Roberto Bolaño is being sold in the U.S. as the next Gabriel García Márquez, a darker, wilder, decidedly un-magical paragon of Latin American literature. But his former friend and fellow novelist, Horacio Castellanos Moya, isn’t buying it.

infras1.jpgI had told myself I wasn’t going to say or write anything more about Roberto Bolaño. The subject has been squeezed dry these last two years, above all in the North American press, and I told myself that there was already enough drunkenness. But here I am writing about him again, like a vicious old man, like the alcoholic who promises that this will be the last drink of his life and who, the next morning, swears that he will only have one more to cure his hangover. The blame for my relapse goes to my friend Sarah Pollack, who sent me her insightful academic essay on the construction of the “Bolaño myth” in the United States. Sarah is a professor at The City University New York and her text “Latin America Translated (Again): Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in the United States” was published in the summer issue of the journal Comparative Literature.

Albert Fianelli, an Italian fellow journalist, parodies a quote often attributed to Herman Goering and says that every time someone mentions the word “market,” he reaches for his revolver. I’m not so extreme, but neither do I believe the story that the market is some kind of deity that moves on its own according to mysterious laws. The market has its landlords, like everything on this infected planet, and it’s the landlords of the market who decide the mambo that you dance, whether it’s selling cheap condoms or Latin American novels in the U.S. I say this because the central idea of Pollack’s work is that behind the construction of the Bolaño myth was not only a publisher’s marketing operation but also a redefinition of the image of Latin American culture and literature that the U.S. cultural establishment is now selling to the public.

I don’t know if it’s my bad luck or if it happens to my colleagues as well, but every time that I’ve found myself on American soil—at the airport bar, at a social gathering, wherever—and I’ve made the mistake of admitting to a citizen of that country that I’m a fiction writer who comes from Latin America, that person will immediately pull out García Márquez, and will do it, what’s more, with a self-satisfied smile, as if he were saying to me, “I know you, I know where you come from.” (Of course, I’ve found myself with wilder ones who boast about Isabel Allende or Paolo Coelho, which, ultimately, makes no difference at all, since Allende and Coelho are little more than the light and self-help versions of García Márquez.) As time goes by, however, those same North Americans, at those same bars and social gatherings, have begun to pull out Bolaño.

The key idea is that for thirty years, the work of García Márquez, with its magical realism, represented Latin American literature in the imagination of the North American reader. But since everything tarnishes and ends up losing its luster, the cultural establishment eventually went looking for something new. It sounded out the guys in the literary groups called McOndo and Crack, but they didn’t fit the enterprise—above all, as Sarah Pollack explains, it was very difficult to sell the North American reader on the world of iPods and Nazi spy novels as the new image of Latin America and its literature. Then Bolaño appeared with his The Savage Detectives and his visceral realism.

“Nobody knows for whom they work” is a phrase that I like to repeat, but it’s also a coarse reality that has struck me again and again in life. And not only me, I’m sure of that. Let’s continue. The stories and the brief novels of Bolaño were being published in the United States very carefully and tenaciously by New Directions, a very prestigious independent publisher with a modest distribution, when all of a sudden, in the middle of negotiations for The Savage Detectives, appeared, like a bolt from the blue, the powerful hand of the landlords of fortune, who decided that this excellent novel was the work chosen to be the next big thing, the new One Hundred Years of Solitude, if you will. And it was written, what’s more, by an author who had died a little earlier, which facilitated the process of organizing the operation. The construction of the myth preceded the great launch of the work. I quote Sarah Pollack:

    “Bolaño’s creative genius, compelling biography, personal experience of the Pinochet coup, the labeling of some of his works as Southern Cone dictatorship novels, and his untimely death from liver failure on July 15, 2003, at the age of fifty contribute to ‘produce’ the figure of the author for U.S. reception and consumption, and in doing so, anticipate the reading of his work that is propagated in this country.”

The market has its landlords, like everything on this infected planet, and it’s the landlords of the market who decide the mambo that you dance, whether it’s selling cheap condoms or Latin American novels in the U.S.

Maybe I was not the only one surprised when, on opening the North American edition of The Savage Detectives, I found a photograph of the author that I didn’t recognize. It is a post-adolescent Bolaño, with his long hair and mustache, the look of a hippie or of the young non-conformist in the time of the infrarealists—the poetry movement he helped found in Mexico in 1974—and not the Bolaño who wrote the books that we know. I was delighted at the photo, and since I’m naïve, I told myself that surely it had been a stroke of luck for the editors to get a photo of the time to which the greater part of the novel alludes. (Now that the infrarealists have started their own website, you can find several of these photos posted there, among which I recognize my pals Pepe Peguero, Pita, “Mac,” and even the Peruvian journalist José Rosas, now settled in Paris, whose connection to the group I wasn’t aware of.) It didn’t occur to me to think then, since the book had just come off the press and was beginning to cause a stir in New York, that this nostalgic evocation of the rebel counterculture of the sixties and seventies was part of a finely-tuned strategy.

It was no casual fact, then, that the majority of articles profiling the author laid the emphasis on the episodes of his tumultuous youth: his decision to drop out of high school and become a poet; his terrestrial odyssey from Mexico to Chile, where he was jailed during the coup d’état; the formation of the failed infrarealist movement with the poet Mario Santiago; his itinerant existence in Europe; his eventual jobs as camp watchman and dishwasher; a presumed drug addiction; and his premature death. “These iconoclastic episodes coupled with Bolaño’s death at fifty,” writes Pollack, “are too tempting to narrate as anything but a tragedy of mythical proportions: here seems to be someone who actually saw his youthful ideals through to their ultimate consequences.” “Meet the Kurt Cobain of Latin American literature,” wrote Daniel Crimmins in Paste magazine.

Every time I’ve found myself on American soil and I’ve made the mistake of admitting that I’m a fiction writer who comes from Latin America, that person will immediately pull out García Márquez, and will do it, what’s more, with a self-satisfied smile, as if he were saying to me, “I know you.” Now, those same North Americans have begun to pull out Bolaño.

No North American journalist highlighted the fact, Sarah Pollack warns, that The Savage Detectives and the greater part of Bolaño’s prose work “were written as a sober family man” during the last ten years of his life—and an excellent father, I’d add, whose major preoccupation was his children, and that if he took a lover at the end of his life, he did it in the most conservative Latin American style, without threatening the preservation of his family. Pollack notes that “Bolaño appears to the reader, even before one crosses the novel’s threshold, as a cross between the Beats and Arthur Rimbaud (another reference for his alter ego Arturo Belano), his life already the stuff of legend.” Yet the majority of critics have passed over the fact that Bolaño didn’t die as a result of drug or alcohol abuse, but from a case of poorly cared-for pancreatitis that had destroyed his liver; or that his case was more similar to those of Balzac or Proust, who also died at fifty after a tremendous work effort, than it was to those of North American pop idols.

I can tell you, though, that Bolaño would have found it amusing to know they would call him the James Dean, the Jim Morrison, or the Jack Kerouac of Latin American literature. Wasn’t the first novella that he wrote a quatre mains with García Porta called Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic? Maybe he wouldn’t have found so amusing the hidden reasons that they called him that, but that’s flour for another sack. What is certain is that Bolaño was always a non-conformist; he was never a subversive or a revolutionary wrapped up in political movements, nor was he even a writer maudit. He was a non-conformist, just as the Royal Spanish Academy defines it: “One who polemicizes, opposes, or protests[…] anything established.”

From the beginning of the nineteen seventies, he was non-conformist against the Mexican literary establishment—already represented by Juan Bañuelos and Octavio Paz. With that same non-conformist mentality, and not with any political militancy, he went to Allende’s Chile. (Speaking of this trip, about which a journalist from the New York Times has cast some doubt, I called my friend the filmmaker Manuel “Meme” Sorto in Bayonne, France, where he lives now, to ask him if he was not certain that Bolaño had spent the night at his house in San Salvador when he went through Chile and also on his return—Bolaño mentions it in Amulet—and this is what Meme told me: “Roberto came still shaken up by the fright he’d had in jail. He stayed in my house in the Atlacatl colony and then he rode to the Parque Libertad stop and took the bus to Guatamala.”) And he remained a non-conformist up to the end of his life, when fortune had already begun to touch him: he attacked the sacred cows of Latin American literature, especially the boom, which he called, in an email he sent me in 2002: “the rancid private club full of cobwebs presided over by Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, Fuentes, and other pterodactyls.”

The majority of critics have passed over the fact that Bolaño didn’t die as a result of drug or alcohol abuse, but from a case of poorly cared-for pancreatitis that had destroyed his liver; or that his case was more similar to that of Balzac or Proust, who also died at fifty after a tremendous work effort, than it was to that of North American pop idols.

It was this non-conformity that served to perfection the myth’s construction in the United States, in the same way that this aspect of Che’s life (the motorcycle journey and not the experience as minister of Castro’s regime or guerilla leader assassinated by the CIA) is what was used to sell his myth in the same market. The new image of the Latin American is not so new, then. But the old mythology of the road trip, which came from Kerouac, has now been recycled with the face of Gael García Bernal (who will also portray Bolaño in an upcoming film, by the way). The novelty for the American reader is that he will come away with two complementary messages that appeal to his sensibility and expectations: on one side the novel evokes the “youthful idealism” that leads to rebellion and adventure. But on the other side, it can be read as a morality tale, in the sense that “it is very good to be a brazen rebel at sixteen years old, but if a person doesn’t grow and change into an adult person, serious and established, the consequences can be tragic and pathetic,” as in the case of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. Sarah Pollack concludes: “It is as if Bolaño were confirming what U.S. cultural norms tout as truth.” And I say: so it was in the case of our distinguished author, who needed to sit down and count on a solid family base to write the work that he wrote.

What isn’t the fault of the author is that American readers, with The Savage Detectives, want to confirm their worst paternalistic prejudices about Latin America, as Pollack’s text says, like the superiority of the Protestant work ethic or the dichotomy according to which North Americans see themselves as workers, mature, responsible, and honest, while they see their neighbors to the South as lazy, adolescent, reckless, and delinquent. Pollack says that from this point of view The Savage Detectives is “a very comfortable choice for U.S. readers, offering both the pleasures of the savage and the superiority of the civilized.” And I repeat: nobody knows for whom it works. Or as the poet Roque Dalton wrote: “Anyone can make the books of the young Marx into a light eggplant puree. What is difficult is to conserve them as they are, that is to say, as an alarming ants’ nest.”

(A version of this essay originally appeared in Spanish in the Argentine newspaper, La Nación. Translated by Robert P. Baird and Wes Enzinna.)

Born in Honduras in 1957, Horacio Castellanos Moya is the author of nine novels, among them El Asco: Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador, about which Roberto Bolaño once wrote, this novel “threatens the hormonal balance of imbeciles, and those who read it feel the irrepressible desire to hang the author in a public plaza. In truth, there is no higher honor for an author.” His novels available in English include Senselessness (New Directions), The She-Devil in the Mirror (New Directions), and Dance with Snakes (Biblioasis). He lives in exile in Tokyo, Japan, and was interviewed in _Guernica_’s “April 2009 issue.

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism. 

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.

26 Comments on “Bolaño Inc.

  1. Castellano Moya makes many good points regarding the canonization of Bolano, but I have two observations: Castellano Moya is anything but “naive” and it is curious why he reserves his greatest vehemence against North American (I think he means U.S. since Mexico is part of N.A.) readers, critics and publishers. From my point of view, I’ve met lots of Latin Americans who have contributed greatly to the Bolano myth and have profited by claiming, while shedding tears, to be his best unknown buddy/gal who knew him when he sold cashews from a basket by the bus station to survive. Let’s spread the condemnation around: sadly, the Bolano myth is alive and thriving in Mexican, Latin American and European intellectual circles (dare I say Japanese??).

    David Unger, escritor guatemalteco que escribe en ingles

  2. It’s sort of disgusting how prejudiced Moya is against Americans, and the seething jealousy he has over Bolona’s works success is just a bad look all around. Does he really think they don’t market writers in Latin American? What a bigot and a fool.

    Bolano has gained notoriety because of his work, not his life. And the fact is he is still basically unknown in America, despite some fantastic reviews over the past few years.

  3. When I got to the comments section, I was surprised to find mentions of “seething jealousy” and “cynicism” and someone calling Moya a “bigot and a fool.” I came away with a completely different impression of Moya’s article. I found that he expressed great regard and admiration for Bolaño’s literary work and a curiosity and interest for the workings of a myth-making machine. Of course writers are marketed everywhere. We live in a market-based society. But run-of-the-mill marketing is very different from myth building, and I found his reflections on the subject very interesting. I wonder what made other readers see such negativity in this article…often what we read into something says a lot more about ourselves than the original author…

  4. Perhaps the author is right to highlight the myth surrounding Bolano. My point is that the texts create their own mythology, their own peculiar aura which bypasses any image created by critics, publishers or media, which, at best, is superficial. My understanding too is that Bolano liked to create his own mythology and if publishers want to use that to sell books, why shouldn’t they? It would be different if the writing was dross. A discerning reader will always look past the life of any writer, imagined or not, and immerse himself in the power of the text.

  5. Creo que perteneces al selecto grupo de latinoamericanos que se revuelcan y los corroe la envidia de que el otro, muerto logro lo que todos ustedes nunca lograran en vida, escribir, vivir como un forever y ademas, gozar del reconocimiento mundial. Revuelcate en tu mediocridad, y en tu eterna incapacidad para trascender, por que el otro, el muertito ya nos dejo un legado. El tuyo, seran los textos agrios en el internet.

    Te escribo desde Craig Street aqui en Oakland, Pittsburgh, y te he escuchado hablar y solo vomitas rencor encubierto… sobran los intelectualetes como tu por toda latinoamerica,


  6. Would love to get author’s input, besides editor’s picks at end of piece, on the writers or specific titles, already translated, we could be reading instead of those that are marketed to us…I’ve loved my experience with Bolano, but one of my main reactions has been a sudden curiosity & desire to read more Latin American Writers.

    Give us a jumping off point. Please!

  7. Yes, someone(his publisher) has to figure out a way to market and sell Bolano’s books. So what if they do it by using photos from the seventies? More people are reading Bolano today, and that’s a good thing isn’t it? I understand the need to roll one’s eyes whenever someone makes a reference to Marquez- but Americans are just getting to know Bolano, so of course his name is going to be on their tongues.

  8. I don’t get this article. It looks like the writer doesn’t have a problem with Bolanos himself as much with the fact that Bolanos is now famous? He seems to complaint that Americans like him thanks to some dark conspiracy? To create a “Myth”? But he never mentions whether Bolanos work is truly good? This piece reveals more about the jealousy of this obscure Honduran writer towards Bolanos’ fame than anything else.

  9. I am sad that other Americans who read cannot understand that this is an article that comments on the persona of Bolano, not on the work itself. Perhaps he is a bit jealous, I can’t say from the article, but the focus is on the misperception of a genius’ character.

    I would love to say I “discovered” Bolano on a trip to Columbia at an outdoor bookmarket, but I “discovered” the novel thanks to Borders putting the thick book in my face and thanks to the publishers giving 2666 a wicked cover. I fell in love with the writing, but nothing can escape the American machine that is commerce.

    You have to kid yourself to think Bolano was brought to the masses because he was the only great Latin American writer in the last 20 years? You also have to kid yourself if you think that pointing out flaws with the way readers get introduced to readers means that the author dislikes their examples.

  10. Honestly, this is a very typical commentary from a latin american cultural commentator. Living in Mexico for 5 years I must have read hundreds of articles like this. It is published because it is what anglophobic anti-American readers want to hear — a diatribe about those naive Americans and their foolish gullibility in the face of a corporate media monster. Honestly, this article is a deeper insight into the insecurities of the latin american intellectual than it is a criticism of Bolano. If he is so sensitive about being stereotyped as “adolescent” by Americans maybe he should take pause and not write an article that reinforces that stereotype by essentially exposing his childlike jealousies and overt ethnocentrisms.

  11. I’m really pleased to have come across this article and surprised to see how so many people take offense at this essay as if it were a personal attack on themselves. The accusation that this is written for an “anglophobic” and “anti-american” audience (who gives a _____ about being anti-american, anyway? Unless I’m accidentally reading the website of a conservative talk show host) is narrow-minded and absurd.

    I think this article is an accurate articulation of how the capitalist market works and the level of ignorance most North Americans have about the rest of the world. If these two things are new to you, you need to crawl out of the rock you’ve been living under for the past 100 years. The fact that much of the information Castellanos Moya uses to support his points was gleaned from an article written by an ANGLO professor at a US university only make the cries of bigotry and anglophobia sound all the more ridiculous.

    As far as other Latin American authors, try Alberto Fuguet (McOndo movement) and I’ll naively suggest Cortazar, because if you haven’t read his shorts stories you should get your hands on them!

  12. Yes, it’s hard to tell what the terrible Americans did wrong, here. They are excited about a really great writer? They want to talk about him with people who might be able to tell them more? They enjoy Bolano’s look back at his adolescent adventures as much as the writer himself clearly did?

    Moya’s main complaint seems to be that we don’t understand that Bolano grew up to be a hard-working family man. Ummm, I understand it, it’s great. But it’s not really the subject of his work.

  13. I agree with many of the comments above and am happy to see that gradually the readers who think that Moya is a “bigot” or that it is typical “anglophoic” latin american diatribe have been out numbered. I think it is worth pointing out that Moya is himself a huge writer, very well known in Latin America (and the world) and highly influential. Jealous is definitely not the driving force here. I do think that it is important that Bolano grew up to be a solid family man because without it he would not have had the same ability to insert the sense of tragedy into the characters of the young and naive Belano and Lima. Yet, I think Moya is blaming the marketing too much. Of course it is well marketed, but it is also good, in fact its excellent. Most people would not push themselves nearly 1000 pages of 2666 unless you were reading a genius; however good the marketing was.

  14. A brief correction: The quote misattributed to Goering is: “Each time I hear the word CULTURE I reach for my revolver,” and it originated, best to our knowledge, with the German Expressionist Poet and playwright Hans Johst.

  15. As readers, we seek the Bolano myth in the same way we seek compelling narratives in any writer’s life story. Think of the interest paid to Cheever’s sexuality or Raymond Carver’s poverty and alcoholism. The selling of a writer’s life story along with his works is not unusual and I don’t believe we have to look very deeply into the matter to see why it is Bolano’s youth that is sold rather than his more settled existence in Spain. The story of his youth is sexier. Even more importantly, it is integral to the text. Dissidence, exile, and itinerancy are essential themes in The Savage Detective and the Bolano oeuvre. Readers naturally seek parallels between the text and the author’s life (and with Bolano it doesn’t take much seeking to find them).

    We do not need any explanation for why someone (North American or otherwise) would choose to read and enjoy The Savage Detectives. It is a brilliant work. Furthermore, the construction of the Bolano myth around his rebellious and itinerant youth seems unavoidable and justifiable. If this myth reinforces the paternalistic prejudices some North Americans have toward Latin America, it is an unfortunate byproduct of, but not the motive underlying, Bolano’s popularity in the States and his readers’ interest in his life.

  16. Yo, hears how it went down fer me: read Unsufferable Guacho, said, “wowzers, who dis nutty fella?” Looked him up on this mighty interweb connection and went and read every translated line, under my covers, headlamp illuminating. His worst = Savage D. Still kicks Letham, Franzen, DFW to the curb down the gutter. So then I was like, “shit, those Latinos got it goin on! Let me take a closer look…” whammo! Cesar f-in Aira. U serious? There goes P. Roth! I like investigations so I goes to New Directions site: Javier Marias its about time we discovered yer arsenic. I know he’s Spainard, but North American’s gettin their asses handed to em. So Moya, my dawg diggity, listen to this – if we meet, hell yes, I’m droppin yer country man’s names and you better listen coz my country marketing is so bad, I can’t pay people to read Bolano and Aira. I say “Dazzling!” “Raunchy!” “The Great B!” But, it isn’t workin… I got no one Moya, no one!

  17. Moya’s point here is not that reading bolano is essentially good, or essentially bad, nor that mythologizing bolano is essentially good or bad. it is that reading and mythologizing him in a ‘self-destructive beatnik/rockstar’ mode is itself reckless and destructive.

  18. We also like to believe that Sun Ra is really from Saturn and not Sonny Blount, a financially struggling fringe musician from Birmingham/Philly.

    Most Miles Davis fans don’t preoccupy with his history of slapping his women around or being the son of a middle class dentist.

    In the end, the artist’s WORK outshines any ‘truth’ from his/her real life and in the years following death, the ‘myth’ and persona that has been cultivated either by the individual or his handlers/marketers is what lives on and become real. Why care if Bolano was a conservative upstanding family man while writing the debauchery and adventurism in Savage Detectives? If the persona invention helps sell more of his books and brings his outstanding writing to the Borders crowd, I say bravo! Nothing reckless or destructive about it.

    More annoying than this pointless sour grapes article by Moya (and the apologetic comments for his viewpoint) is the condescending ‘academic debunking’ by Sarah Pollack. Nothing better than an enlightened American scholar educating the rest of us on why we are so naive to buy into the Bolano myth hook, line, and sinker and that we should be embarrassed to read him in public instead of a suitably underground, authentic, academia-approved, Latin American author. Get a real job Sarah, you provoke nausea.

  19. Yes Avi, why “reckless and destructive”? The author here is saying, ‘listen up, I knew Bolano and this is who he really was…’ But we don’t care, just like I don’t give two shits if Hemingway was gay or not. Pablo good thoughts but as much as this article is senseless, Moya’s novel Senselessness I believe ranks up there with some of Bolano’s novellas (not as high as Monsieur Pain or By Night in Chile). Check it out! I will read all of Moya’s books despite this article.

  20. unfortunate article. bolano is a good author. this is over analysis without purpose other than to vilify unintended popularity

  21. Yes Jake, I agree about Senselessness and some of Moya’s other works that I have read. My critique of his position on Bolano does not bear on how I feel about him as an author. I will however be prejudiced and choose NOT to read anything written by Sarah Pollack. For some reason, I don’t think I’ll be missing much.

  22. The article seems to me to really be about the American tendency to romanticize Latin America in many ways, one of them being literature. This unrealistic way of looking at LA is often condescending, patronizing, and self-affirming. It also allows sub-par literature to be acclaimed and widely read, while perhaps leaving other, more artistic and original writers, undiscovered. The same phenomenon exists surrounding the Latinos within the US–all this just seems to go hand in hand with our romanticizing, and, as a result, misinterpretation of history and disconnect with the rest of the world. I also think Americans get a bad rap–so it’s possible that we are victims of the same kind of type-casting. Many educated Americans who care enough to read literature are indeed thoughtful and considerate readers and human beings. It is good to be aware, however, as it is always good to be woken up from our current belief system on a regular basis–

  23. Both Pollack and Moya’s articles make many good points, and I think are more than just cynical takes on Bolano’s success. Reader’s who insult Moya or think he has insulted Bolano’s work are not very careful readers. Moya never attacks his work and clearly holds it in high regard. I do think he is a bit reductionist in his opinion of North Americans.

    But most importantly, he completely ignores the way in which Bolano’s mytholigization began as a self-mythologization, from the very beginning. I mean really, who founds movements? With idols such as Tzara, Breton, Kerouac, it’s not at all surprising that someone as talented and intelligent as Bolano understood that not only did he have to live a life worth writing about, and not only did he have to write about it, but he also had to weave the story into his life. Forget about the landlords, Roberto started this myth on his own.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *