Just as the ’90s witnessed the American canonization of one important foreign writer—W. G. Sebald—the current decade has seen the same happen to the wandering novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño, who spent his boyhood in Chile, his youth mostly in Mexico, and who died in Spain in 2003, at the age of 50, after a decade of Stakhanovite productivity. His massive novel 2666, unrevised at his death, is only now appearing in translation, earlier books like the monologue By Night in Chile, the tragic mockumentary The Savage Detectives, and that vicious counterfactual lark Nazi Literature in the Americas having already secured the highest praise. Bolaño’s canonization has taken place so rapidly and completely, and with so little demurral, that one can only reluctantly pile aboard the bandwagon. But Bolaño is the real thing, as urgent, various, imaginative, and new as any writer active in the last decade. The question is: why not canonize anyone else? Why reserve for him the once-in-a-decade beatification?
In the ’90s, it didn’t matter to most American readers that Sebald had taken the hoariest tropes of German romanticism (the solitary wandering, the unnamable sorrow) and renovated a totally discredited literary tradition by employing it to honor the victims of that variety of German romanticism known as Nazism. What mattered was simply that these were literary books about the Holocaust. Bolaño, of course, was not Jewish or German, and was released from Pinochet’s prisons after a few days. He returned to Mexico to read books and smoke weed. (Later on, he took heroin.) Nevertheless, if you can only take your serious literature with a lump of state terror, eventually you run out of authentic Nazis and have to make do with the next best thing: South American generals of the ’70s. Foreign writers are like our own candidates for President: it helps to have been a prisoner of war or at least to have grown up poor. (Poor Mario Vargas Llosa, preppy and smooth with excellent hair, is the John Kerry of Latin American letters.)
Fortunately, it’s possible to appreciate books for better reasons than we know. Back-story carries you only so far as a reader, and if you’ve made it through The Savage Detectives or 2666 it must be because this writer is doing something to you that the mere mention of Pinochet or heroin can’t. As with Sebald, Bolaño is always referred to in terms of his singularity or strangeness; people who think he’s a big deal, including professional critics, mostly can’t say why. Still, an attempt may as well be made.
Bolaño’s reputation among Spanish speakers is secure, but his significance to us can’t be what it is to them. The same goes for Borges, the model Bolaño most often invoked. For Spanish speakers the importance of Borges is not confined to the black metaphysical jokes purveyed in his mind-bending fables. Hispanophone readers often describe a sense of their language as dripping with high-flown inclinations; literary Spanish tends to become humid with rhetoric and profuse with metaphors, something easy to see in modern poetry from Lorca onward. So Borges in his own language counts as a champion dessicator; he pushes Spanish toward the hard, cold, and dry. Even so, he strikes us as rhetorical enough. It fell to writers like Bolaño to complete the dryingout of literary prose already accomplished in other languages by writers like Hemingway and Camus. Bolaño can write page after page without indulging in a single metaphor, or adding a dab of rhetorical color to the account of a dinner party or a murder. Of course you can find perfect sentences in Bolaño, and crazy metaphors too, but for the most part he proceeds as if literature were too desperate an enterprise to bother with being well written. The rationale for his antieloquence belongs to the internal dynamic of any modern language: an idiom encrusted with poeticisms needs a solvent bath. But for Latin Americans of Bolaño’s generation there may also be political grounds for preferring writing degree zero to purple haze. One more disgusting feature of the Argentine junta (it is Argentines who predominate in Bolaño’s gallery of imaginary Nazi writers) was the generals’ magniloquence.
Our problem in America is hardly that our worst politicians speak too well, or that we lack for plain stylists. What is our problem, then—to which Bolaño seems a solution? American critics and regular readers alike usually don’t care for sweeping literary-historical arguments. And yet in recent years we have been celebrating Sebald and Bolaño as if we really do believe in some big metanarrative about the novel—one that proclaims that, even post postmodernism, the form remains in crisis. Sure, Sebald and Bolaño deal with fascism, and both died at the height of their powers. More decisive is that neither fiction writer writes as if he believes in fiction. Our canonization of these writers implies a sense, even a conviction, that you can’t be a really important novelist anymore unless you can’t really write novels.
Both writers are striking for the documentary or testimonial, as opposed to fictional, feel of their productions. Sebald assembled his material from interviews (especially in The Emigrants) and library-burrowing (The Rings of Saturn), and from his own life. He also interlards his texts with snapshots, ticket stubs, archival photographs: documentary proof. He makes no effort to write convincing scenes or dialogue: a character stands silent and motionless as an old Victrola, then the needle drops and the aria commences. Sebald’s fiction consists of facts and reworked testimony, and constantly points to their opposite: what we’ll never know about what really happened. Whereas ordinary novels, epistemologically unruffled for two centuries, have mostly delivered unimpeachable accounts of events that never took place.
The case of Bolaño is more complex. Where Sebald perfected a single deep and narrow mode, Bolaño was an experimenter. The impression you get from the short stories is that nothing at all has been made up, and nothing comprehended. There is a virtually Seinfeldian ban on moral growth or learning. These stories’ conclusions are by no means the poetic or pregnant endings we know from magazine fiction; they are the flat conclusions we know better from life: Then he died. Or: We lost touch. Or: That’s all I know. And yet Bolaño boasts tremendous powers of invention; especially in his longer novels, truly fictional characters, with no originals in life, proliferate alongside the personages à clef. Curiously, he treats the pure inventions as he does the lightly fictionalized acquaintances. Some facts are known about them, most not. Some literary work of dubious merit may have been left behind. There is rarely any pretense to psychological insight (though this begins to change in 2666), or characterological summing-up. Bolaño behaves toward his characters as if he were a court stenographer or deputized witness rather than a profiler or portraitist. He and his heroes care only for literature—but can’t seem to produce it in any way we recognize (except by reading Bolaño). Opaque fictional persons replace transparent fictional characters, and, instead of plots, you get one damn thing after another.
Why then, you begin to wonder, are you reading these books? What for, if they are each going to eschew psychology, characterization, pretty language, and neat conclusions, and if the narratives are all to devolve into shaggy-dog Iditarods mushing after some fugitive poet or novelist about whom—even if he ever turns up—we learn next to nothing? Why read and write at all if these empty Chinese boxes constitute the only goods ultimately in receipt?
In Bolaño, literature is a helpless, undignified, and not especially pleasant compulsion, like smoking. At one point you started and now you can’t stop; it’s become a habit and an identity. Nothing is so consistent across Bolaño’s work as the suspicion that literature is chiefly bullshit, rationalizing the misery, delusions, and/or narcissism of various careerists, flakes, and losers. Yet Bolaño somehow also treats literature as his and his characters’ sole excuse for existing. This basic Bolaño aporia—literature is all that matters, literature doesn’t matter at all—can be a glib paradox for others. He seems to have meant it sincerely, even desperately, something one would feel without knowing the first thing about his life.
Bolaño’s incoherence—books mean everything and nothing; the writer is hero and jerk—has come to seem one of the few plausible literary attitudes these days. Considered simply as a job, writing is erratically paid but with flexible hours: potentially not so bad, especially with the hedge funds laying everybody off. But as a vocation? Look around, and all you see is literature and publishing faltering in tandem. People read less and less; worse yet, they’re right to. It’s clear that, besides the occasional small or large check, most writers—ourselves included—write out of vanity and compulsion. One believes in being a writer more, it seems, than in writing. What is it, again, you once had to say? And who, supposedly, wanted to hear it? Still, Bolaño-like, you can’t conceive any redemption for you and your friends except through the production of masterpieces. Masterpieces, however, are always unlikely, and redemption impossible.
The whole thing’s hopeless and pathetic, not less so for being a reason to live. And this, finally, must be what literary people like so much about Bolaño: his career illustrates for the novel Gramsci’s famous slogan: Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.