The Great Bolano
August 27, 2007 10:27 AM   Subscribe

"At a convocation of writers in Seville, Spain, six weeks before Bolaño died [in 2003], he was declared to be the most influential Latin-American writer of his generation." (NYer)
And since then, Roberto Bolaño's reputation has been growing (NYRB:"The Great Bolano"). A man who dismissed magical realism as "shit" is more the heir of Cortazar and Borges (his two idols) than Garcia Marquez or Vargas Lllosa yet he is also something entirely new. Bolano was also the founder of infrarealism, a movement whose manifesto proclaims "A new lyricism springing up in Latin America, nourishing itself in ways that continue to amaze us.... Tenderness like an exercise in speed. Breath and heat. Experience at full tilt, self-consuming structures, stark raving contradictions."
Why has the English speaking world not heard of Bolaño? His great novel, The Savage Detectives, a sprawling work about youth and poetry and chaos (with no less than 52 narrators across several continents) has only this year been translated.
posted by vacapinta (24 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry to be such a philistine, but the Bolano book I picked up last week didn't have any paragraphs and I doubted my powers of concentration would sustain me...perhaps I'll try again.
posted by kozad at 10:34 AM on August 27, 2007

Hm, interesting. I'd never heard of Bolaño.
What do you think of his work you yourself vacapinta?

52 narrators across several continents sounds like a classical modernist tour de force at the expense of readability.
posted by jouke at 10:41 AM on August 27, 2007

52 narrators across several continents sounds like a classical modernist tour de force at the expense of readability.

I found it very readable, even a bit of a page-turner. The effect of all these first-person accounts is more like watching a series of interviews in which everyone gives their recollection of a series of common events. The two protagonists of the novel are themselves not narrators. And so you only know them through how others see them. As in real-life, these views sometimes contradict as you hear from both their lovers and their enemies, even one man who posts from an insane asylum. But a portrait emerges nonetheless. And its a page-turner because most people have interesting stories to tell and through their stories a larger portrait emerges too not just of the protagonists but also an entire community and era.
posted by vacapinta at 11:02 AM on August 27, 2007

Sounds good. Tx.
posted by jouke at 11:09 AM on August 27, 2007

Savage Detectives is what post-modernism should be--frightening and funny at once, with a plot intriguing enough to render the book highly and compellingly readable, and the bristle of something new emerging from its pages. What I love about it is my recognition of every sexual and violent episode as fully realist rather than fantastic (as say in Ulysses). I scare myself by laughing at this book because I wonder what flicker of self-recognition gets me to enjoy the twisted humor here (just as an example, there's a violent but brutally funny scene of a well-endowed pimp at a blow job competition).

At least that's my impression based on the first 100 pages (plenty of paragraphs in this one, kozad). Jouke, the novel is divided into three parts, two of which are narrated by the same man, thus keeping the bulk of the novel in the same point of view. Amazon has the first 6 SFW pages on preview here.
posted by whimwit at 11:19 AM on August 27, 2007

The English-speaking world has heard of Bolano. He's become quite the rage in the last year, what with gushing reviews from most of the major publications. If Bolano's works haven't made much inroads into the popular psyche, like those of Marquez have, then it's probably because the vast majority of Bolano's works are about writers and intellectuals doing writerly and intellecutaly stuff. You can't blame someone who doesn't care about avant-garde poets for not wanting to read The Savage Detectives.

It's odd that you mention The Savage Detectives, since it's his first novel and widely regarded to be not one of the best, so I can see why it took so long to get translated. 'By Night in Chile', on the other hand, is a masterpiece, and was translated into English and published by New Directions the year Bolano died.

Nice post, by the by. I had no idea Bolano called magical realism 'shit.' Good on him.
posted by Football Bat at 11:28 AM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I must admit I am a philistine too since I picked up the book (how could I resist when everyone says he is a genius) but couldn't get myself to read more than a couple of pages. In some ways it reminds me of Saramago's style which I have grown to love. I'll give it another try, I guess. Probably more than one as it happened with Saramago.

I am somewhat suspicious of cult novels and have a hunch that "Literatura nazi en América" must be a good start. It was written as a literature manual covering all the nazi literature by nazi writers that fled to South America.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 11:36 AM on August 27, 2007

Hm, my ignorance is apparently totally my fault: Los Detectives Salvajes was translated in 2000 in Dutch as De woeste zoekers.
posted by jouke at 11:38 AM on August 27, 2007

Hadn't heard of him, but anyone who considers Cortazar and Borges his idols probably deserves a look. The 52 narrators thing sounds like possibly a kind of oulipan move, substituting playing cards for chessboard, but not having read the darned thing, what do I know?
posted by juv3nal at 11:42 AM on August 27, 2007

juv3nal: you might have something there...52 narrators + 2 jokers?
posted by lucia__is__dada at 11:48 AM on August 27, 2007

The NYRB link speaks of thirty-eight characters, from a total of fifteen cities and eight different countries.
So I'm afraid your oulipan reference fails juv3nal.
posted by jouke at 11:51 AM on August 27, 2007

I'm not saying my idea holds up, but the passage you mention is only speaking about one section ("In the novel's four-hundred-page second section, titled "The Savage Detectives,") of the book (confusing, because apparently that section of the book shares a title with the book as a whole?), whereas the bookforum link mentions "There are fifty-two voices in all—jokers in the pack, Belano and Lima are not given speaking roles."

posted by juv3nal at 11:59 AM on August 27, 2007

Heh. Well I haven't read it either. So I conceed immediately.
Frankly I find these kind of patterns exceedingly boring and a sign of bad taste.
posted by jouke at 12:02 PM on August 27, 2007

The NYRB link speaks of thirty-eight characters, from a total of fifteen cities and eight different countries.

Grrr. Apologies. I knew my numeric dyslexia would prevail. I had read the same but somehow held 52 in my head.

Regarding Bolano's many books. There seems to be a difference of opinion on what book exactly is his "masterpiece." Some point to to the yet-to-be-translated 2066 which is ostensibly about the unsolved Juarez murders and which he struggled to finish as he knew he was dying.
posted by vacapinta at 12:03 PM on August 27, 2007

On non-preview: Maybe I'll count them myself.

Also, I started making a list of all the poets and novelists and artists mentioned or referenced but soon realized how enormous this task is. The Savage Detectives itself is a small reference anthology of latin-american literature as it stood in the late twentieth century.
posted by vacapinta at 12:06 PM on August 27, 2007

Hmm, you do suffer from numeric dyslexia. It's 2666.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 12:11 PM on August 27, 2007

Interesting post (deliberately obnoxious artist types are always fun) but I missed the part in that Nation piece where Bolano dismisses magic realism as "shit." The word doesn't appear in that link at all. The New Yorker link does say he "proclaimed that magic realism “stinks;” maybe it's a translation issue.

Literary feud lovers should definitely read the NYer article. Thanks, vacapinta, this is a rich post.
posted by mediareport at 12:40 PM on August 27, 2007

I recently bought a collection of Bolano stories, entitled "Last Nights on Earth." So far, it seems pedestrian. I've been underwhelmed. (And I am a longtime admirer of Cortazar and Borges.) I've read a little of the Savage Detectives and didn't find it very gripping, either.

His thing seems to be to write fiction describing literary movements and writers. The history of fictional literary magazines and writers does not make terribly compelling fiction, in my view; we have literary biographies of real writers, for that.

My cynical suspicion is that New Directions Press and the literary industry, seeing a prolific dead writer most of whose works have been unpublished in the U.S., are rushing to promote him, but that the work may not support the level of importance with which he is credited.

But maybe his best stuff is much better than I am seeing.
posted by jayder at 1:08 PM on August 27, 2007

The history of fictional literary magazines and writers does not make terribly compelling fiction, in my view

Jayder: you might want to take a look into Enrique Vilamatas' Bartleby & Co. It's probably the exception that makes the rule. Although fiction and essay intermingle.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 1:36 PM on August 27, 2007

I keep misreading the title of this post as The Great Bonanno. I got it straight now, but I'm still hearing it in a Tony Soprano-esque voice.

"Eh, dis magical realism ting. It's shit. WTF CHRISTOPHUH."
posted by katillathehun at 2:01 PM on August 27, 2007

I liked Savage Detectives, but not enough to finish it. It's there, on my shelf, mocking me.

I'll try By Night, in Chile
posted by atchafalaya at 4:26 PM on August 27, 2007

the work may not support the level of importance with which he is credited

Well, that NYer article seems to imply his importance stemmed more from his opinions and behavior as much as his fiction and poetry:

Bolaño’s obstreperousness was sometimes a pose...but his self-described “gratuitous attacks” had salutary effects. He helped liberate Latin-American writing from the debased imitations of magic realism that followed the global conquest of García Márquez’s 1967 novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”—all those clairvoyant señoritas and intercourse-inspiring moles—and reëstablished the primacy of such cosmopolitan experimentalists as Borges and Julio Cortázar.

He sounds like a fascinating guy. Again, vacapinta, thanks for the post; I know very little about Latin American fiction (love Borges, is about it), and all of the links offer neat avenues for exploration.

jayder, the 4th page of the NYer article says "By Night in Chile" and "Distant Star" are "two of his best short works."
posted by mediareport at 4:59 PM on August 27, 2007

I ordered both. I love online antique bookshops.

I think I'll start with Chileense nocturne.
The heaps of references to obscure south american poets in combination with the thickness of detectives makes it sound forbidding.
posted by jouke at 1:33 AM on August 28, 2007

I read Last Evenings on Earth on holiday and was also slightly underwhelmed. But still plan to read more of him.
posted by Mocata at 6:43 AM on August 28, 2007

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