Jorge Volpi on Bolaño and American Literary Reaction

Three Percent continues its serialization of Jorge Volpi’s comments on Latin American literature.  In this section he takes American critics to task for building up a Bolaño myth much like that of Jack Kerouac so they could sell the story of a rebel. In contrast, the Spanish language press has looked at Bolaño more in terms of his way of attacking and rebuilding literary ideas.

In general, Volpi has taken the line that American critics have exoticized the Latin America as a dark world of corruption and political intrigue, or a  one of superstitious peasants. The criticisms are fair and show both a miopia on the part of some critics who wish to put some certain literature in well defined categories, and a drive of the market to produce more of what sold so well before. It is the plea of an artist for freedom, which also means that while he says there is no Latin American Literature, there are some links between authors, not necessarily in theme, or style, or history, or whatever element you would like to focus on, but a more general closeness of experience. They have lived lives that have more inter connections than those on other continents and so it gives the writing not a similarity, but a fraternity. And even in opposition to one’s fraternity, fraternity can still shape one’s self.

Beyond the discussion of Bolaño’s supposed heroin use, none of the critics of his books in the Spanish language made a point of focusing on his life, ”rebel, exile, addict”. (If this were not enough, during his last decade Bolaño never lived ”in the urgency of poverty”, but the modest life of the suburban middle class, a life infinitely more placid than the other Latin American immigrants in Cataluña). Without a doubt, the relation between the life and works possesses greater enchantment in the United States than in any other part of the world, but the emphasis on his supposed or real penury have played a key role in interpreting (and, obviously, selling) his books. The American literary world has been obliged to construct a radical rebel from a simple misunderstanding: confusing a first person narrator with its author. Bolaño, who during the last years of his life had a more or less normal life, not full of luxuries, but clothed by an almost simultaneous recognition from the publication of his first books (Nazi Literature in the Americas and Distant Star in 1997 and The Savage Detectives in 1998), has been transformed into one of those furious writers who, facing down the scorn of his contemporaries and through a fierce individual fight, manage to convert themselves into tragic artists, posthumous heroes: a new example of the myth of the self-made man. Bolaño, thus, as the last revolutionary or the heir of Salinger or the Beats: it is not coincidental that the other Latin American figure exalted to his in the United States is the sugarcoated Che Guevara by Benicio del Toro and Steven Soderbergh. Both of them have become, in their American versions, bastions of fierceness and defiance, prophets equipped with a blind faith in their respective causes—in one case art and in the other politics—ideal models for the intimidated and disbelieving society of the United States under George Bush.

Although no one has dared point it out, the reasons for Bolaño’s ascent are not that different from those that governed García Márquez’s rise forty years ago: for the developed world, both have been mirrors of a necessary exoticism. The step from magical realism to the reaction of visceral realism sounds, all of the sudden, almost foreseeable: in both cases ”the political” has been the key to drawing the attention of the meek American readers, no matter that the left-wing compromise of one has nothing to do with the acid post-political criticism of the other; and last, both have been received as a breath of fresh air—in other words, of savagery—before the contemporary lack of will power.

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