By Night in Chile

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My Life Became a Roberto Bolaño Novel


When I read Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives some years ago, I didn’t spend much time wondering who the so-called detectives of the title were. It seemed obvious. They were the book’s off-kilter heroes, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, two poetry-drunk youths who venture off in a white Impala into the Sonoran desert to solve the mystery of what happened to the mythical, vanished poet Cesárea Tinajero. Their quest, which also involves them fleeing a gun-wielding pimp, opens and closes the novel. It sandwiches a hefty middle section that patchily reconstructs Belano and Lima’s peregrinations across the globe later in life through interviews with some 40 people who knew them. It was only after I unexpectedly embarked on my own Bolaño-esque odyssey into war, dictatorship, and the world of Spanish-language poetry, years later, that I started to suspect that his two protagonists weren’t the only savage detectives in the book. I began to wonder: Who interviewed all of those people in the middle section? What unseen person(s) had tracked them all down to talk? Now that took savage detective work. Little did I know I would find myself doing something eerily similar and even ask myself, half in jest, if Bolaño was somehow toying me with from beyond the grave. Quite fittingly, my own savage detective story began in the very country where he died—Spain.

In the summer of 2012, I was living in Madrid with my wife. One night my friend Javi invited us over to his apartment to watch a cult Spanish documentary from the 1970s called El Desencanto (The Disenchantment). He didn’t say much else—he didn’t want to ruin it for us—only that the film was about a dead poet and his eccentric family.

El Desencanto is, indeed, about a dead poet and his eccentric family: Leopoldo Panero, his wife, Felicidad Blanc, and their three sons, Juan Luis, Leopoldo María, and Michi. But it is also about so, so much more. Leopoldo Panero was a communist before the Spanish Civil War but joined Francisco Franco’s army in order to survive, and by the end of the conflict he was writing fascist-tinged poetry and would later be celebrated by the dictatorship for his verses. In 1962 he died, leaving behind elegant, resentful, and literature-obsessed Felicidad, along with their three sons, all with rebellious leftist beliefs and high-flown literary aspirations. Ten-plus years later, mom and the boys got together on camera to make the film that left me in state of awe as I sat on Javi’s couch. Not only did they attack their deceased paterfamilias by pulling the family’s dirty laundry out of the closet and into the light, but they did it by speaking in a kind of incendiary poetry while lacing their story with literary allusions that added a dramatic mystique. The Paneros treated their family history as if it were a novel they could collectively rewrite, and certainly they were characters worthy of a novelist’s imagination. Juan Luis, the oldest, was both macho and dandified, modeling himself on his idols Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Leopoldo María, the middle son, was an unstable poetic genius who was constantly in and out of jails and mental institutions. And Michi, the youngest, was a playboy whose literary medium was the overblown stories he told. El Desencanto was about history and myth, family and inheritance, and politics and poetry. I would soon learn that the film had scandalized Spain when it came out in 1976, a year after Franco’s death, launching the Paneros into the realm of legend.

Prisons and asylums, fascism and rebellion, dictatorships and poetic movements—the Panero family’s story read like an unwritten Spanish chapter from Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas. I walked home that night from Javi’s apartment feeling like my eyebrows had been by singed the Paneros’ singular strangeness. I also felt like a literary wormhole had somehow opened up between Bolaño’s fictional universe and my own real one.

Wondering if this was a case of art imitating life—even as life for me would soon start imitating art—I turned to Google to see what I might dig up on the Paneros and Bolaño. Sure enough, the Chilean had fictionalized Leopoldo María as a character in two books I had already read: as a magnetic, nameless poet-genius living in an insane asylum in 2666, and as arguably the same character in The Savage Detectives, but named Pelayo Barrendoáin, surrounded by fans at the Madrid Book Fair “who feed on my madness to nourish their madness.” He also appeared without a mask in another Bolaño book. In the posthumous novel Woes of the True Policeman, a gay poet who idolizes Leopoldo María refers to him admiringly as “the Great Faggot of All Sorrows,” and his brother Juan Luis appears in a list under the category of “Worst houseguest.” These intertextual discoveries only made the story of the Paneros that I had seen in El Desencanto pulse with a stronger glow, leading me to feel like I had stumbled upon a non-fiction Bolaño book written by real life instead of him.

During the months after seeing El Desencanto, I developed an obsession with the Paneros, and to make a long story very short, three years later I began writing a collective biography of the family. The project required me to track down and interview all the people I could who had known them in order to trace the arcs of their lives. In other words, adopting the methodology of the middle section of The Savage Detectives as I chased stories of the Paneros, I became a savage detective.

By the time I started work on my book, I was living in Los Angeles, so I went back to Spain as much as was feasible. My research visits were very intense. Most of the people I sought out to interview were in Madrid, where the Paneros had spent the bulk of their lives. Although I had already lived there and thought I knew the city moderately well, it became a different, seemingly infinite place when infused with the rich history of the family. Every door I knocked on, every bar I sat in, every new phone number I called, unboxed a hidden world of stories. I interviewed friends and relatives and ex-lovers, editors and critics, gallerists and a ghostwriter, celebrated writers and film directors, historians and journalists, a Borges biographer, Federico García Lorca’s niece, a best-selling cookbook author, two former mayors of small cities, and the Spanish ambassador to Honduras. And, of course, I interviewed the literary kin of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima: poets—lots and lots of poets.

Over cafés con leche and condensation-beaded cañas (small glasses of beers), I probed everyone I interviewed delicately but insistently, trying to understand the thoughts and actions of five individuals who, like Bolaño characters, seemed to think literature was more real than life itself. The memories poured out, like a choral narrative for me to parse into one unified, cohesive tale. I learned the squalid details of one of the Panero sons’ alcoholic decline; I learned things about the sexual predilections of the other two. Combining several testimonies, I was able to recreate the 1976 premiere of El Desencanto. I listened to recollections about the Spanish Civil War, the Franco Dictatorship, and Spain’s precarious transition to democracy. The literary world in Spain is small and familial, so nearly everyone I interviewed knew everyone else I interviewed. Often, they insulted each other. During the long conversations I frequently ended up getting drunk when I didn’t mean to and went to sleep very late when I had to get up early the next day. Sometimes I even inadvertently got drunk early, like when a retired lawyer who had played a role in crafting Spain’s 1978 constitution welcomed me into his apartment on a scorching July morning with a bottle of champagne that he popped open for us to share.

People’s trust in me during this process was shocking. I was a blank page and the interviews filled me with the words of others, sometimes very sad ones. The novelistic richness of the experience outweighed the physical and emotional fatigue, especially the moments that felt not stranger than fiction but the stuff of fiction: the psychiatrist who only vaguely understood why we were meeting yet treated me to an enormous meal of fried fish, then invited me up to his apartment and seemed intent on keeping me there for the rest of the day; or the famous writer and former communist secret agent in Spain during the Franco dictatorship, now in his 80s, who has his own brand of anti-aging elixir.

I sometimes regaled my editor with these stories, which she called “the book behind the book.” My experiences also felt like the book inside of books. When I visited Juan Luis Panero’s widow in a town on the Costa Brava, an hour from Blanes, where Bolaño lived in his final years, I felt like I had entered the end of his novel Distant Star. Likewise, my research into Leopoldo Panero’s bitter public feud with Pablo Neruda put me in mind of the legendary poet’s appearance in By Night in Chile. But the proliferation of literary wormholes went beyond the work of Bolaño. The Panero family’s trip to Alexandria, Egypt in the 1950s simmered with the romance of Lawrence Durrell’s novel Justine, which they modeled their trip after. When I visited the family’s ancestral home in the small town of Astorga, the courtyard echoed Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, also a Panero family favorite. This was the magic of the Paneros—their literary obsessions seemed to deconstruct the fabric of reality and stitch it back together with literature as its seams. Bolaño and the Paneros were similar that way: Books became the raw material for crafting a life rather than the other way around.

And maybe I was that way too, since at a certain point during the writing of my book things seemed to turn very meta, as though I had entered a novel and become an unwitting character.

I first noticed this soon after I interviewed the Spanish novelist Javier Marías about his friendship with Michi Panero. I particularly adore two Marías novels, A Heart So White and Thus Bad Begins, both of which concern molten secrets that inexorably rise to the surface. As if on cue, after my conversation with Marías, several of the subsequent interviews I conducted yielded secrets about him. Nothing shattering, but enough for each person to go off the record. Was I being sucked into a María-esque narrative scenario? No. I was clearly being excessively fanciful imagining that life was imitating art in such a way. One person in Spain I talked to about this said I had a classic case of “Panero Paranoia,” meaning their compulsive literariness was becoming my own. This paranoia only increased, however, when I emailed Enrique Vila-Matas.

Like Javier Marías, Vila-Matas was good friends with Michi Panero. He mentions Michi in his novel Never Any End to Paris, and he dedicated his novel Lejos de Veracruz to him. The book is about the travails of three brothers who are a mashup of sorts of the Paneros and another famous Spanish literary family, the Goytisolos. I corresponded with Vila-Matas about some of his memories of Michi, and I also sent him a passage from Michi’s unpublished partial memoir to ask if what he said about Vila-Matas and his family was accurate. (The answer: kind of. Vila-Matas called it a “sublimation” of the truth.) Soon after, a writer for a magazine in Argentina who knew Vila-Matas wrote me to say he’d told her I was writing a novel about the Panero family, and she wanted to quote me for an article. I corrected her that I was writing a biography and answered her questions. A month or so later, a reporter for the Spanish newspaper El Pais wrote me because Vila-Matas had told her that I was making a movie about the Paneros. Once again, I offered a correction then answered questions. What would be the next inquiry, I wondered, someone saying that Vila-Matas had told them that I was composing a stage musical about the Paneros?

This was when it became clear to me that, yes, I was in an Enrique Vila-Matas novel. The playful absurdity, the maniacal whims of a writer, the blurring of the real and the unreal—it was vintage Vila-Matas. Or wait: Was it pure Bolaño? Was I in a novel by Roberto Bolaño (who was friends with Vila-Matas) in which a stand-in for Vila-Matas messed with the head of an American writer trying to write a book about a Spanish literary family with a fascist past?

Of course, the answer was much simpler than all of that: I was simply deep, deep inside the process of writing my own book, which finally came to a close six years after I first saw El Desencanto. A telling development had occurred. I was no longer the sole detective asking questions. Now new ones were appearing and tracking me down to ask me questions. When at last I turned in my finished manuscript after reading thousands of pages of books and documents and conducting nearly 100 interviews, I felt vastly satisfied but also vastly empty. The literary madness of the Paneros had nourished my literary madness, and I already missed them.

During the fraught, lonely period between finishing my book and its publication—which I imagined being akin to wandering lost in the Sonoran desert—I met my wife one day for lunch. We ate sitting on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean. After we finished, my wife departed, leaving me to contemplate the sea. Overcome by a sudden sleepiness, I laid down on the bench and dozed off. A half hour later, my own snoring woke me up. A huddle of people standing nearby glanced at me. I thought of something the middle son, Leopoldo María Panero, used to say near the end of his life, when he would leave the mental institution in the Canary Islands where he lived during the day and take naps on public benches: I’m not a bum, I’m a poet! I wanted to yell out the same thing. Instead, I lay back down and stared up at the clear blue sky. I wasn’t a poet; I never had been. I was a detective, and for the time being my savage work was done.

Image credit: Unsplash/João Silas.

Roberto Bolaño’s Guide to Complicity


A few years ago, getting lectured by an online dictionary blog post about being complicit with evil would have been incredibly bizarre. But we live in bizarre times. As its choice for 2017 Word of the Year, chose “complicit.” Here is an excerpt from said blog post (which is well worth a read in its entirety) announcing the choice:
As we do the hard work of processing what this all means, we must examine our own behavior and ask ourselves some difficult questions. Could I have spoken out in the past…and didn’t? Did I go along with something because it was the path of least resistance?
Complicity is in the air. Just this month, a Donald Trump campaign ad said that, because of their refusal to fund a wall on the Mexican border, “Democrats…will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.” And last year began with the international Women’s March and ended with #MeToo (and its smaller male cousin, #IWill). It was a year that made people look themselves in the eye and ask how they can do better. One could say that as much as 2017 was the year of “complicit,” it was the year of “publicly refusing to be complicit.”

This is the context in which I decided to re-read Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile. Bolaño’s novella is a psychological portrait of complicity, and the ways in which we rationalize our complicity. The story is framed as the deathbed confession of Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a priest, poet, and literary critic who lived through the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Father Urrutia Lacroix’s account is best read as an apology—not in the popular sense of saying sorry, but in the older sense of “a defense, excuse, or justification in speech or writing.” (Thank you, “One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences,” he says. And yet, he is defiant: “My silences are immaculate.” His prosecutor, such as it is, is a shadowy, surreal figure referred to only as “the wizened youth.”

The rest of the book turns out to be a catalogue of Urrutia’s silences when they most matter. In the first section of the book, before Pinochet’s coup, Urrutia glides into the upper reaches of Chile’s literary elite on the wings of his mentor, the aristocratic, lecherous critic Farewell. Urrutia starts writing book reviews under the pseudonym Father H. Ibacache, a name that he plans on using to advance his career as a poet by reviewing “Father Urrutia Lacroix’s” poetry in glowing terms. After being sent on a junket arranged by two mysterious businessmen, Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah—“Fear” and “Hate” backwards—to study church preservation in Europe (as it turns out, every priest he meets is using trained falcons to kill the pigeons shitting on their churches), Urrutia returns to Chile to find his country in an uproar. “My country was not in a healthy state. This is no time to dream, I said to myself, I must act on my principles. This is no time to go chasing rainbows, I said, I must be a patriot.”

His chosen course of action is to start reading all of ancient Greek literature, starting with Homer. “Let God’s will be done, I said. I’m going to reread the Greeks.” What follows is Bolaño’s breathless, surreal history of Salvador Allende’s ill-fated socialist presidency. As the copper mines are nationalized, as the protests grow, and as the tanks begin to roll, Urrutia stays in his room, reading his Greeks. And then, Urrutia says, “came the coup d’état, the putsch, the military uprising, the bombing of La Moneda and when the bombing was finished, the president committed suicide and that put an end to it all. I sat there in silence, a finger between the pages to mark my place, and I thought: Peace at last.”

After Pinochet is installed in power, and Chile’s elites have taken a victory lap (“They’re going to give me back my estate” Farewell whispers to Urrutia Lacroix at Pablo Neruda’s funeral), Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah approach Father Urrutia with a new, secret assignment: Teaching Pinochet and his inner circle about Marxism. When Urrutia hesitates to accept, the visit gets less pleasant. “Don’t get coy with us, said Mr. Etah, this is an offer no one can refuse. An offer no one would want to refuse, said Mr. Raef in a conciliatory tone.” After the first lesson, Urrutia agonizes over the question of necessity. “Did I do what I had to do? Did I do what I ought to have done?…Is it always possible for a man to know what is good and what is bad?” Later, when Urrutia asks Farewell if he did the right thing by accepting the job, Farewell asks him outright: “Was it a necessary or an unnecessary course of action?” “Necessary, necessary, necessary,” he responds.

The twin pillars of Urrutia’s apology are a denial of any agency in his actions, and a minimizing of the damage wrought by Pinochet’s regime. At times, he blames individual figures like Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah, “since they were the ones who got me into that business in the first place.” Mostly, however, he blames history. “An individual is no match for history,” he says. Father Urrutia’s view of history is a classically Greek one, history as a never-ending cycle of retribution that leads ultimately to some temporary state of balance. “Sooner or later everyone would get their share of power again. The right, the center and the left, one big happy family.” And he dismisses years of brutality and oppression under Pinochet as, “A couple of ethical problems…Just a little bout of fever! Just three acts of madness! Just an unusually prolonged psychotic episode!” This is how Urrutia keeps his own complicity at arm’s length: If no one individual or their actions can stem the tides of history, how can he be to blame for anything that has happened? He even uses that age-old tool, obfuscation: “Sometimes, at night, I would sit on a chair in the dark and ask myself what difference there was between fascist and rebel. Just a pair of words. Two words, that’s all. And sometimes either one will do!”

It is evident that Urrutia does not believe his own argument that individual decisions don’t matter (or knows his audience does not) because of the lengths he goes to in downplaying his part in the novella’s finale. Urrutia explains how Chilean writers and intellectuals began to congregate at a series of literary soirees in an elegant home, hosted by an aspiring Chilean novelist named Maria Canales and her husband, an American businessman. “We were bored. We read and we got bored…Splendid isolation has never been our style, and back then, as now, Chilean artists and writers needed to gather and talk, ideally in a pleasant setting where they could find intelligent company.” A pleasant setting which, he explains, was hard to come by in the days of curfews and military patrols under Pinochet, patrols which never seem to come to Canales’s house. One night, a drunk party guest poking around in the basement finds a room with a naked man blindfolded and strapped to an electrified torture device known as “la parilla” (the grill). The guest—“a theorist of avant-garde theater”—closes the door and goes back upstairs to rejoin the guests.

Urrutia, with his detailed recollections of these parties and his conversations with Canales, says he hardly went to the house:
I didn’t go every week. I put in an appearance chez Maria Canales once a month. Or even less often. But there were writers who went every week. Or more! They all deny it now. They even claim I was the true habitue, present every week without fail. Or twice, three times a week! But…we can rule that out straightaway. My visits were rare. Infrequent, at worst.
He also questions why no one spoke up after finding out about the torture chamber in the basement, even as he justifies his own silence. “I was not afraid. I would have been able to speak out, but I didn’t see anything, I didn’t know until it was too late. Why go stirring up things that have gradually settled down over the years?”

Urrutia is as unreliable a narrator as they come. Even if he were not a liar and a dissembler, with his literary double-dipping, even if he did not have an agenda of clearing his name (“Oh my poor memory. My poor reputation,” he laments at one point), his recollections are those of a feverish, dying man: fragmentary, contradictory, and hallucinatory. There is no reason to believe him, then, when he says he did not know about the torture chamber until it was too late to do anything. His image of the man strapped to the table is so vivid, in fact, it even calls into question whether it was he who discovered the hidden room, or if there was more than one discoverer. If he was willing to give lessons in Marxist theory to Pinochet knowing his lessons would be used to quash dissent (“I know how far I am prepared to go myself, I assure you. But I also want to know how far they are prepared to go,” Pinochet himself tells him), the idea of his drinking cognac and reciting poetry upstairs from an actual torture chamber is hardly a stretch. Urrutia gives himself away when he says, “with time, vigilance tends to relax, because all horrors are dulled by routine.”

Nor is Urrutia a sympathetic character. Pitiable, yes—he is a closeted gay man, cowardly, lonely, wracked with guilt and disease—but not sympathetic. He touts his pure Basque and French bloodline and turns up his nose at ordinary Chileans, from the farmers he encounters on Farewell’s estate (“The women were ugly and their words were incoherent. The silent man was ugly and his stillness was incoherent…God have mercy on me and on them.”) to the “office drones” in a coffee shop in Santiago (“Pigs suffer too.”). He is unable to look outside of his own sufferings, his intellectual misfortunes, even as a tyrannical military regime tightens its grip on power. And he refuses to accept even a shred of responsibility for his actions, to the point of absurdity. Of his membership in Opus Dei, the secret Catholic order that reportedly had several members in Pinochet’s cabinets, he says, “I was probably the most liberal member…in the whole Republic.”

By Night in Chile is (predictably) a distinctly Chilean novel, with distinctly Chilean resonances. And yet, I found myself increasingly, uncomfortably seeing myself in Father Urrutia and his passivity. After all, my response to confronting my potential complicity in any number of American and world horrors was to re-read Bolaño. Is that really so different from Urrutia’s decision to re-read Thucydides as the Chilean army descended on the presidential palace? I am currently in Europe—Oxford, specifically—reading for a master’s degree in classical literature, literally reading the very same Greeks he mentions. Meanwhile, this month the White House announced the deportation of over 200,000 Salvadoran residents of the United States of America and the president denounced whole regions of the earth as “shitholes.” How do I justify that? We cannot allow ourselves to stop caring about culture just because we’re anxious about the future of society (when will we not be anxious about that?) or allow authoritarianism to monopolize art, but don’t those of us privileged enough and educated enough to make our voices heard owe some debt to the world beyond debating film aesthetics and narrative devices in Victorian novels?

There is a fine line between using culture as a tool to better society, and clinging to one’s cultured, elite status as a tool of oppression, and By Night in Chile shows how easily that line is crossed. All one has to do is say nothing, drink the wine, “smile beatifically.” And if you see something that makes you uneasy, just go back upstairs to the party, and continue saying nothing.

I don’t have any definitive answers. Maybe the truth is what Father Urrutia tells “the wizened youth,” the shadowy, prosecutorial figure who torments him at various points throughout the book, and to whom Urrutia addresses some of his most pointed defenses. That is, perhaps the existence of a literary elite depends on some degree of despotism. “That is how literature is made, that is how the great works of Western literature are made. You better get used to it, I tell him.” And, indeed, this is the rationalization that seems as if it might finally grant Father Urrutia some relief from his pangs of conscience: his defenselessness against history. “The wizened youth has always been alone, and I have always been on history’s side.”

Only, it is not so simple. “The wizened youth, or what is left of him, moves his lips, mouthing an inaudible no.” As the novella reaches its conclusion, Father Urrutia at last begins to understand something the reader might have suspected all along:
And little by little the truth begins to rise like a dead body…I can see its shadow rising. Its flickering shadow…And then, in the half-light of my sickness, I see his fierce, his gentle face, and I ask myself: Am I that wizened youth? Is that the true, the supreme terror, to discover that I am the wizened youth whose cries no one can hear? And that the poor wizened youth is me?
Anyone who devotes a considerable amount of their life to literature must learn to make peace with these two sides of themselves: the passive intellectual, swept along by history, and the wizened youth, mouthing an inaudible no in the shadows.

Nothing Is at Stake: On Shakespeare, Lana Del Rey, and the Relatable

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Recently, Lynn Stuart Parramore tried to explain “Why a Death-Obsessed Pop Siren Is Perfect for Late-Stage Capitalist America.” She was referring, of course, to Lana Del Rey. Parramore explains that the Ultraviolence chanteuse is only the latest heir to a long lineage of decadent femmes fatales that rise to cultural prominence at moments of perilous social transition or imminent collapse:

This potent combination of women, sex and death is going to be one of the calling cards of late-stage capitalism. We are experiencing fearsome global dislocations and distorted social and economic systems that are killing our life-affirming instincts. The death drive is perennial, but when a society seems to hover on the eve of destruction, these Eves of the Apocalypse — suicidal brides, young women fixated on pain and death — emerge to speak our well-founded anxieties. They signal that just now, the death drive is very strong.

Parramore’s thesis may not seem to have much to do with Ira Glass’s controversial assertion, tweeted after seeing a performance of King Lear, that, “Shakespeare sucks.” But when you consider that one of the late 19th century’s favorite sources of death-and-the-maiden imagery was the drowning Ophelia, weltering picturesquely among the strewn flowers of her fatal madness, the Shakespeare/Del Rey connection becomes more plausible. Just as Parramore (and others) criticize Lana Del Rey for social irresponsibility, for promoting an anti-feminist celebration of sadomasochistic sexuality and for embracing capitalist spectacle unto death, so the most persuasive and compelling attacks on Shakespeare have charged him with amoral aestheticism and a sensationalized skepticism about human potential.

Ira Glass’s infamous tweet complained of King Lear that it had “no stakes” and was “not relatable.” Rebecca Mead and Adam Kirsch have explained at eloquent length why Glass’s expectation that Shakespeare be “relatable” is a naïve and even pernicious application of the narcissistic standards of advertising to serious art. But is Glass’s assertion that King Lear lacks “stakes” really so off the mark? This is a play in which traditional authority and the religious foundation on which it rests have collapsed into nothingness. Its villain, Edmund, worships no god but amoral nature, and its forlorn metaphysical conclusion is, in the words of the brutally blinded Gloucester, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport.” It’s not wrong to say that there are no stakes in the tragedy’s meaningless cosmos. At the play’s conclusion, a set of numb and chastened survivors mutter small consolations in a blasted landscape.

Turning the final page of ultraviolent King Lear in a literary anthology, you would expect it to be succeeded not by Milton’s Puritan justification of God’s ways to men or Pope’s Enlightenment assertion that, “Whatever is, is right,” but rather by the God-haunted and God-abandoned worlds of Kafka and Beckett. Shakespeare’s despairing modernity— — if by “modernity” we mean the collapse of all tradition and a resulting ontological insecurity — is uncanny, so uncanny that we can see elements of Lana Del Rey’s persona prefigured in Lear’s daughters: in the desperate and fatal sexual longings of Goneril and Regan, in the mysterious born-to-die intransigence of Cordelia.

This sense of an after-the-deluge world gone wrong, a world where faith, hope, and love are powerless to improve the human condition, has long disturbed Shakespeare’s critics, most notoriously the poet Nahum Tate, whose happy-ending re-write of Lear held the English stage throughout the 18th century.

But there are less moralistic ways to critique Shakespeare than Tate’s bowdlerization. In 1986, the brilliant polymath critic George Steiner gave a remarkable lecture called “A Reading against Shakespeare,” later collected in his No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995. In this densely learned paper, Steiner attempts to synthesize into a coherent and persuasive argument the complaints against Shakespeare made throughout modern history; he focuses particularly on the criticism of Leo Tolstoy and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tolstoy and Wittgenstein, Steiner explains, implicitly relied on a concept of the poet as spiritual authority and moral prophet. For European thinkers of the 19th and early-20th centuries, it was not enough to be a prodigious coiner of words and creator of spectacle, as Shakespeare undoubtedly was:

Shakespeare is the incomparable Sprachchöpfer, the prodigal wordsmith, the limits of whose language are, in the idiom of the Tractatus, the limits of our world. There is scarcely a domain, constituent of men’s works and days, which Shakespeare has not harvested in language, over which he has not cast the encompassing net of his matchless lexical and grammatical wealth. Disposer of a vocabulary of almost thirty thousand words (Racine’s world is built of one tenth that number), Shakespeare, more than any other human being of whom we have certain record, has made the world at home in the word. This does not, however, make of him a Dichter, a truth-sayer, an explicitly moral agent, a visible teacher to and guardian of imperilled, bewildered mankind. An authentic Dichter, urges Wittgenstein, ‘cannot really say of himself, “I sing as the birds sing”—but perhaps Shakespeare could have said this of himself’ (Milton’s ‘warbling notes of wood-notes wild’ is fairly obviously present to Wittgenstein when he makes this suggestion). ‘I do not think that Shakespeare would have been able to reflect on the Dichterlos’ — a term again resistant to translation into English and into the entire register of Anglo-Saxon sensibility, but signifying something like the ‘calling’, ‘the destined ordnance’ of the poet.

Because his plays express no sense of a nearly divine vocation, of a mission to save humanity by transmitting ethical truths, Shakespeare cannot be the equal of Dante or Milton or Goethe, of the Greek dramatists or the Russian novelists, all of whom wrote to commune with the divine and to bring light to the world. What had in the Romantic tradition long been seen as Shakespeare’s unique strength — what Keats famously called his “Negative Capability,” his capacity for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” — on this view becomes a liability, a social irresponsibility, a feckless acceptance of humanity’s doomed and ignorant lot without any attempt to improve it. Shakespeare can be seen as the paradigm of the apolitical artist, the dissolute aesthete reviled not only by the religious conservatives of all faiths but also by those who nurse radical political hopes, such as the anarcho-pacifist Tolstoy, the Soviet sympathizer Wittgenstein, and even the socialist-feminist Lynn Stuart Parramore. From this perspective, we find Shakespeare at the origin of that dangerously aloof aestheticism for which Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile has given us the most memorable picture in contemporary letters: the literary soirée above the torture chamber.

Accusing Shakespeare of reactionary politics is a longer tradition that one might expect; it certainly predates those deconstructionists, Marxists, postcolonialists, and feminists that the Bardolotarous Harold Bloom notoriously castigated as the “School of Resentment” in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, Shakespeare’s plays lure Septimus Warren Smith into the Great War to fight for an England he associates with the Bard’s poetic achievement. But after the war, the shell-shocked Smith discovers a different moral in Shakespeare:

Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language — Antony and Cleopatra — had shrivelled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity — the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aeschylus (translated) the same.

While other classic authors are implicated in Septimus’s very 20th-century sense that, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (to quote Walter Benjamin), Shakespeare bears the brunt because he is the British icon whose poetic splendor tricked Septimus and his generation into fighting a nationalist and imperialist war that has destroyed their lives.

In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus makes a similar case in his lecture on Hamlet in the National Library of Dublin. The young colonial intellectual sees Shakespeare as the poet of empire, anticipating the postcolonialist critics of P.C. academe by more than half a century. “Khaki Hamlets don’t hesitate to shoot,” Stephen bitterly observes of the British empire. Joyce’s autobiographical hero imagines the Elizabethan playwright as a litigious capitalist (Shakespeare was part-owner of his own theatrical company and of the Globe theater) who projected his avarice onto Shylock in a classic instance of anti-Semitism. Stephen even pictures Shakespeare as a money-minded hoarder of necessities during famine, an image of horrifying relevance to Ireland:

— And the sense of property, Stephen said. He drew Shylock out of his own long pocket. The son of a maltjobber and moneylender he was himself a cornjobber and moneylender with ten tods of corn hoarded in the famine riots.

Stephen further speculates that Shakespeare’s nihilism was caused by wounded male pride, stemming from a betrayal by his wife, construed by the playwright/investor as yet another piece of his property:

But a man who holds so tightly to what he calls his rights over what he calls his debts will hold tightly also to what he calls his rights over her whom he calls his wife.

To sum up the political case against Shakespeare: his nihilism and skepticism translate directly into a political agnosticism all too willing to collaborate with oppression and injustice, especially when it is in the interests of shareholders. On this reading, what is at stake in Shakespeare is profit. Therefore, comparing him to Lana Del Rey, the putative commodity-image studio creation of the erstwhile Lizzy Grant and her industry collaborators, doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.

“And yet,” as George Steiner likes to say.

G. Wilson Knight wrote an essay in the 1930s reviewing Tolstoy’s polemic against Shakespeare. Knight concludes that, while Tolstoy’s utopianism is admirable, the kind of a purely ethical art he desires will never satisfy us, because audiences require a metaphysical drama that speaks to all of experience, one in which “[p]ersons both satanic and divine will inter-thread its story.” This conclusion, disturbing to moralists of all stripes, recalls another great analysis of Shakespeare by Knight, his classic “The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet.” (Both essays can be found in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Tragedy.)

Knight spends much of “The Embassy of Death” building what looks like another Bardoclastic case, by patiently demonstrating the virtues of every character in the drama besides Hamlet. Claudius is a thoughtful king, committed to resolving international conflict through diplomacy rather than war; Polonius and Laertes are sensible to warn Ophelia away from the unstable Prince; Ophelia and Gertrude are innocent victims of Hamlet’s cruelty. These secondary characters are “creatures of earth,” Knight says, who love life and seek to make it as pleasant as possible, whereas Hamlet is a soul-sick death-bringer among them, a diseased intellect who trails destruction in his wake. Knight seems to make an irreproachable judgment against Hamlet — and, by extension, against the writer who expects us to take this monster for a hero:

He has seen the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.

What can Knight say to mitigate this conclusion? Nothing — so Knight surprises us instead: unlike Tolstoy or Wittgenstein, Knight devastatingly concludes, “It is Hamlet who is right.” In other words, the dark Prince’s evil vision has truth, if not morality or good politics, to recommend it.

Without mentioning G. Wilson Knight, Simon Critchley, and Jamieson Webster have come to a near-identical conclusion in their recent book, Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine, a doctrine they define as “the corrosive dialectic of knowledge and action, where the former disables the latter and insights into the truth induces a disgust with existence.” They go on to ask, “What is so heroic about Hamlet’s disgust? Do we even like him?” But that, as Critchley and Jamieson well know, is like asking if Hamlet is relatable. Of course we shouldn’t like him — but on the evidence of the play’s tenacious prestige, we do anyway. The authors of Stay, Illusion earlier relate, “We kept noticing occurrences of the word ‘nothing’ in Hamlet…and discovered that nothing, as it were, structures the action of the play and the interplay between its central characters.”

Hamlet’s — and Shakespeare’s — charismatically demonic knowledge of the void at the heart of reality, the death that is the essence of life, catches something very real in our experience (or mine, anyway), a basic metaphysical uncertainty that should disturb all of us, a faithlessness and despair that no doubt has the poisonous potential to ruin the plans of our reformers and revolutionaries, of our dispensers of Christian charity and our disseminators of socialist-feminist politics, but a grim knowledge that nevertheless murmurs constantly beneath the busy clamor of everyday life and that seeks passionate expression in the face of all protest. Maybe Shakespeare sucks because — and to the extent that — life sucks. It doesn’t and shouldn’t please us if we want to believe in a better world, and it may not cheer the fans of NPR, but Shakespeare’s visionary perception that precisely nothing is at stake in each of our lives will probably continue to worry us as long as there are playgoers and readers to experience it.

Image Credit: LPW

The Academy of Rambling-On: On Bohumil Hrabal’s Fiction


This year, to celebrate the centennial of the great Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, the University of Chicago Press published an early short-story collection previously unavailable in English. Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab was written and published in the 1960s, a mid-career work bringing together some of his best short fiction, like “The Feast” and “A Moonlit Night.”

In the final story, “An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab,” written by Hrabal as part postscript, part manifesto, he writes,

I’m a corresponding member of the Academy of Rambling-on, a student at the Department of Euphoria, my god is Dionysos, a drunken, sensuous young man, jocundity given human form, my church father is the ironic Socrates, who patiently engages with anybody so as to lead them by the tongue and through language to the very threshold of nescience, my first-born son is Jaroslav Hašek, the inventor of the cock-and-bull story and a fertile genius and scribe who added human flesh to the firmament of prose and left writing to others, with unblinking lashes I gaze into the blue pupils of this Holy Trinity without attaining the acme of vacuity, intoxication without alcohol, education without knowledge, inter urinas et faeces nascimur.(We are born between urine and feces.)

Bohumil Hrabal was born near the beginning of World War I in Brno, in the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was raised by a gallery of colorful relatives, including an uncle who served as an early model for the gregarious and unscrupulous type that populated his later novels. His legal studies at Charles University in Prague were interrupted by the Second World War. After the Communists took over, he worked as a stage hand and industrial worker. He published one book of poetry in the late 1940s, but didn’t publish fiction until he was 42.

When he did begin writing stories and novels, his methods for composing fiction were radical. According to David Short, one of his translators, the Czech writer was a prolific cut-and-paste stylist. The expansive tone and patient rhythms of Hrabal’s writing belies just how drastic his revisions were. According to Short, Hrabal uses “words unknown to anyone;” his cryptologisms still confound lexicographers.

Married in 1956, Hrabal traveled between a co-op flat in a northern district of Prague and a chalet in the Kersko in central Czechoslovakia. He routinely fled the cramped Soviet-style apartment for the more idyllic countryside. A film adaptation of his novel Closely Watched Trains came out in 1967, and it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, a high point of the Czech New Wave. According to the film historian Philip Kerr, Hrabal preferred the movie over his novel. Less than two years after the high point of his success, the Soviets invaded, removed the reformer Alexander Dubček, and initiated “normalization.”

In post-normalization Czechoslovakia, his manuscripts were heavily censored by the publisher Československý Spisovatel. Nevertheless, Hrabal was being praised internationally as a prose master. He influenced Philip Roth and Louise Erdich. Roth, as the editor of the series Writers from the Other Europe, called Hrabal, in 1990, “one of the greatest living European prose writers” and it’s difficult to imagine the barbed mania of Sabbath’s Theater or the absurd feast scene in American Pastoral without Hrabal’s earlier Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age or I Served the King of England.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Hrabal was noticeably silent and did not sign Charter 77. In the cant of Soviet occupation, he “released self-critical statements that made it possible for him to publish.” He died in 1997, after falling out of a fifth-floor hospital window while feeding a cat.

“Ambiguous” and “ambivalent” are overworked terms in the critic’s vocabulary, and vague. The words are accurate for Hrabal, though: a writer engaged with how meaning can shift in the telling and understanding of a story. He dramatizes story-telling (anecdotes, confession, harangue) and he also dramatizes interpretation. Hrabal is preoccupied with how a story can seem to change with an alteration of mood or perspective. How, to pick up a concept from Ludwig Wittgenstein, understanding is deeply aspectual.

In his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein explained this concept of “seeing-as.” First, you see a man’s face. Then, you might see a resemblance between the face and another face, a familial resemblance. You haven’t seen the face differently, but an “aspect” of the face has “dawned on you.” You now see the face as resembling another face.

Or take the picture of the “duck-rabbit:” Looking at the picture, you might see the “duck,” then see the “rabbit.” There’s a cognitive shift between seeing the one and seeing the other. Nothing has changed about the picture. Wittgenstein writes, “I distinguish between the ‘continuous seeing’ of an aspect and the ‘dawning’ of an aspect.”

Wittgenstein writes: “If you ask me what I saw, perhaps I shall be able to make a sketch which shows you; but I shall mostly have no recollection of the way my glance shifted in looking at it.”

Produced in the Academy of Rambling-on, at the Department of Euphoria, Hrabal’s fiction teases out these effects. His protagonists begin as typically superficial readers, who linger on those damaged surfaces or mordant anecdotes for a little longer than they’re comfortable with. They glimpse briefly past the equivocations and the evasions. Finally, their tone becomes urgent and fraught, and their perspective begins to disintegrate.

Translated by Short, the story “Friends” takes up what seems like a hopelessly trite premise, two handicapped friends who teach a friend a deeper life lesson:

And the two friends each had their own truth, their moral fibre was so awesome that all who knew Lothar and Pavel, however slightly, if ever they were a bit despondent, if ever they began to wonder if life was worth living under such-and-such conditions, they’d all…, me too, when, at moments of such blasphemous thoughts, I think of Pavel and Lothar, I feel ashamed of myself compared to the moral compass that backs Pavel and Lothar’s view of the world.

Drawing inspiration from the handicapped? A cliché, sure. Editors who draw a red line through each “batted eyelash” or “on the horizon,” though, would be well-advised to read Hrabal closely, because he understands how cliché eloquently obscures fatigue, despair, and tragedy — writers who work under juntas and dictatorships are especially familiar with the sinister authority of cliches.

Hrabal turns the cliché inside out toward the end of the story. The narrator accompanies them on a trip in which they are bizarrely hassled by a police officer who is interested in how well Lothar speaks Czech. He takes them home and then waits outside the house, watching the two men struggle up the stairs.

I saw Lothar disappear from his wheelchair and then I saw him, like when soldiers crawl through hostile territory, haul himself up with his powerful arms one step at a time, dragging his powerless legs behind him…and then Pavel the same, by his elbows… and I saw how they both had to pause half-way, how though the trip to the pub hadn’t got the better of them, those twelve stairs had, and they had to summon all their strength, turn and turn about, to haul themselves up to the top.

The protagonist Ditie, of Hrabal’s masterpiece I Served the King of England, hides behind cliché, too. Ditie repeats the phrase, “how the unbelievable came true,” in the novel, by my count 12 times.

But the narrator’s trite expressions seem to gloss over his own moral dubiousness. One of the finest novels of the 20th century, I Served the King of England was written in 1971, only a few years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the removal of President Dubcek from office. Shortly thereafter, Hrabal began working on the novel, a searing indictment of Czech complicity during World War II, with a protagonist that affects powerlessness and servility.

After being inspected by Nazi doctors for his suitability to marry and procreate with a German woman, Ditie marries Lise. She brings him a suitcase full of stamps. “At first I didn’t realize how valuable the contents were,” the narrator explains, “because it was full of postage stamps, and I wondered how Lise had come by them.” She explains to him that “after the war they would be worth a fortune, enough to buy us any hotel we wanted.”

As the Nazis are losing battles, Ditie is mistaken for a resistance fighter — according to his explanations, he is often mistaken for being much worse (a thief, a murderer) and much better than he actually is (an anti-Nazi fighter and activist several times). The interrogation becomes a happy accident, since his being targeted by the Nazis will gain him purchase as a subversive in post-war Prague. After being released, Ditie helps an elderly prisoner on a long journey to his home.

“I was doing this not out of any kindness,” Ditie explains, while hesitating to return home, “but to give myself as many alibis as possible once the war was over, and it would be over before we knew it.”

Though Ditie goes to great lengths to exculpate himself from the horrors of Nazism, his own alibi-forging strains credibility: how could he have married a woman like Lise and not recognized her involvement? Wouldn’t the gaps and evasions in his story indicate a more significant crime? Is his confession more significant because of the large-scale omissions that seem implied?

Hrabal, following Joyce, offers up several instances of how mirrors and reflections can misapprehend our true selves, or how we can misapprehend ourselves in reflection. In Joyce’s “Araby,” the narrator’s reflection gives rise to misconceived feelings of piety and self-loathing.

Hrabal picked up the theme in I Served the King of England. The main character becomes a waiter in a prominent hotel and becomes entranced by how pomp can elide one’s own vulnerable identity:

I saw myself in the mirror carrying the bright Pilsner beer, I seemed different somehow, I saw that I’d have to stop thinking of myself as small and ugly. The tuxedo looked good on me here, and when I stood beside the headwaiter, who had curly gray hair that looked as though a hairdresser had done it, I could also see in the mirror that all I really wanted was to work right here at this station with this headwaiter, who radiated serenity, who knew everything there was to know…

Being a waiter requires Ditie to cultivate a kind of passive omniscience. The headwaiter, not Ditie, served the King of England. When a character asks how he knows that a couple is Bavarian, or how a customer likes his veal, the headwaiter simply says, “I served the King of England.”

High Culture is another way Hrabal’s protagonists conceal their motives. Like By Night in Chile’s priest-critic, Ditie’s confession is gilded with references to literature, culture, sophistication, but in stark denial of any moral purpose. The narrator of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age tells his employer, “Like Goethe, I have a weak heart and was more inclined to poetry, which slowed them down for a while.” Ditie is entranced by the rituals and culture of European decadence and hides behind them.

After a lavish feast during which the exiled Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie honors him with a sash, the protagonist is accused of stealing a spoon. Devastated, he takes a taxi to a remote spot in the countryside. He laughs and tells the taxi driver he plans to hang himself. He says it impulsively, but saying the words propels him inextricably towards suicide.

Seriously? The cab driver said, laughing. With what? He was right, I had nothing to do it with, so I said, My handkerchief. The driver got out of his cab, opened the trunk, rummaged around with a flashlight, then handed me a piece of rope. Still laughing, he made an eye in one end and ran the other end through it to make a noose and showed me the proper way to hang myself.

Ditie stumbles into the stand of darkened woods.

I made up my mind to hang myself. As I knelt there, I felt something touch my head, so I reached up and touched the toes of a pair of boots, and then I groped higher and felt two ankles, then socks covering a pair of cold legs. When I stood up, my nose was right up against the stomach of a hanged man.

That reversal might seem familiar. Philip Roth re-imagined the scene in Sabbath’s Theater, a novel deeply influenced by Hrabal. In that scene, the puppeteer Mickey Sabbath has gone to his mistress’s grave to pay homage by writhing in the dirt and simulating sex. As he’s approaching the grave, he sees another figure near the grave:

When Sabbath saw Lewis bending over the grave to place the bouquet on the plot, he thought, But she’s mine! She belongs to me!

What Lewis did next was such an abomination that Sabbath reached crazily about in the dark for a rock or a stick with which to rush forward and beat the son of a bitch over the head. Lewis unzipped his fly…

Roth follows Hrabal in a mode of amplified realism — never magical but wryly attuned to absurdity — and featuring narrators and protagonists whose appetites match their verbosity. Hrabal’s palpable influence, acknowledged by writers such as Roth and Erdich, is a reminder of how vital his work has been to American contemporary fiction.

Months before the Velvet Revolution, at a time when the Czech Communist party was showing its frailty but its decline did not seem inevitable, Hrabal reported on Czech politics in early 1989, with excerpts appearing in the New York Review of Books. He wrote in direct, austere sentences, as if acknowledging that irony was giving way to deeper melancholy impulses:

I walked down deserted Parizska Avenue. A police car quietly pulled up at the curb, a man got out and began quietly placing parking tickets on the windshields of illegally parked cars, then quietly the headlights turned toward Maison Oppelt, from the fifth floor of which Franz Kafka once wanted to jump, and then I stood all alone in the square. The place was deserted. I sat down on a bench and began to reflect…In front of me loomed the monument to Master Jan Hus.

In his afterword to Rambling On, Václav Kadlec points out how Hrabal had begun to focus on longer fiction by the late 1960s, eventually leading to the triumph of I Served the King of England and Too Loud a Solitude. But Hrabal was a great short-story writer, whose works were strained with pathos, absurdity, and beauty. The stories in Rambling On also show a unique range, partly because in 1960s Czechoslovakia, he was able to experiment with theme and language more freely and partly because he is still deciding on a tone, a style, and a subject.

Read the stories. Read the novels. Just read Hrabal.

The Bolaño Syllabus: A Final Reckoning

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Four years ago, in an attempt to help readers navigate the flood tide of Roberto Bolaño books appearing posthumously in English, we at The Millions put together a little syllabus. Little did we know how rash our promise to update “as further translations become available” would soon seem. Within two years, the release of six additional titles had rendered the first version nugatory. And since then, six more have become available.

Indeed, it’s hard to think of another figure in the history of weltliteratur whose catalogue has made it so quickly to these shores, or whose literary executors have been speedier – not to say more punctilious – in publishing his archive. Though Bolaño’s imagination seems inexhaustible, it’s hard not to greet the news of yet another “lost work” or “early work” or “lost early work” with fatigue. (Or even, given the overlap between certain editions, suspicion.) Yet the most recent publication, the poetry omnibus The Unknown University, is a major work, and should be the exclamation point at the end of the Bolaño boom. (Though there was that new story in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, so maybe Andrew Wylie knows something we don’t… And there’s always Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic, co-written with A.G. Porta in 1984.)

At any rate, this seems an opportune time to revisit, once and for all, our Bolaño syllabus, which has more than doubled in size since 2009. Where originally we arranged the list as a kind of guided tour, it seems most worthwhile at this point to divide the available work into tiers: what you need to read, what you might want to, and what you can pass over without losing sleep.

The Essential

1. The Savage Detectives
2666 may be more admirable, but The Savage Detectives is more loveable (think Moby-Dick vs. Huckleberry Finn). As such, it’s the Bolaño book I tend to urge on people first. Read The Savage Detectives all the way to the end, and you’ll understand why one might want to try to read this writer’s entire corpus. (See our review).

2. 2666
There is no other novel of the last decade that I think about more often, years after having read it. My enthusiastic take here now seems to me embarrassingly inadequate. A bona fide masterpiece.

3. Last Evenings on Earth
The best, by a whisker, of the five collections of short fiction available in English – largely because New Directions can’t have foreseen how big Bolaño was going to be, and so raided his Anagrama editions for the best stories. Highlights include “Dance Card,” “Sensini,” “The Grub,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” and “Gomez Palacio.”

4. The Return
Another strikingly good collection, overlooked perhaps because of its appearance in 2010, when the Bolaño marketplace was already flooded. Between it and Last Evenings on Earth, you end up with the whole (I think) of the two collections published in Spanish during Bolaño’s lifetime. I especially love the title story. And for those inclined to read the Bolaño oeuvre as a roman-fleuve, you get here the porny “Prefigurations of Lalo Cura.”

5. Nazi Literature in the Americas
This early “novel,” a biographical encyclopedia of invented writers, offers our first glimpse of the ambition that would effloresce in the two big books. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to Bolaño’s peculiar sense of humor, which enjambs the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. Come to think of it, it’s probably his funniest book. (See our review).

6. Distant Star
This is my favorite of Bolaño’s short novels, and the other book I tend to recommend to neophytes. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives.

7. The Unknown University
This beautiful dual-language edition purports to include “all of the poems of the great Roberto Bolaño.” Perhaps that should be “all of the great poems of Roberto Bolaño”; a quick comparison reveals some titles in The Romantic Dogs that I can’t find here. But you get most of that collection, plus Tres, plus the novel in prose-poems Antwerp, as well as a couple hundred other poems. As with The Secret of Evil and Woes of the True Policemen, the “history of the book” Bolaño’s executors provide here is weirdly hard to parse, but concerns fall away in the reading. At every turn there’s a sense that this manuscript was indeed the life’s work in poetry of a writer who valued poetry above all other genres. Verse narratives like “The Neochileans” have the impact of Bolaño’s best short novels. The lyric poems lose more in Laura Healy’s translation, especially as Bolaño likes to deal in fragments. As Jeff Peer noted here, the shorter pieces veer, albeit with a charming kind of indifference, between notebook and dream journal, genius and juvenilia. And because there are so many of these short poems, displayed one to a page, the book looks more tomelike than it is. Still, it is very much greater than the sum of its parts, and some of those parts are already very great indeed. The addictive element in Bolaño, more than anything else, is his sui generis sensibility, and this book is that sensibility distilled.

8. Between Parentheses
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s four genres Bolaño excelled in: the meganovel, the novella, the poem, and the short story. What are the odds that his collected nonfiction could be indispensable? Especially when most of it consists of occasional speeches and short newspaper work? Well, odds be damned. This book is great, in a way that reminds me of Jonathan Lethem’s recent and similarly loose-limbed The Ecstasy of Influence. There’s something fascinating about listening in as a writer talks shop, more or less off the cuff. Parts two through five do double-duty as an encyclopedia of Latin American fiction. And “Beach,” actually a short story, is one of Bolaño’s best.

9. By Night in Chile
Bolaño’s most formally perfect short novel, it is also the most self-contained. It offers a torrential dramatic monologue by a Catholic priest implicated in torture during Chile’s U.S.-backed Pinochet era. Some readers I respect think this is his best book. Though it plays its source material straighter than is typical in Bolaño, it might be another good one for norteamericanos to start with.

The Merely Excellent

1. The Third Reich
This was another book that I thought got a bit lost in the shuffle of 2009-2011, when an astonishing 1,800 pages of Bolaño’s prose made their way into English. Otherwise, it might have been recognized as one of the best novels published in English in the latter year. Certainly, it’s the strongest of Bolaño’s apprentice books. Here, the master seems to be David Lynch; all is atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere, as the failure of a plot to precipitate becomes itself a source of terrible foreboding. I’m also a sucker for the “visceral realism” of Natasha Wimmer’s translations, though I can’t speak to their accuracy.

2. Amulet
Amulet on its own is a wonderful reworking of the Auxilio Lacouture monologue from The Savage Detectives, and a chance to get to spend more time with that book’s presiding spirits, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. It also contains some of Bolaño’s most bewitching sentences, including the one that seems to give 2666 its title: “Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.”

3. The Insufferable Gaucho
Here you get the sublime Kafka takeoff “Police Rat” and a sort of cover version of Borges’s “The South,” each approaching novella length. However, the decision to pair the five stories (a version of one of which also appears in Between Parentheses) with two (excellent) essays gives this collection as a whole a distinctly “odds and sods” feel.

4. The Secret of Evil
Another posthumous gallimaufry, but one I found totally delightful. Notwithstanding the magician’s indirection with which the “Preliminary Note” attempts to justify the book’s publication, it’s pretty clear that much of what’s here is in rough form. But as with Between Parentheses, it’s thrilling to see Bolaño at work, and to see where he might have gone next. And it’s always nice to see a little more of Ulises and Arturo.

5. Antwerp
One of Bolaño’s earliest pieces of fiction, Antwerp’s not much like the others, save for a hunchback who will also pop up in The Skating Rink. But it’s one of the greatest avant-garde “novel in fragments” out there (see our review). In fact, as the inclusion in The Unknown University of a slightly different version (titled “People Walking Away”) suggests, the prose here is close to poetry. So why “merely excellent” instead of “essential”? Well, if you already have a copy there, why buy the stand-alone version?

6. The Last Interview
Like many non-Anglophone writers, Bolaño treated the interview less as a promotional opportunity than as a form of performance art. That makes this entry in Melville House’s “Last Interview” series less illuminating, but also more fun, than it could have been. And of course the posthumous cash-in angle is right there in the title. In addition to Marcela Valdes’s long and brilliant introduction – one of the best pieces of critical writing on Bolaño available in English – you get four interviews. Though caveat emptor: the actual last interview also shows up at the end of Between Parentheses, so again you may be paying for what was already yours to begin with.

Necessary For Completists Only

1. Woes of the True Policeman
There was a concerted effort to market this first as a “missing piece” of 2666, and then as a novel proper, but it’s pretty clear that what Woes of the True Policeman truly is is an early stab at the big novel. The Amalfitano who appears here is a different character, but an equally deep one, and that and the rhetorical pyrotechics are the real selling points. (Am I the only person who finds the opening here really funny?) Still, aside from specialists and scholars, there’s something a little unsettling about pretending that what the writer didn’t think deserved our attention deserves our attention. Our review is here.

2. Monsieur Pain
When the jacket copy for Keith Ridgway’s forthcoming Hawthorn & Child calls it “the trippiest novel New Directions has published in years,” it must mean three years – since this one came out. And damned if I can make heads or tails of old Mr. Bread. It concerns an ailing César Vallejo and some mysterious policemen…or something. Bolaño wrote this in the early ’80s, and may have been surprised to be able to sell it to Anagrama in his breakthrough year, 1999. The most notable feature, for me, is formal: the “Epilogue for Voices” seems to anticipate the structural innovations of The Savage Detectives.

3. The Skating Rink
More straightforward than Monsieur Pain, this early novel seems like another pass at the material in Antwerp/”People Walking Away.” It’s a quick, entertaining read, but for me the strange characterological magic that makes the voices in the later novels come alive never quite happens in this one.

4. The Romantic Dogs
On its own, The Romantic Dogs is a fine collection. The same poem-to-poem unevenness that mars The Unknown University is present here, but because the selection tends toward the longer, more narrative poems, more of Bolaño makes it through the translation. Still, if much of what’s here is included there, this edition would seem to have been superseded for all but the most ardent Bolañophiles. See also: Tres.

5. Tres
See The Romantic Dogs.

Woes of the Posthumous Novel: On Roberto Bolaño’s Latest

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Here are the facts: Roberto Bolaño was born in Chile, but lived throughout his life in Mexico, El Salvador, France, and finally Spain, where he died in 2003 at the age of 50. A poet before all else, Bolaño only began writing fiction in the last decade of his life. At the time of his death, he had published over a dozen books in his native Spanish, but his first work in English translation, By Night in Chile, was still six months from publication. In the last nine years, however, Bolaño’s literary star has ascended as his literary estate has combed through his extensive bibliography, publishing everything possible. Now, the posthumous discovery of previously unpublished writing has led to the publication of Woes of the True Policeman, a book Bolaño spent 30 years writing, but ultimately never finished. Cobbled together from computer files and manuscript drafts, it is marketed as the author’s final book.

Here is the real story: Woes of the True Policeman is by turns absorbing, challenging, fascinating — but is ultimately a very flawed, frustrating book. Divided into five fragmented parts, which at times only tenuously connect with one another (should a reader expect any less from Bolaño?), the novel mostly follows Óscar Amalfitano, a literature professor who lives, with his daughter, a purgatorial existence in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa. “A tall, angular, white-haired figure, looking vaguely like Christopher Walken,” Amalfitano is instantly familiar to readers of Bolaño’s novel 2666, in which a character by the same name, living in the same city, and with much the same biography serves as one of the novel’s fulcrum characters. This sense of dreamlike déjà vu hangs over much of Woes of the True Policeman, continually bringing into focus characters and events from Bolaño’s past works, yet changing them in certain key details, as if the events of the novel were being viewed through the warped glass of an intertextual funhouse mirror.

For instance, Woes of the True Policeman distinguishes its Amalfitano from the 2666 incarnation by sexually involving him with a young student named Padilla, one of those borderline-mad, self-contradictory, poetry-consumed characters who burn so brilliantly in Bolaño’s world. Amalfitano is instantly intoxicated by how Padilla “lived in a constant state of amorous self-expression…his feelings were extravagant but didn’t last for more than a day.” So at age 50, Amalfitano serenely accepts a newfound homosexuality, delving into an oddly bookish and belligerent love affair:
According to Padilla, remembered Amalfitano, all literature could be classified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Novels, in general, were heterosexual. Poetry, on the other hand, was completely homosexual. Within the vast ocean of poetry he identified various currents: faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes. But the two major currents were faggots and queers… nothing prevents queers and faggots from being good friends, from neatly ripping one another off, criticizing or praising one another, publishing or burying one another in the frantic and moribund world of letters.
Bolaño is forever referential. Like many of Bolaño’s works, Woes of the True Policeman is really a book about characters who love books. Lives are informed, illuminated, and often crippled by literature. Poetry may bring Amalfitano and Padilla together, but it’s the chair of the literature department, upon discovering the professor’s affair, who forces Amalfitano into exile in Santa Teresa. As is often the case in Bolaño’s books, Amalfitano stands in for the author himself. Both lived as young revolutionaries in the ’70s, were arrested after the fall of Allende in Chile, then suffered political and existential exile through “a succession of countries, a whirl of cities and streets that brightened and darkened arbitrarily in memory…an imaginary country called Chile that drove [them] mad.” Their biographies, however, diverge at the literary crossroads. Bolaño creates. Amalfitano embarks down the empty road of criticism.

Amalfitano’s regret permeates the entire novel:
Why did I translate the Elizabethans and not Isaac Babel or Boris Pilniak? Amalfitano asked himself, disconsolate, unable to escape the nightmare but still holding scraps of the dream…in his empty, frozen, transparent hands. Why didn’t I slip like Mighty Mouse through the bars of the Lenin Prizes and the Stalin Prizes and the Korean Women Collecting Signatures for peace and discover what was there to be discovered, what only the blind couldn’t see? Why didn’t I stand up at one of those oh-so-serious meetings of leftist intellectuals and say the Russians the Chinese the Cubans are making a fucking mess of things? Why didn’t I stand up for the Marxists? Stand up for the pariahs? March in step with history while history was being born?
As previously shown by The Savage Detectives and 2666, Bolaño sees a void at the center of the academy. Amalfitano, “who predicted the fall of Allende and yet did nothing to prepare for it,” searches for sanctuary within the void of academia, respite from the world and the awful choices it has forced Amalfitano to make. It occurs to one, though, if this amounts to bravery:
When I was an adolescent I wanted to be a Jew, a Bolshevik, black, homosexual, a junkie, half-crazy, and — the crowing touch — a one-armed amputee, but all I became was a literature professor. At least, thought Amalfitano, I’ve read thousands of books. At least I’ve become acquainted with the Poets and read the Novels… At least I’ve read. At least I can still read, he said to himself, at once dubious and hopeful.
A generous reading of Woes of the True Policeman will see it as a sister work to 2666, a concurrent narrative that illuminates previously unseen angles of the previous work. However, a more critical look shows it to be a pale shade of the epic novel. One can just not get away from 2666 while reading Woes of the True Policeman. Bolaño unwinds almost identical plot threads through each book, changing only often superficial details. His wife dies from disease in each book, although the name of his wife, as well as the disease, is different. In Woes of the True Policeman, Padilla is obsessed with an institutionalized poet in France, while 2666 finds Amalfitano’s wife suffering from the obsession. Then we have the final section of Woes of the True Policeman, an almost blow-by-blow retread of 2666, down to multiple pages that are lifted scissors and paste pot from 2666. Or did the “self-plagiarism” actually occur the other way around? Posthumous manuscripts have the awful tendency to raise these sort of unanswerable questions about composition and authenticity.

Most disappointing about Woes of the True Policeman is its treatment of the city of Santa Teresa, Bolaño’s thinly-fictionalized Ciudad Juárez. The novel barely registers its setting, aside from some brief, cursory observations, such as that its “streets…seemed somehow newborn…with a secret logic and aesthetic, streets with their hair down.” This is a positively underwhelming sentiment compared to the city Bolaño’s conjures in 2666, an ominous metropolis whose spirit has been paralyzed by a series of random female homicides, a reflection of the feminicidio epidemic in Ciudad Juárez, where over 5,000 women have been murdered since 1993. The characters and events of 2666 constellate around a 300-page middle section that graphically catalogues the atrocities, murder by gruesome murder, bludgeoning the reader with rape, torture, mutilation, and death until the prose becomes a kind of incantation that reifies the actuality of evil.

Many of the hallmarks of Bolaño’s virtuosity can be found in Woes of the True Policeman: the synopses of eccentric novels that don’t exist, a mystery concerning an invented French writing school known as the barbaric writers, notes from Amalfitano’s class in contemporary literature (“Happiest: García Lorca…Strangest wrinkles: Auden…Biggest cock: Frank O’Hara.”). Yet the fragmentation, self-plagiarism, and lack of narrative development all indicate a manuscript that was very much unfinished, and is only interesting as a completist curiosity, something akin to the financial-driven posthumous discographies of Jimi Hendrix or Tupac Shakur.

In the end, one wonders if Bolaño less resembles Amalfitano as he does his elusive novelist Archimboldi, the shaper of small, mysterious fictions “who overnight became a fashionable author in Spain, where they were publishing or about to publish everything he’d written.” After all, in writing about Archimboldi, Bolaño may as well be describing the vitality, the verve, and the flawed yet unceasing brilliance of his own work:
…even if all his stories, no matter their style (and in this respect Arcimboldi was eclectic and seemed to subscribe to the maxim of De Kooning: style is fraud), were mysteries, they were only solved through flight, or sometimes through bloodshed (real or imaginary) followed by endless flight, as if Arcimboldi’s characters, once the book had come to an end, literally leapt from the last page and kept fleeing.

My Aversion

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It was the fall of 2000, and I had just read David Foster Wallace’s article in Rolling Stone about his experiences hanging out with John McCain aboard the Straight Talk Express, McCain’s cannily christened campaign bus. At the time, McCain was running a spirited, if underdog, race against George W. Bush for the Republican party nomination. McCain had positioned himself as the anti-politician politician, the truth-telling everyman — an image he would reinvent as the “maverick” eight years later, only to be out-mavericked by his own running mate.

Why this strange marriage between a youth-oriented music magazine, a pop-culture savvy young writer, and a sixty-three-year-old-war-hero-turned-politician? It came about because commentators had observed that McCain’s studied lack of politicking seemed to be lifting the stupor of the country’s most politically apathetic — and thus most cherished — demographic. McCain was threatening to awaken the eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-olds who otherwise fell into a deep slumber every fourth November. “No generation of Young Voters,” Wallace announced in only the second sentence of the article, “has ever cared less about politics and politicians than yours.”

Apathy was a common trope, then as now. And although I had no statistics to disprove Wallace’s pronouncement, less than one year earlier, in late November 1999, I had watched in awe as tens of thousands of demonstrators, most of them in that eighteen to thirty-five demographic (as I was myself), descended upon the city of Seattle to protest a meeting of the World Trade Organization. United against the WTO’s policies toward labor, the environment, and economic development, the protestors effectively shut down the meeting, and the city with it — much as the Occupy Wall Street protestors are struggling to do now. The event was exactly the sort of thing we’d long been told could no longer happen — something that existed only in the dewy memories of ’60s nostalgists. My generation was said to be too cynical and self-absorbed to bother with causes. We’d given up on trying to change the world. For David Foster Wallace, our apathy was a form of sales resistance. We’d been marketed to our entire lives. Civic duty had come to seem like just another product.

But I, for one, was feeling optimistic. Maybe what had happened in Seattle was a sign that things were starting to change. Maybe apathy was giving way to engagement. That fall I was teaching composition to college freshmen. I had a classroom full of enthusiastic young students who for the first time in their lives would be old enough to vote. And I had the idea that it would be exciting to spend the semester reading essays like David Foster Wallace’s and writing about what it meant to be young, to have ideals, to live in a democracy, and to have a political voice. As I handed out the syllabus on the first day of class, gazing out upon their fresh, eager faces, I thought how satisfying it would be to prove those naysayers wrong.

The students saw the reading list. The collective groan was audible.

As it turned out, the naysayers were right.

That Americans hate politics is something everyone seems to agree on, even if no one knows exactly why. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne has written that American hatred of politics derives from the “false polarization” created by liberalism and conservatism, a consequence of the cultural divisions that arose in the 1960s. For David Foster Wallace the culprit is the numbness of living in a consumer society. But both arguments suppose that, in the eras before Madison Avenue and Haight-Ashbury, Americans were thronging to rallies to shake hands with our beloved public servants. It may be true that we did so in larger numbers then than we do now, but there’s nevertheless a general sense that right from the start we’ve been a nation of individuals who have regarded politics with suspicion.

I grew up in the suburbs of Central New York in a middle-class family with college-educated parents whose political ideologies were a complete mystery to me. To say “mystery,” though, suggests I spent any time actually wondering what their ideologies were. I didn’t. I had no idea whom they voted for, and I seldom had any idea who was even running. My after-school activities were sports, not debate club. If I looked at the newspaper, it was to study box scores. In this I was no different from any of the rest of my friends.

Like a lot of kids in my position, my own political awakening, such as it was, occurred in college, but probably not in the way it was supposed to. It was the mid-’90s, and I remember one of my first college girlfriends — a feminist when it was still fashionable to confess to being such a thing — badgering me into taking a position on abortion. “I don’t know,” I finally admitted. “I don’t know if it’s right or wrong.”

“If you don’t know,” she said, not bothering to conceal her exasperation, “that means you’re pro-choice.”

I decided to take her word for it.

The main reason I’d chosen this college — one of the lowest tier in the New York state system — was its proximity to mountains. Some people went to college to learn and to expand their horizons. I wanted to go backpacking. Also, it was one of the few colleges that would have me. My apathy for politics was exceeded only by my indifference toward school work.

But once at college, my attitude gradually began to change. My crash course in women’s rights — compliments of my girlfriend — was an important first step. I began to wonder what else I was supposed to know.

My roommate and I had no TV. The internet wasn’t yet widespread. Aside from my girlfriend, the campus had virtually no detectable political pulse. But this small mountain town, which lacked virtually everything else, at least had a public radio station. The hour in the afternoon when they broke with pallid classical music to broadcast an international news program became a fixture of my college curriculum. It was both daunting and exhilarating to discover how big the world actually was, and how little of it I understood.

By my sophomore year, backpacking was no longer enough. I’d decided I was ready for something more. So I set my mind on a plan to escape, and suddenly I found myself willing to do even the unthinkable: study. I buried myself in books, pushed myself to write, and managed to make the dean’s list. And then, before the start of my junior year, I transferred from the mountains of New York to the plains of Ohio, to a school at the opposite end of every measurable spectrum: Antioch College, a place so infamous for countercultural rabble-rousing that its bookstore sold T-shirts touting the college’s unofficial slogan, “Boot Camp for the Revolution.” Overblown rhetoric or not, the campus certainly looked like a boot camp, with barrack-like dormitories and grassless, muddy footpaths. I was both awestruck and dazed. Even though it was 1996, not 1966, at Antioch the revolution was still very much alive. The school’s official slogan, borrowed from Horace Mann, the school’s founder, was “Be ashamed to die until you have won some small victory for humanity.” Even if I wasn’t quite ready to be worrying about how my tombstone might read, I liked the idea of being surrounded by people who were. What better way to make up for all those years of indifference than full immersion at the epicenter of activism?

But in all the excitement of starting over, I forgot to ask myself one important question: where in this atmosphere did someone like me belong? Although I had managed to shake off my apathy, I had no real intention of replacing it with fervor. I was introverted and increasingly bookish. I had no ideology. I was merely curious. My Antioch classmates wanted to change the world; I mostly just wanted to write short stories.

Instead of plotting victories for humanity, I spent my college years cloistered in the tiny office of the Antioch Review, logging fiction and poetry submissions on index cards. The Antioch Review is one of the longest-running literary journals in the country. I was one of the only students at the college who knew it even existed.

The other thing Antioch is known for, besides its activist student body, is being the butt of jokes. In the early 1990s, at the height of the culture wars, the school was a cautionary tale about the perils of political correctness, culminating in a Saturday Night Live skit lampooning the school’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy. The SOPP was a document that required verbal permission before any sort of sexual contact could be initiated.

If you missed the skit, just close your eyes and picture a trembling Chris Farley (playing a “nose tackle and a Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother”) asking a scowling Shannen Doherty, “Can I put my hands on your buttocks?”

Needless to say, Antioch has neither a football team nor fraternities. And of course, Shannen Doherty said no. Within this triangulation you find the familiar caricature of progressive politics: that it’s the exclusive domain of the humorless and dull. Antioch, though, was anything but dull. Given the proliferation of unicycles and art cars and tattoos, the place often felt more like a circus than a campus. What the SNL skit overlooked was the important fact that the SOPP had been written and introduced entirely by the students themselves. Sexual harassment on college campuses was a problem; Antioch students had decided to come up with a solution. I appreciated the bullshit-free way in which my peers had set out to fix something that they believed was broken. If I’d been asked to take part, though, I have no doubt I’d have said no.

David Foster Wallace was probably right that no generation has cared less about politics than Generation Y. Then again, whoever said the same thing about my Generation X would have been right, too, as would whoever said it about the generation before that. The idea that Americans are selfish and individualistic isn’t new. There’s even a school of thought that suggests the idea is virtually as old as the nation itself, that these tendencies might be, paradoxically, an inheritance of the Puritans themselves. The Puritans’ relentless pursuit of self-denial, the argument goes, wound up turning the corner into self-indulgence. So closely did they identify themselves with the divine America that they came to feel they actually personified it. Which led, in a roundabout way, to that great American mystic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose preachings about self-reliance and transcendentalism begot Walt Whitman’s songs of himself; they became something of a national anthem. Ever since then, it seems, the majority of us have beat a hasty retreat from public life.

There are numerous variations on this idea, with different starting points and interpretations. Literary scholar R. W. B. Lewis calls his version of this mythic, individualist national identity “the American Adam.” He traces its evolution from Emerson to Thoreau to Whitman, and on to the early American novelists James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James. Lewis describes the American Adam, celebrated in this literary lineage, as “an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.” The American Adam is a figure of pure innocence, focused inward, detached from the larger concerns of the world. He is Adam before the Fall.

If I was failing to become everything Horace Mann might have wanted me to be, I at least got out of my time at Antioch an awareness of the complicated matrix of political issues surrounding everything we do, including the telling of stories. I learned that even great works of literature were products of social values and ideas, too many of which often went unexamined. I came to understand instinctively what George Orwell meant when he wrote, three decades before Fredric Jameson, that “no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

While at Antioch, my tolerance toward the compatibility of literature and politics gradually grew. I developed an interest — sacrilegious for a budding writer — in critical theory: Marxists and postcolonialists and postmodernists. The whole solemn crowd. I spent a seminar on Toni Morrison deconstructing the ways in which Beloved, Song of Solomon, Sula, and her other novels blended controversial social issues such as slavery and race with high art.

During the two years I spent at Antioch, my opinions did eventually grow stronger, my convictions more firm. My admiration grew as well for my classmates — for their passion and determination. They were as far from the American Adam as one could get. And yet, I didn’t try to emulate them. Or even to join them. I remained probably the only student at Antioch who took no part in demonstrations. Whenever my classmates were organizing and meeting and debating, I was somewhere else.

As was my tendency with most things, I fed my fascination with political activism by reading. I read everything I could find: Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, histories of the Situationists, the SDS, the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, the Angry Brigade. I read Hakim Bey and borrowed whatever dog-eared tracts my friends had lying around. I was like an anthropologist trying to decipher some exotic alien society. I wanted to understand their culture, their myths and religion. I wanted to know what propelled them. I wanted to know, in short, what made them so different from me.

In time I learned that there were things I lacked that true activists, like my classmates, had in abundance. Above all else, a tolerance for confrontation and a productive ability to channel anger. My instincts were hopelessly reversed. When it came to the issues I cared about most, what got triggered within me was more often flight than fight. The injustices of the world made me indignant, but more than that, they made me depressed. And the only way to escape the depression was to detach. This has remained true even as I’ve gotten older. My attraction for politics is still, more often than not, outweighed by my aversion.

In 2000, when George W. Bush was handed the presidency through a Supreme Court decision, it was the process that I wanted my students to be interested in. What mattered was taking part and caring, not about the outcome, but about why a thing like democracy was important.

In 2004, when Bush was reelected, I turned my radio off, and I’m not exaggerating when I say a year passed before I was able to turn it back on.

My attempt to interest that class of freshmen in writing about what it meant to be political was far from a success. The fault for its failure was undoubtedly mine. After all, how could I expect them to unravel their complicated feelings about democracy and political identity when I was still struggling to do so myself?

But even after the class was over and I packed my syllabus permanently away, these questions about my political self continued to nag at me. Then, in 2002, I happened to read an article in the New York Times about the difficult political situation in Haiti. The focus of the article was an enormous estate on that tumultuous island that had become occupied by armed gangs. In addition to being the site of a once-lavish hotel, the estate was also said to contain the last scrap of the island’s ravaged tropical rainforest. Against the armed intruders the article pitted the estate’s caretaker, a white Canadian whose mission was to try to save the estate, particularly the forest, from oblivion. (This was almost eight years before the devastating earthquake and cholera epidemic.) At the time, my knowledge of Haiti was sketchy, but I knew it was a place embroiled in unrest. I couldn’t help wondering what it meant that this Edenic estate had ever existed here, and what it meant for someone to be trying to preserve it amid widespread environmental destruction and political upheaval.

My desire to understand the complex situation there led me to a related article from twenty-seven years earlier. “A New Retreat for the Rich — Surrounded by Tumbledown Shacks” documented a party held to celebrate the opening of the hotel on that very estate in January 1974 (a year and a half before I was born). With a mixture of bewilderment and contempt, its author described the jet-setters and society figures gathered poolside in tuxedos and diamonds, utterly oblivious of the dire poverty and political instability surrounding them even then. The hotel had been built atop a powder keg. In fact, the earlier article could in retrospect be said to predict the one that would first catch my eye more than a quarter century later.

There was also a seemingly minor detail that both articles mentioned in passing. But this detail captured my imagination almost as much as the rest: at the turn of the nineteenth century the estate had been the home of Charles Leclerc, a French general who in 1801 had been sent by his brother-in-law, Napoleon Bonaparte, to restore slavery on the French colony. Since 1791, the slaves, led in part by Toussaint L’Ouverture, had been fighting to win their independence. Not long after they succeeded, Napoleon dispatched Leclerc to take it back.

But despite his warships and his forty thousand troops, Leclerc’s army was decimated. The general himself succumbed to yellow fever. His successor, Rochambeau, fared no better. Although L’Ouverture would not live to see it, the war he had helped to wage became the first successful slave rebellion in history. In 1804, Haiti became the world’s first independent black republic.

This bloody episode was not, however, the end of Haiti’s troubles. It was instead the beginning of a different struggle. The following two hundred years have been characterized by nearly perpetual autocratic rule and fairly regular American meddling. At the time of my initial research, Haiti was in the midst of a difficult transition to democracy. The country’s first popularly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, brought to power in 1990, had already been overthrown once by a military coup. He’d been reelected in 2000 for a second term, but alleged irregularities and deep divisions among the electorate had created a tense, often violent atmosphere.

Amy Wilentz’s Rainy Season chronicles the plight of Haiti’s poor and the rise of Aristide, their champion, from firebrand priest to politician. The book is the story of a nation that for generations has suffered oppression most Americans can barely fathom. But the book also makes clear that this is not a nation of passive victims. In Haiti, brutality has always met resistance. The struggles of individuals, communities, and the populace as a whole reveal a relentless determination to see justice done — a determination still plainly visible in the midst of post-earthquake reconstruction and a new round of democratic elections.

For many Americans, politics is an abstraction, something that happens somewhere else, overseen by people we pay to handle things so we don’t have to think about them. In a place like Haiti, I came to see, politics is virtually inescapable. In 1964, while in exile during the reign of dictator Françoise Duvalier, Haitian scholar (and future president) Leslie Manigat wrote of the situation back home, “Everything is political… The reputation earned by an engineer in his special field is regarded as a political trump. The prestige that a professor gains among his students may represent a political threat to the government…  Such is the encroachment of politics on all aspects of life that if a man does not go into politics, politics itself comes to him.”

Poring over newspaper articles from the country’s recent past, I found one from 1987, not long after the thirty-year father-and-son Duvalier dictatorship finally came to an end. The constitutionally required “free and fair” elections scheduled for that year — the nation’s first — pitted candidates from numerous camps against one another. And as the ruling military junta began to realize that it stood no chance of retaining power, they concluded that their only recourse was to stop the election from taking place. This they accomplished by orchestrating a campaign of violence culminating in a daylight attack on a school where at least two dozen men, women, and children were slaughtered while waiting to vote.

Could there be any more stark a contrast than between David Foster Wallace’s bemoaning of voter apathy in the U.S. and the situation in Haiti, where in 1987, daring to vote could get a person killed, and where people persisted in doing it anyway? For most of us, the impossibility of something like this happening in our own lives, in our own country, makes the horror feel pretty abstract, too. We can’t conceive of such a world, even though it’s less than a two-hour flight from Miami.

The more I read about Haiti, the more I came to believe that conceiving of such a world is one of the most important things literature can do. And I realized that some of my favorite novels, the ones to which I felt the greatest affinity, were concerned with politically averse individuals caught in the middle of similarly fraught political situations. I’m thinking, for instance, of Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, which depicts the complicity in dictatorial brutality of a priest who wants nothing more than to be a poet. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by Ayi Kwei Armah, places a government clerk stricken with malaise in the center of Ghanaian political and social turmoil. And many of J. M. Coetzee’s novels explore this terrain, too, including Waiting for the Barbarians, in which an unnamed magistrate wishes to disassociate himself from the evils of the empire he serves. It’s worth noting that none of these are American novels. Which suggests that maybe political aversion isn’t limited to our shores after all.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising then that the book I came to write, based in part on the events I’d been reading about in Haiti, also placed political aversion at its core. I don’t think it was a conscious decision, but it was clearly a symptom of what my mind was working through. I couldn’t help asking, as I looked back on my own complicated relationship with politics: if I had been born in such a place, how might I have been different? Might I have been stronger, someone with the courage to take a stand? Or might I have found a way to be the same detached observer that I am? Or something even more extreme: a true American Adam, determined to remain innocent in a place where such a luxury seemed inconceivable, where attempts to secure it were doomed to fail? These questions felt important to me.

But the questions also felt personal. It soon became clear that despite writing about someone whose circumstances and skin color and place of birth could hardly have been more different from my own, I was writing in large part about myself. In fact, I was writing, albeit in a much different form, the sort of thing I had asked my students to write back in 2000 — about what it meant to have ideals and a political voice, and about the strength it sometimes took to express them, especially when it was so much easier not to. It’s taken me more than ten years to do what I hoped they could accomplish in a semester. Little did I know how difficult an assignment it would turn out to be.


Image: 2006 election in Haiti via Wikimedia

The Bolaño Syllabus, Updated

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Though the great Roberto Bolaño fever of 2008 appears to have moderated somewhat, this year saw new Bolaño titles pop up in American bookstores with the frequency of periodicals. We’ve probably passed that point in the hype cycle – and in Bolaño’s own back catalogue – where we might look for critical consensus: in January, reviewers seemed hesitant to gainsay Monsieur Pain; by autumn, The Return was getting a decidedly mixed reception. (In between, no one except our own Emily St. John Mandel seemed to know what to do with Antwerp.) So where was a Bolañophile to turn first?

We first tried to answer this question with our original Bolaño syllabus. With the aim of offering continued guidance to newcomers and enthusiasts alike, we’ve updated it below to take into account the two most recent novels and the thirteen stories in The Return. The Insufferable Gaucho will be added shortly. We continue to feel, hype notwithstanding, that this is one of the most important authors to emerge in the last decade, and we’ll try to stay on top of the work yet to appear: an essay collection, a book of poetry, and The Sorrows of the Real Policeman (a.k.a. the “sixth part of 2666.”)

Updated 1. “Dance Card” and “Sensini” (from Last Evenings on Earth) and “Detectives” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

Together, these three stories offer a précis of the personal mythology that animates Bolaño’s most important writing. 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. The third offers a finer-grained look at “Arturo Belano’s” brief but transformative stint in Pinochet’s prison system.

2. 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).

3. 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.

Updated 5. Antwerp [1980s – 2002]

New Directions’ decision to publish this 90-page novella as a hardcover initially roused my suspicions, but it amply repays the investment. It is a total avant-garde freakout, and has to be among the most linguistically beautiful things Bolaño wrote. Initially, it presents as an aleatory collection of prose poems, half Nicanor Parra, half David Lynch. Quickly, though, it develops into a kind of quantum murder mystery, in which we’re trying to identify both the perpetrator and crime. In its enjambment of poetry and mayhem, a perfect set-up for…

6. 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).

7. “Photos” (from The Return) [1999]

A moving coda to The Savage Detectives, this story finds Arturo Belano in exile, as usual.

8. 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.

Updated 9. “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), “Meeting With Enrique Lihn” (from The Return) [2001]

The first three of these stories read like minor-key variations on Nazi Literature. The second three share a narrator, B, who in some incarnation – protagonist or revenant – haunts most of Bolaño’s fiction. And the third offers us a literary dream that feels almost like a dry-run for “Sensini.”

Updated 10.”Cell Mates” and “Clara” (from The Return) [1997]

Two of Bolaño’s most straightforward and accessible stories about love, these nonetheless manage to be mysteriously harrowing.

11. 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.

12. “Joanna Silvestri,” “Snow,” “Buba” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

This triumvirate is, for me, the heart of The Return. Whereas the earlier Bolaño collection in English circled around the author’s fictional mirror image, these three – concerning a porn star, a gangster, and a soccer star, respectively – look outward, with spectacular results.

13. “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…

14. 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?

15. “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.

16. 2666 [2004]

Supernova and apotheosis. You can read my take here.

Updated 17. Monsieur Pain [1981 – 1982]

Again, I dissent from the newspaper reviews. Monsieur Pain strikes me as the least essential of Bolaño’s novels to appear in English. It’s palpably an early work, and far less incendiary than Antwerp. Atmospherically, it has affinities with his best short novels, but in historical drag that somehow cuts against Bolaño’s usual sense of suspense. At this point you may be willing to put up with that.

Updated 18. “William Burns,” “Murdering Whores” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

Speaking of inessential, I wasn’t particularly taken with these two.

Updated 19. “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura” (from The Return) [2001]

This story, on the other hand, deserves mention alongside the stronger “Joanna Silvestri” for its enthusiastically gritty take on the porn industry. Curiously, this Lalo Cura is not the same as – or at least doesn’t share parents with – the character of that name we meet in 2666. Hence “prefiguration?”

20. 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.

Updated 21. “The Return” (from The Return) [2001]

This story, at once revolutionary and relaxed, suggests to me where Bolaño might be headed were he still alive to day…which is to say, everywhere.

The Bolaño Myth and the Backlash Cycle

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“Here I am writing about him again, like a vicious old man who promises that this will be the last drink of his life.” – Horacio Castellanos Moya

If you’ve been tooling around the cross-referential world of Anglo-American literary blogs this fall, chances are you’ve come across an essay from the Argentine paper La Naçion called “Bolaño Inc.” Back in September, Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading linked to the original Spanish. When Guernica published an English translation this month, we mentioned it here. The Guardian followed suit (running what amounted to a 500-word paraphrase). Soon enough, Edmond Caldwell had conscripted it into his ongoing insurgency against the critic James Wood. Meanwhile, the literary blog of Wood’s employer, The New Yorker, had posted an excerpt under the title: “Bolaño Backlash?”

The basic premise of “Bolaño Inc.” – that Roberto Bolaño, the late Chilean author of the novels The Savage Detectives and 2666, has become a kind of mythological figure hovering over the North American literary landscape – was as noteworthy as it was unobjectionable. One had only to read reports of overflow crowds of galley-toting twentysomethings at the 2666 release party in New York’s East Village to see that the Bolaño phenomenon had taken on extraliterary dimensions. Indeed, Esposito had already pretty thoroughly plumbed the implications of “the Bolaño Myth” in a nuanced essay called “The Dream of Our Youth.” But when that essay appeared a year ago in the online journal Hermano Cerdo, it failed to “go viral.”

So why the attention to “Bolaño Inc.?” For one thing, there was the presumable authority of its author, Horacio Castellanos Moya. As a friend of Bolaño’s and as a fellow Latin American novelist (one we have covered admiringly), Castellanos Moya has first-hand knowledge of the man and his milieu. For another, there was the matter of temperament. A quick glance at titles – the wistful “The Dream of Our Youth,” the acerbic “Bolaño Inc.” – was sufficient to measure the distance between the two essays. In the latter, as in his excellent novel Senselessness, Castellanos Moya adopted a lively, pugnacious persona, and, from the title onward, “Bolaño Inc.” was framed as an exercise in brass-tacks analysis. “Roberto Bolaño is being sold in the U.S. as the next Gabriel García Marquez,” ran the text beneath the byline,
a darker, wilder, decidedly un-magical paragon of Latin American literature. But his former friend and fellow novelist, Horacio Castellanos Moya, isn’t buying it.
Beneath Castellanos Moya’s signature bellicosity, however, beats the heart of a disappointed romantic (a quality he shares with Bolaño), and so, notwithstanding its contrarian ambition, “Bolaño Inc.” paints the marketing of Bolaño in a pallette of reassuring black-and-white, and trots out a couple of familiar villains: on the one hand, “the U.S. cultural establishment;” on the other, the prejudiced, “paternalistic,” and gullible American readers who are its pawns.

As Esposito and Castellanos Moya argue, the Bolaño Myth in its most vulgar form represents a reduction of, and a distraction from, the Bolaño oeuvre; in theory, an attempt to reckon with it should lead to a richer understanding of the novels. In practice, however, Castellanos Moya’s hobbyhorses lead him badly astray. Following the scholar Sarah Pollack, (whose article in a recent issue of the journal Comparative Literature is the point of departure for “Bolaño Inc.”), he takes the presence of a Bolaño Myth as evidence for a number of conclusions it will not support: about its origin; about the power of publishers; and about the way North Americans view their neighbors to the South.

These points might be so local as to not be worth arguing – certainly not at length – were it not for a couple of their consequences. The first is that Castellanos Moya and Pollack badly mischaracterize what I believe is the appeal of The Savage Detectives for the U.S. reader – and in so doing, inadvertently miss the nature of Bolaño’s achievement. The second is that the narrative of “Bolaño Inc.” seems as tailor-made to manufacture media consent as the Bolaño Myth it diagnoses. (“Bolaño was sooo 2007,” drawls the hipster who haunts my nightmares.) Like Castellanos Moya, I had sworn I wasn’t going to write about Bolaño again, at least not so soon. But for what it can tell us about the half-life of the work of art in the cultural marketplace, and about Bolaño’s peculiar relationship to that marketplace, I think it’s worth responding to “Bolaño Inc.” in detail.

The salients of the Bolaño Myth will be familiar to anyone who’s read translator Natasha Wimmer’s introduction to the paperback edition of The Savage Detectives. Or Siddhartha Deb’s long reviews in Harper’s and The Times Literary Supplement. Or Benjamin Kunkel’s in The London Review of Books, or Francisco Goldman’s in The New York Review of Books, or Daniel Zalewski’s in The New Yorker (or mine here at The Millions), or any number of New York Times pieces. Castellanos Moya offers this helpful précis:
his tumultuous youth: his decision to drop out of high school and become a poet; his terrestrial odyssey from Mexico to Chile, where he was jailed during the coup d’etat; the formation of the failed infrarealist movement with the poet Mario Santiago; his itinerant existence in Europe; his eventual jobs as a camp watchman and dishwasher; a presumed drug addiction; and his premature death.
Alongside the biographical Bolaño Myth, according to Castellanos Moya and Pollack, runs a literary one – that Bolaño has replaced García Márquez as the representative of “Latin American literature in the imagination of the North American reader.”

Relative to the heavy emphasis on the biography, mentions of García Márquez are less common in North American responses to The Savage Detectives. But one can feel, broadly, the way that familiarity with Bolaño now signifies, for the U.S. reader, a cosmopolitan intimacy with Latin American literature, as, for a quarter century, familiarity with García Márquez did. And this must be irritating for a Latin American exile like Castellanos Moya, as if every German one spoke to in Berlin were to say, “Ah, yes…the English language…well, you know, I’ve recently been reading E. Annie Proulx.” (Perhaps Proulx isn’t even the right analogue. How large does Bolaño loom in the Spanish-speaking world, anyway, assuming such a world (singular) exists? I’m told Chileans prefer Alberto Fuguet, and my friend in Barcelona had never heard of him until he became famous over here.)

One can imagine, also, the frustration a Bolaño intimate might have felt upon reading, in large-circulation publications, that the author nursed a heroin addiction…when, to judge by the available evidence, he didn’t. As we’ve written here, the meme of Bolaño-as-junkie seems to have originated in the Wimmer essay, on the basis of a misreading of a short story. That this salacious detail made its way so quickly into so many other publications speaks to its attraction for the U.S. reader: it distills the subversive undercurrents of the Bolaño Myth into a single detail, and so joins it to a variety of preexisting narratives (about art and madness; about burning out vs. fading away). Several publications went so far as to draw a connection between drug use and the author’s death, at age 50, from liver disease. This amounted, as Bolaño’s widow wrote to The New York Times, to a kind of slander.

And so “Bolaño Inc.” offers us two important corrections to the historical record. First, Castellanos Moya insists, Bolaño, by his forties, was a dedicated and “sober family man.” It is likely that this stability, rather than the self-destructiveness we find so glamorous in our artists, facilitated the writing of Bolaño’s major works. Secondly, Castellanos Moya reminds us of the difficulty of slotting this particular writer into any storyline or school. “What is certain,” writes Castellanos Moya, “is that Bolaño was always a non-conformist; he was never a subversive or a revolutionary wrapped up in political movements, nor was he even a writer maudit.” This is as much as to say, Bolaño was a writer – solitary, iconoclastic, and, in his daily habits, a little boring.

“Bolaño Inc.” starts to fall apart, however, when Castellanos Moya dates the origins of the Bolaño Myth to the publication of The Savage Detectives. In 2005, editors at Farrar, Straus & Giroux acquired the hotly contested rights to The Savage Detectives, reportedly for somewhere in the mid six figures – on the high end for a work of translation by an author largely “unknown” in the U.S. The posthumous appeal of Bolaño’s personal story no doubt helped the sale along.

FSG’s subsequent marketing campaign for the novel would emphasize specific elements of the author’s biography. “The profiles,” a former editor at another publishing house observed, “essentially wrote themselves.” Among the campaign’s elements were the online publication of what would become Wimmer’s introduction to the paperback edition. The hardcover jacket photo was a portrait of a scraggly Bolaño circa 1975. Castellanos Moya takes this as proof positive of a top-down crafting of the Bolaño myth (though Lorin Stein, a senior editor at FSG, told me, “I stuck that picture . . . on the book because it was my favorite and because it was in the period of the novel”).

As it would with 2666, FSG printed up unusually attractive galley editions, and carpet-bombed reviewers, writers, and even editors at other houses with a copy, “basically signaling to the media that this was their ‘important’ book of the year,” my editor friend suggested. When the book achieved sales figures unprecedented for a work of postmodern literature in translation “the standard discourse in publishing . . . was was that the publisher had ‘made’ that book.” Or, as Castellanos Moya puts it,
in the middle of negotiations for The Savage Detectives appeared, like a bolt from the blue, the powerful hand of the landlords of fortune, who decided that this excellent novel was the work chosen to be the next big thing.
But here Castellanos Moya begs the question: why did these particular negotiations entice FSG in the first place? He treats the fact that the book was “excellent” almost parenthetically. (And Pollack’s article is almost comical in its rush to bypass what she calls Bolaño’s “creative genius” – a quality that doesn’t lend itself to the kind of argumentation on which C.V.s are built these days.) Then again, it might be fair to say that excellence is an afterthought in the marketplace, as well.

Likely more attractive for FSG was the fact that, by 2006, much of the groundwork for the Bolaño Myth had already been laid. Over several years, New Directions, an independent American press, had already published – “carefully and tenaciously,” Castellanos Moya tells us – several of Bolaño’s shorter works. New Directions was clearly not oblivious to the fascination exerted by the author himself (to ignore it  would have amounted to publishing malpractice). The jacket bio for By Night In Chile, published in 2003, ran to an unusually detailed 150 words: arrest, imprisonment, death… By the following year, when Distant Star hit bookshelves, the head-shot of a rather gaunt-looking Bolaño had been swapped out for a fantastically moody portrait of the black-clad author in repose, inhaling a cigarette. These translations, by Chris Andrews, won “Best Books of the Year” honors from the major papers on both coasts, and led to excerpts in The New Yorker.

Nor can the initial development of the Bolaño Myth be laid at the feet of New Directions. Lest we forget, the sensation of The Savage Detectives began in 1999, when the novel won the Rómulo Gallegos prize, the preeminent prize for Spanish language fiction. Bolaño’s work in Spanish received glowing reviews from the TLS, almost all of which included a compressed biography in the opening paragraph.

In fact, the ultimate point of origin for the Bolaño myth – however distorted it would ultimately become – was Bolaño himself. Castellanos Moya avers that his friend “would have found it amusing to know they would call him the James Dean, the Jim Morrison, or the Jack Kerouac of Latin American literature,” and Bolaño would surely have recoiled from such a caricature. But his fondness for reimagining his life at epic scale is as distinctive an element in his authorial sensibility as it is in Philip Roth’s. It is most pronounced in The Savage Detectives, where he rewrites his own youth with a palpable, and powerful, yearning. So complete is the identification between Bolaño and his fictional alter-ego, Arturo Belano, that, when writing of a rumored movie version of The Savage Detectives, Castellanos Moya confuses the former with the latter.

At any rate, Castellanos Moya has the causal arrow backward. By the time FSG scooped up The Savage Detectives, Bolaño’s “reputation and legend” were already “in meteoric ascent” (as a 2005 New York Times piece put it) both in the U.S. and abroad. The blurbs for the hardcover edition for The Savage Detectives were drawn equally from reviews of the New Directions editions and from publications like Le Monde des Livres, Neuen Zurcher Zeitung, and Le Magazine Littéraire – catnip not for neo-Beats or Doors fanatics but for exactly the kinds of people who usually buy literature in translation. And it was after all a Spaniard, Enrique Vila-Matas, who detected in The Savage Detectives a sign
that the parade of Amazonian roosters was coming to an end: it marked the beginning of the end of the high priests of the Boom and all their local color.
A cynical reading of “Bolaño Inc.” might see it less as a cri de coeur against “the U.S. cultural establishment” than as an outgrowth of sibling rivalry within it. One imagines that the fine people at New Directions have complicated feelings about a larger publisher capitalizing on the groundwork it laid, and receiving the lion’s share of the credit for “making” The Savage Detectives. (Just as Latin American writers might feel slighted by the U.S. intelligentsia’s enthusiastic adoption of one of their own.) At the very least, it’s worth at noting that New Directions, a resourceful and estimable press, in Castellanos Moya’s account and in fact, is also his publisher.

On second thought, it is a little anachronistic to imagine that either publisher figures much in the larger “U.S. cultural establishment.” To be sure, it would be naïve to discount the role publishers and the broader critical ecology play in “breaking” authors to the public. There are even books, like The Lost Symbol or Going Rogue, whose bestseller status is, like box-office receipts of blockbusters, pretty much assured by the time the public sees them. But The Savage Detectives was not one of these. The amount paid for the book “was not exorbitant enough to warrant an all-out Dan Brown-like push,” one editor told me. “Books with that price tag bomb all the time.” And Lorin Stein noted that The Savage Detectives
surpassed our expectations by a long shot. How many 600-page experimental translated books make it to the bestseller list? You can’t work that sort of thing into a business plan.
I’m thinking here of Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories – an achievement comparable to The Savage Detectives, and likewise published by FSG, but not one that has become totemic for U.S. readers. Castellanos Moya might attribute Nádas’ modest U.S. sales to the absence of a compelling “myth.” But we would already have come a fair piece from the godlike “landlords of the market,” descending from their home in the sky to anoint “next big things.” And the sluggish sales this year of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones – another monumental translation with a six-figure advance and a compelling narrative attached – further suggest that the landlords’ power over the tenants is erratic, or at least weakening.

Indeed, it is “Bolaño Inc.”‘s treatment of these tenants – i.e. readers – that is the most galling element of its argument. The Savage Detectives, Castellanos Moya insists, offers U.S. readers a vision of Latin America as a kind of global id, ultimately reaffirming North American pieties
like the superiority of the protestant work ethic or the dichotomy according to which North Americans see themselves as workers, mature, responsible, and honest, while they see their neighbors to the South as lazy, adolescent, reckless, and delinquent.
As Pollack puts it,
Behind the construction of the Bolaño myth was not only a publisher’s marketing operation but also a redefinition of Latin American culture and literature that the U.S. cultural establishment is now selling to the public.
Castellanos Moya and Pollack seem to want simultaneously to treat readers as powerless before the whims of publishers and to indict them for their colonialist fantasies. (This is the same “public” that in other quarters gets dunned for its disinterest in literature in translation, and in literature more broadly.) Within the parameters of the argument “Bolaño Inc.” lays out, readers can’t win.

But the truth is that U.S. readers of The Savage Detectives are less likely to use it as a lens on their neighbors to the south than as a kind of mirror. From Huckleberry Finn onward, we have been attracted to stories of recklessness and nonconformity wherever we have found them. When we read The Savage Detectives, we are not comforted at having sidestepped Arturo Belano’s fate. We are Arturo Belano. Likewise, the Bolaño Myth is not a story about Latin American literature. It is a dream of who we’d like to be ourselves. In its lack of regard for the subaltern, this may be no improvement on the charges “Bolaño Inc.” advances. But the attitude of the U.S. metropole towards the global south – in contrast, perhaps, to that of Lou Dobbs – is narcissistic, not paternalistic. Purely in political terms, the distinction is an important one.

Moreover, Pollack’s quietist reading of the novel (at least as Castellanos Moya presents it) condescends to Bolaño himself, and is so radically at variance with the text as to be baffling. The Savage Detectives, she writes, “is a very comfortable choice for U.S. readers, offering both the pleasures of the savage and the superiority of the civilized.” Perhaps she means this as an indictment of the ideological mania of the Norteamericano, who completely misses what’s on the page; such an indictment would no doubt be “a very comfortable choice” for the readers of Comparative Literature. But to write of the novel as exploring “the difficulty of sustaining the hopes of youth,” as James Wood has, is far from reading it as a celebration of the joys of bourgeois responsibility.

Instead, The Savage Detectives offers a disquieting experience – one connected less to geography than to chronology. Bolaño is surely the most pan-national of Latin American writers, and his Mexico City could, in many respects, be L.A. It’s the historical backdrop – the 1970s – that give the novel its traction with U.S. readers. (In this way, the jacket photo is an inspired choice.)

The mid-’70s, as Bolaño presents them, are a time not just of individual aspirations, but of collective ones. Arturo and Ulises seem genuinely to believe that, confronted with a resistant world, they will remake it in their own image. Their failure, over subsequent years, to do so, is not a comforting commentary on the impossibility of change so much as it is a warning about the death of our ability to imagine progress – to, as Frederic Jameson puts it, “think the present historically.” Compare the openness of the ’70s here to the nightmarish ’90s of 2666. Something has been lost, this novel insists. Something happened back there.

The question of what that something was animates everything in The Savage Detectives, including its wonderfully shattered form, which leaves a gap precisely where the something should be. And this aesthetic dimension is the other disquieting experience of reading book – or really, it amounts to the same thing. In the ruthless unity of his conception Bolaño discovers a way out of the ruthless unity of postmodernity, and the aesthetic cul-de-sac it seemed to have led to. Seemingly through sheer willpower, he became the artist he had imagined himself to be.

This is the nature of the hype cycle: if the Bolaño backlash augured by The New Yorker’s “Book Bench” materializes, it will not be because readers have revolted against the novel (though there are readers whom the book leaves cold) but because they have revolted against a particular narrative being told about it. And Castellanos Moya, with his impeccable credentials and his tendentious but seductive account of the experience The Savage Detectives offers U.S. readers, provides the perfect cover story for those who can’t be bothered to do the reading. That is, “Bolaño Inc.” offers readers the very same enticements that the Bolaño Myth did: the chance to be Ahead of the Curve, to have an opinion that Says Something About You. Both myth and backlash pivot on a notion of authenticity that is at once an escape from commodification and the ultimate commodity. Bolaño had it, the myth insists. His fans don’t, says “Bolaño Inc.” But what if this authenticity itself is a construction? From what solid ground can we render judgment?

For a while now, I’ve been thinking out loud about just this question. One reader has accused me of hostility to the useful idea that taste is as constructed as anything else, and to the “hermeneutics of suspicion” more generally. I can see some of this at work in my reaction to “Bolaño Inc.” But the hermeneutics of suspicion to which Castellanos Moya subscribes should not mistake suspicion for proof of guilt. Indeed, it should properly extend suspicion to itself.

It may be easier to build our arguments about a work of art on assumptions about “the marketplace,” but it seems to me a perverse betrayal of the empirical to ignore the initial kick we get from the art that kicks us – the sighting of a certain yellow across the gallery, before you know it’s a De Kooning. Yes, you’re already in the gallery, you know you’re supposed to be looking at the framed thing on the wall, but damn! That yellow!

When I revisit my original review of The Savage Detectives – a book I bought because I liked the cover and the first page, and because I’d skimmed Deb’s piece in Harper’s – I find a reader aware of the star-making machinery, but innocent of the biographical myth to which he was supposed to be responding. (You can find me shoehorning it in at the end, in a frenzy of Googling.) Instead, not knowing any better, I began by trying to capture exactly why, from one writer’s perspective, the book felt like a punch in the face. This seems, empirically, like a sounder place to begin thinking about the book than any preconception that would deny the lingering intensity of the blow. I have to imagine, therefore, that, whatever their reasons for picking up the book, other readers who loved it were feeling something similar.

Not that any of this is likely to save us from a Bolaño backlash. Castellanos Moya’s imagining of the postmodern marketplace as a site with identifiable landlords – his conceit that superstructure and base can still be disentangled – has led him to overlook its algorithmic logic of its fashions. The anomalous length and intensity of Bolaño’s coronation (echoing, perhaps, the unusual length and intensity of his two larger novels) and the maddening impossibility of pinning down exactly what’s attributable to genius and what’s attributable to marketing have primed us for a comeuppance of equal intensity.

But when the reevaluation of Bolaño begins in earnest – and again, in some ways it might serve him well – one wants to imagine the author would prefer for it to respond to, and serve, what’s actually on the page. Of course the truth is, he probably wouldn’t give a shit either way. About this, the Myth and its debunkers can agree: Roberto Bolaño would probably be too busy writing to care.

[Bonus Link: Jorge Volpi’s brilliant, and somewhat different, take on all this is available in English at Three Percent.]

Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far): Honorable Mention

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As we had hoped, our “Best of the Millennium (So Far)” poll stoked a fair amount of conversation around the web last week. List-making, as we’ve argued in the past, is an imperfect enterprise, and reactions ranged from “Great picks” to “Why didn’t you mention x?”

One of the difficulties of reaching consensus on books is that there are so many of them; The Corrections‘ appearance at #1 in our poll may reflect the likelihood of our panelists having read the book as much as it reflects inherent excellence. In our survey of 56 panelists – who had, collectively, 280 votes to allocate – something like 160 titles were mentioned. And so, as we sifted through the ballots, what struck us was not a “unified sensibility,” but an exhilarating diversity, which we plan to share with you in the coming days.

As we continue to discuss our “Best Fiction of the Millennium” results – and the heuristic value of list-making in general – we’ll announce the rest of the titles that received votes, and maybe some of those that came up in the comments. We hope that you discover some pleasant surprises on these lists, as we did, and we hope you’ll continue the conversation about what books from the last decade were worth your reading time. First, though, we thought we’d post an “Honorable Mention” list of 15 books that received multiple votes in our poll but didn’t crack our Top 20.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon.

This massive – and massively popular – novel follows two comic book creators in the World War II era.

Any Human Heart, by William Boyd.

A series of journal entries documents the life of an Englishman and his century. (See our review.)

By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño.

A Catholic priest embroiled in the hothouse of Chilean politics delivers a riveting dramatic monologue.

The Children’s Hospital, by Chris Adrian.

A flood of possibly divine provenance turns the titular hospital into an ark in this, the second novel from a hugely ambitious young writer.

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, by Ken Kalfus.

Paired disasters – a divorce and a terrorist attack – mirror each other in this novel set in New York in 2001.

The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter.

Stories of love knit together a community in Ann Arbor in this novel by a critical favorite.

The Golden Compass/The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman.

The first and third installments of the His Dark Materials trilogy open up a parallel universe of daemons and Dust.

The Great Fire , by Shirley Hazzard

Traveling East Asia after World War II, an English war hero finds love among the ruins. (See our review.)

HomeLand , by Sam Lipsyte.

Class notes from a ne’er-do-well form the spine of this comic novel.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Samantha Clarke.

Two magicians spar in this novel, which is long and erudite in the Victorian manner. (See our review.)

The Master, by Colm Tóibín.

Tóibín, an Irishman, recreates a pivotal period in the life of Henry James.

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall.

A half-Apache youth matriculates at the school of hard knocks and various other failing 1960’s institutions.

Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace.

Wallace’s final collection of short fiction is dark and dense, bleak and exhilarating.

Remainder, by Tom McCarthy.

McCarthy bends the legacy of the Gallic avant-garde in the direction of pop perfection in this novel of memory and forgetting.

Still Holding, by Bruce Wagner.

The final entry in Wagner’s cell-phone themed trilogy explores the glitter and emptiness of Hollywood.

A Bolaño Syllabus

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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.

In 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.

1. “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.

2. 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).

3. 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.

5. 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.)

8. 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…

10. 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.

13. 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.

Was Bolaño a Junkie?

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At this point, even the contrarians at N+1 agree: the late Roberto Bolaño’s burgeoning reputation rests primarily on the audacity and beauty of his fiction. Nonetheless, as the current installment of “The Intellectual Situation” points out, the vagaries of the novelist’s life haven’t hurt his reception here in the U.S. Ever since Whitman celebrated himself, biography has has played an outsized role in the making, and marketing, of our literary celebrities (e.g. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kesey). And Bolaño’s years of vagabondage have provided American publishers (notoriously translation-shy) with a ready-made marketing hook: This guy not only wrote about dissolute poets – he was one.The Savage Detectives was one of the best-reviewed books of 2007, both in the sense of receiving favorable marks and in the sense of eliciting good writing. Much of this writing, notably Francisco Goldman’s essay in The New York Review of Books, and Benjamin Kunkel’s in The London Review of Books, used Bolaño’s life as an organizing principle. Later, Scott Esposito, writing in hermanocerdo, would offer a thorough survey and critique of “the Bolaño legend.” The salients of that “legend” – rebellion, exile, early death – were familiar. They were the ingredients of Beatnik integrity, rock star incandescence, and the holiness of religious martyrs; now, they were helping to canonize the first literary immortal of the 21st Century.It was Daniel Zalewski, writing in The New Yorker who gave the Bolaño legend its fullest and most ingenuous treatment. His article, “Vagabonds,” included a particularly (one wants to say, Americanly) salacious detail: Bolaño was “addicted to heroin.” This datum has since reappeared in articles written for The Nation and The New York Times, as well as the aforementioned N+1 piece, and, yes, The Millions. It has been used to explain everything from Bolaño’s dental problems to the liver failure that killed him at age 50. But this month, the Spanish-language blog puente aéreo has suggested that at least this much of the Bolaño legend – the heroin – merits skepticism.My Spanish is next to nonexistent, but Gustavo Faverón Patriau, a literature scholar and the proprietor of puente aéreo, seems to be arguing that Zalewski picked up the heroin detail from a short Bolaño piece called “Beach,” and that this source is, at best, unreliable. As yet untranslated into English, “Beach” appeared in a Spanish newspaper, and later in a Spanish-language collection of Bolaño’s essays, articles and speeches. The piece, which recounts a methadone treatment, has a confessional feel, and given that it was originally published under the heading “The Worst Summer of My Life,” it seems reasonable to take it as memoir. On the other hand, memoirists are prone to exaggeration, and the stylistic excess of “Beach” – a single, torrid sentence – has more in common with Bolaño’s fiction (e.g. By Night in Chile) than with his occasional writings. Moreover, the status of autobiography in Bolaño’s writing puts him closer to Philip Roth than to Robert Lowell; the line between fiction and fact in his is always hazy.Given the formidable reputation of The New Yorker’s fact-checking department, I’m hesitant to gainsay Zalewski. And perhaps Mr. Faverón Patria’s view of things is not crystal-clear. After all, he called The Millions “uno de los blogs literarios más importantes del mundo anglosajón.” It is worth noting, however that most of the myriad references to Bolaño’s heroin addiction in English-language publications appear to be founded on secondary sources. My own attempt to trace these sources back to their sources has yielded a frustrating, and perhaps telling, circularity.So: was Bolaño an addict? Perhaps someone close to the author will make some statement about this…or maybe someone already has, and we who read in translation are merely lagging behind. Ultimately, however, the matter of the novelist’s vices, to the degree that it holds any interest, reveals more about us than about Bolaño’s oeuvre. For Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano and Auxilio Lacoutre and Benno von Archimboldi, the glory (and horror) of writing is the way it liberates the writer from the tedium, the tyranny, of real life. Perhaps we might honor Bolaño by granting him his own measure of freedom.[Addendum (11/30): In response to this post, the fine folks at hermanocerdo adduce a couple of additional pieces of evidence suggesting that Bolaño was not, in fact, a heroin addict. First: Bolaño’s good friend, the novelist Enrique Vila-Matas, writing in El País, calls the New York Times Book Review’s mention of heroin “an absurd biographical error that could have been avoided.” Second, some Spanish-language and Catalan-language bloggers cite Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, as affirming that he “nunca probó el caballo”: “never touched horse.” It should be noted that translator Natasha Wimmer, in her introduction to the paperback edition of The Savage Detectives (published several months after the Zalewski article) does suggest that Bolaño was an addict. Her source? “Beach.” Things grow curiouser and curiouser… I’ll do my best to track down a definitive answer in the coming days.]

Cower, Hounds!: A Review of Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas

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It must have appealed to Roberto Bolaño’s sense of irony that novels, rather than poems, won him his place in the contemporary pantheon. For Bolaño’s protagonists, (and, we can imagine, for Bolaño himself) poetry is the art that endures. Still, to read Amulet or By Night in Chile is to find oneself immersed in verse – not because the prose is self-consciously lyrical (not in translation, anyway), but because all of the major characters are poets. Were these characters merely unheralded virtuosos, like Kerouac’s Subterraneans, the novels might take on an air of wish fulfillment. As it stands, however, Bolaño’s fictionalized Lives of the Poets are an inversion, or complication, of Kerouac’s: He seems more interested in the bad poets, the failed poets, than he is in the angelic ones.For this reason, and for several others, the recently published English edition of Nazi Literature in the Americas is an ideal introduction to the Bolaño oeuvre. The book comprises 30 short portraits of imaginary right-wing poets. The form of the fictional reference work (a subgenre close to my heart) allows for accessibility, while playing to several of Bolaño’s great strengths.The book begins in Argentina “at the dawn of the twentieth century,” with the Mendiluce clan. The matriarch, Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce, has a long and busy life, writing books of poetry (Argentinean Hours) and autobiography (The Century as I Have Lived It) and a libretto for opera (Ana, the Peasant Redeemed), and, most significantly, founding magazines: Modern Argentina, American Letters, and The Fourth Reich in Argentina (“and, subsequently, the publishing house of the same name.”) As these inflated titles indicate, Bolaño has a lot of fun inventing his poets, and the dry humor seems to play to Chris Andrews’ strengths as a translator. One paragraph ends: “By the end of the audience Edelmira and Carozzone were committed Hitlerites.” The next begins: “1930 was a year of voyages and adventures.”After droll biographies of Edelmira’s progeny – “throughout her life, [Luz Mendiluce Thompson] treasured the famous photo of her baby self in Hitler’s arms” – the book will gradually work its way north, to the pop-inflected poets of the United States, and then south again, to end up in Bolaño’s native Chile, at the lightless dawn of the Pinochet years. Here as elsewhere, Bolaño excels in the art of ekphrasis – describing the fruits of one medium with the techniques of another. Rarely do we see an actual excerpt from the poems in question; instead, we are treated to summaries such as this one (concerning the works of Luz Mendiluce Thompson):In 1953…she published the collection Tangos of Buenos Aires, which, as well as a revised version of “I Was Happy with Hitler,” contained some of her finest poems: “Stalin,” a chaotic fable set among bottles of vodka and incomprehensible shrieks; “Self Portrait,” one of the cruelest poems written in Argentina during the fifties, which is no mean claim; “Luz Mendiluce and Love,” in the same vein as her self-portrait, but with doses of irony and black humor, which make it somewhat less grueling; and “Apocalypse at Fifty,” a promise to kill herself when she reached that age, which those who knew her regarded as optimistic.Even when Bolaño does quote from the poems in question – “[they] were free of political allusions,” we are told, “except for the odd unfortunate metaphor (such as ‘in my heart I am the last Nazi’)” – he relies on the reader to flesh out the fictional world, in Borgesian fashion.The form of the vignette means, inevitably, that certain entries are stronger than others; some, like “Luiz Fontaine da Souza,” are merely a single, extended joke. In general, though, Nazi Literature in the Americas gathers momentum as it goes on, which is perhaps a way of saying that it teaches the reader how to read it. The science-fictional leanings of several of the U.S. poets allow Bolaño to indulge in the same sort of hallucinatory symbolism that animates his finest short stories, and the final three entries, covering “The Fabulous Schiaffino Boys” and “The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman,” swell to the amplitude of bravura short stories themselves. (Indeed, Bolaño would rework the latter piece into the novel Distant Star, which is probably the next book to tackle if you’re looking to ease your way into the longer works.)It is as a whole, however, that Nazi Literature in the Americas makes its strongest statement. Beyond the humor, and the game-like pleasure of tracing the chain of influence and patronage among the various poets (abetted by an “Epilogue for Monsters”), the book offers a subtle analysis of the constituent parts of fascism: humorlessness, a longing for an imagined past, a persecution complex. They are often, Bolaño suggests, the same things that drive us to create art, and though the poems described in the book are often bad, they are not uniformly so. By the end of the book, we come to see poetry as a symbol of the broader moral universe (whereas in Kerouac’s novels it tends to represent some form of redemption from it). Bolaño muse, like the muse that spoke to Ezra Pound and Ernst Jünger, is morally and politically indiscriminate. The lives that surround the poems are where the greatest triumphs, and greatest failures, occur.Bonus link: An excerpt from Nazi Literature in the Americas, courtesy of Bookforum

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