n + 1 has a fairly good take on why Bolano matters for U.S. readers. As always, it’s nice to see writing on 2666 that actually has something to say; that is, that gets beyond the well-plowed territory that most reviews of 2666 I’ve read has stayed within.
The piece gets off to something of a weak start with some seemingly uninformed and sadly flip remarks about Latin American writers and politics:
In the ’90s, it didn’t matter to most American readers that Sebald had
taken the hoariest tropes of German romanticism (the solitary
wandering, the unnamable sorrow) and renovated a totally discredited
literary tradition by employing it to honor the victims of that variety
of German romanticism known as Nazism. What mattered was simply that
these were literary books about the Holocaust. Bolaño, of course, was not Jewish or German, and was released from
Pinochet’s prisons after a few days. He returned to Mexico to read
books and smoke weed. (Later on, he took heroin.) Nevertheless, if you
can only take your serious literature with a lump of state terror,
eventually you run out of authentic Nazis and have to make do with the
next best thing: South American generals of the ’70s. Foreign writers
are like our own candidates for President: it helps to have been a
prisoner of war or at least to have grown up poor. (Poor Mario Vargas
Llosa, preppy and smooth with excellent hair, is the John Kerry of
Latin American letters.)
To characterize "South American generals of the ’70s" as the "next best thing" to "authentic Nazis" is bad enough, but to treat them as some kind of street-cred-burnisher for aspiring authors is just lame, first off for rather obvious reasons, but also because it’s perfectly incoherent. Borges, as lionized as Latin American authors can be, was never a foe of powers that were in Argentina until Peron pissed him off by cutting his salary. His startling selfishness and apoliticality didn’t keep him from becoming a legend of "serious literature." (Likewise, English-speaking audiences have managed to canonize Garcia Marquez and embrace his rather politically themed novels despite his lack of participation in wars and/or political intrigue.)
Yes, it’s true that Bolano’s story has helped his become a superstar (I’ve argued that point before), but his upbringing and his participation in Chile’s resistance are but small parts of that story, ones often glossed over in order to play up his antics against Octavio Paz and his drugged-out vagabonding. As with Borges and Garcia Marquez, what matters is the quality of the writing. (To further this point, Bolano never actually saw firsthand the Sonoran tragedy that pretty much everyone has said he portrays with substantial power in 2666.) The fact that these authors’ work has been so thoroughly pervaded by a certain kind of politcal terror, in spite of the fact that they were not directly victims of political terror, is perhaps more usefully considered as indicative of a quality endemic to Latin American writing.
As to the odd remarks about Vargas Llosa, I suppose Kerry and Vargas Llosa are similar in that both blew very winnable bids for the presidency of their nations, but that’s about where the comparisons end. The sad fact is that Vargas Llosa isn’t derided in literary circles for being born rich and good-looking; he’s looked down upon because he has been an apologist for some of the farthest right, most excessive governments in recent Latin American history, even going so far as to lend his prestige to cover-ups of state-sanctioned murder and massacres. The fact that he is still taken seriously as a novelist is a testament to either great ignorance or our ability to ignore the life of the writer when reading her work.
But anyway, once past this point, n + 1’s piece proceeds to make some astute points about Bolano, rather usefully comparing him to W. G. Sebald, each of whom it argues are the two latest "canonizations" in American letters:
American critics and regular readers alike usually don’t care for
sweeping literary-historical arguments. And yet in recent years we have
been celebrating Sebald and Bolaño as if we really do believe in some
big metanarrative about the novel—one that proclaims that, even post
postmodernism, the form remains in crisis. Sure, Sebald and Bolaño deal
with fascism, and both died at the height of their powers. More
decisive is that neither fiction writer writes as if he believes in fiction. Our canonization of these writers implies a sense, even a conviction, that you can’t be a really important novelist anymore unless you can’t really write novels.
Of course, when the unsigned editorialist says "can’t really write novels," he/she is referring to novels in the 19th century (and maybe early 20th century) sense. Sebald’s and Bolano’s works are certainly novels, just not in the sense that some critics would like novels to only be viewed as. The editorial continues:
writers are striking for the documentary or testimonial, as opposed to
fictional, feel of their productions. Sebald assembled his material
from interviews (especially in The Emigrants) and library-burrowing (The Rings of Saturn),
and from his own life. He also interlards his texts with snapshots,
ticket stubs, archival photographs: documentary proof. He makes no
effort to write convincing scenes or dialogue: a character stands
silent and motionless as an old Victrola, then the needle drops and the
aria commences. Sebald’s fiction consists of facts and reworked
testimony, and constantly points to their opposite: what we’ll never
know about what really happened. Whereas ordinary novels,
epistemologically unruffled for two centuries, have mostly delivered
unimpeachable accounts of events that never took place.
of Bolaño is more complex. Where Sebald perfected a single deep and
narrow mode, Bolaño was an experimenter. The impression you get from
the short stories is that nothing at all has been made up, and nothing
comprehended. There is a virtually Seinfeldian ban on moral growth or
learning. These stories’ conclusions are by no means the poetic or
pregnant endings we know from magazine fiction; they are the flat
conclusions we know better from life: Then he died. Or: We lost touch. Or: That’s all I know.
And yet Bolaño boasts tremendous powers of invention; especially in his
longer novels, truly fictional characters, with no originals in life,
proliferate alongside the personages à clef. Curiously, he treats the
pure inventions as he does the lightly fictionalized acquaintances.
It’s true that Bolano’s affectlessness, whether discussing an obviously flat construction or a believably real character, is a hallmark of his style, and I think that the fact that he doesn’t strive for anything so quaint as morals or explanations is an important one. And yet, this observation must be squared with the fact that anyone who reads Bolano cannot help but be convinced of the great moral content of his work. It quite clearly rails against cowardice and complicity, and it seems to stand sullen in the face of incomprehensible atrocity.
I think the strand that unites these aspects of Bolano’s fiction is his insistence on the great dignity that can be achieved while toiling in the shadows. Do your own thing, Bolano seems to be telling us, do out of love and free from regard for what anyone else says and you will perhaps carve out a dignified stalemate with the "desert of boredom."