The Chilean-born novelist Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) earned international renown in the decade before his death with a series of colorful, sprawling, formally innovative novels steeped in the contemporary literary culture of Latin America.
Bolaño came of age among tumultuous political events—the student activism of Mexico in the late 1960s, and the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende by forces loyal to military leader Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Although his writings addressed those episodes only tangentially, they breathed a spirit of freedom—from political restrictions, from stereotypes perpetuated by an entrenched literary establishment, from traditional social and sexual mores. Writing frantically before he was silenced by a progressive liver disease, Bolaño did not live to witness the expansion of his international reputation as his work was translated into English and other languages. Critic Susan Sontag, quoted by Larry Rohter of the New York Times, called Bolaño “the most influential and admired novelist of his generation in the Spanishspeaking world.”
Moved Frequently as Child
In a Latin American literary world often characterized by intense national identification, Bolaño, who lived in Chile, Mexico, and Spain, often declined to claim a homeland other than Latin America in general. Born in the Chilean capital of Santiago on April 28, 1953, he moved often as a child among Chile's cities—his father was a truck driver and part-time boxer. His mother worked as a teacher. A voracious reader as a child, Bolaño was hampered by dyslexia and did poorly in school. The family moved to Mexico City in 1968, just as the city was becoming convulsed by huge student demonstrations.
That giant, chaotic metropolis awakened the creativity in the teenage Bolaño. He called the city, according to Daniel Zalewski of The New Yorker, “a vast, almost imaginary place where freedom and metamorphosis were a daily spectacle.” The young Bolaño threw himself into the political and literary clamor of the Mexican capital, making friends with left-wing poets and embarking on a flirtation with a Communist political movement in nearby El Salvador. His political sympathies led him to return to Chile in 1973 to support the socialist Allende government, but he was arrested and jailed after the right-wing Pinochet coup. Through a sheer stroke of luck—a prison guard recognized him as a school friend—he was released, although thousands of Chilean leftists were killed. Bolaño returned to Mexico the following year.
Living in a low-rent but creatively oriented Mexico City neighborhood, Bolaño and some friends formed a literary group they called the Infrarealistas. Their activities were mostly subversive. For example, they attended readings by established authors such as Octavio Paz and interrupted them by reading their own poems loudly. In an interview quoted in Contemporary Authors, Bolaño called Infrarealism “a kind of Dada à la Mexicana.” But the movement also stimulated him to begin writing poetry regularly and to publish it in small underground magazines. He issued two collections of poetry and also a sort of Infrarealist manifesto called Déjenlo Todo, Nuevamente (Leave Everything Behind Once More) before moving to Spain in 1977 to escape the despair brought on by a romantic breakup.
Bolaño traveled around western Europe and North Africa, styling himself a “poet and vagabond,” and then settled in Barcelona. He edited an anthology of poetry by young Latin American writers and co-authored (with Antoni G. Porta) a short novel called Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce (A [Jim] Morrison Fan's Advice to a Joyce Fan). Dissatisfied with his own efforts and feeling that he was distracted by the sensuous, freewheeling atmosphere that flowered in Barcelona after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, Bolaño moved from place to place for several years and worked at low-wage jobs that included stints as a dishwasher, campground custodian, dockworker, grape picker, bellhop, and garbage collector. He began to abuse heroin during this period. Bolaño continued to write poetry that was set, as were most of his later fictional works, in Mexico.
Although many young Latin American writers emulated the so-called “magical realism” of writers who blended realistic and fantasy elements, Bolaño had little use for the style. According to Zalewski, Bolaño criticized the dean of Latin American literature, Colombia's Gabriel García Márquez, as “a man terribly pleased to have hobnobbed with so many Presidents and Archbishops” and called his countrywoman Isabel Allende a “scribbler” whose “attempts at literature range from kitsch to the pathetic.” Allende returned the favor, describing Bolaño as an “extremely unpleasant” man and adding that “death does not make you a nicer person,” as noted by Zalewski.
Entered Fiction Contests
Settling in a small town called Blanes on Spain's Mediterranean seacoast, Bolaño kicked his drug habit and married a local woman, Carolina López. The pair had a son, Lautaro (named for a Chilean resistance leader), and a daughter, Alexandra. Faced with the necessity of supporting his family, Bolaño decided that he might have more luck as a fiction writer than as a poet. He entered several short stories in Spanish regional literary contests and won cash prizes, sometimes recycling an earlier winner by retitling and lightly rewriting it. His 1993 novel La Pista de Hielo (The Ice Rink) brought in another prize.
The next major turning point in Bolaño's life came when he was 38, when he learned that he had an incurable liver disease. His response to this news was to begin to write furiously. Beginning in 1996 with La Literatura Nazi en América (Nazi Literature in the Americas), an “encyclopedia” of fascist writers Bolaño himself had invented, he wrote at least one book a year until his death in 2003. The theme of fascism recurred in Estrella Distante (Distant Star), Bolaño's next novel and one of his works set in his Chilean homeland; it dealt with a minor poet who attempts to ingratiate himself with the Pinochet regime by using a Nazi-era aircraft to compose poems in skywriting. Bolaño's 1997 short-story collection Llamadas Telefónicas (Telephone Calls) won the Premio Municipal (or Municipal Prize) of Santiago.
In Bolaño's next book the raw material of his unconventional earlier lifestyle, extremely imaginatively embroidered, began to permeate his writing. Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives) appeared in 1998 and mixed elements of thriller, philosophical essay, and autobiography in a unique way. Its large cast of characters featured a pair of poets resembling those of Bolaño's Infrarealist group, here called the Visceral Realists. They go in search of a fictional female poet of the past who they think has been lost in the desert. They later experience outlandish adventures in Europe while a large group of observers (the “savage detectives” of the title) offer opinions on their activities and temporary disappearances. The book brought Bolaño fame across Latin America and won Venezuela's prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize. Paul Berman, writing in Slate, opined that “The Savage Detectives sings a love song to the grandeur of Latin American literature and to the passions it inspires …. ”
In Amuleto (Amulet), published in 1999, Bolaño continued to draw on the Mexican literary scene of his youth, creating a Uruguayan female poet who immigrates illegally to Mexico, works as a housecleaner, and is swept up in the 1968 student riots. She hides out in a bathroom, where she writes poetry on toilet paper and narrates the events of the story. The poet first appeared as a minor character in The Savage Detectives, and Bolaño several times generated new novels from small pieces of earlier ones. The book's first line showed the indebtedness of Bolaño, an admirer of American genre fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick, to popular fiction forms: “This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror …. ”
Novel Translated into English
Monsieur Pain, one of Bolaño's earlier novels, was reissued by his Spanish publisher, Anagrama, in 1999, and he published another short-story collection, Putas Asesinas (Murderous Whores), in 2001. That collection demonstrated an unusual feature of Bolaño's fiction: he sometimes created characters whose names were slightly altered versions of his own—although they are not necessarily those who actually resemble him most closely. Many of Bolaño's short stories remained untranslated into English by the mid-2000s (although a selection was published as Last Nights on Earth in 2007), but his next novel, 2002's Nocturno de Chile, appeared in the United States and Britain as By Night in Chile the following year and touched off a flood of Bolaño translations. That book, quite different in tone and structure from the expansive The Savage Detectives, offered a monologue by a dying Jesuit priest who had supported the Pinochet dictatorship.
Aware that his physical condition was deteriorating, Bolaño made plans to provide a consistent income for his family. He worked on a gigantic novel called 2666 (the date had minor significance in some of his earlier writings that featured fanciful predictions), intending that it be published in five parts, one per year, after he died. The book was left finished but unedited as his condition worsened. “I'm not capable of doing the work that finishing 2666 requires. There are more than a thousand pages that I have to correct—it's a labor worthy of a nineteenth-century miner. For now, I'm going to do less taxing work. I will correct the novel after I have my liver operation …,” he said in an interview quoted by Berman. “I am third on the list to receive a transplant.” By this time, he had lost most of his teeth.
The transplant did not come in time, and Bolaño died in a Barcelona hospital on April 28, 1953. After consulting with his widow, his publisher decided to issue 2666 as a single book rather than five of them. The book's 1,119 pages spanned eight decades narratively, centering on a factual story of serial murder: several hundred women, mostly factory workers, have been killed in city of Ciudad Juárez (renamed Santa Teresa by Bolaño). The book has hundreds of characters and like The Savage Detectives includes a search for an author thought to be missing in the northern Mexican desert. One section, written in the style of a police report, details some of the murders and examines the uncaring attitudes of local police (who have failed to solve most of the crimes). “More than three hundred pages long, it may be the grimmest sequence in contemporary fiction,” Zalewski wrote of this part of the book.
Bolaño died just before his international reputation rose sharply. Translations of his books into French, German, and Italian appeared along with a host of English-language versions, and major profiles of his life and work began to appear in serious magazines such as Harper's. Deb Siddartha of that magazine pointed out that Bolaño's work grew from the same kinds of difficult conditions that had shaped great Latin American writing in the past: such conditions “include the idea that writing, and the life within which such writing is shaped, must often function without a safety net; that literature must engage with politics even when politics has foreclosed literature; and that a writer will often have to subvert established forms in order to capture the nature of contemporary reality.” His unique blend of outrageous humor, lively political content, and sheer imaginative exuberance marked him as one of contemporary Latin America's most important writers.
Guardian (London, England), July 17, 2003.
Harper's, April 2007.
Library Journal, April 15, 2007.
New York Review of Books, July 19, 2007.
New York Times, November 9, 2005; April 12, 2007.
New Yorker, March 26, 2007.
World Literature Today, July-August 2007.
Berman, Paul, “Mayhem in Mexico: Roberto Bolaño's Great Latin American Novel, Slate, http://www.slate.com/id/ 2173485 (November 1, 2007).
“Chilean Writer Bolano Dies,” British Broadcasting Company, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/3070879.stm (November 1, 2007).
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (November 1, 2007).