Roberto Bolaño Essay - Critical Essays

Roberto Bolaño Long Fiction Analysis

Roberto Bolaño was a writer’s writer. Literature was his subject matter. The fictions that people make out of their own lives constitute his primary theme, and the dangers of those fictions, especially as manifest in obsession, ambition, and self-deception, provide the narrative suspense of his plots. Moreover, he readily displays his debt to his favorite authors: Nicanor Parra of Chile, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar of Argentina, Thomas Pynchon of the United States, and James Joyce of Ireland. Scores more are mentioned in his works, and he includes in his fiction discussion of topics such as aesthetics and literary movements, their contests, prizes, and films. Each novel opens a panorama on modern literature.

Bolaño himself frequently appears as a character in his fiction under his own name, as “B,” or as his alter ego, Arturo Belano. He draws much of his material from his own experience and that of people he knew. The Savage Detectives, for instance, borrows from his times with friends in Mexico City, so much so that its second section is practically a roman à clef. This foundation in actual history helps give his fiction its exuberant immediacy and restlessness. Nearly all of his characters live a wandering existence, and the hint is that those who settle down lose the vitality that sets them apart, for better or worse. Many fictional characters also appear in more than one novel, and passages in some novels give rise to later novels, as is the case with Distant Star, which expands on the ending of Nazi Literature in the Americas.

Bolaño makes use of several genres, mixing them so that his narratives emerge from literary conventions but are not bound by them. The pursuit of a mystery is central to his plots, through detectives such as Romero in Nazi Literature in the Americas, amateur detectives such as Belano and Ulises Lima, or scholars such as those in the first section of 2666. There are also scenes appropriate to satire, crime thrillers, romantic comedy, and the coming-of-age novel. Many stories are told by first-person narrators, a technique that intensifies the immediacy of the narratives. Other times, however, Bolaño creates a prismatic effect: Such novels as The Savage Detectives use dozens of narrators, so that a story is not so much told as pieced together from every available viewpoint.

Bolaño undermines conventions and foils the expectations of genre. His protagonists end up antiheroes, usually near death or left in fear and doubt at a novel’s end. The effect is to remove literature from its usual status as an artifact, an entertainment created by satisfying typical plot and character patterns, and to impel readers to see the characters as not simply literary creations but also possible lives. Accordingly, Bolaño’s fiction expresses human relationships and thereby reflects society—politics in particular. Having himself lived through political turmoil, he is able to investigate the mechanics of moral failure and competition for power under the guise of ideology. Above all, Bolaño possesses a superior ability among modern writers to involve readers in the chancy, vital world of his tales.

The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives recounts the history of avant-garde poets from 1975 in Mexico City until 1996 in Africa. Their literary movement, visceral realism, begins with a mischievous revolutionary fervor but spins apart through jealousy, murder, exile, despair, insanity, and, in a very few cases, self-discovery. Although the underlying plot line is straightforward, the narrative structure and multiple points of view belong uniquely to this novel. The book is divided into three sections that present the story out of temporal order.

The section “Mexicans Lost in Mexico” concerns the last two months of...

(The entire section is 1586 words.)