Bolaño: A BIOGRAPHY IN CONVERSATIONS
by Mónica Maristain
Melville House, 288 pages
reviewed by Ana Schwartz
The first section of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 describes a small but ardent group of academic literary critics who dedicate their lives to the work of an obscure German author, Benno von Archimboldi. Almost five hundred pages later, in the last section, “The Part About Archimboldi” Bolaño finally introduces the author. In between stretch many strange adventures, but most are not directly related to the work of the author. But neither, really, was the first part, “The Part About the Critics.” Instead, Bolaño narrates the friendships and rivalries of four dedicated readers. If not for the table of contents, the fictitious novelist would appear to be merely the occasion to build a story out of these otherwise unremarkable lives. Actually, for the characters, Archimboldi, who keeps evading their grasp, really does turn out to be an excuse for them all to sustain richer and more companionable lives.
Mónica Marstain’s recent biography of Roberto Bolaño is a little like that. What’s different is that she interviews almost everyone in his world. Reminiscing on their various relationships with the cult author, one gets a more vivid picture of the many worlds in which Bolaño circulated, more vividly and clearly than the author himself appears. It is the first major biography of Bolaño, but instead of a neat and easily digestible chronicle of one man’s short, brilliant life, Maristain has assembled a loose, and for the most part, satisfying bio-picaresque. Bolaño, perhaps the most famous Latin American literary figure of the 21st century, appears in these pages as a literary savant—a poet and a novelist—and a playful friend.
Critically, Marstain appears to revitalize the biography genre, not by presenting a new perspective on the author, but by including the many new perspectives and anecdotes shared by his companions. The volume is brisk and animated, and, as Maristain reminds us over and again, unweighted by the burden of mythology that Bolaño’s memory has suffered for the past two decades.
Roberto Bolaño appeared on the Anglo-American literary scene in 2006 with the translation and publication of his fourth novel, The Savage Detectives. It was hailed for its iconoclasm and daring. Within two years, English-speaking readers received his tenth and ultimate novel, the weighty 2666. A few of his early short works had already been translated into English, but this rapid succession of major and well-recognized sub-genres of the novel—the road trip and the encyclopedic novel—cemented his status as a major contemporary novelist, regardless of national origin. The fame was shored up by his commercially satisfying biography: an early sense of destiny; his nomadic travels within the Spanish-speaking world, primarily Chile, Mexico and Spain; and a relatively young death, an unfortunately short life decorated at its edges by rumors of serious drug addiction. It’s the sort of thing that a mainstream American book review might lyricize as “a long period of displacement and travel and drug-taking and odd jobs in France and Spain.”
Maristain’s biography militates against this myth. In the conversations with fellow writers, critics and friends, the tragic writer myth does reappear frequently. It’s difficult to avoid, of course. One virtue of this biography’s aversion to smooth and linear narrative is that it can remind readers of how addictive such narrative can be.
Maristain follows traditional biographical narrative to open the book. The first chapters are about Bolaño’s childhood in Chile, his family life, and his youth and early adulthood in Mexico. These chapters give a strong sense of his early dedication to literature. His family and early friends consistently recall Roberto as a relentless reader and savage writer, and here and there in these memories, they note that he could also be self-conscious, sometimes jestingly so, about deliberately cultivating the personality of a writer. He smoked, he read, he smoked, he wrote.
He persists with this persona into the later years, but his friends recall a more spontaneous, and often more fun adult than the Bolaño of myth. Bolaño was active in a group of avant-garde Mexican writers who called themselves the Infrarealists. He may even have been the founder. The group was memorialized in The Savage Detectives as the Visceral Realists. Juan García Madero, the narrator of that novel, writes at its outset: “I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realist. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.”
The Infrarealists rejected the too-commercial, too-sentimental literature of the generation before, the writers of the Latin American Boom, which was represented in its most popular form by authors like Isabel Allende or Octavio Paz. It’s a perverse pleasure to be treated to the literary shade-throwing Maristain includes so early in the book: The insults exchanged between Bolaño and Allende are particularly sour, and if they seem unfairly directed at the writer’s person, it’s a tacit, reasonable consequence of the Infrarealist idea that aesthetics ought not be separated from an artistic life—a sentiment familiar to avant-garde movements throughout history. This is one reason it’s so hard to extricate the myth of Bolaño from any account of his life. Good literature is, evidently, a totalizing life endeavor.
But if it’s a holistic life pursuit then it also includes the camaraderie and influence of other writers. Maristain preserves the camaraderie in the form of the conversational biography. When she turns to the author’s friends to describe his personal development, she emphasizes how even the most determinedly individual authors depend on their communities. These friends and companions are themselves major contemporary Latin American authors and literary figures in their own rights. Maristain tracks down Ignacio Echevarría, one of the leading critics of twentieth century Latin American literature and Bolaño’s “executor,” Jorge Herralde, the founder of the publishing house Anagrama, and Carmen Boullosa, one of Mexico’s eminent contemporary novelists and playwrights. Accidentally, the biography does double duty as an introductory primer to Contemporary Latin American literature. This feature doesn’t depend on the conversational format, but readers benefit from getting an intimate account of the relationships among authors, a first-hand account of aesthetic and intellectual affinities.
The polyphony leads to perhaps one of the best features of this format in retrospectively assessing Bolaño’s work: if these conversations tell us anything, they collectively tell us that it’s okay to not actually like all of Bolaño’s work, or even like him at all. Just as the rumors about his tragically high place in the line for the liver transplant that might have saved him, no one seems to really agree on what his importance for Latin American letters will have been. Some of his closest friends happen to love his writing; others don’t care for it much at all. But even when their assessments of the aesthetic qualities conclude in the negative, all seem to agree that Bolaño’s existence as a character has impacted 20th century literature, particularly for Latin America in its relation to the world.
Latin America’s relationship to English-language readers is essential here. According to some of Maristain’s interlocutors, the popularity he’s enjoyed in the United States is evidence of the a loss of faith in literature following the “postmodern games” of the late 20th century. In addition to the fantasy of a writer who gives up everything for his craft, there’s the playful earnestness of the Infrarealists. Like Juan García Madero, Juan Pascoe, a real-life poet, reminisces on the moment that “everyone said: ‘The Infrarealist movement has begun,’ I can’t remember if we signed a paper or not, and then we left.” Yet it’s not so simple as a reckless pursuit of literary poverty. According to pretty much every source, Bolaño’s primary goal was indeed literary fame, and yes, it did lead him through certain precarious jobs—there were times when he worked at a campsite half the year in order to save money for the other half, when he lived in Madrid, for example. But from his earliest days, his friends and family point out, he aspired to a middling class status, and to perform it well. He was a fastidious dresser, for example, always ironing his clothes; there had to be dignity despite low income.
From these interviews, Maristain composes an example of an artistic life inseparable from historical and national context. In some ways, this is disappointing: it’s less glamorous to imagine such an intense and moving writer having to go about daily life, even working to construct for himself the life that most of us happen to already live. On the other hand, there’s a persistent humor to the dullness, one that Bolaño himself, evidently, grew into. Even if he knew from a young age that he would become an important writer, his relationship to that personal goal changed over time. His friends often observe how he used to be much more intense about his love life, for instance, but grew into an ironic amusement about his intensity. After his death, the city of Girona named a street after him; it’s quite an honor, and more than one friend observes that No. 2666 on that street will be worth quite a sum one day. Still, these friends share the pleasant and laughable irony that for now, the street is empty, in the middle of a distant suburb.
Mónica Maristain holds the ambivalent distinction to have held the last interview with Roberto Bolaño. Melville House also published the text of that email exchange, in 2011, as part of the press’s Last Interview series. Transforming from an interviewer into a biographer has its rough patches for Maristain, and, with tactful circumscription, she admits the difficulty. For example, in the chapter on the escribidoras, the popular (mostly female) writers of the Latin American Boom, she includes one of the few references to her own opinion and tastes. She presents herself in the third-person, acknowledging that the work of a literary critic is to some degree distinct from the work of the interviewer, but that the biographer must be both. The same sense of self-alienation is apparent in a remark, near the end of the book, that the gossipy anecdotes of the popular press have “nothing to do with appreciating Bolaño’s work, which essentially is all that matters.” The disavowal might be legitimate, and it might not; but what’s interesting is her intensity. There is the chance that, given the generic strangeness of this book, and the intense personal nature of the Infrarealist movement, that the personal anecdotes might matter to the literary appreciation, and matter quite a bit.
But more often than not, Maristain’s enthusiasm serves her well, even if it’s awkward. Sometimes she asks questions to her subjects that seem awfully over-determined, or just contrived. “Would you say that you were perfect for each other,” she asks his publisher; to Echevarría, she asks: “Is that how you were seduced by Roberto’s literature?” “Is Roberto a ghost?” she asks Carla Rippey, one of his life-long close friends and correspondents. With patience, however, these questions often lead to the most fascinating answers. Especially memorable is the answer Rodrigo Fresán gives to her almost impatient question: “What happened the day he came to urgently ring your doorbell?” Her impatience jumps off the page, and awkwardly. The answer is so delightful it all but leaves behind the lame question. Bolaño had left dinner at Fresán’s house only to return within the hour and with a story about how he had, in the meantime, killed a man. Fresán’s reconstruction of Bolaño’s story unfolds with great vividness. Then Bolaño revelas that he wasn’t serious; it had been a joke all along. This is the best sort of fiction. It may have been possible in a biography, but the interview preserves some of the immediacy of Bolaño’s own ad-libbed invention, his skill as an “excellent oral narrator.” It reminds the reader that, whatever his or her historical circumstances, the most treasured experiences of living the life of the artist are when we can enlist our friends in our fictions, and enlist them in circulating those fictions anew.
Ana Schwartz is a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania and teaches high school English in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She is working on a translation of Herralde Prize-winning author Alvaro Enrigue’s first novel.