The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño
December 22, 2008 10:32 AM   Subscribe

"Well beyond his sometimes nomadic life, Roberto Bolaño was an exemplary literary rebel. To drag fiction toward the unknown he had to go there himself, and then invent a method with which to represent it. Since the unknown place was reality, the results of his work are multi-dimensional, in a way that runs ahead of a critic's one-at-a-time powers of description. Highlight Bolaño's conceptual play and you risk missing the sex and viscera in his work. Stress his ambition and his many references and you conjure up threats of exclusive high-modernist obscurity, or literature as a sterile game, when the truth is it's hard to think of a writer who is less of a snob, or—in the double sense of exposing us to unsavory things and carrying seeds for the future—less sterile," Sarah Kerr on The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño, New York Review of Books.
posted by geoff. (21 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Aw, crap, I thought this thread was about Roberto Bolaños.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:37 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hm. I'm currently reading The Savage Detectives because it came highly recommended, and to be honest I'm finding it a bit of a slog.

It feels like an exposé-slash-satire of the insular Mexican/South American poetry scene, which I'm sure is devilish and riveting if you're a South American poet, but I can't find any point of access. The interview format of the bulk of the book just seems showy, not engaging; the characters are all navel-gazing artsy narcissists, which may be positively wicked and transgressive if you're a member of the South American poetry establishment, but I can't get all that worked up about it.

I intend to finish it, and maybe suddenly something will click and I'll realize it's fantastic. That happened when I read The Magic Mountain, and The Tin Drum, so maybe the ([foreign-language original]) [The][adjective][noun] combination will kick in and I'll start really digging it.

Higher hopes for 2666, which I'm going to start reading in the new year.
posted by Shepherd at 10:56 AM on December 22, 2008

don't count on finding it mind blowing...some books, long and seemingly tedious, do work out: Proust for example. But my guess is that this overly long book will be like Pyncheon's Gravity's Rainbow: proclaimed great and read by 4 people in its entirety.
posted by Postroad at 11:01 AM on December 22, 2008

I like Bolano's short stories, but couldn't get into any of his longer works. I find the writing in his short stories to be very similar to Murakami's, and wonder what is it about these authors that trip the switches in the heads of American editors. Surely not all foreign authors write about sparsely furnished apartments in big cities, mysterious acquaintances, cryptic motives. Not all foreign authors think that writing about their dreams is interesting.
posted by billysumday at 11:31 AM on December 22, 2008

billysumday, I think it's a modern example of the "mystic foreigner" stereotype. Other foreign writers, like Yasunari Kawabata or Yukio Mishima, require more effort to read and understand because they are more heavily invested in their local history and culture. I doubt that an American who is not familiar with the game of Go could enjoy Yasunari Kawabata's The Master of Go, for example. In terms of the Latin American writers, you can blame Marquez and Borges.

I'll confess that I like dreamlike surrealism and really enjoy both Borges and Murakami. Bolaño's The Savage Detectives felt a little bit insular to me, but I enjoyed it, and I will shortly begin reading 2666 after I finish Spring Snow and Infinite Jest.
posted by sonic meat machine at 11:52 AM on December 22, 2008

Triple post.
posted by four panels at 11:56 AM on December 22, 2008

a) I didn't get past the first hundred pages or so of Detectives Salvajes, and I was reading it in the original Chilean/Mexican.

b) can blame García Márquez and Borges. This is a minor peeve of mine, but I've noticied that some English speakers tend to assume that everybody uses one surname, so refer to latin american authors as Marquez, Llosa, Echeñique, etc., whereas Spanish speakers tend to assume everybody uses two surnames, so refer to English language writers as Foster Wallace, Scott Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, etc.
posted by signal at 12:14 PM on December 22, 2008

I'm coming from the other direction. I've only read a handful of Bolaño's shorter works -- By Night in Chile, Distant Star, and Nazi Literature in the Americas -- and found them taut and riveting. (I realize that that sounds like a movie review blurb, but hey, I'm in a hurry.) To provide another comparison while carrying along sonic meat machine's Borges reference, I'm reading Danilo Kis's A Tomb for Boris Davidovich right now, and there are certain correspondences between it and Bolaño's work, particularly Nazi Literature -- they're both reminiscent of Borges in their use of compact, allusive vignettes, but both engage with the horrors of a (non-mythic, non-legendary) recent past which is decidedly un-Borgesian.

I'd love to hear what anybody thinks of 2666, if you've read it already -- triple post or not.
posted by cobra libre at 12:18 PM on December 22, 2008

This is one of the very few occasions where I can honestly say: I though he was cool before everyone else discovered him.

I bough Los Detectives Salvajes the year it came out, at the international book fair in Guadalajara (one of the most important in the world (I played Killer there when Salman Rushdie was the guest of honor, one team had to kill him (they used a poisoned pen and asked for an autograph) my team had to protect him (we lost)), the most important in Spanish). In the following 3 years I bought 4 copies after serially giving mine away.

I've been slowly reading the English translation at the Borders near the office. I think it is good, but a lot of the vernacular, and many of the subtle language games having to do with regionalisms is lost. The blurb claims it is the most important book in Spanish of the last 40 years or so. I just thought it was just a fun read, and before it became so famous, a very easy gift for your friends who have read a lot of books before.

I still don't get why new yorkers (all the rave reviews I've read come from New York) think is is such a big deal. One theory is that they think that if you read this book and claim to love it and Get It, then you don't have to read the millions of pages of literature ot references and builds upon. No need to learn Spanish, no need to hunt out of print Mexican Surrealist poetry books in second hand shops (Mexican poetry books? HAHAHAHA! Runs of 1000, single edition, most copies given away to friends or universities, never to be heard of again (even Llano en Llamas, the most important Mexican book 9 (In my opinion (and other's who are wiser)) of the last 100 years is impossible to find in an English translation), read Savage Detectives, and after 1000 pages, you are entitled to a literary opinion on anything Latin American.

The first time I read him, I had only read the most famous Latin American (mostly Mexican) 20th century authors, stuff like Borges, Fuentes, Garcia Marquez, Paz, etc..., and no poetry at all (except some stunt poetry like Monterroso and Huerta). Then I took a Latin American Lit course in college (engineers are required to take like 60 humanities credits), and re reading the book, it did gain something, but just a little bit. What I really love is that when I finished reading his books, I went to the library to try and find some of the authors he is talking about. There were already entries in the library database for the authors he'd made up.
posted by dirty lies at 12:30 PM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

The article is 4 days old. This is not a triple or double post.

I'm in the middle of 2666 at the moment and quite like it.
posted by Manhasset at 12:32 PM on December 22, 2008

Sorry about that, signal. Usually I refer to him by all three names, but I was feeling lazy and didn't want to open character map, and just had an unbrainly moment in surname selection.
posted by sonic meat machine at 12:35 PM on December 22, 2008

I read 2666 as soon as it came out (actually a little earlier as Amazon shipped it before the release date). My review is on Amazon as a spotlight (first 3 that show up). It's very readable, it's not overly stylistic or weird or anything, it moves along, easily accessible to anyone on a page by page basis.

Last night I was thinking the novel is physically like a body, wrapped in the skin of a single volume, but inside it are separate organic parts like you might see slicing open a pig, the organs spill out, it no longer looks like a pig (novel). You see the individual parts that make it up, but it is not the sum of its parts anymore. It's a lung, a liver, a stomach. For those of us used to seeing a pig, it is not very satisfying. It's not a pig but a bunch of parts of a pig. And not even all the parts. So I'm up in the air if this is a great work of art moving literature into a new realm, another post-modernist trick, or just someones rambling attempt to grapple with his own mortality and impending death.

For all fawning reviews claiming instant canonical status, this review takes a more critical view and offers some balance I think
posted by stbalbach at 12:35 PM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Maybe I'm a little cynical about Bolano right now because of his recent New Yorker story, which was, actually, a story of a dream. Pet peeve of mine. Bolano's other New Yorker stories were all great, though. The difference with Borges, though, is that Borges seemed to be either having fun making up ancient myths or creating contemporary ones. I don't get that sense with Murakami and Bolano - they're writing stories about themselves, mostly, not about the transcendent, mystical, puzzling nature of human life. Still, they're all great authors. I just find it odd that Murakami and Bolano are so popular with American editors and publishers, and that their writing is so similar. Actually, now that I write it down, it's not odd at all - it's sort of exactly what you'd think. I'm sure the gatekeepers who decide to hype and publish translated works of fiction are a small bunch who share similar tastes.
posted by billysumday at 12:35 PM on December 22, 2008

I love Bolano's stories. I'm 100 pages into 2666 and really enjoying it. I really liked his Nazi History of the Americas, which is kind of collected stories but actually reads better as a whole than in individual pieces.
posted by Stephen Elliott at 12:40 PM on December 22, 2008

dirty lies: One theory is that they think that if you read this book and claim to love it and Get It, then you don't have to read the millions of pages of literature ot references and builds upon.

You could say this about any given author and his or her readers, and you'd be right at least half of the time. Some readers take authors as nodes in vast webs of correspondences and influence; others take each author as a terminal point. Of these two types of readers, do you really think that you're the only member of the former set?

University of Texas Press publishes an English translation of Llano en Llamas, and, in my experience, it's not too hard to track down. I've seen it at a couple chain bookstores, even.
posted by cobra libre at 1:46 PM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

billysunday: It may be that there's simply not much overlap between my Bolaño readings and yours, but I have to admit that I have no idea what you're talking about, and you're characterization of Bolaño as some sort of Chilean Paul Auster doesn't ring a bell. I don't find much about Bolaño's work to be 'surreal,' and while, sure, I guess you could say that he writes about himself, it seems like the more salient aspects of his work have to do with the intersections between art, power, and violence, with the 1973 coup d'état looming behind it all, not even subtly.
posted by cobra libre at 1:49 PM on December 22, 2008

I enjoyed and was impressed by Bolano's book "Nazi Literature in the Americas," but found his short stories to be somewhat tedious.

I get the feeling that Bolano's art is one that is best expressed by accumulation, rather than in the smaller setting of short stories, which is why Nazi Literature in the Americas was so interesting, and his stories not. I expect I will enjoy 2666.

There are some authors who require significant length in order for their talents to be expressed. It's kind of like the difference between long-distance runners and sprinters. I get the feeling that Bolano is more of a long-distance runner than a sprinter.
posted by jayder at 2:11 PM on December 22, 2008

Oh, and one thing about Nazi Literature in the Americas and perhaps all of Bolano's work: it's quite brilliant how he turns the history of (fictional) forgotten, insignificant, and marginal writers into writing that is anything but that; i.e., that a mainstream, powerful literary reputation is built upon writing about insignificant writers.
posted by jayder at 2:15 PM on December 22, 2008

One theory is that they think that if you read this book and claim to love it and Get It, then you don't have to read the millions of pages of literature ot references and builds upon.

Taken literally, this sentence really doesn't make sense. If you read it, and don't claim to love it and Get It, are you then required to read all the literature it references and builds upon?

If you mean what I think you mean, that is kind of like saying you can't enjoy Jane Austen without having encyclopedic knowledge of the culture in which she lived.
posted by jayder at 2:48 PM on December 22, 2008

I just started Savage Detectives as well. It's slow start, but seems worth giving awhile longer (though I may pick up something lighter until after the holidays).
posted by ejaned8 at 3:03 PM on December 22, 2008

Thanks for the tip cobra libre. If I can get the book, some people are getting Llano en Llamas (Burning Plains?) in English this christmas.

I get what you say about readers of books. I fall in the category of reader that immediately forgets an author's name after making it past the cover of the book (I hate books that have the author's name or the book title on EVERY SINGLE PAGE, I am already reading the book, no need to advertise (I just contradicted myself, right? They do it so people like me will remember the author's name), at least tell me what chapter I am on so I can find it faster (I use no bookmarks)), this has the advantage of letting me discover great authors over and over again.
posted by dirty lies at 3:27 PM on December 22, 2008

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