a variety of jobs to support himself and cofounded the school of Infrarealism with Mario Santiago. Bolaño described Infrarealism for Bomb contributor Carmen Boullosa as “a kind of Dada á la Mexicana.” Bolaño published his first book in 1984 while working as a night watchman. His productive years began in the 1990s, and he quickly earned a reputation as an outstanding fiction author whose style prompted critics to compare him to such writers as Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon, and Julio Cortazar.

Penning stories that are often critical of or satirize society and politics in Latin America, Bolaño was considered a political writer, though the author himself denied that he had any “scores” to settle. As he told Boullosa: “All literature, in a certain sense, is political. I mean, first, it’s a reflection on politics, and second, it’s also a political program. The former alludes to reality—to the nightmare or benevolent dream that we call reality—which ends, in both cases, with death and the obliteration not only of literature, but of time. The latter refers to the small bits and pieces that survive, that persist; and to reason. Although we know, of course, that in the human scale of things, persistence is an illusion and reason is only a fragile railing that keeps us from plunging into the abyss.”

Of all Bolaño’s books, only one (By Night in Chile) had been translated into English by the time of his death from liver failure in 2003 while waiting for a transplant. This novel, set in Chile and concerned with that country’s political history, is told from the viewpoint of Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix as he is lying on his deathbed. Lacroix is a conservative man who is also a minor poet and literary critic. As such, he represents the intellectual elite of Chilean society; as he recounts his life he tries to justify his inaction against the political injustices of the last half century, especially of the events during and after the brief socialist government of Salvador Allende that ended in the president’s supposed suicide. Bolaño also touches on other themes, such as Lacroix’s sexual repression and his struggles with his homosexual leanings. The priest spends much of his time avoiding confrontation and unpleasantness, burying himself in classic literature and, at one point, actively ignoring the fact that there is a torture chamber underneath a house that is serving as a salon hosted by the politically well-connected Maria Canales. “From an intellectual standpoint,” commented Cynthia Tompkins in World Literature Today, “the novel may be read as a critique of the huge social cost incurred by forgetting the victims of the coup. By interweaving literary creation and intellectual development with torture, the Maria Canales episode highlights the sordid nature of Chilean (or Argentine or Brazilian, et cetera) state terrorism and the daily cooptations forced upon its people.”

Critics of By Night in Chile praised Bolaño’s writing talents. For example, on the Guardian Unlimited Books Web site, Ben Richards called the novel “a wonderful and beautifully written book by a writer who has an enviable control over every beat, every change of tempo, every image. The prose is constantly exciting and challenging—at times lyrical and allusive, at others filled with biting wit.” Times Literary Supplement contributor Jessamy Harvey wrote that the novel is an “intelligent indictment of Chile’s literary elite, suffused with dark humour and pathos.”

Following the author’s death, several more of Bolaño’s works have been translated into English and published to wide critical acclaim. Most notably, the author’s 1998 novel Los detectives salvajes, published in the United States as The Savage Detectives, has led to Bolaño being called a “‘Latin American phenomenon’ in the United States,” as noted by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contributor Horacio Castellanos Moya. The novel revolves around a group of Mexican poets called the “visceral realists” and their search for an early-twentieth-century mythical poet name Cesárea Tinajero, who has gone missing, apparently in the Sonora Desert. The novel spans two decades, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, and is made up of various monologues by more than fifty characters, as well as the diary of one young poet in search of Tinajero. “Bolaño’s ambition is huge; his capacity to tell stories, never-ending,” noted Moya. “The search for the poet Tinajero is marked by the most diverse adventures.” Moya also wrote in the same review: “Each story, which starts off like a digression, enriches our knowledge about the detective poets and engages the reader even more.”

According to most reviewers, Bolaño succeeded in his ambition as the novel received almost unanimous acclaim. James Wood, writing on the International Herald Tribune Web site, noted: “A novel all about poetry and poets, one of whose heroes is a lightly disguised version of the author himself: how easily this could be nothing more than a precious lattice of ludic narcissism and unbearably ‘literary’ adventures! Again, Bolaño skirts danger and then gleefully accelerates away from it. The novel is wildly enjoyable (as well as, finally, full of lament), in part because Bolaño has a worldly, literal sensibility.” In a review in the Library Journal, Lawrence Olszewski wrote: “The journey for all, including the reader, may prove arduous, but as a picaresque road novel, coupled with successful character creation, intriguing experimentation, and a unique premise, it provides a rewarding reading experience.”

Estrella distante, published as Distant Star, features Carlos Wieder, a poet and an aviator who, when he is still known as Carlos Wider, goes to the retreat of two beautiful sisters following the overthrow of President Allende. Once there, he has them murdered and then takes on the identity of Wieder and becomes a favorite within the new regime of President Pinochet. Wieder gains increasing fame as a pilot and also as a poet who writes cryptic poems about the beauty of death and its place in Chilean national politics. As the novel progresses, however, Wieder becomes recognized as a fiend and soon finds himself hunted for old crimes as he goes into hiding. “The language is taut and rhythmic, elegant and spare, conveying all the texture of Bolaño’s bleak landscapes and the dark humor of his prose,” wrote Daniel Alarcon in the San Francisco Chronicle. Review of Contemporary Fiction contributor Chad W. Post noted: “There’s definitely some black humor in this novel, but its core is horrifying.”

Amulet, published in Spanish as Amuleto, once again features a narrator, Auxilio Lacouture, who is dedicated to poetry. However, the narrator also seems slightly mad and may be in fact a homeless woman who works as a janitor. The narrator goes on to tell her own story, in which she refers to herself as “the mother of Mexican poetry.” The story focuses on both the past and future and revolves around demonstrations in 1960s Mexico and a murder mystery. Eli Evans, writing on the Book-slut Web site, commented that “Amulet, at least in certain respects, reminds me … of the metafiction of British postmodernists writing under the influence of Latin American magical realism—writers like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie.” A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that the narrator’s “prophecies converge in a wrenching tribute to all the voices she has known, tinged with Bolano’s luminous pathos.”

Last Evenings on Earth is a collection of fourteen of the author’s short stories culled from his earlier collections in Spanish titled Llamada telefónicas and Putas asesinas. “Exile, alienation and a fatalistic sense of the impermanence of human connections and relations dominate this collection,” wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor. The works are semi-autobiographical in that often the stories feature characters whose names are derivatives of the author’s own name, including a character who is named merely “B.” These characters are minor writers and poets trying to deal with life from day to day. Daniel Alarcon, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, commented that, “for those who are unfamiliar with this author, Last Evenings on Earth is a fine place to begin.” Like his novels that have been translated into English, the collection has received strong praise from the critics. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted the “perfectly calibrated” stories, adding that the author “limns the capacity of a voice to carry despair without shading into bitterness.” Francine Prose, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented: “Reading Roberto Bolaño is like hearing the secret story, being shown the fabric of the particular, watching the tracks of art and life merge at the horizon and linger there like a dream from which we awake inspired to look more attentively at the world.”

Referred to as Bolaño’s magnum opus, the novel 2666 was published posthumously in Spanish. Taking place primarily in the city of Santa Teresa, the novel features the chronicling of the murder and rape of numerous women and a hunt for a mysterious writer named Benno von Archimboldi. “In dozens of cryptic ways the charnel house of Santa Teresa is linked to the corruption and decadence of twentieth century European history and culture,” wrote Natasha Wimmer in an article on the Savage Detectives Web site. Writing in the New York Times, Larry Rohter called the novel “an extravagantly encyclopedic 1, 119-page novel that traverses two continents and eight decades.”



Manzoni, Celina, editor, Roberto Bolaño: La Escritura Como Tauromaquia, Corregidor (Buenos Aires, Argentina), 2002.


Artforum International, April, 2005, Aura Estrada, “The Poet Assassinating,” p. 46.

Bomb, winter, 2001-02, Carmen Boullosa, “Roberto Bolaño,” pp. 51-53.

Booklist, January 1, 2007, Rebecca Singer, review of The Savage Detectives, p. 47.

Books, May 6, 2007, Ilan Stavans, review of The Savage Detectives, p. 2.

Book World, May 6, 2007, Ilan Stavans, “Willing Outcast,” p. 2.

Entertainment Weekly, April 6, 2007, Jennifer Reese, review of The Savage Detectives, p. 80.

Esquire, April, 2007, Buddy Kite, "Sex, Drugs, Pimps, and Poetry, of Course,” p. 56.

Harper’s, April, 2007, Siddhartha Deb, “The Wandering Years: Roberto Bolano’s Nomadic Fiction,” p. 99.

Houston Chronicle, June 15, 2007, Barbara Liss, “Voice of a Generation: Sex, Politics, Literature Collide in Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction.”

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2006, review of Last Evenings on Earth, p. 34; January 15, 2007, review of The Savage Detectives, p. 39.

Library Journal, January 1, 2007, Lawrence Olszewski, review of Amulet, p. 87; April 15, 2007, Forest Turner, review of Last Evenings on Earth, p. 77.

Nation, May 29, 2006, John Banville, review of Last Evenings on Earth, p. 11; April 23, 2007, Carmen Boullosa, “Bolano in Mexico,” p. 25.

New Republic, May 7, 2007, Chloe “Dust and Literature,” p. 53.

New Yorker, March 26, 2007, Daniel Zalewski, “Vagabonds,” p. 84.

New York Times, August 9, 2005, Larry Rohter, “A Writer Whose Posthumous Novel Crowns an Illustrious Career,” review of 2666; April 12, 2007, Richard Eder, “A Line Divides Art and Life. Erase It at Your Own Risk,” p. 6.

New York Times Book Review, July 9, 2006, Francine Prose, “The Folklore of Exile,” p. 9; April 15, 2007, James Wood, “The Visceral Realist,” p. 1.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 17, 2007, Horacio Castellanos Moya, review of The Savage Detectives.

Publishers Weekly, March 27, 2006, review of Last Evenings on Earth, p. 57; November 20, 2006, review of Amulet, p. 36; December 11, 2006, review of The Savage Detectives, p. 42.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2005, Chad W. Post, review of Distant Star.

San Francisco Chronicle, June 4, 2006, Daniel Alarcon, review of Last Evenings on Earth.

Threepenny Review, spring, 2007, Wendy Lesser, “The Mysterious Chilean.”

Times Literary Supplement, February 14, 2003, Jessamy Harvey, “To Turn a Blind Eye,” p. 23; November 5, 2004, Stephen Stephen Henighan, “The Visceral Realists Strike Again: Roberto Bolano’s Chilean Satires,” p. 23; April 22, 2005, Martin Schifino, “Farewell Flourishes,” p. 7; September 9, 2005, Amaia Gabantxo, “Murders on the Move,” p. 23.

Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 2007, Drew Johnson, review of Last Evenings on Earth, p. 298.

World Literature Today, winter, 2002, Cynthia Tompkins, review of Nocturno de Chile, p. 217; September-December, 2004, Will H. Corral, review of El Gaucho Insufrible, p. 143; November-December, 2006, Will H. Corral, “Portrait of the Writer as Noble Savage,” p. 47; November-December, 2006, “Roberto Bolano,” p. 46.


Bookslut, (August 2, 2007), Eli Evans, review of Amulet.

Guardian Unlimited Books, (February 22, 2003), Ben Richards, “The Underside of the Dump” (June 23, 2007), Ben Richards, “Poets, Pimps and Prostitutes,” review of Last Evenings on Earth and The Savage Detectives.

International Herald Tribune, (April 13, 2007), James Wood, “Roberto Bolano, a Chilean Realist and Lyricist,” review of The Savage Detectives.

Savage Detectives Web site, (August 2, 2007), Natasha Wimmer, “Robert Bolano and The Savage Detectives,” profile of author.

Small Spiral Notebook, (May 16, 2007), Jon Baskin, review of The Savage Detectives.



Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2003, p. B9.


BBC News, (July 16, 2003), “Chilean Writer Bolano Dies.”*