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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.

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10 comments to Horacio Castellanos Moya Is Disgusted with the “Bolano Myth”

  • I have to say I’m one of those who took Bolano on his own terms and while I’d admit, yes, he’s definitely a great writer, there was something – just not good – about 2666, at least “The Part About the Crimes”. Bolano was relentless with the graphic descriptions. Even so, I hardly attributed that (or even his style in general) to the fact that he’s South American. I did, however, wonder what it would be like to read him in his native language.
    After reading all 900-some pages, it occurred to me that some who had jumped on the Bolano Bandwagon may not have read 2666 in its entirety. I would recommend the book – but not to everyone.

  • Good points overall, but I like to think that any marketing tricks used to sell Bolaño’s books will ultimately fail. I know there are people who bought The Savage Detectives and 2666 because of the hype and really did not care for the books, perhaps because they did not fit with the prescribed Latin American thing we have up here in these United States. They won’t look at another Bolaño book again.
    Too bad—these same readers might have been more pleased with the New Directions publications.

  • But is it marketing? Like Scott, I don’t think the publisher is to blame. The responsibility lies with the press and, probably, the american readers who need the clichés Moya mentions to actually pay attention… One thing though: if it’s true the traditional press is the main culprit here and places like Quarterly conversation did a very good job, one cannot help to think JH Cunningham, in his essay on Neruda, Bolaño and Huerta, fell prey to the myth. Bolaño – Neruda? Although Bolaño probably didn’t despise Neruda’s poetry as much as he claimed or alluded in his work and interviews, there is absolutely no doubt that he was in complete opposition with Neruda’s political stance in regards to his poetry. Bolaño was, in that respect (and in many others), of Lihn’s school. Doesn’t the essay draw from the myth of revolutionary Bolaño more than from his actual work? It certainly feels like it.

  • I would personally rather be informed as to the reading life of Bolano rather than his drug use. To me “Savage Detectives” is a great study of the reading life. Roberto Bolano has been for sure treated as an “outlaw” writer as a marketing device.

  • I’ve read Bolano having no idea about any persona or myth created around him; the hype I’ve been subject to is mostly the “this is great literature, you’ve got to read it” hype, which is why I started (with his stories, Last Evenings On Earth).
    This discussion makes me wonder about the issues that arise any time we read work which comes from a place — both geographically and psychically — that is foreign to us. There is simply no way for a non-Latin American/non-Spanish speaker to read Bolano the same way a Latin American would; this is the case with any writer, really. So how ARE we to read writers who are writing of experiences and cultures and psyches (and in languages) that are not our own? It would be naive to imagine that the otherness is not, in fact, part of the pleasure for an outsider. Does the intelligent, “responsible” reader do everything in her power to self-educate and become closer to an insider, or is the outsider’s reading vantage point ever valid for what it is?

  • JS

    I have to agree with Sonya, everything is about perspective. Sonya – I think the outsider’s reading vantage point is always valid, it can’t be anything else. A “responsible” reader can only educate themselves to a point but they will never have the same exact perspective that a foreign writer has about their work and can only come so close to understanding a work the way a reader from the author’s same culture will. You can never completely step into another person’s shoes, even a person from your same culture.
    I find it ironic that non-english writers and readers aften lament the fact that the work of their culture is not read often enough in the english speaking world. This is a perfect example of a writer whose work has gotten much attention and now people are lamenting that too. Which way is it going to be? The attitude seems to be, “read/buy our stuff but don’t critique it or form an opinion about it because if you do it will be irrelevant”. Has it escaped people that the kinds of readers who will take the time and make the effort to read a translated book like Bolano’s are the exact types that will want to discuss/critique/form opinions about the work?
    I could go on!

  • Travis

    Here’s an interview in Poets & Writers with Jonathan Galassi, the president of FSG. I find that Grove/Atlantic editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler’s P&W interviews with agents and editors are usually a good corrective to the worry that publishers are all corporate stooges who care about nothing but the bottom line.

  • Sonya,
    This is a very important part of this discussion. Obviously, anyone would be wrong to expect an outside reader to be as cognizant of a foreign culture as someone raised within it. But I don’t think that’s what Moya is asking of American readers.
    I am fully for the idea that anyone can read a book from any tradition at any time and get something out of it. If I didn’t believe that, then I would be seriously condemning literature’s power to communicate. But I also think that being aware of the context can make a reading much richer.
    I think what Moya is primarily calling out here (although keep in mind that this is a lengthy piece of writing), is the use of stereotypes to sell an image of Bolano palatable to American consumers. Clearly, if we are only reading Bolano to reflect our preconceived notions of a place or tradition, we are reading him wrong and defeating one of the purposes of literature.

  • JR

    Indeed. I only just started reading and studying Latin American lit, and I’m already getting weary and tired of all this anti stuff. For example, how the Boom is just a product of US fetishism of Latin America, etc, that Mignolo and Colás talk about. Reminds me of what the Mexican film director Arturo Ripstein said recently: Something like, “In Mexico, they will never forgive you if you are successful.”
    As if a Ghanan or Thai person that Moya met at an airport would know more about LA lit than just García Márquez or Bolaño. As if in the US we don’t advertise our own authors in terms of biography. Please… And since I’m a Chinese-American–how well does Moya know the long, great history of Chinese literature? Judging from my experiences with educated Latin Americans, I’d say next to ZERO. So why’s he bitching that we don’t know about Gallegos or Sarmiento, lol.
    Of course, this is all to be viewed in terms of the power differential between LA and its close neighbor, the United States. I understand that. I’m not saying that Moya isn’t making some good points. But, seriously, deep down, a lot of this seems to me to be mere old-fashioned whining.

  • A very interesting discussion…
    Minor quibble: If you refer to Horacio Castellanos Moya by his last name, it should be “Castellanos”. Moya is his mother’s maiden name. It’s an easy mistake to make when discussing Latin American and Spanish authors…which is why some bookstores (unfortunately) shelve Gabriel García Márquez under “M” rather than “G” (his last name is García)…and Mario Vargas Llosa under “L” rather than “V”, etc.
    But thanks very much for linking to his article. :)

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