To celebrate the recent release of Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash, all this week we’re going to serialize a speech that Jorge gave this past summer on the Future of Latin American Fiction.
And, as a special offer, for the next 20 people who subscribe to Open Letter—either a 5 book or 10 book subscription—will receive a signed copy of Season of Ash. These won’t last long . . .
LATIN AMERICA, A HOLOGRAM
By Jorge Volpi
3. Bolaño, perturbation
Not since the Boom, or to be precise, since García Márquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, had a Latin American writer enjoyed such sudden celebrity as Roberto Bolaño: After his success in Spanish—winning the Herralde and Romulo Gallegos prizes and his conversion into the guru of the new generation—he received unanimous praise from the French critics, his fame spread to the rest of Europe, and, five years after his death, it exploded in the United States, one of the most difficult media for foreign literature to penetrate. The publication of 2666 in English at the beginning of 2009 became the fifth moment of the Bolaño delirium, and so began the construction of a global icon: thousands of copies sold, each article and review more praise-filled than the last—including in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker, the trend-setters of intellectual fashion—and the launch of a legend that combined his personal excesses and his early death. And if that were not enough, his heirs abandoned the agency of Carmen Balcells, the mythical co-founder of the Boom, for Andrew Wylie, aka the Jackal, the New York literary agent who has concentrated more Nobel prizes and cult authors per square meter in his office (and who has already announced the recovery of a novel that Bolaño left among his papers) than any other agent.
While reading the reviews and articles published in the North American literary media about Bolaño, I was continually surprised that the American reading of Bolaño, especially the reinvention of his biography, had almost nothing in common with the reception of Bolaño in Spanish. 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. When he arrived in the United States, he suddenly became a cult author; Bolaño got across the desert, crossed the border, and escaped the literary migration, but he could not take his family with him: as a whole, the American critics boasted about their discovery, as if they were responsible for unearthing Bolaño; they considered only their contrived mythological creation and didn’t take the real world into account.
Few authors were so conscious of their place in world literature, especially in the Latin America world, as this Chilean author: each one of his texts is a double answer—it might be worthwhile to say a slap in the face—to the traditions that obsessed him. Of course, none of that appears in the readings of the American critics. For a Mexican like myself, who also had the opportunity to converse with Bolaño dozens of times, it’s hard to believe that a book as plagued with references to Mexican literary history as The Savage Detectives—in my opinion, a boxing ring in which Bolaño settles accounts with his past—could be read, understood, and enjoyed by a media that totally ignores them. However, that is what happened: his success in the United States was absolute. What does that mean? In the first place, the book is so universal—and so open—that Bolaño’s scholarly winks lose their importance; and perhaps the prejudices and the superficiality of the American reading are huge. Bolaño has not been glorified in English for being Latin American or Chilean, nor because of his ties with this part of the world—he could easily have been Thai or Kuwaiti—but for other reasons, literary as well as extra-literary, and his case is not comparable, in any measure, to other writers of the region—or even Isabel Allende—and perhaps only to Haruki Murakami, the only international literary star capable of casting a similar shadow in English.
If there is something outstanding in the critical reception of Bolaño in the United States, it is the evaluation—or the reinvention—of his biography. The novelist Jonathan Lethem in his earth-shattering review in the New York Times set the tone: ”In a burst of invention now legendary in contemporary Spanish-language literature, and rapidly becoming so internationally, Bolaño in the last decade of his life, writing with the urgency of poverty and his failing health, constructed a remarkable body of stories and novels out of precisely such doubts: that literature, which he revered the way a penitent loves (and yet rails against) an elusive God, could meaningfully articulate the low truths he knew as rebel, exile, addict […].”
Beyond the discussion of Bolaño’s supposed heroin use, none of the critics of his books in the Spanish language made a point of focusing on his life, ”rebel, exile, addict”. (If this were not enough, during his last decade Bolaño never lived ”in the urgency of poverty”, but the modest life of the suburban middle class, a life infinitely more placid than the other Latin American immigrants in Cataluña). 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. Bolaño, thus, as the last revolutionary or the heir of Salinger or the Beats: it is not coincidental that the other Latin American figure exalted to his in the United States is the sugarcoated Che Guevara by Benicio del Toro and Steven Soderbergh. Both of them have become, in their American versions, bastions of fierceness and defiance, prophets equipped with a blind faith in their respective causes—in one case art and in the other politics—ideal models for the intimidated and disbelieving society of the United States under George Bush.
Although no one has dared point it out, the reasons for Bolaño’s ascent are not that different from those that governed García Márquez’s rise forty years ago: for the developed world, both have been mirrors of a necessary exoticism. The step from magical realism to the reaction of visceral realism sounds, all of the sudden, almost foreseeable: in both cases ”the political” has been the key to drawing the attention of the meek American readers, no matter that the left-wing compromise of one has nothing to do with the acid post-political criticism of the other; and last, both have been received as a breath of fresh air—in other words, of savagery—before the contemporary lack of will power.
After a decade of reigning as the new paradigm for Latin American writers, Bolaño’s ascent to the throne—let us not get to say ”manipulation”—in the United States and his rapid inclusion in the official cannon, has severely perturbed us. As was expected, many of those who glorified him while he was a minor author now point out the dangers of his accelerated upgrade to the mainstream, and while some take advantage of his fame and present themselves as his confidants or literary heirs, others question a success that suddenly seems suspect.
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.
Bolaño represents one of the highest points of our tradition—that spider web that goes from Rayuela to 2666—and at the same time a fracture at its center. It is difficult to know if this break will be definitive, but for the time being all of the signs point to a cataclysm: even if it were in a rebellious and radically ironic manner, Bolaño continued to present himself as a Latin American writer, in both the literary and political senses; after him, nobody seems to have kept that abstruse faith in a cause that began to be extinguished in the nineties. The followers or imitators of Bolaño do not follow or imitate his spirit, but his formal procedures, emptied of the Bolaño’s eccentric political and artistic militancy.
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. While he sounded the voices of his compatriots, Bolaño assumed the role of the last total Latin American, capable of supplanting a full generation of writers single-handed. Or in another sense, his imitation of different accents and idiosyncrasies, taking it all the way to parody (for example the Argentinean in the wonderful tale ”El Gaucho insufrible”), hid a hilarious critique of the proper idea of national literature. Since Bolaño, writing in the solemn Bolivian faith of the Boom has become impossible: one of the central ruptures that mark his work. That does not mean that Latin America has disappeared as scenery or point of interest, but it is beginning to be perceived with that post-national character, devoid of a fixed identity, that is appropriate in a global world at the beginning of the 21st century. And Bolaño is, in a good measure, responsible of this change.
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