On “The Roberto Bolaño Myth”

Image courtesy of The UK Guardian.

Image courtesy of The UK Guardian.

“We have enough,” Sam Carter concludes in a review of Woes of the True Policeman, the latest of Roberto Bolaño’s unfinished works to be published posthumously in the United States. Forceful words, but Carter doesn’t doubt Bolaño’s talent. He thinks that the late Chilean writer’s publishers are damaging his legacy:

“The continued publication and popular packaging of [Bolaño’s] incomplete work may actually be diluting his reputation as a writer of varied talents and fearless ambition.”

The way Bolaño’s body of work has been handled in the U.S. has sometimes been confusing, and people are noticing. One commenter on a recent review over at lit-blog The Millions sums up this confusion well:

“… The past 4 or 5 years has seen so many posthumously released Bolaño works that I sort of feel exhausted by them all. So much after the fact praise that I sometimes wonder if much of it is just hype and/or a fad.”

In 2012, Bolaño’s “myth” may be larger than his books. He is more than just a writer. He is the new face of Latin American literature in the United States, where a new generation of allegedly post-national readers are bored with the obstinate regionalism and unfashionable Marxism of the old Magical Realists. Some critics haven’t been so happy with this turn of events, and maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s wise to be suspicious of men who appear to answer so completely the desires of their times.

In a 2009 article entitled “Bolaño Inc.”, Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya notes with suspicion that a distorted version of Bolaño’s life story has often been as important to his excited reception in North America as his writing. Castellanos Moya concludes that those who work in the shady realm where marketing and literature meet must be responsible for this villainy. Afterall, Bolaño has been dead for years and, if he is being exploited by large publishing conglomerates, can’t complain.

Horacio Castellanos Moya. Image courtesy of New Directions Books.

Horacio Castellanos Moya. Image courtesy of New Directions Books.

Castellanos Moya argues that a market-ready image of the late Chilean writer as a down-and-out rebel, a social drop-out and failed revolutionary, has been created to sell his books to young and cynical cosmopolitans in the United States (he points out that Paste magazine even gave him the ridiculous title of “The Kurt Cobain of Latin American Literature”). Castellanos Moya is disgusted that the life of a talented writer, and a personal friend, could be fashioned by marketing teams into whatever they felt would compliment a particularly edgy-looking bookjacket photo. He writes:

“The market has its landlords, like everything on this infected planet, and 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 U.S.”

This is a cynical view, but the inflation of Bolaño’s time in prison facing down Chilean fascism, and the fabrication of his apparently non-existent heroin addiction do look pretty damning in this light. Castellanos Moya assures us, with evident joy at disappointing those who believe that Bolaño was a cross between Che Guevara and a junkie poet, that the writer died a committed family man living a middle-class suburban life and that he spent most of his time writing.

As a concerned friend of Bolaño, Castellanos Moya’s argument has a lot of force. But then the essay takes a turn. Out of duty or habit he polishes off dusty terms like “The U.S. Culture Industry” and the “North American Imagination” to argue that U.S. readers are also using a false image of Bolaño to confirm their stereotypes about their southern neighbors. If the entire canon of Latin American literature can no longer be reduced to García Márquez, then it can now be reduced to this new discovery: a prickly former Trotskyite/anarchist who wrote huge, labyrinthine postmodern novels, and — did you hear? — was a drug-addict (he wasn’t) and served time in a dictator’s prison (a little over one week).

A young Bolaño (image courtesy of Amazon.com).

A young Bolaño (image courtesy of Amazon.com).

Castellanos Moya’s complaints are part of the inevitable debates over cultural ownership that arise every time an artist becomes an international phenomenon and the meaning of his or her work becomes, again, inevitably complicated. It’s fine to question what happens to a writer when he or she gets lifted out of his or her cultural context. But there are other related questions that Castellanos Moya doesn’t ask that may be more interesting. Why is Bolaño marketed as an opponent of the neoliberal global order (he fought against Pinochet!), when at the same time he can be interpreted as a defender of its core values (“Nationalism is a statue of shit slowly sinking in the desert”)? This leads to contradictions that may open the door to a more radical critique of his work — and also his “myth” — for those, like Castellanos Moya, who are suspicious of his sudden rise to fame among the powerful.

There is at least one glaring hole in the argument that the “Bolaño Myth” has been constructed by greedy capitalists and ugly Americans engaged in cultural tourism though. Many of Bolaño’s books, most obviously the semi-autobiographical The Savage Detectives, are elaborate works of self-mythology. When asked in his final interview in the Mexico edition of Playboy Magazine what it was like to be regarded as the Latin American writer with the most promising future, a terminally-ill Bolaño responded with the amusement that only a stoic can muster:

“It must be a joke. I am the Latin American writer with the least promising future. But on that point, I am the type with the most past, which is what matters anyway.”

In other words, Bolaño knew what he was doing. That’s not the same as saying that even during his lifetime his narrative wasn’t starting to get away from him. Here are his own words on book publishers’ (and not just U.S.-based ones) fascination with his detainment by the Pinochet government:

“…I was detained for eight days, although a little while ago in Italy, I was asked, ‘what happened to you? Can you tell us a little bit about your half a year in prison?’ That’s due to a misunderstanding in a German book where they had me in prison for half a year. At first they sentenced me to less time. It’s the typical Latin American tango. In the first book edited for me in Germany, they give me one month in prison; in the second book – seeing that the first one had sold so well – they raise it to three month; in the third book I’m up to four months; in the fourth book it’s five. The way it’s going, I should still be a prisoner now.”

It’s true: Bolaño did see an economic angle to the way publishers occasionally mishandled his life story (point one for Castellanos Moya and “Bolaño Inc.”). It seems that he also felt that he was, at least on some level, being stereotyped based on international views of Latin America as a land of dictatorship and revolutionary fervor (point two for Castellanos Moya, although Bolaño refers to Germany; he did not live to see his widespread success in the United States).

But the final sentence of Bolaño’s response — and also the general tone of his many interviews — suggests that he didn’t take any of this too seriously. What he took seriously were books, first other writers’ and then, by extension, his own. It’s that sensibility that may allow Bolaño to outlast not only inferior posthumous cash-ins, but also his own mythology.

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