Since his death in 2003, Roberto Bolaño has become a literary superstar. The English translation of his final, epic novel, 2666, was a critically acclaimed bestseller, and the process of translating — and selling — his earlier works around the world will continue for some years to come. Not everyone is happy about this, however.
Writing recently in the Argentine daily, La Nación, the Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya lashed out against the American marketing operation behind the posthumous success of his former friend. "[L]ike everything on this infected planet...it's the landlords of the market who decide the mambo that you dance, whether it's selling cheap condoms or Latin American novels in the US." A myth has been created around the early life of Bolaño, casting him as a kind of literary Che Guevara. It's a myth with which "American readers...want to confirm their worst paternalistic prejudices about Latin America"; a myth that induces a skewed and dishonest reading of Bolaño's work.
Roberto Bolaño: Poet, Trotskyist and satirist
Looking at the jacket of my proof of the latest translation, Nazi Literature in the Americas, I can see to some degree where Castellanos Moya is coming from. The book sports "the new Bolaño look" — there's a hole in the cover, a mock cigarette burn in place of the first o of the writer's surname, as if the arch-rebel himself had stubbed out a last do-or-die Lucky Strike on his own book. The inside back cover boasts of "major investment to ensure Bolaño maintains his position as THE must-have author to read". It's a little unsettling, I admit. But would we be better off, on this infected planet, if there wasn't a bold new stylist on the US best-sellers list, and García Márquez remained the Anglophone world's main point of reference for Latin American letters?
Born in Santiago in 1953, Bolaño moved with his parents to Mexico City in 1968 and became a poet and a Trotskyist. Travelling via El Salvador, where he spent some time with future FMLN guerrillas, he returned to Chile in 1973 to participate in the socialist ferment taking place under Salvador Allende's government and very nearly became a victim of Pinochet's coup a few months later. He was imprisoned, but after a week was released by a guard who recognised him as a former schoolmate. Back in Mexico City the following year, he helped found a group of guerrilla poets called the infrarealistas, who would appear at the readings of their "enemies" from the literary mainstream — Octavio Paz was their most-hated — and drown them out with shouted readings of their own verse.
Castellanos Moya's main problem with the focus on this intriguing biography is that, by the time Bolaño turned to the fiction that made his name, he was a quiet family man settled in Barcelona. He died of mundane medical problems, not in a blaze of nihilistic self-abuse (until quite recently, heroin addiction was part of "the Bolaño myth", but this has been dispelled). But the fact is that Bolaño's fiction is littered with these kinds of characters and episodes — it's full of guerrilla-poets, gangster-poets, assassin-poets, pimp-poets, serial-killer-poets, stooge-poets. There is constant pseudo-autobiographical play, preoccupation with corruption in the literary world and glancing reference to the kind of political history that the author witnessed firsthand. Even the "landlords of the market" can't make a rock star without some authentic music to go with him.