n + 1 on Bolano

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.

The case
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."

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I’m not sure that these assertions about the state of the novel are accurate, although they are recently very popular. The claim that “ordinary novels, epistemologically unruffled for two centuries, have mostly delivered unimpeachable accounts of events that never took place,” is laughably incorrect; even naive – it would only have been true of a brief period in the 19th Century, and for, mostly, lesser fiction since then. This commentary seems like “n+1” in a nutshell: adolescent, cliché, and poorly thought through.

I found the n+1 review pretty much incomprehensible. Just lazy, bad writing. Personally I’m looking forward to the next Cesar Aira novel, and the American literary scene’s subsequent indifference to it.

Scott: It’s important to note, I think, that Borges and Garcia Marquez found U.S. audiences at a time when the market for serious books was much larger than when Sebald and Bolano broke through. And really, Borges is read almost exclusively by serious book people, writers, and academics, isn’t he? What are the chances that a foreign writer whose work is notable for strictly literary reasons would be canonized in real time like Sebald or Bolano? Huge and politically resonant body counts have become the litmus test, in the U.S., for “serious” fiction.
Daniel: are you seriously arguing that most readers don’t want epistemologically uncomplicated fiction? That this is the default setting for the novel in the 18th, 19th, 20th, and (so far) 21st centuries is so obvious as not to need arguing. What you say about a “brief period in the 19th century” is an almost exact inversion of the truth: there were two brief periods–between the wars, and in the 1970s–when self-consciousness about form was a feature of anything like a signficant amount of the serious fiction being published and being canonized. There seems less patience among critics and a smaller audience for formally challenging work now than at any time post-Joyce, which is why it’s significant to note Sebald’s and Bolano’s approach to form relative to their canonization. N+1 is not a perfect magazine. They’re often wrong, especially (in my opinion) about books. But simple dismissal of what they do is foolish.

Your point about the changed climate is a good one, and while writing the post I did weigh whether or not I should address it.
As I acknowledged, Bolano’s story has helped sell his books. However, it’s important to remember that the initial translation and reputation-building of Bolano was undertaken by New Directions and a number of critics who read and enjoyed his work. I would argue that these people were/are immune to whatever lures his romantic story might have for the public at large. That is, the people who initially “discovered” him for an American audience and largely built him up to what he is now weren’t relying on a body count as a measure of quality fiction.
(On that point, I’d argue that Sebald, though he does write about the Holocaust, is a much, much broader author than that, and to define him as a Holocaust author is to limit him, just as to consider Bolano a writer about Chilean fascism is to limit him.)
As to Borges, my limited, anecdotal evidence would indicate that lots of people read him. Obviously I’ve never carried out a survey or done a study on this, but my sense would be that people whom I don’t consider “serious” readers have some familiarity with his work. I wouldn’t say he’s as much a mass phenomenon as Garcia Marquez, but I don’t think he’s sequestered away either.

Scott, your aside about Vargas-Llosa is about the weirdest I’ve read in a long while. What exactly are you alluding to? The man has been a vocal critic of pretty much all dictatorships in South America since the 60’s, from Castro to Pinochet, not to mention Trujillo, on which he wrote a memorable book. There is no doubt the man is right-wing but cover-ups? Err, really? As for Vargas-Llosa being derided, by who exactly? Even Bolaño, who came from the other side of the political spectrum (if you forget VL’s symapthy for communism in his youth, of course…) never derided him (although he thought his later work was not good enough). The man is still one of Spanish-written lit most respected figure, as a few hours on Spanish or SouthAm litblogs will show. Right winger and spent literary force? Probably. Apologist for dictature and derided writer? Ridiculous. In fact, I’ve read fiercest debates on Borges supposed fascism than on Vargas Llosa alledged sympathies.


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