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Roberto Bolaño, Missed by the Nobel Committee

5:33 PM, Oct 7, 2010 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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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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