Writer Alberto Manguel is certainly a critic to be taken seriously. In reader-unfriendly times he has stuck up for reading as an indispensable act of pleasure. He has also written well about Spanish-language literature, and has even written his own successful novels.
But that just makes some of the odd statements in his review of Nazi Literature in the Americas less comprehensible. I’m going to pass right over his critique of Nazi Lit since it’s the least troubling part of his review, although I will say that it in large part amounts to “why didn’t you write the book the way I would have written it?”
Manguel is of course entitled to his opinion, and it’s quite clear that we could use more detractors from Bolano to balance the effusive praise he continues to receive, but sentiments like the following one don’t do the art of criticism any good:
By all accounts, Bolaño was a modest man, aware of his limitations and generous in his praise of others. Javier Cercas includes him as a character in Soldiers of Salamis and depicts him as a funny, foul-mouthed, helpful friend, more interested in providing useful criticism to other writers than in reflecting on his own work. It is not an author’s fault if certain impressionable critics (as well as his agent, and his publishers, who announce republication of some of his other work “in the new Bolaño look”) have decided, without irony, that he must also take on the role of a Latin American messiah in the world of letters.
There are two issues here, and surely Manguel knows better on each. First of all, what does it matter how Javier Cercas depicted Bolano in a fictional book? What bearing does this have on the real Bolano (certainly American critics have been savaged for assuming Bolano’s fictional personas are true to his actual life)? And why would Manguel pick this up as the one piece of evidence he uses to prove his assertions as to what a modest, unassuming figure Bolano was, certainly deserving of better than this odd retrospective coronation that he has been beet by. Why not consider the many true-life accounts that imply that Bolano believed in his writing with all his heart and was aware of the place critics would accord him after his death?
The second problem with this passage is Manguel’s amazing mischaracterization of the critical reception to Bolano’s works. As Manguel tells it, Andrew Wylie and his publishing allies managed a real coup, pulling the wool over the eyes of a few naive critics, who have in turn misled thousands of readers to embracing Bolano’s books. Certainly Manguel must know the opposite is true–Francisco Goldman, a much-praised writer and a discerning critic, was the one to convince New Directions to take Bolano on to begin with. Of course, this came only after widespread praise in the Spanish-language media, with many of Spain’s leading writers testifying to Bolano’s skill. But even to ignore all that: far from a few misguided critics, Bolano has been well-received by some of the best critics working in English today . . . people like James Wood, Wyatt Mason, and Ilan Stavans certainly don’t sound like the bandwagoning know-nothings Manguel implies.
Then there is this rather cheap shot:
For those readers who require historical guidelines, fiction in Spanish can be divided into two major periods, each marked by a literary revolution: the first begins with the publication of Cervantes’s Don Quixote in 1605; the second with the publication of Ficciones by Borges in 1944. The third period, as far as we can tell, has not yet begun, certainly not with Bolaño’s books.
Oh, you know that Michael Chabon, he’s got a lot of fame now, but will history judge him as kindly as it did Shakespeare? That Paul Auster has a few good novels to his name, but did he start a new epoch in American literature?
But to be serious, it’s a well-worn truism that historical periods are never recognized in their own time. That’s kind of a basic fact of how human history works, that it isn’t written until . . . decades later, at the earliest. No one can say when or if a “third period” of Spanish literature has begun, and I doubt that anyone serious is claiming that it starts with Bolano. Perhaps at their most effusive, critics have put Bolano at the head of a school of Latin American writing that came along after the post-Boom writers, vaguely putting him on par with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Certainly Manguel knows this, and thus he must know how flat it is to pretend that Bolano must live up to Cervantes, something that’s good only to bash Bolano’s novel against possibly the Spanish language’s greatest work. True, there probably are some people running around comparing Bolano’s importance to that of Cervantes, but is it worth Manguel’s time or column-inches to bother with trash like that? Why not spend that space refuting Bolanoites that actually have a reasonable argument?
No writer is above criticism, certainly not Roberto Bolano, whose widespread feting is cause for suspicion and close critical inspection. But criticism of the likes of which we see in Manguel’s review of Nazi Literature in the Americas is of no help to readers or writers, and, frankly, it’s of no help to Manguel either.