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Roberto Bolaño, Missed by the Nobel Committee

5:33 PM, Oct 7, 2010 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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An announcement of the Nobel Prize for literature is almost necessarily accompanied by columns listing those distinguished writers who were passed over, as well as more than a few clunkers who were not. As for the roster of the omitted, since the Russians Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) were both alive when the award was established in 1901, they are obvious examples of neglect. But one may include such other lasting authors slighted for the Nobel, like Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), James Joyce, Marcel Proust, all the French surrealist poets (some of whom would have turned the prize down as a dishonorable badge of bourgeois approval), and, scandalously, Jorgé Luis Borges.

Roberto Bolaño, Missed by the Nobel Committee

The latter omission points up the neglect of great Spanish writers until the Latin American “boom.” The choice of the now forgotten Jacinto Benavente, a Spanish playwright who won in 1922, hardly shines as an example of literary judgment, although the excellent Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral won in 1945 and the exiled Spanish Republican Juan Ramón Jiménez (who resided in Puerto Rico) in 1956. Jiménez was one of only two representatives of the great “generations of 1898 and 1927” from Spain to receive a Nobel, followed by Vicente Aleixandre in 1977. The whole apparatus of the Nobel Prizes has been morally tainted by its political compliments to American-hating leftists, most notoriously in 1971 when it was awarded to Pablo Neruda, memorialist in verse of Joseph Stalin.

As Lee Smith points out, Mario Vargas Llosa, the well-deserved 2010 winner, did  not, in the manner of Gabriel García Márquez, the 1982 laureate, serve as a literary sycophant of Fidel Castro, who silenced the major authors Virgilio Piñera and José Lezama Lima. But no Cuban has ever won the prize, and there were other worthy prospects aside from the deserving Lezama Lima, such as the exiled Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who died in London in 2005.

Then there are writers who died young, before they could be considered for the Nobel Prize. Franz Kafka comes to mind, as does Bruno Schulz and other victims of the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag, like Osip Mandelstam. A recent and famous exemplar of a major talent who died too young is the Chilean-Mexican writer Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003), who has become a worldwide phenomenon in book sales. A snarky note in the Financial Times of May 23-24, 2009, however, describing the cover of his longest work, 2666, alleged that many of its purchasers would not “have time to immerse themselves in Bolaño’s 900-page epic.” 2666, issued posthumously in Spanish in 2004 and in English in 2008, brings together a group of foreign literary critics in search of an elusive writer named Archimboldi, allegedly living in Mexico, with deadpan, horrifying accounts of the recent (and continuing) murders of young women in the northern Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez (called Santa Teresa in the novel).

Unlike his model, Jorge Luis Borges, who is widely and incorrectly perceived as a man of the right, Bolaño was a former Trotskyist, and his works present a remarkable combination of clever fictional strategies and the hideous realities he and his revolutionary comrades witnessed – and in many cases brought upon themselves – in Latin America. One of his first selections translated into English, Distant Star is a deeply unsettling description of the interference of authoritarian police spies with cultural life in Chile after the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973. Bolaño spun out a clever work, Nazi Literature in the Americas, which purported to describe, in encyclopedic form, a totalitarian genre of writing extending into the present century – and entirely invented. Like the late Yugoslav author Danilo Kis – dead at 54 and author of the widely-esteemed A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, which Kis derived from a Russian encyclopedia’s biographical entries on Bolshevik leaders, Bolaño inserted real personages into his narrative. Some of his “Nazi littérateurs” write science fiction.           

Another of Bolaño’s works, The Savage Detectives is a slapstick description of a journey to various countries, as well as around northern Mexico, by some Mexican poets hoping to locate the last surviving member of a leftist and avant-garde movement prominent in their country the 1920s. The “literary quest in the borderlands” is a basic plot device replicated in 2666. The enthusiasm for Bolaño among foreign readers, leaving aside the sneering comment of the FT, is, one must aver, somewhat difficult to understand. Few individuals without an extensive knowledge of Mexican culture can imagine who the Mexican poets denounced prolifically by Bolaño, or the 1920s leftist avant-garde movement known as the Estridentistas, mentioned in the book, were or are.

Even less comprehensible to non-Mexicans would presumably be why anybody would, as in Bolaño’s book, wander around the world and across the Mexican desert searching for traces of a long-vanished poet, Cesárea Tinajero, invented by the author. The latter is associated with a one-issue literary journal called Caborca, named for a bleak Sonoran town. The Savage Detectives also includes a vignette of the Mexican poet Verónica Volkow, who happens to be the great-granddaughter of Trotsky, and closely resembles him, but is well-known for her aversion to being introduced as such. Her sister Nora Volkow has been employed in Washington since 2003 as Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) at the National Institutes of Health. 

I believe the work of Bolaño, especially that produced in his last decade, is best understood as a colossal parody of the Latin American literary “boom,” and particularly of writers like Gabriel García Márquez, who evoke a paradisiacal Hispano-American landscape of dream, fantasy, and revolutionary aspirations. While Anglo-American readers soaked up these works like sponges filling with water, and may have bought and paged through Bolaño believing he embraced the same, now-banal “magic realism,” the panorama of Latin America offered by the Chilean author is hellish. Instead of romance, heroism, and leftism, his books project the real essence of life from Mexico southward: brutality, pretension, and terror. Bolaño himself told an interviewer that Nazi Literature in the Americas dealt with “the world of the ultra right, but much of the time, in reality, I’m talking about the left…. When I’m talking about Nazi writers in the Americas, in reality I’m talking about the world, sometimes heroic but much more often despicable, of literature in general.”

Bolaño cited, as forebears in his fabrication of an encyclopaedia, Borges, whose complete works he acknowledged for their decisive influence on him, as well as the Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes – yet another major Latin American snubbed by the Swedish Academy – and the French author Marcel Schwob. Bolaño is worth more than a superficial reading – his difficult and harsh examination of Hispanic reality deserves rereading, and real appreciation.

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