Monday, December 7, 2009

Roberto Bolaño: the enfant terrible of Chilean letters

Recently while on holiday I had the good fortune to stumble across two novels by the Chilean-born writer Roberto Bolaño after I was forced to take shelter from one of Auckland's sudden cloudbursts in Unity Bookshop. I had never previously encountered Bolaño's work, but the darkly humourous and marvellously absurd premise of his Nazi Literature in the Americas captivated me at once and I left the shop shortly afterwards having purchased it along with its "companion" piece, Distant Star.

Bolaño seems in many ways the bastard Chilean literary son that Jorge Luis Borges never had - his politics, to be sure, are somewhat different (Bolaño was imprisoned by the Pinochet regime for his revolutionary socialist acitivities and after being rescued from a detention centre went off to join the FMLN in El Salvador) - but the overarching themes and motifs are startlingly similar. In Bolaño you find the same delight in deliberately blurring the lines between fiction and reality, between literature and life. Bolaño is simulataneously fascinated and troubled by the idea that amidst events of world-historical importance (such as the dictatorships of Hitler and Pinochet), certain individuals can busy themselves in the pursuit of avant-garde poetics and literary utopias and relate to political movements such as fascism as purely aesthetic phenomena. This forms the essential background to the two novels (if "novels" is really the right term) in question here: the first an encyclopedia of imaginary fascist poets and writers who in the age of capitalist mass culture and commodity fetishism find solace in the reactionary idyll of Nazism, the second (Distant Star) seemingly an extension of one of the characters whose fictional biographies is recounted in Nazi Literature in the Americas, the aviator "poet of the skies" Carlos Ramírez Hoffman (renamed here to Alberto Ruiz-Tagle aka Carlos Wieder).

Ramírez Hoffman and Ruiz-Tagle are both essentially amoral, Nietzschean supermen who take advantage of the military coup in Chile to further their own macabre artistic project that involves sky writing, murder, photography and verse. Their careers become so fantastical that doubt is cast on whether they are in fact real, while (in a characteristically Borgesian twist) they are themselves pursued by a private detective (who appears to be conflated with the author himself). Although there is plenty of violence and cruelty, the real subject here is not human morality or politics but rather the subversion of reality through art.

Bolaño, despite his radical marxist background, is distinctly unenthusiastic about those who insist that art must be made to serve some higher political or ethical purpose - as he remarked in the very last interview he gave shortly before his untimely death of liver failure at the age of 50 in 2003 (in response to a question about what he would say to Salvador Allende now if he had the chance):

Los que tienen el poder (aunque sea por poco tiempo) no saben nada de literatura, sólo les interesa el poder.

In the same interview he depricates Pablo Neruda and the "empty rhetoric" of the modern-day left which bores him, equally as much as that of the right. More surprisingly perhaps (given his fondness for the great Chilean "antipoet" Nicanor Parra) he is also unmoved by Vicente Huidobro, whose literary career - especially the preoccupations with futurist/fascist imagery - in many ways resembled so closely his own (Bolaño always thought of himself as a poet and only turned to writing fiction in middle age in order to support his family economically). Like Huidobro though his essential nature it seems (though of course he denies it!) is to be contrarian, to rebel against everything that exists.

Thanks to the recent translation of many of Bolaño's works into English he is now achieving a certain measure of posthumous recognition in the Anglophone world - his novel 2666 (which I have yet to read!) has made a number of critics' short lists for the best book of 2008/9 and won the 2008 US National Book Critics' Circle Award.

As one perceptive critic noted, Bolaño's fiction "...can be described as a chronicle of Latin America's dashed utopias" and perhaps for this reason it seems more 'real' and faithful to the lived experience of our own generation than the 'magical realist' style of the earlier, more hopeful generation of writers like Gabriel García Márquez.