A Bolaño Syllabus

September 17, 2009 | 8 books mentioned 16 4 min read

If I could read just one book by Author X, which would it be? This may be the hardest question we can ask a fellow reader, insofar as it assumes that we can teleport straight to the heart of aesthetic experience, rather than journeying there over weeks or years. In fact, we often come to the books we love – and learn to love them – by way of other books: Dubliners primes us for Portrait, which shapes our expectations for Ulysses, which earns our indulgence for Finnegans Wake.

coverIn this way, the justified hype surrounding the English publication last year of late Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666 (If you read only one book this year…) may have done some readers a disservice. Like Joyce’s, Bolaño’s is a sensibility that demands immersion, and for the kind of person who prefers to adjust to the swimming pool by inches rather than jumping straight into the deep end, the massive 2666 may have felt a lot like drowning.

Further complicating the approach to Bolaño is the suggestion of a single roman-fleuve that glimmers around the edges of the work, now brighter, now darker. A knife in the story “The Grub” resurfaces in The Savage Detectives. The first mention of the number 2666 appears in Amulet, while a note among Bolaño’s papers announces that the narrator of the former is none other than Arturo Belano, protagonist of the latter. (And is Belano the same “B” who features in the short stories of Llamadas telefónicas? Or is that Bolaño himself?)

Moreover: like our own universe, Bolaño’s continues to expand long after the Big Bang that birthed it has gone dark. As Wyatt Mason recently noted in The New York Times,

In addition to the eight [books] that have swiftly and ably arrived in translation in the six years since his death in 2003 at age 50, four new books by Bolaño are scheduled to appear in 2010 (two novels, two story collections) with three others promised for 2011. What’s more, according to recent reports out of Spain, another two finished novels have been found among Bolaño’s papers, as well as a sixth, unknown part of . . . 2666.

And so, to help acclimate newcomers to this odd and essential author; to continue mapping the Bolañoverse, as Malcolm Cowley mapped Yoknapatawpha; and to impose some order on the flood of  Bolaño releases, The Millions offers the following syllabus, which we’ll update as further translations become available, and as we take comments into account.

cover1. “Dance Card” and “Sensini” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

Together, these two stories offer a précis of the personal mythology that animates Bolaño’s most important work. The first explores Latin American – and especially Chilean – politics in the 1960s and 1970s and their impact on a generation of young writers. The second finds a Bolaño-like narrator many years later, in artistic and geographic exile.

cover2. Nazi Literature in the Americas [1996]

This early novel, a compendium of fictional writers, offers our first glimpse of the hugeness of Bolaño’s ambition. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to his peculiar sense of humor, which compacts the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. It’s a favorite (See our review).

cover3. Distant Star [1996]

When it was published, this probably constituted Bolaño’s most compelling narrative to date. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives. Another favorite.

4. “Last Evenings on Earth” and “The Grub” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

Tales of young Arturo Belano, I’m guessing. The former provides one of Bolaño’s rare glimpses of fatherhood; the latter introduces the Caborca knife and Villaviciosa, the town of assassins. Both are implicated in Bolaño’s later work.

cover5. The Savage Detectives [1999]

What remains to be said about The Savage Detectives? Once you read this book, you’ll want to read everything else this guy wrote (See our review).

6. The Romantic Dogs [1980 – 1998]

Now that you’ve read The Savage Detectives, you’re probably wondering: why all this fuss about poetry? You’re probably also willing to bear with this collection, which mingles wheat and chaff, cream and crop, as it further adumbrates Bolaño’s personal mythology. It’s worth noting that Bolaño’s gifts as a poet – narrative, character, and a dreamlike vision – are identical to his gifts as a novelist.

7. “Henri Simon LePrince,” “A Literary Adventure,” and “Anne Moore’s Life” [2001]; “Phone Calls,” “Vagabond in France and Belgium,” and “Days of 1978” [1997] (from Last Evenings on Earth)

The first three of these stories read like minor-key variations on Nazi Literature. The last three share a narrator, B, who in some incarnation – protagonist or revenant – haunts most of Bolaño’s fiction. (One wonders when all of Phone Calls (from which these three stories are excerpted) will appear in English.)

cover8. The Skating Rink [1993]

I humbly dissent from Wyatt Mason; this isn’t a masterpiece. It is Bolaño’s first published novel, however, and is one of his most technically accomplished. It won a regional writing contest, back in the days when (per “Sensini”) Bolaño was entering scores of them. By this point, such things are probably interesting to you.

9. “Gomez Palacio,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” “Dentist” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

To hell with technique; here the other side of Bolaño holds sway. These pieces are not so much crafted as dreamed into being, and the hallucinatory intensity of the latter two serve as a perfect warm-up for 2666…

cover10. Amulet [1999]

…As does this novella-length expansion on an incident from The Savage Detectives. I don’t think this one is as successful as Distant Star, but by now, you’re willing to forgive that, right? Arturo Belano features heavily here. And the heroine, Auxilio Lacoutre, feels like a sketch for Florita Almada of 2666…about which Auxilio (like Césarea Tinajero) seems to be having visions…is anyone else getting dizzy?

11. “Enrique Martin” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [2001]

This is one of my two or three favorite Bolaño stories. Enrique seems to have contracted his numerological delirium from Auxilio and Césarea.

12. 2666[2004]

Supernova and apotheosis. You can read my take here.

cover13. By Night in Chile [2000]

Some people think that this short, late novel is Bolaño’s finest, and though I don’t agree with them, it’s always good to save something for dessert. Of all Bolaño’s books, this one seems to have the fewest connections with the others, and so perhaps it would be as good a place to start as to end.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. I humbly offer my truncated version, in some internet speak I just learned.

    Savage Detective: OMG.
    Amulet: Meh.
    Nazi Literature in the Americas: WTF?
    2066: OMFG JJAOMK!.
    Skating Rink: BFD.

    The New Yorker stories are worth a look too; I don’t know if any of them also appear in Last Evenings on Earth (The Insufferable Gaucho, for example). They’re mostly viewable online, I think.

    Thanks for this, Garth. TTYL!

  2. Well done, Garth. I completely agree with you on your comments generally and specifically on The Skating Rink (I was taken aback by Mason’s piece), but this is all a bit ex post – I read Distant Star first, way back, and despite its obvious qualities might never have seriously thought about Bolano again (until the hype, I suppose) unless I somehow found myself reading Savage Detectives. There you are right on. While 2666 is the acknowledged masterpiece, SD is the heart of Bolano and the only place to start.

  3. Bravo. And thank you. I’m ready for class and look forward to 2. and 3. in particular. And having gone straight from Last Evenings on Earth to 2666, I would say that, indeed, it was “The Dentist” that a) whet my appetite for a longer Bolano work and b) prepared me for it.

    What are the chances we (by which I guess I mean you, Garth) can get an interview with Chris Andrews as a follow-up to this post? I long to hear about language in Bolano’s work, from the person who’s immersed himself most.

  4. Distant Star might be his finest work. That is what I thought when I finished it (after first reading The Savage Detectives). Then again, I said the same about Amulet. And 2666. The only time I did not say that was when I finished The Skating Rink, which is a fine novel, but definitely a book that suggests better things to come.

    But why judge any one Bolano book? I prefer reading them all as extensions of each other, which is why I am happy they are being translated almost on top of each other. But for me, Amulet might be the best intro. It has Arturo Belano, would-be poets, murder, history, tragedy, dreams and digressions. What more can you ask for?

  5. Great piece Garth, thanks for teasing out all the different stories in Last Evenings. It was where I started by Bolano trip, and probably my favorite form of Bolano having read 90% (incl. 2666) of what you have listed above. Very excited more short story collections are on the horizon…

  6. Thanks for this! Being an adamant Bolano lover since reading “Last Evenings on Earth,” going absolutely bonkers over “A Distant Star,” and then devouring nearly everything else shortly thereafter, I’ve been facing the “which one should I read first” question from colleagues over and over. However, I find that if people start with “Nazi Literature in the Americas,” or even go to it as their second, they become less than enthused. While it does offer a significant introduction to the author’s mythos, the vignettes seem to be off-putting to someone who has just started in on Bolano, as our novel-centric culture probably perceives that they don’t tell a “story” in the most traditional sense. Usually I start by recommending “A Distant Star,” as it appears to be the most self-contained of all the novels, and, of course, my bias usually propels me to suggest it first. Second is usually “Last Evenings on Earth” (or, if they can read Spanish, “Llamadas telefonicas” and “Putas Asesinas,” as “Last Evenings on Earth” is a selection of stories from both of these). By then the reader should be ready for “The Savage Detectives,” “Nazi Literature in the Americas” and “2666,” in that order.

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  8. Brava! Now if we could travel back a few years in time together. I mean, a girl could spend the rest of her life reading The Very Last Bolaño Book.

  9. I think this is sensible advice. I read Distant Star when it first came out, and it really stuck with me. I think it’s one of his best and a good place to start. It’s unique in that it is mostly set in Pinochet’s Chile, whereas most of his other works involve Chileans in exile. Oh, and By Night in Chile, which is set there entirely.

    After that, I read a few short stories that appeared in the New Yorker, the most memorable is “Last Evenings on Earth”. Then The Savage Detectives came out in 2007, which I read nonstop on vacation in Mexico. Totally hooked at that point, I read everything else that had been translated into English. About a year went by, and I managed to get an ACR of 2666 last September and devoured that in about four weeks. Then Nazi Lit in the Americas and just a few weeks ago, The Skating Rink.

    I’m glad I read the books in that order and have recommended a similar syllabus to friends. I think your rationale makes sense, but the most important piece of advice I would give is to start small with the novellas and short stories, then read Savage Detectives, and, most importantly, save the sui generis 2666 for last and really savor it. Probably a good idea to read Amulet after Savage Detectives, but not necessary.

    FWIW…if I had to pick a favorite, I would say Savage Detectives. 2666 is riveting and unlike any literary experience I’ve had. Distant Star is my favorite novella for some reason I can’t explain, maybe because it was the first thing I read by Bolaño and it made such an impression. By Night in Chile, which I read before 2666, never really clicked with me, but I know that others love it. I’ll have to try it again in a year or two.

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