The Enigma of Roberto Bolaño

The Enigma of Roberto Bolaño

David Kurnick’s new book reappraises the Chilean writer, clarifying the preconceptions and myths that haunted his earliest work.


I discovered the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s work in 2008, which, not coincidentally, was also the year I discovered that the United States had helped deliver his native country into 17 years of ultra-right-wing authoritarianism. I learned this history shortly after stumbling into a student exchange program that dropped me in Quillota, Chile, where I went to a high school that happened to be the dictator Augusto Pinochet’s alma mater. Everybody I knew in Quillota was lovely to me, and very patient with both my error-riddled Spanish and my shocking historical ignorance. Still, I was—and remain—mortified by how little I knew. I returned home after three months, consumed by curiosity but still lacking perspective, and set out to read every book I could get my hands on that would teach me more about Pinochet’s US-backed regime. My new project was a bit daunting; I had always read mainly fiction. Lucky me: The hottest novelist of the moment was Bolaño, who wrote about dictatorship and Nazis and had died five years before, at age 50, while living in Spain.

I could not have been better positioned to buy into the myths and nascent conceptions then springing up within Bolaño’s Anglo-American readership. I was both a naive teenager and an American literary consumer with a guilty conscience. I cannot remember doubting the glamorously tragic narrative endemic to the first wave of reviews of The Savage Detectives and 2666, Bolaño’s two biggest novels, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux released—both in Natasha Wimmer’s vivid translations—to major acclaim in 2007 and ’08. Several critics claimed, incorrectly, that the author’s fatal liver disease was the result of heroin addiction, itself a result either of exile or of artistic proclivities. (One magazine leaned especially hard on the latter, calling Bolaño the “Kurt Cobain of Latin-American Literature.”) Others painted him as a revolutionary, which is an exaggeration. Bolaño was born in Santiago in 1953, moved to Mexico City in his teens, and returned to his native country in 1973, looking to support Salvador Allende’s socialist presidency. He arrived just in time for the coup and, like many others, got arrested on vague charges of suspected terrorism. After eight days in prison, Bolaño was released and fled back to Mexico. In The New Yorker, Daniel Zalewski described this trip as the act not of a curious, idealistic, or homesick 20-year-old, but of a Trotskyist firebrand and “dissident writer” who “revelled in political ferment”—a sexier angle, to be sure, but one supported only by an essay in which Bolaño refers to his five months in Pinochet’s Chile as a time of “amazement and urgency.” Proof of reveling is nowhere to be found; indeed, according to many of his acquaintances, the young Bolaño returned to Mexico not so much amazed as terrified.

Sexiness is central to the Bolaño myth. Sarah Pollack, one of the first scholars to critique the American reaction to Bolaño’s work, wrote in 2009 that US readers are traditionally prone to reducing “Latin America [to] a space in which to satisfy one’s desires for rebellions and adventures of all stripes: political, sexual, spiritual, substance-induced, literary.” No wonder, she continued, that US audiences treated Bolaño as a tragic radical who lived hard and died young, rather than attending to the reality of his later life: He moved to Spain, where he roamed and labored in low-paying odd jobs, then got married, had kids, and worked exceptionally hard on his fiction—which sometimes contains rebellions and adventures, though never portrayed without irony.

Consider The Savage Detectives, originally published as Los detectives salvajes in 1998, which is a 648-page, 54-narrator history of a semi-fictional clique of probably-pretty-bad poets. At its start, the novel is all poetry, sex, and community, described by a heartbreakingly eager 17-year-old prone to mistaking late-night talks for lifelong bonds. As the book progresses, however, its points of view multiply; Juan García Madero, the eager teenager, recedes, and his excitement gives way to isolation, itinerancy, and the jaded sense that “everything good goes galloping away from us.” In that light, treating the novel as purely a narrative of desire and rebellion is admitting you might not have read all the way to the end.

At 17, I absorbed the book’s moments of excitement and loss, but not the ambivalence and world-weariness that swell throughout its latter half. I was, after all, taking Bolaño as a tragic figure, precisely as the mystique surrounding his work instructed me to do. As I continued reading him, though, it became impossible not to notice his refusal to paint himself or his exiled Chilean characters as sufferers, even if some of them are victims. Gradually, I came to see that although evil interested Bolaño deeply, tragedy did not. Nor did the bravery or glamour ascribed to him after his death. Indeed, as I continued researching the intersections of US and Chilean history through college and graduate school, I began to note the irony of Anglo-American readers’ valorizing Bolaño’s brief time as a dissident in Pinochet’s Chile without seeming to emphasize or reflect on their own country’s complicity with the regime.

Another factor in escaping the Bolaño mystique (if, indeed, I did—what truthful person can swear that their readings are 100 percent pure?) is my habit of seeking out contemporary Spanish-language fiction and criticism. Eight years ago, I began translating the former. Translating has made me a slower, closer reader, attuned to both language and its context. It has also taught me to identify and disregard literary myths and personae, since a translator cannot permit a preconceived image to affect her work. The Savage Detectives would be a lesser book in English—less funny, less nuanced, less subject to the twin gravities of disappointment and time—had Wimmer imagined its writer only as a firebrand. Perhaps this is egotistical of me, but I wonder if the translation process similarly influenced the scholar and literary translator David Kurnick, whose new book “The Savage Detectives” Reread, a warm and patient critical revaluation of Bolaño’s novel, abounds in both context and smart, unsexy analysis.

Kurnick opens by describing his sense of the Bolaño myth. Like me, he considers the popular perception of the author as exoticizing and useless; like me, he worries that he unconsciously subscribed, or still subscribes, to it. At the same time, he questions the suspicion among some writers and academics—Anglophone and Hispanophone alike—that any American who likes The Savage Detectives likes it wrong. Rather than denying the latter claim, Kurnick takes it as what it is: a hyperbolic interpretation of the fact that many Americans have liked the novel wrong, perhaps colored, in some cases, by the desire to be the exception to the rule. He sets out to steer US readers onto a new path, one that highlights not Bolaño’s mythologized life story but his miraculous-seeming capacity to create “an unbearable sensation of realness” in his fiction—and, indeed, to reflect the reality of life on the literary and geopolitical margins.

The Savage Detectives” Reread has two major strands of analysis: literary craft and geopolitical context. In the book’s first sections, Kurnick approaches The Savage Detectives with joyous rigor, getting into the weeds of Bolano’s sentence-level innovations. He is excellent at writing about the author’s technical choices, which US critics rarely do when discussing novels not originally written in English. Faced with a translation, many non-translators fade into guesswork and generalities, like Homer Simpson backing into the bushes. Even the reliably thoughtful James Wood, in his 2007 review of The Savage Detectives, loosely praises its “breezy and colloquial” tone, then compliments Wimmer for “find[ing] inspired English solutions for what must be a fiendishly chatty and slangy novel” and hustles along. “Must be” is a lazy formulation, and it is to Kurnick’s credit that he never uses such a phrase. Instead, he goes into linguistic detail about Bolano’s prose, an approach that, in addition to being unusual, enables him to show readers the actual author, not the mythologized one.

Consider Kurnick’s discussion of the book’s 54 narrators. The Savage Detectives takes the form of a documentary history of “visceral realism,” an avant-garde Mexican poetry movement based on one that Bolaño helped launch in Mexico City in 1975. In the novel, Bolaño becomes Arturo Belano, who cofounds the visceral realist school with his weed-dealing buddy, Ulises Lima. They are the book’s protagonists, more or less, but Bolaño never enters their points of view. Instead, he marshals an array of poets, artists, critics, creeps, and wanderers who describe encounters with Lima or Belano in Mexico, Spain, France, Austria, Israel, Nicaragua, and Liberia. Their various reactions to the visceral realists, Kurnick notes, tend to mirror their feelings toward either literature or “the energy of affiliation itself.” If Lima and Belano told their own stories, this energy would be invisible; so would the profound ambivalence toward literature that suffuses the book. The collaged structure and “evanescent voice[s]” of The Savage Detectives make it shaky and odd but never boring. It contradicts itself too much to get old.

Once Kurnick addresses the question of why Bolaño has so many narrators, he turns to the question of how. Managing so many speakers is a tremendous challenge: For many writers, 54 narrators would be 53 too many. Kurnick argues that Bolaño pulls off his absurd multiplicity of voices because he is “wondrously alert to subtleties of character and expression.” Bolaño excels at creating nuance quickly, often via mild tics of thought. Kurnick selects, possibly at random, a set of examples: an American grad student named Barbara Patterson, marked by her “blistering profanity and essential sweetness”; a non-visceral-realist poet named Luis Sebastián Rosado, set apart by his “romanticism and his slightly sniffy erudition”; a Barcelona bodybuilder named Teresa Solsona Ribot, whose “compassion and insight” Bolaño pairs with “a penchant for self-help platitudes.” If Teresa were less cliché-oriented or Barbara less foul-mouthed, they might blur together; if Luis Sebastián weren’t a bit of a snob, he would blend in with the poets who are not.

Even a less careful critic would presumably be able to point out Bolaño’s capacity to build characters through verbal detail, but in the late-2000s US onslaught of Bolaño coverage, almost nobody did. Kurnick’s patient discussion of the variations in speech of the protagonists of The Savage Detectives stands in marked contrast to reviews that ascribed Bolaño’s compelling writing to an “outlaw spirit” or a “distinctly Latin American…kind of momentum.” Indeed, by highlighting the intentionality of Bolaño’s work, Kurnick effectively deflates such patronizing portrayals.

This is even truer where less flagrantly myopic objections to Bolaño’s work are concerned. An excellent example is the fiction writer Andrew Martin’s sweeping claim that Bolaño’s work suffers from a “macho anxiety about homosexuality”—an analysis that Kurnick, who is gay, rejects. He sees no anxiety and is “dubious” of Martin’s willingness to attribute “Latin-flavored intolerance to Bolaño.” Kurnick backs up this refutation with a lengthy dissection of a funny, famous scene in which a gay visceral realist named Ernesto San Epifanio divides all poets into two categories: maricas and maricones, terms Wimmer translates as “queers” and “faggots.” Ernesto never explains his sorting system, but Kurnick, after considering the works and lives of the poets Ernesto uses as exemplars, concludes that “the opposition is about access to cultural and state power,” with honor going to the more openly gay, less privileged maricones. Somewhat triumphantly, Kurnick points out that “Ernesto is doing his fagsplaining to a group of straight men,” all of whom vie to get in on the game and earn his approval. The conversation, Kurnick writes, is “historically new, [and] pleasurable. The boys are listening to this faggot.” So are the readers. Ernesto’s catalog is endearing; even by Bolaño’s high standards, it makes him memorable. His death, which comes well over 100 pages later, is, to me, the saddest part of the whole book.

Once Kurnick gets through with craft, he turns to history and politics, examining The Savage Detectives through a historically learned American lens. He asks—and teaches—US readers to take the novel as a “report from a shared reality” in which our nation is peripherally and ominously present, but far less central than its citizens sometimes presume. Such reports do not frequently make their way to US readers; only about 3 percent of books released here are translations, many of them published by heroic but underfunded small presses without major distribution. It isn’t easy, in most English-language bookstores and libraries, to stumble on a book that, as Kurnick writes of Bolaño’s work, knows “all about Americans but [isn’t] particularly interested in addressing us.”

In The Savage Detectives, Bolaño obliquely addresses the issues Americans cause all around the world. He also uses the looming continental presence of the United States as what Kurnick calls a “geopolitical frame”—an invisible but palpable constraint. This is especially clear at the book’s end, when Belano, Lima, García Madero, and an on-the-lam prostitute named Lupe drive north from Mexico City, seeking a vanished poet named Cesárea Tinajero and running from Lupe’s violent pimp. As they travel north, Kurnick notes, the novel acquires an “intensified awareness of ‘Latin America.’” At the same time, its atmosphere grows increasingly haunting; the jokes get dark and puzzling, and the events stop making sense—even to García Madero, who is narrating them. It can seem as if approaching the United States, which means moving away from the novel’s “center of gravity,” skews the book itself.

It certainly creates fear. At a university library near the US-Mexican border, a bureaucrat informs Belano that his papers are out of order and that he could be deported from Mexico. Belano yelps, “Didn’t you read here that I’m Chilean? You might as well shoot me in the head!” Interestingly, American critics besides Kurnick do not frequently discuss this moment, in which the prospect of being returned to the US-backed Pinochet regime throws the ordinarily cocky Belano into panic. Up to this point, he has been living safely in Mexico City, cherishing the “visceral realist dream of a continental poetic vanguard”; now, close to the unfriendly Anglophone part of the continent, his nationality turns into a threat. Kurnick never quite argues explicitly that American readers are morally obliged to pay close attention to such scenes. He does, however, present them as gateways to a more nuanced reading of the book: Here and throughout Bolaño’s work, the United States becomes “part of the furniture”—solidly present, probably immovable, and only worthy of note when it causes pain.

“The Savage Detectives” Reread offers a persuasive and compelling case for conscious—and self-conscious—reading. By attending closely to technical detail, Kurnick demonstrates the power of careful analysis to cut through mythmaking; by countering sloppy interpretations of The Savage Detectives with a thoughtful, historically conscious one, he demonstrates the importance of criticizing with one’s own background and biases in mind. In so doing, he provides an example of the power of criticism: At its best, it can cut through embarrassment and bad faith to give readers a clearer view of a writer’s world.

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