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The (Deserved) Bolaño Hype

This past summer, I discovered Roberto Bolano (somewhat embarrassingly, since Latin America had long since proclaimed him the most important writer of his generation, but US literary critics were only just catching on to the already overdue English translations). I … Read More

By / August 30, 2007

This past summer, I discovered Roberto Bolano (somewhat embarrassingly, since Latin America had long since proclaimed him the most important writer of his generation, but US literary critics were only just catching on to the already overdue English translations). I read his book of short stories, Last Evenings on Earth, and two of his short novels: By Night in Chile, which is a dying priest-literary critic’s monologue, and Distant Star, which is about a fascist poet-pilot who writes poems in the sky, among other things. Naturally, the recommendation came to me blogospherically, through blogs like S. Esposito's Conversational Reading and the Literary Saloon.

Indeed, the first inklings of attention became viral, widespread anticipation for the upcoming translation of The Savage Detectives, which anticipation, now that TSD is in hardback on the front table of B & N, has been translated into a veritable orgy of Important attention (the Wood is behind Select). The hype at this point is almost too much (and you have to wonder at how free people feel to praise posthumously: Bolano died in ’03 at 50), so that I’m not even sure if I loved Bolano as much as I thought I did and I’m paralyzed into sort of saving The Savage Detectives like I saved Infinite Jest.

It’s merciless, and now the indecisive B. Kunkel of N+1 has a review in the London Review of Books. At first, it’s necessarily heavy on straight info that’ll be familiar to anybody who’s been trying to keep up, but the discussion of TSD, which I wish I had resisted reading, is, like the other reviews by Kunkel I've read, diverse, serious without being self-congratulatory, and occassionally unabashedly passionate (TSD "is something of a miracle" and "appallingly lifelike"). This cuts to the essence of RB:

 Bolaño’s desperado image is a large part of his appeal. His revolutionary politics and the personal risk they entailed, the movement he founded, his poverty, exile and addiction, his death in his prime: the combination of these elements is foreign to the increasingly professionalised career of the contemporary writer. Bolaño’s dishevelled, wandering characters are, more profoundly than they are left-wing, anti-bourgeois, which is to say disdainful of comfort, security and success: an attitude more than a politics, but the attitude is deeply felt. Even to write ‘marvellously well’, Bolaño declared, was not enough; ‘the quality of the writing’ depended on the author’s understanding ‘that literature is basically a dangerous calling’.

But Bolaño would not be so strange or significant a writer if he had not found a way of handling his dangerous calling with simultaneous reverence and irony. And ‘calling’ is the word: there is never any question in Bolaño of another vocation. He is a writer for whom what Nietzsche said about music would seem to go without saying about literature: without it, life would be a mistake. But there is also an important sense – as Bolaño demonstrates again and again – in which both he and his narrators are without literature, in the desolate way that a religious person might find himself without God. Part of this is simply that these stories and novels narrated almost exclusively by and about poets don’t contain (with one notable exception) any examples of the poets’ verse, and Bolaño often invites us to doubt how much a poet writes or how well. But it’s not just that his fiction about poets excludes their poetry; his fiction excludes many of the familiar components of fiction. Sponsored and sustained by devotion to literature, these books nevertheless abstain from what we think of as literary writing. In Bolaño’s fiction, it is as if – but only as if – literature were what he was writing about, but not what he was doing.

One thing I’ve been thinking about Bolano is the absence of any discussion of drugs or addiction in his writing, since he was a recovered heroin addict; if he were an American, you can bet he’d have at least one fictional memoir, and many more talk show apperances. Instead, though, you get the sense from his writing that literature really was a religion for Bolano, something for him to be saved by—what makes it so moving is not the strength of his conviction but the fact that as much as anything else he seems to be trying to convince himself by convincing us that he means what he's saying, that "a poet can endure anything". There is the former addict's tentative irony right there on the surface, actually. And there’s also this threat of indifference, a sort of menacing ominous placidness, in his character’s voices that I don’t think is the result of any sort of energy lost in translation (which, having read some of By Night in Spanish, are mind-bogglingly good). Enough–and get ready: the even bigger 2666 is on its way.

 

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