Roberto Bolaño World Literature 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: Chilean writer Nicanor Parra, Argentine writers Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, American writer Thomas Pynchon, and Irish writer James Joyce. Scores more are mentioned in his works, as well as literary movements, aesthetics, contests, prizes, and films. Each novel opens a panorama on modern literature, and many novels are interrelated.
Bolaño himself frequently appears as a character in his fiction, named directly or as “B” or as his alter ego, Arturo Belano. In fact, 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 his friend Santiago, 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 characters live wandering existences, 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 of Bolaño’s novels, and passages in some novels give rise to later novels, as is the case with Estrella distante (1996; Distant Star, 2004), which expands on the ending of La literatura Nazi en América (1996; Nazi Literature in the Americas, 2008).
Bolaño makes use of several genres, mixing them, so that his narratives emerge from literary conventions but are not bound by them. Detectives and the pursuit of a mystery are central to his plots, either actual detectives like Romero in Nazi Literature in the Americas, amateur detectives like Belano and Lima, or scholars like 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. This technique intensifies the immediacy of the narratives, but additionally Bolaño creates a prismatic effect in such novels as The Savage Detectives by using dozens of narrators, so that a story is not so much told as pieced together from every possible viewpoint.
Neither the intense literariness of the novels nor their manipulation of popular genres are ends in themselves. Quite to the contrary, 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 not as simply literary creations but as possible lives. In other words, when a fiction is not conventional, it seems more individual and lifelike. His innovation appears most strikingly in his refusal to offer neat resolutions for the conflicts that power his narratives, leaving unclear, for example, the fate of central characters or the truth about a mystery. This is a crucial quality to Bolaño’s work, which Spanish critic Ignacio Echeverria termed the “poetics of inconclusivness.” Much of previous Western literature, especially that of Latin America, has been criticized for becoming moribund because writers are content to satisfy the generic norms for closure or are obsessed with the aesthetics of aging literary movements. Bolaño makes a departure. Because he does, his stories appeal more to readers’ knowledge of life rather than to their understanding of literary traditions.
Accordingly, Bolaño’s fiction expresses human relationships and thereby reflects society, particularly politics. Having himself lived through political turmoil, he investigates the mechanics of moral failure and competition for power under the guise of ideology. To one of his translators, Chris Andrews, Bolaño’s novels are an anatomy of social evil. Andrews distinguishes “four faces” of turpitude among Bolaño’s characters: dictators, because they seek superiority; administrators, because they are concerned only with their own advancement within a system; accomplices (those who simply go along with events), because fear governs them; and sociopaths, because they care only for themselves. In a complementary approach, critic Siddhartha Deb argues that Bolaño’s novels break down the distinctions between the past and the present, the imagination and experience, and the conscious and subconscious. Above all, Bolaño possesses a superior power among experimental writers to involve readers in the chancy, vital world of his stories.
The Savage Detectives
First published: Los detectives salvajes, 1998 (English translation, 2007)
Type of work: Novel
An avant-garde movement in Mexico colors the lives of a disparate group of poets, revealing the symbiosis between society and literature.
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 later spins apart through jealousy, murder, flight, despair, insanity, and, in a very few cases, self-discovery. Although the underlying plotline is straightforward, the narrative structure and multiple points of view belong uniquely to this novel. It is divided into three sections that present the story out of chronological order.
“Mexicans Lost in Mexico” concerns the last two months of 1975 and takes place wholly in Mexico City. It is told through the diary entries of Juan García Madero, a seventeen-year-old whose ambition is to study literature and become a poet. He encounters two older poets, Arturo Belano and Ulysses Lima. Belano and Lima are poètes maudits, the founders of visceral realism, which is defined mostly by its vigorous opposition to mainstream Mexican literature. They gather about them a variety of younger poets, painters, and dancers, publish magazines, organize or invade poetry readings, and migrate from one dive to another in endless discussion. To finance their literary work they peddle marijuana. By chance, the pair discovers that a previous poet also used the term visceral realism to describe a literary movement. This poet is Cesárea Tinajero, a shadowy figure from the 1920’s known for a single published poem. Belano and Lima...
(The entire section is 2751 words.)