Category Archives: roberto bolano

Alberto Manguel's Odd Bolano Pan

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.

And the Bolano Keeps on Coming

The Barnes & Noble Review has just published my piece on two new Bolano books, Monsieur Pain and Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview.

If you’ve become a Bolano fan, they’re both well worth your time (and, well, they’re both worth your time if you have yet to become a Bolano fan too). As I remark in the piece, they keep on publishing more Bolano and it keeps being of very high quality. The depth of his work is extremely impressive.

Here’s a quote from the piece, which contains a hilarious Bolano-take on Paz and Fuentes:

His musings on literature are never less than interesting, and watching the author opine on the great Spanish-language writers of the 20th century is a distinct pleasure. Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa come in for high praise, but others don’t fare as well. Pablo Neruda receives some harsh, if not quite demeaning words: “Neruda is what I pretended to be at age twenty: living like a poet without writing. Neruda wrote three very good books; the rest — the great majority — are very bad, some truly infected.” Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz, the two Mexican colossi of the 20th century, don’t get off nearly so easily: “I would guess that Fuentes loved Paz, if it’s possible for Fuentes to love someone, which is another topic; and Paz probably loved Fuentes, if Paz has ever loved anyone, which is again another topic. Evidently, I don’t side with either of them.”

Poetry, Bolano, and Jim Morrison

Words Without Borders covers the the Madmen, Exiles, and Savage Detectives: Latin American Poetry panel:

I was late to the Madmen, Exiles, and Savage Detectives: Latin American Poetry panel at the Philoctetes Center this Tuesday. I was late because I was puttering around the fourth floor poetry section at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square here in New York City. Among the shelves, out of place, was a book which has nothing to do with Latin American Poets, but everything to do with translation and so I thought you’d find it interesting, as I did. You probably already know of this book but I am younger than you and so I got a late start. The book is called Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet, and was published by Duke University Press in 1994. The impetus for the work was a letter that Jim Morrison wrote in 1968 to a Rimbaud translator and French scholar at Duke University named Wallace Fowlie. The letter was a thank-you note to the translator. It read, in part, “I don’t read French that easily. I am a rock singer and your book travels around with me.”

And here’s the Bolano part:

In a tag-team reading style, Laura Healy, translator of Roberto Bolaño’s The Romantic Dogs followed with her yet to be published translation of Bolaño’s Tres. The pieces effuse the cheeky inappropriate humor we have come to appreciate, including one in which Bolaño imagines he is having sexual intercourse with American author Carson McCullers.

“I dreamt that Georges Perec was three years old visiting my house…I dreamt I was falling in love with Alice Sheldon. She didn’t want me so I tried getting myself killed on three continents.” Healy’s translation of Bolaño’s as yet unseen work Tres brings the art of the prose poem as form to the forefront and it was a treat to be privy to the yet to be seen in print translation.

Hilarious Bolano Interview

Paper Cuts excerpts a hilarious Bolano interview from the new Melville House title Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations.

Why hilarious? To wit:

M.M.: Have you shed one tear about the widespread criticism you’ve drawn from your enemies?

R.B.: Lots and lots. Every time I read that someone has spoken badly of me I begin to cry, I drag myself across the floor, I scratch myself, I stop writing indefinitely, I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I engage in sport, I go for walks on the edge of the sea, which by the way is less than 30 meters from my house and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish who ate Ulysses: Why me? Why? I’ve done you no harm.

Pretty much the whole thing is like that.

El Tercer Reich Coming in March 2010

One of Bolano’s never-published manuscripts, El tercer Reich, will be published in the U.S. in Spanish by Vintage. (Anagrama is already publishing it in Spain.) I suppose this makes good business sense, since Bolano is still hot and there’s a large Spanish-reading population in this nation.

I’m at least curious to read this book. I was originally of the opinion that it probably wouldn’t be very good, but Natasha Wimmer, who is doing the translation into English, is of the opinion that it’s a good novel. So.

On That Bolano Myth

Jorge Volpi returns with an all-Bolano installment 3 of his essay on Latin American lit at Three Percent. It’s an interesting piece well worth reading. Volpi starts out with a sanguine take on what Bolano has become here:

I do not believe, as some Spanish critics and even some of his friends do, that the American Bolaño is a falsification, a marketing product, a forced reinvention, or a simple misunderstanding: on the contrary, maybe the power of his texts lives in the diverse interpretations, sometimes contrasting or opposed, that it is possible to extract from his books. But the reception of his American critics reveals, however, another phenomenon: not only does the Bolaño read and recreated by them have nothing to do with his Spanish reception, but it seems that none of his panegyrists took the trouble of reading what the Spanish speaking critics had been saying about him—with almost always the same admiration—for more than a decade.

A couple of paragraphs later he defines exactly what he means:

Without a doubt, the relation between the life and works possesses greater enchantment in the United States than in any other part of the world, but the emphasis on his supposed or real penury have played a key role in interpreting (and, obviously, selling) his books. The American literary world has been obliged to construct a radical rebel from a simple misunderstanding: confusing a first person narrator with its author. Bolaño, who during the last years of his life had a more or less normal life, not full of luxuries, but clothed by an almost simultaneous recognition from the publication of his first books (Nazi Literature in the Americas and Distant Star in 1997 and The Savage Detectives in 1998), has been transformed into one of those furious writers who, facing down the scorn of his contemporaries and through a fierce individual fight, manage to convert themselves into tragic artists, posthumous heroes: a new example of the myth of the self-made man.

This is interesting, although not groundbreaking. But then toward the end Vopli discusses the cohort after Bolano, which I’ve not seen talked about much in English-language press:

The Bolaño case marks a watershed moment for Latin American literature. While he is unanimously idolized by the greater part of the new writers, none of them has continued the relationship that the Chilean used to keep with the Hispanic American tradition. Dozens of youths imitate his awkward style, his ”fractal” stories, his games and stylish threats, his plots as alleys without exit, his delirious monologues, and his literary erudition, but none, in turn, has looked for dialogue, or war, with his predecessors—with the vast plot that goes from modernism to the Boom—that is found in the center of almost all of Bolaño’s books.

And this last bit follows up on Volpi’s assertion that Latin American fiction doesn’t exist, although I disagree completely with his conclusion:

It is not accidental that Bolaño, a Chilean who owned a house in Spain, wrote Mexican, Chilean, Argentinean, or Peruvian short stories and novels with the same ease and conviction. It was not about only copying the linguistic peculiarities of each place—a mere exercise of memory and a good ear—but of creating books that would really deal with the tradition of each one of these countries. If the members of the Boom wrote books centered in their respective places of origin with the goal of summoning an elusive Latin American essence, Bolaño did just the opposite: he wrote books that played at belonging to the literature of these countries and ended up revealing the vacuity of the concept.

I would argue that, most definitely, in The Savage Detectives and 2666 Mexico (and even certain parts of Mexico) are extremely important as places than cannot be reproduced elsewhere in Latin America. Likewise, it’s hard to image By Night in Chile or even Distant Star playing out in a nation other than Chile. Even a work like Nazi Literature in the Americas, which spans both North and South America and could be seen as Bolano at his most pan-national, trades rather heavily on national distinctions. (Indeed, the best humor in that richly funny book comes from how apt Bolano is as ironizing national differences among the continent, and especially each nation’s view of its neighbors.)

Bolano Versus Crack

No, this isn't another reset of the Bolano/heroin thread. Rather, Chad Post makes a good addition to the Bolano myth discussion from last week. He notes some Latin American writers contra Bolano that are generally getting ignored:

Post-Garcia Marquez, it’s been near impossible for a non-magical realist from south of our borders to get published in America. A certain Isabel Allende-tainted vision of what “counted” as good Latin American literature came into being, and anything that didn’t fit that mold wasn’t marketable.

The “Crack group” (Jorge Volpi, Eloy Urroz, Ignacio Padilla, etc.) rose up as a response to this situation, this sort of pre-marketing that filters out certain types of literature in favor of more “marketable” books. And it would be foolish to pretend that marketing doesn’t play a role in which authors get published—especially in translation.

This is a great point, as the Crack group gets about zero visibility in the organs that are plastering Bolano to the wall. (On that score, I'm pleased to say that we reviewed the one Eloy Urroz book that's been published in English, we're going to review Volpi's book from Open Letter (plus have him on as part of a special section in the winter issue), and in the Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction anthology that we reviewed earlier this year there are some Crack authors.)

Chad also shares this story about W.G. Sebald:

Another aspect of American cultural imperialism is our general arrogance that an author doesn’t exist until he/she is discovered by the American public. Although Bolano was huge in the Spanish-speaking world for years before his big novels were translated into English, there’s a tendency to treat him as a “new” author who has finally broke through. (Although the majority of reviews I read for 2666 and TSD were by really thoughtful, perceptive critics who were more engaged with the complexity of the work than with the myth of Bolano. So this is by no means a blanket statement.)

A good example of American publishing arrogance is what Scott Moyers said about W. G. Sebald on a “buzz panel” a few years back. I wrote about this at the time but his comment about how Sebald had been “getting his name out there a bit” thanks to New Directions, but that it was Random House’s publication of Austerlitz that put the “stamp of authority” on Sebald as one of Europe’s great writers still makes me vomit in my mouth a little bit.

Best of the Millennium Honorable Mention

My Bolano pick for this list–By Night in Chile–gets mentioned here.

Not too many novels can legitimately claim the adjective perfect, but I think this one has a strong, strong claim to that word. It's a well wrought work, a book that reads like a series of story-like digressions imperceptibly linked, ordered, and devised by the threads of a fallible human consciousness, and it's poignant, weighty, and very, very readable. It's the kind of book that can turn on your interpretation of just one word.

The Children's Hospital is also there, which didn't make my list but very well might have.

Horacio Castellanos Moya Is Disgusted with the “Bolano Myth”

I'm not sure I can translate this properly, but this has to be one of the best lines I've read recently:

El mercado tiene dueños, como todo en este infecto planeta, y son los dueños del mercado quienes deciden el mambo que se baila, se trate de vender condones baratos o novelas latinoamericanas en Estados Unidos.

This line comes in conjunction with a very acidic essay that novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya has written on the "Bolano Myth" (published in the Argentina newspaper La Nacion). The following line explains what moved Moya to such a statement (partial translation below):

Lo digo porque la idea central del trabajo de Sarah es que, detrás de la construcción del mito Bolaño, no sólo hubo un operativo de marketing editorial sino también una redefinición de la imagen de la cultura y la literatura latinoamericanas que el establishment cultural estadounidense ahora le está vendiendo a su público.

Basically, in order to sell books marketers invented the Bolano myth, which Moya is taking as an act of U.S. cultural imperialism on Latin America. Throughout the rest of the piece, Moya goes on to argue that marketers and journalists created an image of Bolano to fit preconceived U.S. stereotypes of what a Latin American is–and especially what a Latin American author is.

Moya concludes that the Bolano created by American marketers and journalists fits in with a sterotype popularized in recent movies and books about Che:

Fue esa faceta contestataria de su vida la que serviría a la perfección para la construcción del mito en Estados Unidos, del mismo modo que esa faceta de la vida del Che (la del viaje en motocicleta y no la del ministro del régimen castrista) es la que se utiliza para vender su mito en ese mismo mercado. La nueva imagen de lo latinoamericano no es tan nueva, pues, sino la vieja mitología del "the road-trip" que viene desde Kerouac y que ahora se ha reciclado con el rostro de Gael García Bernal (quien también interpreta a Bolaño en el film que viene, a propósito).

Moya notes that most of the inspiration for this diatribe comes from an essay called "Latin America Translated (Again): Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives in the United States" that Sarah Pollack will be publishing in the next issue of Comparative Literature.

I should remark here that I covered a lot of this territory about a year and a half ago with this essay in Hermano Cerdo.

First off, I think it's pretty interesting to see how much Spanish-language authors have been pushing back on the seizure of Bolano by the U.S. intellectual classes. I think it's great, especially since it's fostering an authentic trans-national dialogue on literature (of the kind that Horace Engdahl said we don't participate in enough these days). I don't know if this sort of this happened with Gabriel Garcia Marquez when he became big in the English language, but I get the feeling that the changing relationship of the U.S. vis a vis the Latin American world has made the absorption of Bolano a little different than that of Garcia Marquez.

I can't disagree too much with what Moya says, although I think he's painting things a little too broadly. (Granted, this is a diatribe . . .) Where he's dishing out blame, he's mostly talking about the old media press and the publisher FSG, and while I would say that old media coverage of Bolano has featured a lot of what Moya calls out (remember the whole heroin thing?), I don't think FSG is quite the publisher Moya claims it to be. True, it's no New Directions, and, true again, if there was any justice New Directions would have gotten first shot at The Savage Detectives, but FSG does tend to treat literature with a lot more respect than other publishers out there.

But more than that, I do think there is a community of readers that is attempting to read Bolano on his own terms, instead of in terms of a prefabricated Latin American stereotype. Certainly there's lots of bandwagoning and dumb reader tricks happening around Bolano's books, but I do get the feeling that they've captured the imagination of many readers and inspired them to try and live up to the books.

This does happen from time to time, after all. Moya's own translator, Katherine Silver, has in fact spoken very eloquently on how a translated work of literature (in this case, Moya's own Senselessness, which I cover in an essay here) can work to subvert dominant ideas in the U.S. mental image of Latin America. She's right, and I think Senselessness has done just that with its American readership.

For the Record

Just wanted to point to my short interview with Natasha Wimmer available here, mostly because she talks about the Bolano books she’s currently translating, and you know how this site is with links to meaty info on Bolano books.

If El Tercer Reich
is as good as she implies, I might just have to re-think my stance on these posthumous manuscripts . . .


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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