The face in the mirror
Late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño was a chronicler of Latin America's dashed utopias

By Marcelo Ballvé

MORE THAN A year has passed since the death in 2003 of Roberto Bolaño, the maverick Chilean writer who elbowed his way into world literature's top ranks in his life's final decade. Bolaño was an unlikely candidate for literary laurels: born dyslexic, he was a high school dropout and a lifelong wanderer. His death last summer at the age of 50 came at the height of his career, soon after he had cemented his reputation, and it occasioned an outpouring of tributes in newspapers and literary journals across Europe and Latin America, as well as a few obituaries in U.S. newspapers.

But readers here did not have a chance to read him in translation until last year, some six months after he succumbed to liver disease, when New Directions put out By Night in Chile, a critically acclaimed, magisterial short novel narrated by Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a conservative priest and literary critic who gradually confesses his complicity in the Pinochet era's evils. Now the same publisher has put out Distant Star, which examines the feats of a fascist aviator and poet, Carlos Weider, who writes verses at cruising altitude with his plane's exhaust and exhibits photos of torture victims as art.

The length and spare prose of these works (neither exceeds 160 pages in translation) made them natural choices for publication in English ahead of Los detectives salvajes (The savage detectives), the novel that made Bolaño's reputation. This is a 609-page book that will be difficult to translate. It's written in idiomatic Spanish and laced with slang from at least five countries. Its 1998 publication convinced many critics that Bolaño had succeeded where so many of his contemporaries failed. Bolaño's work had finally eclipsed, at least partially, the juggernaut generation of Latin American literature, the famed "Latin American boom" writers, titans like Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel García Márquez, all of whom were born in the 1920s and 1930s. Especially after the publication of García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967 (when Bolaño was only 14), these writers came to dominate Latin American fiction.

Bolaño wasn't the first to break decisively with the boom writers' stylistic tic (magic realism) and thematic obsession (history with a capital H), but he was the first to blaze a wide enough trail into new territory so others can follow. Bolaño has left young Spanish-language writers a real gift: freedom to experiment, to tell stories without glancing over their shoulders at the old Olympians.

II

Bolaño, to shape his fictional worlds, mined his experiences wandering through the rubble of the postrevolutionary Americas and then Europe, where he moved in 1977, eventually settling in Blanes, a town of 30,000 people on the Spanish coast near Barcelona. His fiction can be described as a chronicle of Latin America's dashed utopias. Himself a child of Chile's failed revolution, Bolaño nearly lost his life as a 17-year-old during Augusto Pinochet's Central Intelligence Agency-assisted coup against Socialist martyr Salvador Allende. Violating curfew, Bolaño tried to help the forces battling the coup and ended up under arrest. He escaped the fate of so many others, who were erased from existence, thanks to dumb luck. One of the officers who took him in was a childhood friend and let him go.

Like the big bang, the 1973 coup swirls at the origin of Bolaño's work. After leaving Chile, he became an ethnographer of his own milieu, the transatlantic diaspora of Latin American writers, poets, and intellectuals. In Bolaño's depiction, they are almost all embittered and haunted, some of them drug-addled, others stubbornly, nostalgically holding on to their visions of political or artistic Shangri-las. These are people like revolutionary mercenary Juan Stein, one of Distant Star's most memorable figures. He leaves Chile and like a ghost begins to appear and disappear on the cold war battlefields of Central America, alongside Cuban internationals in Africa – or, as the novel puts it, "all the places where there was a battle to be fought, all the places in the world where Latin Americans, desperate, generous, crazed, courageous, and abhorrent, destroyed and reconstructed and then again destroyed reality ..."

But Bolaño also made incursions into the other side, exploring the nightmares Latin Americans battled or fled from. Bolaño wrote that with Distant Star he attempted "an approximation, a modest one, of pure evil." In Weider, the book's central figure, Bolaño concentrates all the poison of an era. Throughout, Weider is not depicted simply as an automaton doing the despicable will of a military government. When Weider kills, he does so with the blessing of the Pinochet regime, but he acts for his own personal, mangled reasons, with bizarre poetic convictions as his moral compass. The book is structured like a detective novel, with the narrative arc tracing the narrator's attempts to locate Weider many years after the coup, partly through literary sleuthing in European neo-Nazi publications. As the search progresses, the novel's chapters swirl toward a final confrontation and a settling of accounts.

By Night in Chile also takes a dark look at the business of literature, exploring the subterranean labyrinths connecting it with political violence. This tour comes via the deathbed confession by priest and critic Father Urrutia. Near the novel's end, Bolaño suddenly reveals the menace lurking in Urrutia's oblique descriptions of the Pinochet era: the mansion where a patroness holds well-attended literary salons turns out to also house a torture and interrogation center in the basement. In one of the priest's last visits to the mansion, the hostess, having fallen into disgrace (with her American husband exposed as a murderer), challenges the priest to go down to see the torture chamber. The priest demurs. The patroness, in a state of shock, recounts how sometimes, as her husband tortured victims below, the TV set in the house would inexplicably blink and the lights flicker. "That's how literature is made in Chile," she says. Urrutia says to himself, "That is how literature is made in Chile, but not just in Chile, in Argentina and Mexico too, in Guatemala and Uruguay, in Spain and France and Germany, in green England and carefree Italy."

III

For Bolaño, Latin America is not only a geographical expanse; it is a state of mind. It is the pieces, the ghosts, exiles took with them as they scattered around the world. In the short story "El ojo Silva" ("Silva the Eye"), Bolaño writes in the opening sentence:

It's strange how things happen, Mauricio Silva, known as the Eye, always tried to escape from violence even at the risk of being considered a coward, but the violence, the real violence, can't be escaped, at least not by us, born in Latin America in the 1950s, those of us who were around twenty years old when Salvador Allende died.

Bolaño always dealt with the impacts of violence in the private realm. He didn't work epically; he avoided historical denouements. The struggles and massacre of Colombia's plantation workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Fuentes's evocations of the Mexican Revolution, Vargas Llosa's dissection of a ferocious backwoods millenarian movement in The War at the End of the World – grand tapestries of this kind are absent in his work. History makes occasional appearances in the foreground (Pinochet's cameo in By Night in Chile) but never dominates the narrative. Unlike the boom writers, whose focus typically was not the characters themselves but their participation in defining historic events or in family epics with the resonance of myth, Bolaño focused single-mindedly on his indelible characters, the critics, poets, and writers who populate his pages. They grapple with the problems of their generation, but through private quests for peace after all the blackness and turbulence.

Silva the Eye, for example, is a "man of the left" who runs away from the battle in Chile only to have to confront it in Asia. Whether they fought or not, his characters, like the author himself, are scarred and defeated veterans of the hemisphere's dirty wars. Bolaño, accepting the Romulo Gallegos Prize (a Spanish-language equivalent to Britain's Man Booker Prize) for Los detectives salvajes, said that everything he had written could be seen as farewell letters, or love letters, written to a failed generation: "We were stupid and generous, the way young people are, who give everything and don't ask for anything in return, and now nothing remains of those young people.... Latin America is sown with their bones."

IV

But they come to life in Bolaño's pages. When Bolaño said "nothing remains" of them, he was not only speaking about those disappeared in a literal sense, those who were killed after taking up arms or entering the political arena; he was also speaking figuratively, referring to those who were changed so much that their lives are defined by a before and an after, a transition often shaped by the process of exile, but not always. Part of Los detectives salvajes deals with characters whom Bolaño called "Mexicans lost in Mexico" – internal exiles.

Bolaño spun his characters' muddled testimonies into fiction. His usual narrative technique was to write as if his characters or narrators, typically speaking in the first person, were giving a deposition on their personal histories to an invisible stenographer, or as if they were talking to a detective taking witness statements. Or, as is the case with By Night in Chile's protagonist, making a last confession. "My silences are immaculate," Father Urrutia says before beginning his story. Of course, this statement is a lie. Also suspect are the words of a military officer who testifies on behalf of Weider in a trial recounted in Distant Star: "He only did what all Chileans had to do." Despite such prevarications, most of Bolaño's characters end by making their confessions, and when the words come tumbling out, it's clear none are likely to enjoy a moment of "clean" silence or a crystal conscience, not even those who fought on the "right side."

The testimonial itself is a genre that in the aftermath of brutal dictatorships in Latin America became a mechanism against forgetting, with several countries publishing books like Argentina's Nunca más (Never again) collecting horror stories from the Dirty War. In Bolaño's fiction the scope of the testimonial is expanded as it collects material from the unexamined corners of inner lives, from characters' experiences on the fringes, the margins of the actual "action." His characters are not generals or patriarchs, leaders or dictators. They are victims, witnesses, obscure operatives, bystanders; what they know is usually fragmentary or unreliable. One of his most well-realized characters is Auxilio Lacouture, an Uruguayan poetess who appears elsewhere but is the central figure of the shorter novel Amuleto and who "witnesses" the infamous and violent military takeover of Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM) in 1968 while hiding in a toilet stall. By describing history's flotsam and jetsam instead of the storm itself, by zeroing in on the individual instead of the collective, Bolaño showed that Latin America's story had branches, offshoots, deviations, and detours that still needed looking into.

And because Bolaño liked to write the way people speak, which is plainly, there's seldom anything ornamental in his prose. The baroque depictions of landscape and action the boom writers partly derived from their worship of Faulkner are nowhere to be found. If there's anything baroque in Bolaño's art, it can only be sighted when viewing his work as a whole. His longer works – Los detectives salvajes, La literatura Nazi en América – sprout fictions, episodes, and characters (including Bolaño's alter ego, Arturo Belano) that travel between stories, intermingling with figures from history, from Bolaño's own life, and from literature.

V

Bolaño's characters are usually involved in some kind of literary activity, and many (like the protagonists of Distant Star) are poets. It's typical of Bolaño's iconoclastic spirit to identify with the literary form that is distinctly out of fashion as far as the literary marketplace, the book reviews, and best-seller lists are concerned. In By Night in Chile Pablo Neruda makes an appearance and is treated with less than reverence. Poetry is also a lens through which to view nonliterary characters. In one episode, Father Urrutia describes how he is enlisted to give classes in Marxism to the Chilean military junta so that they can "better understand the enemy." Many of the generals dutifully take notes but are prone to skip classes and can't stay awake when they do attend, or they interrupt with non sequiturs. After one class, when the only other general in attendance falls asleep, Pinochet invites Urrutia for a night walk in his gardens. Urrutia gets carried away by the beauty of the moon "sailing alone through infinite space" and recites two poems. Pinochet isn't impressed. "General Pinochet didn't express the slightest interest," Urrutia says. But he tries again, reciting another poem into the fragrant air, accompanied by night birds' songs. Pinochet's reply is brusque: "Nice poetry," he says. Poetry and Pinochet don't mix.

In Los detectives salvajes the main characters are Belano and Ulises Lima, who is based on deceased Mexican poet Mario Santiago, one of Bolaño's best friends in the 1970s. Together Santiago and Bolaño founded a poetry movement they called "infrarealism," which becomes "visceral realism" in the novel. At the heart of the book is a pilgrimage the two make to Sonora's deserts, searching for visceral realism's founder, a Mexican poetess from the 1930s named Césarea Tinarejo. The novel celebrates eccentric characters like Tinarejo, Belano, and Lima, who practice literature on society's margins with little or no recognition or success. Simultaneously, it is an exercise in deflating some of Mexico's most outsize literary reputations, especially that of Nobel Prize-winning poet and essayist Octavio Paz, author of Labyrinth of Solitude. One of the vividly drawn secondary characters is Clara Cabeza, Paz's secretary. Through her description of clerical tasks she undertakes as an employee of Paz's literary empire, Bolaño gently lampoons the idea of literary reputations that become their own industries:

I was Octavio Paz's secretary. You wouldn't believe all the work I had. From writing letters, to finding this or that un-findable manuscript, to telephoning contributors to the magazine, to getting books that were only available at one or two universities in the United States. After two years of working with Don Octavio I had chronic migraines that attacked me at around eleven in the morning and didn't go away, no matter how many aspirins I took, until six in the afternoon.

In interviews Bolaño tended to savage writers he didn't like. About Isabel Allende – who lives in northern California and is easily the best-selling Chilean writer in the world – Bolaño said, "She simply doesn't know how to write." For Bolaño, Allende is the epitome of how the cult of the best-seller ruined the boom generation's legacy. Writer after writer plundered the same material: baroque family trees, colonial and postcolonial upheavals, supernatural occurrences. Magic realism, Bolaño said, "stinks." As far as the boom's central trinity – García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Fuentes – is concerned, Bolaño said he felt no debt and only acknowledged Argentina's now-overlooked Julio Cortázar as an influence, although he noted that Cortázar really came earlier, having been born in 1914. One of Bolaño's problems with Vargas Llosa and García Márquez was that in his view both were seduced and corrupted by power: Vargas Llosa through his failed run for the Peruvian presidency and championing of economic liberalism, García Márquez through his long friendship with Fidel Castro and reluctance to criticize human rights abuses in Cuba. When Bolaño said magical realism "stinks," he was referring to moral decay too, the idea that literary stardom brought responsibilities and, in Bolaño's view, many Latin American writers failed the test, whatever their accomplishments.

VI

Bolaño wasn't shy about revealing that he lived a hard life in his wanderings. His nutrition, dental care, and smoking habit were bad enough that he lost nearly all his teeth on the way, and he joked he left them scattered throughout Latin America the same way Hansel and Gretel left a trail of bread crumbs in the forest. Ill health may have brought about his early death, but it was also a catalyst for his success. It wasn't until he was diagnosed with liver disease in 1992, when he was already nearly 40, that he was able to focus sufficiently on his writing to produce the stream of books that made him famous. When he died, he was feverishly working on a mammoth novel titled 2666, which was published posthumously in November to rave reviews in Spain and Latin America. The book, more than 1,000 pages long, deals partly with the unexplained murders of hundreds of women in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

The book will only deepen Bolaño's influence, which is already considerable. He made such an impression on Spaniard Javier Cercas that Bolaño became a main character in his novel The Soldiers of Salamis (Bloomsbury USA, 2003), which was widely praised by U.S. book reviewers. Argentines Rodrigo Fresán and Alan Pauls, along with Mexican Juan Villoro, still in their 40s, were favorites of Bolaño. He tended to name them, along with his contemporary, Argentine César Aira, whose novel The Hare (Serpent's Tail, 1998) is available in English, as a new cohort of authors transforming their region's literature – but doing so on independent tacks, sharing little beyond originality.

Fresán, who was one of Bolaño's closest friends, said in his eulogy that Bolaño, like Jorge Luis Borges, would become ubiquitous, an influence – whether detectable or not – in countless books. Bolaño shared many affinities with the Latin American master who prefigured the boom, including a love for pulpy literary genres: fantasy, science fiction, and detective stories. Bolaño's favorite metaphor for his work was that of the author as detective. Armed with testimonies from his beloved "failed generation," Bolaño devoted himself to a search for the missing, for the souls lost in Latin America's darkness. Bolaño's poem "A Ride Through Literature" contains perhaps the best self-portrait he published: "I dreamed I was an old and sick detective who searched for people who had been lost for a long while. Sometimes I looked casually in the mirror and recognized Roberto Bolaño."

Marcelo Ballvé is a San Francisco writer and critic who is presently in Buenos Aires on a writing fellowship.

Distant Star

By Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. New Directions, 160 pages, $14.95 (paper).

By Night in Chile

By Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews. New Directions, 144 pages, $13.95 (paper).