Roberto Bolaño died in 2003, but in the years since has become the biggest writer to emerge from Latin America in decades. On his birthday, we look back at his life and work.
Born in Santiago, Chile as the son of a truck driver and a teacher, Bolaño didn’t let dyslexia and shortsightedness stop him. He had an insatiable love of literature and read everything he could get his hands on (which often meant shoplifting) regardless of genre, subject matter, or perceived literary quality.
Bolaño spent much of his youth dealing with dislocation as his family moved around Chile. When Bolaño was 15, the family relocated to Mexico City, an event he cites as pivotal in his life. He discovered in the Mexican capital “a vast, almost imaginary place where freedom and metamorphosis were a daily spectacle.”
Skinny and bookish, Bolaño was often bullied and dropped out of high school with hopes of becoming a poet and journalist. He also became involved in the vibrant left-wing street politics that were then roiling the capital. Sensing a great moment in history had come, in 1973 he returned to Chile when the Socialist government of Salvador Allende was elected. He had only been there a few months when General Augusto Pinochet launched a CIA-backed coup. Bolaño worked for the resistance, and was arrested and jailed as a terrorist. Though Pinochet’s regime was notorious for torturing and often killing dissident writers, Bolaño escaped such treatment thanks to sheer chance – one of the guards recognized him as a former classmate, and was able to get Bolaño freed.
This story is repeated a couple different times in Bolaño’s work, most notably in “The Savage Detectives,” the multilayered, nonlinear autobiographical novel whose English publication in 2007 first made him a global literary star. But in the years since, some of Bolaño’s friends have come forward to say that he wasn’t even in Chile when the coup occurred – much less imprisoned by Pinochet. A trickster and self-mythologizer, Bolaño once wrote an autobiographical piece detailing his withdrawal from heroin. That he was a former heroin addict thus became a widely accepted fact in the English-speaking world, though his wife and friends later said he never even tried the drug.
Moving back to Mexico in 1974 (if, in fact, he was in Chile during the coup at all), Bolaño met the poet Mario Santiago. Along with a dozen or so other artists and poets, the group formed the “infrarealists” movement, which Bolaño described as a kind of Mexican Dadaism.
Its chief aim was deriding the Latin American literary establishment, one that Bolaño thought had for too long been dominated by magic realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Bolaño and his gang would stage “gratuitous attacks” (his term), crashing literary events to shout their own poetry over the words of the invited guests. His enemies were many – he chided Marquez as “a man terribly pleased to have hobnobbed with so many Presidents and Archbishops.” He described the work of Isabelle Allende, a Chilean writer he particularly disliked, as “attempts at fiction ranging from kitsch to pathetic.”
As leader of the infrarealists, Bolaño was, in the words of his editor Jorge Herralde, “a professional provocateur feared at all the publishing houses even though he was a nobody.”
Though he published two books of poetry in Mexico, Bolaño would remain “a nobody” for much of his life. In 1977, he moved to Barcelona. While still writing poetry at night, he held down a number of day jobs, working as a grape harvester, a dockworker, a dishwasher and a garbage collector. It wasn’t until the birth of his son in 1990 that he started writing novels, feeling that they would secure a financial future for his family that his poetry never could.
All his major works – “By Night in Chile,” “The Savage Detectives,” his masterpiece “2666” – came in rapid succession during what proved the last decade of Bolaño’s life. After being diagnosed with potentially lethal liver problems, he upped his pace, sometimes writing for as many as 48 hours at a stretch before collapsing.
His first works won few readers, but all that changed with “The Savage Detectives,” a sprawling work which won the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 1998 and earned him comparisons to Jorge Luis Borges and Argentine writer Julio Cortazar. After winning the prize (and in typical enfant terrible fashion lobbing a number of bombs in accompanying interviews and essays), he spent the next five years working on “2666” – a narrative largely set in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, Mexico (clearly based on Juarez) and centering on the murders of some 400 women.
At one point, Bolaño gave up the book, telling his Spanish publisher he hoped to wrangle the epic five-part, 1,000-page-plus beast into submission after the liver transplant he was awaiting.
Three months later, Bolaño was dead of liver failure.
The novel was released nearly a year later to universal acclaim, and its English language debut in 2008 became the literary event of the year. The novel won the National Book Critics Award and had readers comparing Bolaño to Haruki Murakami and David Foster Wallace (whose own posthumous release, “The Pale King,” may prove to be the publishing highlight of 2011).
This year will see more of Bolaño’s work published in translation, with “Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches (1998–2003)” slated for May publication. The Paris Review is currently serializing another of his unpublished novels, while a sixth section of “2666” has reportedly been found by his widow.
All of these years since his passing, we still haven’t seen the last of Roberto Bolaño.