Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Who Was Roberto Bolaño?

Some days, it feels as if Fosco writes about Roberto Bolaño every day (and stay tuned for an upcoming post later this morning). But Fosco isn't the only one who is Bolaño-obsessed right now: Winter 2008-09 is Bolaño's cultural moment in this country, so let's just go along for the ride.

Here's today's installment: Roberto Bolaño may not have been quite as bohemian as he has claimed. According to this article in the NYTimes, Bolaño's widow (from whom he was separated when he died in 2003) and her agent

dispute the idea, originally suggested by Mr. Bolaño himself, endorsed by his American translator and mentioned in several of the rapturous recent reviews of “2666” in the United States, that he ever “had a heroin habit,” that his death was “traceable to heroin use” or even that he had “an acquaintance with heroin.”
Part of the problem here is that always thorny question of the "truthfulness" of writing. You see, Bolaño once wrote a piece called "Beach" in which he claimed a heroin habit. However, the status of that piece as literal truth is in question: was it an autobiographical fragment? A short story? A memoir? In other words, was it fiction or nonfiction? As the article notes,
“Beach” was originally published by the Madrid daily El Mundo in July 2000 as part of a series in which 30 Spanish-language authors were asked to write about the worst summer of their lives. The editor of the newspaper’s literary supplement, Manuel Llorente, said most of the writers responded with “narratives that were clearly and unquestionably autobiographical,” but that he was never sure about the Bolaño contribution.

“I knew Bolaño was a writer who played with reality, who cultivated ambiguities and false identities, so I didn’t care whether the narrative he submitted was true or invented,” Mr. Llorente said in an interview. “To me, the only thing that mattered was its literary value.”
This is a particularly vexed question for an author like Bolaño, who has an alter ego, "Arturo Belano," who appears in several of his works. In others of his stories, the protagonist is called "B" and bears a striking resemblance to Bolaño.

This may seem a bit trivial, especially for those of us who care little about Bolaño's biography. But that's not all. There is the more problematic claim about Bolaño's claims to have been in Chile during the Pinochet coup in 1973 (a formative moment for Latin American leftists). Bolaño's story has become legend:
According to the standard biographical accounts, Mr. Bolaño moved to Mexico in 1968, but returned to Chile in the early 1970s to support the Socialist government of President Salvador Allende. He was then supposedly arrested and jailed during the coup that brought General Pinochet to power on Sept. 11, 1973, but was saved from possible execution and allowed to escape by two guards who were high school classmates and recognized him.
However, this story is now in question:
In the mid-1970s, “we talked a lot about Chile, and it was obvious to me that Roberto had not been there and was letting people think he had,” said Ricardo Pascoe, a Mexican sociologist and diplomat whose home was the setting for some of the parties and readings Mr. Bolaño later described in “The Savage Detectives.” “He would ask me about things that anybody who was there and on the left, or related to the left, would have known.”


He said that he once asked Mr. Bolaño directly if he had been in Chile and “his response was vague enough that it made me want to say, ‘Why don’t you just answer yes or no?’ But I liked him, and our friendship was not based on politics, so I didn’t really mind. But it was clear he had not been there.”
What does this revelation mean for the Bolaño mythology? It's probably not a good thing. It also probably destroys some of his Leftist street cred.

Of course, it should all be pretty much irrelevant to someone (like Fosco) who is more interested in the words that Bolaño (whoever he was) put onto the page than in any of the details of his life. And yet, there are ways in which this kind of biographical information still feels like it adds something to the reading experience. And, to some extent, I think this is the dilemma that Bolaño wants us to be stuck in.

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