by Mark Terrill
Much has been written about the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño since his death from liver failure at age fifty in July 2003, mostly about his last two novels, The Savage Detectives and the posthumously published 2666. Some of this writing has been of a denigrating nature, devoted to debunking the “Bolañomania” that has been created in the wake of his death. Granted, fuel for the mythmakers was provided by the many autobiographical aspects of The Savage Detectives, in which Roberto Bolaño and Mario Santiago, who together started the Infrarealist movement in Mexico in the 1970s, appear as Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, founders of the “Visceral Realist” movement. Their symbiotic relationship and itinerant search for the poetic grail conjured up images of a modern-day Rimbaud/Verlaine or Kerouac/Cassady correlation, paving the way for the spin doctors.
But despite the various myths, legends, rumors, and facts, one should bear in mind that it wasn’t Bolaño who created the hype emphasizing the romantic myth of the rebellious, vagabond, drug-taking poet but rather the publishers and champions of his otherwise difficult to market oeuvre. The fact that Bolaño, an autodidact and obsessive reader and lover of books, spent the last years of his life as a loving father living a quiet life in a small town on the Spanish coast is not the sort of thing that makes tantalizing book jacket copy. But for those readers of Bolaño who are looking for the roots and sources of his hugely amorphous and fantastically spun tales, laden with references to obscure writers and poets (real and fictional) that weave their way through the fractured history and cultural detritus of the twentieth century and beyond, it gradually becomes apparent that it was not Bolaño’s gregarious and wayward youth but rather his voracious reading and insatiable appetite for the written word that provided the material for his work.
Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview collects four interviews conducted between 1999 and 2003, the last just shortly before his death. Bolaño speaks frankly and candidly with his various interviewers, revealing his vastly erudite intelligence and knowledge as well as his skewed humor. When asked by Mónica Maristain (who interviewed Bolaño for the Mexican edition of Playboy in what was to be truly the last interview), “Have you ever shed one tear about the widespread criticism you’ve drawn from your enemies?” Bolaño’s answer was:
Lots and lots. Every time I read that someone has spoken badly of me I begin to cry, I drag myself across the floor, I scratch myself, I stop writing indefinitely, I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I engage in sport, I go for walks along the edge of the sea, which is by the way less than 30 meters from my house, and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish who ate Ulysses: Why me? Why? I’ve done you no harm.
Continuously throughout these interviews, Bolaño makes reference to countless writers and poets, from the ancient Greeks to Cervantes, from Melville to Whitman, from Edgar Allan Poe to Emily Dickinson, from Jacques Vaché to Kafka, from Philip K. Dick to Wittgenstein, all the way up to James Ellroy and beyond. He also references a whole host of Spanish and Latin American writers and poets, most of whose names would remain obscure to the uninitiated reader if not for an excellent editorial feature of this collection of interviews. On each page where Bolaño or his interviewer mentions a writer or poet, their names are printed in bold type in the main text, and a brief biographical summary and list of published works, both in original and translation, appear in the extra-wide margins. This makes The Last Interview an incredibly valuable sourcebook for those interested in tracking down all the various influences that are such an important part of Bolaño’s oeuvre.
Thus we learn the importance for Bolaño of such writers and poets as Julio Cortázar, Nicanor Parra, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Carlos Onetti, and many others. In an interview with Héctor Soto and Matías Bravo for the Chilean magazine Capital, Bolaño talked about inspiration and the importance or reading versus that of actual experience:
HS/MB: Writers are always asked for their inspiration and today will not be an exception. Some are inspired more from life, while others more from literature.
RB: In what concerns me, both.
HS/MB: Notwithstanding that, you are an extremely literary writer—to put it one way.
RB: Well, if I had to choose one of two things, and God pray that I never have to choose, I would choose literature. If I were offered a great library or an Inter-Rail ticket to Vladivostok, I would keep the library, without the slightest doubt. Besides, with the library, my trip would be much longer.
HS/MB: Like Borges, you have lived through your reading.
RB: In one way or another, we’re all anchored to the book. A library is a metaphor for human beings or what’s best about human beings, the same way a concentration camp can be a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity.
A continuous theme that runs through Bolaño’s work is that of the writer in repressive regimes, the dialectic between creativity and totalitarianism. Another recurring motif is revolution, which he talks about in his conversation with Héctor Soto and Matías Bravo:
HS/MB: Your books are distinct approximations of a particular world, a world of writers and rather marginal people who are in between being obsessives and losers. Your stories and novels also center around the same situations or the same characters.
RB: Also around the same arguments.
HS/MB: Exactly. Your characters are crusaders for revolutionizing art and changing the world, which is the project of your generation.
RB: Revolutionizing art and changing life were the objects of Rimbaud’s project. And reinventing love. At heart, to make life a work of art.
HS/MB: But you are a part of the world that you describe, and you look affectionately toward it.
RB: Perhaps I’ve been attempting to forgive myself.
HS/MB: You’re not an apologist for the project or rhapsodic about it, but you’re not a gravedigger, or a critic.
RB: I’m a survivor. I feel enormous affection toward this project, notwithstanding its excesses, immoderations, and deviations. The project is hopelessly romantic, essentially revolutionary, and it has seen the failure of many groups and generations of artists. Though, even now, our conception of art in the West is indebted to this vision.
Bolaño and his interviewers also discuss the endangered nature of this revolutionary project, as well as the high price of commitment to its ideals:
HS/MB: If there is a concept that has been devalued in this era, it is that of revolution.
RB: The truth for me—and I want to be very sincere—is that the idea of revolution had already been devalued by the time I was twenty years old. At that age, I was a Trotskyite and what I saw in the Soviet Union was a counterrevolution. I never felt I had the support of the movement of history. To the contrary, I felt quite crushed. I think that’s noticeable in the characters in The Savage Detectives.
HB/MS: At some point in your life, we imagined that you were animated by great revolutionary ardor.
RB: You imagined it correctly. I was against everything. Against New York and Moscow, against London and Havana, against Paris and Beijing. I even felt scared by the solitude entailed in radicalism.
In her lengthy and well-written introduction, Marcela Valdes writes about the gigantic project that eventually became 2666, discussing Bolaño’s meticulous way of working and his obsessive attention to detail. Evidently he worked for many, many years, gathering information, corresponding with other writers and journalists, gradually accumulating the mountains of information that he would eventually rework into the multifaceted 900-page narrative about the so-called “femicides” of hundreds of women in Juarez in northern Mexico in the 1990s. In Bolaño’s acceptance speech for the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 1998, he said that in one way or another, everything he wrote was “a letter of love or goodbye” to the young people who gave their lives in the “dirty wars” of Latin America. As Valdes says in her introduction, “His ambitions for 2666 were greater: to write a postmortem for the dead of the past, the present, and the future.”
The work that went into the writing of this vast and convoluted postmortem resembled in its nature the work of a detective, which put Bolaño in the center of his element. When asked by Mónica Maristain what he would have liked to be had he not been a writer, Bolaño answered:
I should like to have been a homicide detective much better than being a writer. I am absolutely sure of that. A string of homicides. I’d have been someone who could come back to the scene of the crime alone, by night, and not be afraid of ghosts. Perhaps then I might really have become crazy. But that could easily be resolved with a bullet to the mouth.
Bolaño managed to steer clear of insanity and suicide (although he was apparently close to both at one time or another), but was not able to escape the clutches of his fatal liver disease. And although a liver transplant which might have saved his life was suggested by his doctor, Bolaño repeatedly postponed the operation in order to finish 2666, a further sign of his extreme commitment to his art.
The hype and “Bolañomania” notwithstanding, it is this very commitment to art and the revolutionary project that seems to hold so many dangers; whether one is on a reckless poetic quest through Mexico and Europe or sitting in a library surrounded by books, the creation of art or revolution is not without its inherent risks. As Marcia Valdes says in her introduction, “Being a writer in this world is as dangerous as being a detective, walking through a graveyard, looking at ghosts.”
The dust kicked up by Bolaño’s critics and champions has yet to settle, but his place in the literary canon is already secured. Like Julio Cortázar, Gilbert Sorrentino, José Saramago, W. G. Sebald, and other writers, Bolaño has radically challenged our notion of the novel and upended many literary conventions, opening up the way for the generations to follow. Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview provides many valuable insights into the mind of this truly revolutionary writer.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010