Just as the ’90s witnessed the American canonization of one important foreign writer—W. G. Sebald—the current decade have 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 drying-out 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 anti-eloquence 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.