I begin with a personal recollection, because it’s the only way to start, I think, when you’re going to talk—or write—about a writer you were lucky enough to know, and about books whose company you’re still lucky enough to enjoy.
It’s the end of fall or the beginning of winter in Barcelona 2001. And it’s cold and there are clouds and there’ll be rain. And before getting on the commuter train back to Blanes, the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, for the first time in his life (or at least that’s what he swears), steps into one of Barcelona’s many Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets.
We’ve already visited the inevitable bookstore La Central (almost certainly the greatest bookstore in the world), where Bolaño picked up various books that he plans to use for research for his novel 2666. The walk is part of a routine established in 1999, when I first met Bolaño and we became friends: books and a walk and something to eat. So this time it’ll be Kentucky Fried Chicken.
I go in with Bolaño (it was my idea to get something to eat here, I confess), and we order our respective meals. Bolaño sits down at a table from which he can see the whole room, lit by harsh neon lights, and surveys his surroundings in fascination. “Have you noticed? Everybody’s here…” He smiles almost in ecstasy, and everyone—I turn around to see—is a throng of South American immigrants, legal or illegal. They’re recognizable by their foreign features, but also by the discipline with which they count out the exact change when they pay, the almost reverential silence of their chewing, and the great care they take not to spill on their sweaters patterned with ethnic motifs. There are also—it’s true—Asians, sub-Saharan Africans, and the occasional American college student, nostalgically seeking a taste of home. But the Latin American component is clearly in the majority; and Bolaño can’t stop staring at all of them as if they’re potential masterpieces. The—love?—in Bolaño’s gaze is none other than the love a father feels for his children, or the horrorized pride of the sanest of mad scientists gloating over a laboratory crammed with potential experiments. Bolaño eats, still smiling: with the gleeful sadness of someone who remembers terrible moments from his own past, looking everywhere and nowhere; a little bit maudit and completely Bolaño when he says that the South American writers living in Barcelona—“right away, now’s the time”—should make this Kentucky Fried Chicken their gathering place, the spot where they meet to talk and debate.
And, of course, what Bolaño is doing is laughing at the idea of writers—writers of any nationality or galaxy—getting together to talk about literature. In Bolaño’s opinion—then and always—literature should inhabit books, not bars. From which it follows that the only protagonist of Bolaño’s work—the authentic heroine of his books—is literature itself. Literature as Golden Fleece or Holy Grail or Rosebud-branded sled pursued to the bitter end by men and women who believe solely in it. Because what’s the point of believing in anything that isn’t literature, defined by Bolaño in an interview as the thing that plants itself “in the territory of risk”?
We leave the Kentucky Fried Chicken and Bolaño goes down the stairs to the platform of his commuter train and I return home and half an hour later Bolaño rings my doorbell, again. He is soaked by the storm and wild-eyed and shaking as if barely withstanding a private earthquake. “I’ve killed a man,” he announces in a deathly voice; and he comes into my apartment, heads for the living room, and asks me to make him a cup of tea. Then he tells me that as he was waiting on the platform, a couple of skinheads had come up to him and tried to rob him, that there was a scuffle, that he managed to get a knife away from one of them and stab the other one near the heart, that then he ran away down corridors and streets, and that he didn’t know what to do next. “What should I do? Should I turn myself in?” I say he shouldn’t. Bolaño looks at me with infinite sadness and says that he couldn’t keep writing with a death on his conscience, that he wouldn’t be able to look his son in the eyes anymore, something like that. Moved, I say that I understand and I’ll go with him to the police station; to which he responds, indignant: “What? You’d turn me in just like that? Without mercy? An Argentinian writer betraying a Chilean writer? Shame on you!” Then Bolaño must have seen my desperation, because he gave one of those little cracked laughs of his and, fascinated, said over and over again, “But you know I couldn’t kill a mosquito… How could you believe a story like that?”
Good question. And only now do I understand that on that afternoon, without realizing it, I was enjoying the rare privilege of seeing Bolaño writing and writing himself, reading aloud, and—rarest and most precious phenomenon of all—seeing myself inside one of his stories. One of those stories where Bolaño was and is and luckily always will be a Bolaño character.
I also remember that at some moment that afternoon the subject of hopeful monsters came up, that phenomenon studied by biologists and geneticists and referred to by English novelist Nicholas Mosley in his great novel titled, yes, Hopeful Monsters. Creatures that are all mutation. An off-the-charts blip in the evolution of a race. An exception that gathers strength until it becomes the dominant strain, a victorious beast—that’s where the hope, the optimism, comes in—or eventually succumbs and disappears without a trace, just like dragons, fairies, and unicorns. On rare occasions, these hopeful monsters manage to stick around and mix with “normal” people, those content to adapt to the ways and demands of the world. But it doesn’t happen often: Hopeful monsters usually fight to the last breath to establish themselves as the ironclad new rule to follow, and to force the world to adapt to their new traits and habits. They often perish, victims of their strange and peerless ambition. And yet they appear onstage to leave their mark (with teeth and claws and neurons), and then tell the story in new words, with a fresh eye. And so it’s usually artists and scientists—not to forget the occasional assassin—who are hopeful monsters.
And there are other hopeful monsters: the hopeful monsters of Bolaño’s fiction.
I’m referring here to hopeful monsters like the “savage detectives,” the “Flying Sudacas,”* the “most beautiful children in Latin America,” the “wizened youths,” the “veterans of doomed revolutions,” or simply and complexly, the “monsters.”
I’m referring here to Carlos Wieder, Auxilio Lacouture, and Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix—heroes and villains of Distant Star (1996), Amulet (1999), and By Night in Chile (2000)—and I’m also referring to Bolaño, that terminal optimist: the man who wrote about them as if observing them from the opposite end of a microscope or telescope. The man who never stopped smiling as he calculated how many days he had left to write a novel as gigantic as life, or set down his habits and eccentricities in a notebook, in strange, tiny handwriting, or on the screen of a computer so old that it was hard to believe it could still obey the bidding of his brain and fingers. The man who warned us that his fiction always came mixed up with the nonfiction of a quick, long, and slightly incredulous farewell to himself,1 a “last communiqué from the planet of the monsters,” as he says near the end of Distant Star. Monsters without optimism or hope. Just monsters. Monstrous monsters.
To read those three vast novellas—Distant Star, By Night in Chile, and Amulet2—together as if they were a single book isn’t just a whim. In some sense, this “trilogy” becomes a partial but inevitable—and for the reader in English, inaugural—attempt at an atlas of the planet of the monsters in Bolaño’s work. The first and indispensable volume of an Encyclopedia Bolañiana.
I’ve gone back to read all three—in the order they were written, over the course of a few days—and their perfect, disturbing communion astonishes me, the way they reflect each other and suddenly fit together like parts of a harmonious whole, as—accidentally or intentionally—the reader wanders like a sleepwalker through the territory where Roberto Bolaño lived and wrote and daydreamed.3
There are clearly books that lose something when they’re grouped together, and others that gain force by accumulation. The latter is the case with these three titles.
To begin with: From a generic point of view, all three are novellas, like The Invention of Morel, by Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares; or Pedro Páramo, by Mexican writer Juan Rulfo; or Our Lady of the Assassins, by Colombian writer Fernando Vallejo. That is to say: They’re vast, short novels that belong to what Henry James,4 an expert on the subject, defined and consecrated as “the beloved, the blessed novella.” And they’re also Latin American. Mutations. Sad animals capable of radiating the most powerful happiness. Specimens that endure and enjoy a heightened capacity for understanding—an understanding of the cataclysmic and happy force that turns coal into diamonds—and that in Bolaño’s case are transformed by historical forces into hysterical flotsam projected onto the backdrop of an unreal realism that under no circumstances should be confused with the magnificent geography of García Márquez’s Macondo and the increasingly miserable suburbs of his epigones and imitators.5
To continue: The three—like much of Bolaño’s work—are almost blood relatives; they go back and forward a long way; they share synapses and winks. And the main character of each is a poet.
So—pay attention here, for this may get confusing—Distant Star is a record of the “dreams and nightmares” of Arturo Belano, nomadic hero of the masterful meganovel The Savage Detectives (1998)6 and at once transparent and darker alter-ego of Roberto Bolaño.7 Distant Star also previously appeared in an earlier and shorter version, as an ominous coda at the end of the parade of literary freaks that is La literatura nazi en América (1996), in which Carlos Wieder is called Carlos Ramírez Hoffman and tagged with the very Borgesian adjective loathsome. Also appearing in Distant Star is an earlier version of the priest, literary critic, and mediocre poet Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix (under the name Nicasio Ibacache, which would become the journalistic pen name of the narrator of By Night in Chile); and the voluptuous and dying shadow of the porn star Joanna Silvestri, who pops up again in one of the best stories from Llamadas telefónicas (1997). Amulet is almost a bonus version—a longer remix—of Track 4 of the second part of The Savage Detectives in which Auxilio Lacouture nominates and annoints herself “the mother of Mexican poetry” and of all poets, Arturo Belano inevitably among them. By Night in Chile (its working title was Shit Storm) rescues the ominous duo of Mr Etah and Mr Raef—who had already strolled through La senda de los elefantes in 1993, reissued as Monsieur Pain in 1999—and projects the nameless shadow of the “wizened youth” and “splendid Chilean” who torment the priest Urrutia Lacroix like Poe’s trademark crow. A shadow that’s clearly the shadow of guilt itself, of innocence betrayed. Or the shadow of Arturo Belano and his soldiers marching across the length and breadth of The Savage Detectives, a novel that I sometimes can’t help thinking of as a kind of epiphanically catastrophic beatnik–South American Lord of the Rings:8 a compassless saga, a magnificent epic of the failed dreams of poets at the end of a world, defeated by the bad rhyme of the era they were fated to live in.
But maybe the most interesting symbiosis among these three books by Bolaño is that together they make up—rationally or instinctively—a perfect troika of South American mythology. A triad sustained by the bright and dark hopes of three monsters, antagonistic but almost fraternally complementary in knowing themselves to be crazed by art. An equilateral triangle composed of three imaginary lives—in the Schwobian sense of the phrase—with Carlos Wieder as the victimizer, Auxilio Lacouture as the victim, and Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix as the opportunistic and impassive witness to the contest and combat between victims and victimizers, who, at the end of his life, discovers that no sin is more mortal than not belonging to any group or any place. In this sense, Distant Star, Amulet, and By Night in Chile—successively presented to the reader as vengeful recollection, terrified ravings, and feverish confession—are also three of the most original and revelatory political novels of recent times. Three politicized memoirs flirting with the roman à clef—that other perverse and more or less intimate form of the political novel in which proper names translate into distant ghosts9—but free of all cheap, demagogic coercion. Three deceitful true stories in which “accusation” masquerades as a melancholic and lyrical visit10 to little-explored corners and not as a new and predictable trip—postcard-panoramic and tragi-magic and for-export-only—to the commonest places, where the hit parade of continental misfortune is hawked. Three manifestos written for love of the art and not out of the pathological need many Latin American writers have to feel that they’re automatically artists by virtue of having been born at a bad moment in a bad country and are thereby authorized to write badly about it as holders of passports of circumstance. In contrast, the force that drives Bolaño to narrate certain shameful public episodes seems to be generated not by accusations or demands for justice but by the will to seek and find in horror the contagious virus of good stories hidden just beneath the surface of History.11
Who was it who said “there are other worlds but they’re part of this world”? As is often the case, I remember the phrase but not where it came from. A couple of phone calls don’t shed any light on the matter, and so, here and now, the orphan phrase slips into the custody of Roberto Bolaño. Because it’s clear that one of those many possible worlds is the planet of the monsters—hopeful or not—from which Bolaño’s works are transmitted over and over again in obscure mathematical code or bright, transparent letters. Those planetary monsters gathered under the covers of their various books that in the end form a single book. A single house containing many mansions.12 It’s clear that Bolaño’s ambitions were staggering. And that the results are magnificent. What Bolaño sought and achieved was the Total Oeuvre, a place on the same team as Cervantes, Sterne, Melville, Pynchon, Proust, and Musil: men also committed to the search for and discovery and writing of what the Chilean defined in 2666 as the “hidden center” or the “secret of the world” while—like Borges—he went about constructing and quoting writers and works within his own work as a writer. Think of these monsters as the mythological beasts decorating the edges of ancient maps, filling the void of the unknown, the spaces where travel isn’t possible yet, and where sailors and explorers and readers are warned off with a Here Lie Monsters.
That’s where we’re headed.
In Distant Star, the aerial poet and exterminating devil Carlos Wieder—a wolf among the writing-workshop sheep, a beast whom I sometimes can’t help giving the face and smile of Orson Welles in The Third Man or the lidless eyes of Christopher Walken in any of his films—writes the phrase Death is cleansing in the skies of Santiago. Near the end we are warned: “What you have to understand is that Carlitos Wieder looked down on the world as if he were standing on top of a volcano; he saw you and me and himself from a great height, and, in his eyes, we were all, to be quite frank, pathetic insects. That is how he was…”
In Amulet, it’s again and forever the “horror story” of bloody October 196813 at the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature in Mexico City when Auxilio Lacouture—a light amid the shadows of Wieder and Urrutia Lacroix; “the enraptured voice of an Uruguayan who should have been a Greek,” as her creator describes her—shuts herself in a bathroom for several days, floating in a Robinsonian or Kurtzian (the Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, not the Kurtz of Heart of Darkness) sea of memories until achieving that instant of certainty from which there is no return. “I’m memory,” she understands near the end, and then is devastated by the ghostly procession of youths who go by singing on their way to the abyss.
In By Night in Chile, Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix succumbs to the terrible fever of guilt and presents his case as if he’s trying to win the pardon of a jury as invisible as himself. Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix as a kind of Scrooge shaken by nighttime ghosts of the “supreme terror” while “faces flash before my eyes at a vertiginous speed, the faces I admired, those I loved, hated, envied and despised. The faces I protected, those I attacked, the faces I hardened myself against and those I sought in vain.”
And a final common trait links Bolaño’s three monsters: all three—seeking refuge behind Faulkner, Petronius, and Chesterton epigraphs/keyholes—are highly concerned by the construction of their respective museums/mausoleums/works; by the verdict of the future; by the patinas and stains of posterity.14 As they lose themselves in memory, Bolaño’s characters tend to worry about how they’ll be remembered.
Inevitable question: was Roberto Bolaño a hopeful monster, a rare optimist in a mostly sad and less than sparkling landscape? In an interview with Eliseo Álvarez, Bolaño joked about his artistic origins: “My father wasn’t just a trucker: he was also a professional heavyweight boxing champion in the south of Chile. To compete with him, my only choices were to be stronger than him or to flat out opt for homosexuality, which seemed like a wonderful aesthetic solution, but wasn’t in my nature; I was born heterosexual. So all I had left were movies and books, and as a boy
I basically spent all my time seeing lots of movies and reading lots of books and, naturally, trying to kill my father. My father, of course, has always loved me, like any father.”
And, yes, Bolaño’s books and planet are unequivocally Bolañesque or Bolañist.15 Which means that Bolaño’s creatures always seem to live firmly ensconced—in one way or another—in literature, while Bolaño lived on and in literature: the books of Bolaño the writer are full of books and writers. “The truth is that reading is always more important than writing,” he said; and I’ve known few people who loved or relished the art of reading more, and who so enjoyed—an important detail—describing in their own words what they were reading, what others had written. Bolaño believed in very few things, but one of them, I’m convinced, was the redemptive and curative power of the verbs to read and to write.16 Possibly as a result—this may be the source of that unanesthetized, merciless fury—he was incensed by all the bad writers sprung from the minds of worse readers. Beings who would never manage to solve a perfect crime while splashing in the “shitpool of literature.”
Beyond the jocular pessimism of the essay/diatribe “Los mitos de Cthulu” that closes the collection of stories and lectures El gaucho insufrible (2003),17 I think Bolaño was betting on a positive future for Latin American literature, no matter how clearly he intuited—more or less secretly—that he wouldn’t be around to see it. At some point he talked to me about his plan to put together an anthology that would set the course, an anthology of new Latin American literature. First he thought about calling it Continente, but then, immediately, he was amused by the title Invasión and by the idea of assembling his chosen ones like a combat unit: “Just a few highly qualified ninja commandos, a few marines, and the rest… Red Cross officials!” he said, bursting out laughing. Which didn’t prevent him, toward the end, from feeling himself to be and presenting himself as a kind of time-traveler, someone outside of time and space, emitting signals for all those who cared to receive them. Someone who knew himself to be physically excluded from the future of literature, and so opted to preempt it and build it in his books.18
In Tres (2000)—his last book of poetry published in his lifetime19—Bolaño signs off with a long text titled “Un paseo por la literatura.” In the piece, Bolaño dreams that he’s “an aging Latin American detective, and a mysterious Foundation has hired me to find the death certificates of the Flying Sudacas.” In the piece, Bolaño faces the challenge—and emerges triumphant—by conjuring up his own ghost. Because there are two kinds of writers: those who worry about guaranteeing their immortality (I think of Hemingway) and those who worry more about the creative task of fitting together the different pieces that will ultimately constitute the model of a ghost (I think of Fitzgerald). In the piece, Bolaño presents himself as a sleuth of books in flames, an inspector of countries enmeshed in doomed battles, a medium channeling writers lost but linked forever on the shelves of his library. And he presents himself as what he thought writers were and should be: investigators of monsters. “I dreamed that I was an old, sick detective and that I went looking for people lost a long time ago. Sometimes I glanced at myself in the mirror and recognized Roberto Bolaño,” he wrote in the piece.
Both The Savage Detectives and 2666—colossal novels, huge books that seem to give off the musical command that the tall black monolith emits in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—are books with protagonists who are ghosts in reverse: living beings who wander like lost souls and yearn for a mythology, or ideology, to anchor them.20 Both novels function like Chinese puzzle boxes or Russian dolls, receptacles that open and close and gradually trap almost everything in the world and beyond. Both can be looked at like a Hieronymus Bosch painting or a damp fresco by Diego Rivera or an illustration in the style of Where’s Waldo? in which we, the readers, are Waldo. They’re historical novels and political novels and novels about the act of writing and the act of reading in which it’s explained to us that “reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing an idea, like listening to music (yes, yes), like gazing at a landscape, like going for a walk on the beach.” Novels of a kind that are rarely written and whose humble—because inevitable—intention is to suggest an alternative chronicle of the twentieth century and—as in The Savage Detectives, but here in the opposite sense, like a return trip from everything—a chronicle of the ties of blood, sweat, and tears that bind Europe and America and divide them from each other. If The Savage Detectives can be read as an outward-bound trip—paths radiating in thousands of directions from a point of concentrated energy in Latin America, visions and revisions of the revolution filtered through an arts poetica —2666 presents itself as the yang of that yin: it departs from multiple cities of Europe in a quest to answer a Mexican mystery that resides in a border town with the name of a saint. What’s under discussion isn’t the art of poetry—New World, realist, visceral—but the art of the novel as a noble, distinctly Old World attainment. In The Savage Detectives, everyone is on the underworld trail of the poet Cesárea Tinajero, whereas in 2666 it’s the Central European prose of Benno von Archimboldi that’s pursued. Both novels end in the desert, which is one of those wide landscapes—beaches, skies, oceans, mountain ranges—that Bolaño always writes in CinemaScope and Super 8, simultaneously. The best of both worlds.21
And it occurs to me that the experience of reading any book by Bolaño is the consequence of Bolaño’s experience writing it. Few contemporary writers have managed to infect the reader by inviting him, generously and at his own leisure and risk, on the adventure of living a book while it’s being read as if it were being written. Let me explain: Bolaño’s headlong, nocturnal writing (he wrote at night, nonstop)—racing against all odds to reach the last page—works on the reader, producing a similar effect. No matter what time it is, when you read The Savage Detectives or 2666 it isn’t long before you fall into a kind of trance, somewhere between somnambulant and hypnotic. The prose of both novels captivates more than that of any of Bolaño’s other books because the aim here is to achieve a kind of artistic summa, a harmonious and at the same time dysfunctional whole where what is sought and achieved is nothing less than a theory of the world. Which is not to imply that I have any idea what it was like to write The Savage Detectives or 2666. I doubt that he talked much to anyone about that. I think he preferred to discuss what he was reading, and that what he was writing was a private conversation, only sporadically voiced. Although we saw each other often, my direct experience of the creation of his novels is slight. I was only in his office twice, where I did, in fact, see charts and arrows. He has me make appearances a few times in his books,22 and he called me twice to ask me a question. The first time was to ask me what a certain kind of Mexican vulture was called (it was a turkey buzzard) and the second time was to ask me for a recipe for pork chops. Both times it was my wife who gave him the answers he needed.
On page 264 of 2666, the errant Chilean Amalfitano receives a nighttime visit from a ghostly voice that talks to him about something Amalfitano doesn’t understand, something the voice defines as “broken-down history” or “history that’s been taken apart and put back together”; and this something—Amalfitano understands although he doesn’t understand—was what happened when “history, put back together again, became something else, a scribble in the margin, a clever note, a laugh that took a long time to fade and leaped from an andesite rock to a rhyolite and then a tufa, and from that collection of prehistoric rocks there arose a kind of quicksilver, the American mirror, said the voice, the sad American mirror of wealth and poverty and constant useless metamorphosis, the mirror that sails and whose sails are pain.” This voice, which happens to be defining 2666 itself, could well be—so one is led to believe by various notes alluded to by [Bolaño’s literary executor, Ignacio] Echevarría in a postcript to 2666—that of Arturo Belano, protagonist of The Savage Detectives and presumed alter-ego of Bolaño. I say “presumed” because it seems to me that with Belano, Bolaño created something more interesting than the usual disguise a writer uses to turn himself into a character. Maybe—it occurs to me—Belano would be the same as Bolaño if Bolaño had chosen to be Belano and not the Bolaño who ended up writing Belano. Something along those lines. Does that make sense? Yes? No? I didn’t think so.
In any case—another point that strikes me as interesting—Belano is more a protagonist-mirror than anything else. Someone who, rather than acting, seems devoted—in his constant journeying—to reflecting or devouring the actions and voices of others, like a black hole. Second parties and third parties and multitudes and generations tend to be projected onto Belano. By that I mean to say that Bolaño was the least self-fantasizing writer I’ve ever known, even though he had ample material with which to construct his own legend in life, if he’d been so inclined. Bolaño was a real character—for those who never met him, his photographs more than suffice, with Bolaño looking like a cross between a Victorian explorer and a guitarist in Bob Dylan’s last and ultimate outlaw band—but he hardly ever talked about his history, his past, what he’d lived and what he’d almost died for.23 Bolaño didn’t like to tell his own story. As he once wrote in a newspaper piece, “I’ve always thought autobiographies were odious. What a waste of time, the narrator trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, when what a real writer should do is catch a dragon and make a silk purse from it.” Nevertheless, sometimes he’d let something slip in an interview and I would call him to ask about it and Bolaño would change the subject, and we’d move on.24 What Bolaño liked much better was fantasizing about other people. Making up stories, hypotheses, conspiracy theories encompassing everything from the competitors on Big Brother to the possibility that bin Laden was a hologram produced in the labs of some American security agency much higher up than the CIA or the Pentagon. This taste for conspiracy is evident in all his books, in his vision of an alternate reality, a present written from the future, from the impossible year/cemetery of 2666 where everyone would no longer have fifteen minutes of fame but rather fifteen minutes to explain themselves, to prove themselves worthy of a noble tombstone or sturdy mausoleum. For Bolaño, the future was the final exile and exile is possibly the Theme of Bolaño’s work,25 but please don’t get the wrong idea: exile was NEVER Bolaño’s strategy as a writer. And not only does that do him honor, it sets him apart from all the other self-fantasizers of South American literature drifting from conference to conference and selling their small tragedies and huge mythomanias. Like Cesárea Tinajero and Benno von Archimboldi, Bolaño prefers to mythicize himself by disappearing.
In strictly literary terms, the black hole that now occupies the exact spot where Bolaño once wrote will be impossible to fill: Bolaño—with many books still to come, with half a century behind him, right at the midpoint, equidistant in age from his elders and his juniors—was one of those rare hinge-writers who mark a new generation through the simple pleasure of shaking up certain self-satisfied forms, structures content to have achieved the easy and false immortality of the fossilized.
In personal terms—in keeping with Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s postulate that “writers aren’t people, exactly”—Bolaño was someone who could always surprise you. One night—days before he was hospitalized—Bolaño offered an impromptu and brilliant class in the art of storytelling: he kept repeating an extremely bad joke—a joke that he thought was incredible and that I can’t tell here because I still don’t understand it—with tiny variations or drastic changes, never altering the plot. It’s no exaggeration to say that a person could’ve learned much more then and there than in years in a writing workshop. There was Bolaño, smiling like a Buddha as we guzzled whiskey, Bolaño stirring his usual chamomile tea with the parsimony of an English lord in some colony too far from Buckingham Palace. And I asked myself what the secret and dangerous ingredient in Bolaño’s little cups of tea must be; because the truth is that the man would listen to you with almost pious sweetness, then take a sip, and suddenly drop a word-bomb that would leave you shaking in fear and laughter at the same time. Because Bolaño could be frightening. Very frightening. All of a sudden, smiling, he would toss off something like “I have a kind of blood type that only those who’ve written The Savage Detectives have” or “Writers are worthless. Literature is worthless. Literature only exists for literature’s sake. That’s enough for me.”
I remember Bolaño talking about literature and beheading intruders and dilettantes (piltrafillas was a word he liked to spit when, with almost religious fervor, he excoriated all those who struck him as unworthy of paper and ink and computer).26 I remember Bolaño discussing the fates of the competitors on Big Brother (never Operation Victory) as enthusiastically as he talked about the comings and goings of Stendhal’s characters. I remember Bolaño obsessed by what the twist might be at the end of the film The Sixth Sense (Bolaño didn’t go to the movies, so he would wait for the release of the DVD and in the meantime torture people with hypotheses like “I know; the kid is a vampire, right?”). I remember Bolaño dancing spasmodically to “The Ketchup Song” (a summer single that struck him as amazing); or describing his dreams (“Dreams are like psychiatrists, curing you every night”) or extremely strange Z-grade movies from late-night TV whose titles he always forgot (he never got cable TV, which I guess was because he knew that if he did, he would be hooked forever). I remember Bolaño singing along with horrible screeching Mexico City rock songs that he thought were masterpieces of the genre and that to tell the truth scared me a little because of the almost Mr. Hyde–like effect they had on him. And I remember Bolaño, the last time we got together to talk, theorizing that mankind’s next great evolutionary leap would be artificial, not natural: men would turn themselves into machines in order to reach the distant stars and “not have to depend on these shitty bodies of ours,” he growled. Of course, Roberto was really talking about his illness, about his very serious liver complaint; and that was one of those moments when Bolaño seemed to be broadcasting directly from one of his books. I told him then that he sounded like the replicant Roy Batty, Nexus 6 model, from Blade Runner. Bolaño—who dreamed of “losing my memory and turning back the clock to start all over again”—smiled and said: “Don’t I make it sound nice?”
In the previously mentioned last interview with Mónica Maristain, Bolaño says several serious things, humorously. Asked which literary character he would most have liked to resemble, he says: “Sherlock Holmes. Captain Nemo. Julien Sorel, our father; Prince Myshkin, our uncle; Alice, our teacher; Houdini. A mix of Alice, Sorel, and Myshkin.” He lists favorite books, among which are Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, the complete works of Borges, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial, Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and Petronius’s Satyricon. He also says that he imagines paradise is like Venice, “worn by use, a place that knows nothing lasts, not even paradise, and that in the end it doesn’t matter,” and that hell could only be Ciudad Juárez, “which is our curse and our mirror, the unquiet mirror of our frustrations and our shameful interpretation of freedom and our desires.” Asked about his health, Bolaño says that he found out his condition was serious in 1992 and that the knowledge didn’t change him in any way, but “I realized that I wasn’t immortal, which, at the age of thirty-eight, it was high time I learned.” When he’s told that he’s considered “the Latin American writer likeliest to stand the test of time,” he smiles and says “That must be a joke. Although it’s true that I’ve lived through a lot already, which is all that matters.” He adds that the word posthumous “sounds like the name of a Roman gladiator. An undefeated gladiator. Or at least that’s what poor Posthumous wants to believe to give himself courage.” Near the end, Maristáin asks, “What things do you want to do before you die?” and Bolaño answers: “Nothing in particular. Well. I’d rather not die, of course. But sooner or later the great lady comes. The problem is that sometimes she’s no lady, never mind great, but a hot slut, as the poet Nicanor Parra says, which is enough to make even the bravest man’s teeth chatter.” And he adds: “I don’t believe in the afterlife. If it does exist, it’ll be a surprise. I’d enroll right away in some class that Pascal was giving.”
When, in another interview, Conchita Penilla asked him, “What kind of expression would you like to see on your readers’ faces when they finish one of your books?” Bolaño replied: “Here are two answers; your question is a good one. First, I’d say that each reader’s face is his own and the state it’s in is none of my business. And second, that if it happened that each reader was able to see someone like himself in my books, then I would be satisfied. Especially someone like himself who doesn’t shut any doors, someone like himself who opens doors and windows and then disappears, because there are many things to read and life isn’t as short as people think it is.”
The night of Roberto Bolaño’s death, in July 2003—after fifteen days of agony, during one of the hottest summers in Europe’s memory—just after I received the phone call that informed me of his end, there was a man outside in the street banging a public phone and shouting “Talk to me!” with no response. An unmistakable scene from a Bolaño novel. A few days later, the campground at Casteldefells burned, the campground where Bolaño had worked as a night watchman when he first came to Spain, and where, in 1979, he wrote Amberes, in the last paragraph of which there is a full declaration of principles: “Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength. (Significant, said the foreigner.) Odes to the human and the divine. Let my writing be like the verses by Leopardi that Daniel Biga recited on a Nordic bridge to gird himself with courage.” The campground burned until nothing was left, while at the same time Bolaño’s mortal remains—he always wanted a Viking funeral—were turned to ashes and scattered over the waters of the Mediterranean. A last and respectful homage to the reality of his fictions, I thought then.
I began all this on a personal note, and it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to end on another: I remember the night in March 1999 when I first met Bolaño and he immediately invited me over for lunch that weekend, important as it is to be invited places when you’ve just moved to a new city in the way that Barcelona was new to me then. Bolaño believed that “friendship is all that’s left from the time when men were gods and gods were men. Or actually there’s love, too, but love doesn’t see as clearly.” Bolaño, if he decided to be your friend, was a real friend, and I knew it from the start. I also knew that Bolaño would be a friend like none I’d ever had before or would ever have again. I remember that he gave me precise but complicated directions, in that voice of his, which is still the voice of his novels, and that I followed the directions unquestioningly and instead of getting on a train to Blanes I got on another, headed to Tarragona, and that I called him, lost somewhere, to ask for help and new directions, and that he—dramatic and overcome with laughter—said: “Now you’re really fucked, Rodrigo. You’re lost.” And I said: “Well, then I’ll go home.” And he said: “But you’re never going to be able to go home, Rodrigo. Never.” And then I thought: “This guy is a psychopath.” Later, with time, I realized that when Bolaño wished eternal and endless wandering upon me, he was really talking about something that had nothing to do with a missed train. And that he was laughing at it all. And that all of it—absolutely all of it, poetry, literature, life, death—is in his books, which are always a pleasure to enter and immediately lose yourself in, so as to be able to find yourself. And to get back home, to return to this beautiful and monstrous planet, changed for good, for better, forever.
* Sudacas is a pejorative term for South Americans in Spain.—trans.
1. As Bolaño put it in an interview with the Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa in BOMB: “The truth is that I don’t really believe in writing. My own least of all… I use the word writing as an antonym of waiting. Instead of waiting, there’s writing. Anyway, it’s quite likely that I’m mistaken and that writing is another form of waiting, of putting things off. But I’d like to believe that’s not the case.”
2. The first two are published in the United States by New Directions; the third will be published soon, also by New Directions.
3. In one of his last interviews—with Mónica Maristáin, for the Mexican edition of Playboy—Bolaño was asked “Are you Chilean, Spanish, or Mexican?” He responded, synthetically: “I’m Latin American.” But when he won the Premio Rómulo Gallegos, he spoke at greater length about how he defined where he was from, and where he situated himself: “Although I’ve been living in Europe for twenty years, my only nationality is Chilean, which doesn’t stop me from feeling deeply Spanish and Latin American. In my life I’ve lived in three countries: Chile, Mexico, and Spain. I’ve had almost every job in the world, except three or four that anyone with a shred of dignity would refuse… It occurs to me now that a person can have many homelands, but only one passport, and that passport is clearly the quality of one’s writing. By which I don’t mean writing well, because anyone can do that.… Then what is quality writing? The same thing it’s always been: knowing how to stick your head into the dark, knowing how to leap into the void, knowing that literature is basically a dangerous profession.”
4. Mysteriously or not: Bolaño couldn’t stand Henry James. He never told me why, no matter how many times I asked him to explain.
5. “About my work, I don’t know what to tell you. I suppose it’s realist… But that isn’t what matters in the end; what matters is the language and structure, the way of looking at things,” Bolaño explains in one of the interviews previously mentioned.
6. Soon to be published—like 2666—in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
7. A note for obsessives and completists: In the short opening passage of Distant Star, Bolaño refers to his hero as “Arturo B., a veteran of Latin America’s doomed revolutions, who tried to get himself killed in Africa.” Which turned out not to be quite true, fictionally speaking: Bolaño—in later conversations—referred to Belano’s “suicide” as more a symbolic than a physical act and planned to bring him back to Mexico City in an unfinished short story called “Sabios de Sodoma,” which will appear in the book El secreto del mal (2007).
8. Bolaño himself thought of The Savage Detectives as belonging to the genre of roman-fleuve and wrote, “I think I see it as yet another reading of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, one of the many that have followed in its wake; the Mississippi of The Savage Detectives is the flow of voices in the second part of the novel.” A flow that’s joined—it’s worth adding—by the sidestreams of Distant Star, Amulet, and By Night in Chile, which in no way diminishes them or makes them any less mighty.
9. The most wickedly delightful ghost of all may be that of José Miguel Ibáñez Langlois—Opus Dei priest and legendary and monopolistic literary critic for the conservative Chilean newspaper El Mercurio during Pinochet’s dictatorship, who wrote under the name Ignacio Valente—who becomes Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, alias H. Ibacache in By Night in Chile.
10. Never forget that Bolaño, before he was a novelist, was first and forever a poet. And that one of his collections of poetry is called Los perros románticos (The Romantic Dogs), a title that—it occurs to me now—is a conscious and unconscious play on the title of The Savage Detectives because by shuffling the cards and dealing them again, we might end up with the more “normal” Savage Dogs and Romantic Detectives.
11. It’s worth pointing out that Bolaño—unlike most Latin American writers—wasn’t very political in his public statements, in the same way that he almost never mentioned his adventurous life, preferring to save the material to filter and infiltrate into his fiction.
12. “All my books are related. But it’s boring to talk about it,” Bolaño told journalist Luis García.
13. The Tlatelolco Massacre took place on October 2, 1968, in Mexico City. Military forces fired upon a peaceful student rally killing unarmed protesters, pedestrians, and children. The shooting lasted through the night. Some witnesses claim to have seen bodies loaded into garbage trucks for removal. A controversy still surrounds the official death toll and number arrested.
14. A concern that seemingly didn’t exist for Bolaño. Maybe it had to do with the fact that he knew he was sick and mortal and therefore he was more conscious that the real battle was in living and writing, not in dying and being read. I insert something here that he sent me once by email and that seems to me to explain very well his notion of the futility of bronze plaques: “I don’t know how there can be writers who still believe in literary immortality. I understand those who believe in the immortality of the soul, I can even understand those who believe in Heaven and Hell and the touching waystation of Purgatory, but when I hear a writer talk about the immortality of certain literary works I want to slap him. I’m not talking about hitting him but just slapping him once and then probably hugging him and comforting him. I know you won’t agree with me on this, Rodrigo, because you’re essentially a non-violent person. So am I. When I say slap him what I really have in mind is a kind of slap for the person’s own good, like the kind they give hysterical people in the movies so that they snap out of it and stop screaming and save their lives.”
15. Said Bolaño: “Of course I’d like to have my own literary tradition, a very brief one, with room for only two writers, maybe three (and possibly no books), an amnesiac flash of a tradition, but on the one hand I feel extremely modest about my work and on the other hand I’ve read too much (and enjoyed too many books) to imagine something so outrageous.”
16. If he hadn’t been a writer, Bolaño—as he explained in an interview with Mónica Maristáin—might have considered another profession: “I would much rather have been a homicide detective than a writer, I can tell you that for sure. A homicide cop, someone who could go back alone at night to the scene of the crime, and not be afraid of ghosts. Maybe then I really would have gone crazy, but when you’re a policeman that’s taken care of with a shot in the mouth.” Other possible professions for Bolaño were bank robber, gigolo, movie director, “or being a kid again and playing on a basically mind-blowing soccer team.”
17. In the piece Bolaño writes: “Really, Latin American literature isn’t Borges or Macedonio Fernández or Onetti or Bioy or Cortázar or Rulfo or Revueltas or even that duo of old macho men, García Márquez and Vargas Llosa. Latin American literature is Isabel Allende, Luis Sepúlveda, Ángeles Mastretta, Sergio Ramírez, Tomás Eloy Martínez, somebody called Aguilar Camín or Comín, and many other illustrious names that I can’t remember at this precise instant.” And he ends, half-amused and half-distressed: “It’s enough to make you think there’s no hope.” Bolaño scorned Latin American literature that resorted to for-export Latin Americanism. Bolaño also liked to pick fights, cause trouble, polemicize. And when it came down to it, Bolaño believed only in Borges: “When Borges died, everything suddenly came to an end. It was as if Merlin had died,” he writes in one of his essays. And he concludes: “Borges must be re-read yet again.”
18. Sometimes conversations with Bolaño would begin as a simple exchange of everyday news, but almost before you realized it, things would head into metaphysical territory, as if Bolaño were already speaking from a twilight zone: one of his recurring ideas was his suspicion that he had died ten years earlier, in a hospital in Gerona, when he was diagnosed with a severe case of pancreatitis, and that everything that had happened to him in the last decade—children and wife and books—was just his final hallucination, the merciful prolongation of the last seconds of a dying man. On more than one occasion, Bolaño confessed that he wished he were “a fantasy writer, like Philip K. Dick.” And it’s clear that Bolaño’s aforementioned obsession is an obviously and perfectly Dickian obsession. Another detail: one of Bolaño’s favorite novels by Dick—who is often mentioned in the Chilean’s fiction and poetry and who “strikes me as more and more realistic as the years go by and I get older”—was Dr. Bloodmoney, Or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965). In the book, the astronaut Walt Dangerfield is condemned to endlessly orbit the Earth after a nuclear holocaust, becoming a kind of space disk-jockey broadcasting advice and songs from his module to illuminate our planet of monsters.
19. The publishing house Anagrama has announced the forthcoming publication of La universidad desconocida, in early 2007: a monumental book of narrative poetry, more than one thousand pages long, that will end up forming a kind of megatrilogy with The Savage Detectives and 2666.
20. Explained Bolaño: “Latin America is like the madhouse of Europe. Maybe Latin America was originally thought of as the hospital of Europe, or the bread basket of Europe. But now it’s the madhouse. A savage, impoverished, violent madhouse, where, despite the chaos and corruption, if you look hard enough it’s possible to see the shadow of the Louvre.”
21. Explained Bolaño: “The Savage Detectives is a very long but readable novel. I like unreadable things to be short… 2666 is such a huge work that it may ruin my health, which is already delicate anyway. When I finished The Savage Detectives I actually swore to myself that I would never write a roman-fleuve again. I was even tempted to destroy it all, since I saw it as a monster devouring me… Can I say something short about it? No.”
22. In 2666 I show up as myself in Kensington Gardens taking notes for my novel Kensington Gardens. I show up again as myself in his book of short stories, El secreto del mal.
23. It’s common knowledge that Bolaño returned to Pinochet’s Chile from Mexico “to fight.” He was arrested and accused of being a “foreign agitator” and absurdly considered “one of the ten most wanted men in the country, at least.” “I was very lucky. Two cops who’d been in school with me, when we were fifteen, got me out of jail. One of them said, ‘Don’t you remember me? We were in school together.’ I didn’t remember at all. It was impressive… Until that moment I’d been planning to stay in Chile for good, but when they let me go I said: ‘I’m leaving,’” Bolaño recalled in an interview with Mihály Dés. And in another interview, with Eliseo Álvarez: “When I returned to Chile, a little before the coup against Allende, I believed in armed struggle, I believed in permanent revolution, and I thought the time was now. I went back to Chile ready to fight, and then to keep fighting in Peru, in Bolivia… After I was arrested, I was in prison for eight days, although not long ago, in Italy, I was asked, ‘What happened to you? Can you tell us something about your six months in prison?’ At first they had me down for less time. It’s the typical Latin American tango. The first book of mine that was published in Germany says I was in prison for a month; the second, since the first didn’t sell very well, ups it to three months; the third says four; the fourth makes it five, and at this rate, pretty soon they’ll be saying I’m still in prison.”
24. Several clues are to be found in the magnificent selected stories from New Directions—Last Evenings on Earth (2006)—which gathers Bolaño’s most autobiographical stories. In them, he narrates and mythicizes his departure from Chile, his relationship with his father, and his days as a hunter of provincial literary prizes in Spain. But the truth is that Bolaño didn’t like to talk much about any of that. Bolaño didn’t want to be one of those writers playing the persecution blues at international conferences. At most, his real-life past seemed like good subject matter to him, raw material for the creation of his fictions.
25. In an interview with Sergio Paz, Bolaño says: “My opinion of Chilean literature in exile is that first, it isn’t literature, and second, it isn’t in exile. Strictly speaking, there is no Chilean literature in exile, and what there is strikes me as pretty bad.”
26. Another fragment from another Bolaño email: “Maybe if there’s any question we should ask ourselves, it’s this: what’s left of the Boom? Or maybe we should just stop talking about the Boom and talk, instead, about a group of Latin American writers who in the 1950s and 1960s tried to change literature in the Spanish language, although once we’ve gotten that far I’m afraid we’ll end up agreeing that literature in the Spanish language had already begun to be transformed in the 1940s, in a quieter and also more radical way. And that as an aesthetic phenomenon, it was less important than modernism. Maybe if there’s any question we should ask ourselves, it’s this: what’s left of the Boom? Maybe the question would be better posed in Freudian terms: do we have to kill the survivors of the Boom? It’s clear that the Boom is a calling. Definitely a calling, although felt less by the founding fathers than by the putative sons. People perfectly qualified to work at a bank who suddenly turn to writing, maybe under the lingering effects of some fever or flu. They don’t write because they have much, or anything, to say, but because they’re dazzled by the shine, the respectability, that the Boom brought to the profession. Deep down, the problem here is schizophrenia, isn’t it? Something like what happens to leftist militants whose discourse is really rightist and who nevertheless still insist on being leftists. And so we get, for example, a left that supports Castro’s dictatorship.”
Translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer