Sunday, March 25, 2007

Zalewski on Bolano

Last year I read Roberto Bolano's Last Evenings on Earth, a collection of stories. I absolutely loved some of them, but others seemed a bit dry or overly text-obsessed. I was certainly often put in mind of Borges. I've been considering reading one of Bolano's longer works--several have been translated lately--and I found this New Yorker essay about Bolano helpful in trying to get a sense of the shape of his career. Several excerpts:
"It’s no coincidence that Bolaño’s most heartbreaking creation—the rebellious, doomed poet at the heart of his 1998 masterwork, 'The Savage Detectives,' which Farrar, Straus has just published in translation—is named Ulises."

"Bolano is notorious in Spanish-speaking countries for having proclaimed that magic realism 'stinks.' He derided Gabriel Garcia Marquez as 'a man terribly pleased to have hobnobbed with so many Presidents and Archbishops'; he called Isabel Allende a 'scribbler' whose 'attempts at literature range from kitsch to the pathetic.' (Allende, interviewed in 2003, dismissed Bolano as an 'extremely unpleasant' man, adding, 'Death does not make you a nicer person.')"

"He helped liberate Latin-American writing from the debased imitations of magic realism that followed the global conquest of Garcia Marquez’s 1967 novel 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'—all those clairvoyant senoritas and intercourse-inspiring moles—and reestablished the primacy of such cosmopolitan experimentalists as Borges and Julio Cortazar. (For Bolano, Cortazar’s moody novel 'Hopscotch' was the Beginning and the End, precisely because it has neither a beginning nor an end.)" [hyperlink mine]

"Bolano’s fiction is, in large part, an ironic mythologization of his personal history, and 'The Savage Detectives' hews closest to what Latin-American writers call the Bolano legend. The novel, which has been given a bracingly idiomatic translation by Natasha Wimmer, is a teeming, 'Manhattan Transfer'-like collage featuring more than fifty narrators, but its first hundred pages are anchored by a single, exuberant voice—that of Juan Garcia Madero, a seventeen-year-old Mexican orphan who, in 1975, abandons his college studies in Mexico City for a group of poet renegades known as the 'visceral realists.'"

"To witness Lacouture’s full breakdown, the reader must turn to 'Amulet,' a slim novel anchored by the same bathroom-stall revelation, which Bolano published in 1999. (More than once, Bolano generated entire novels from episodes in earlier ones.) In the end, the fleshed-out portrait of Lacouture in 'Amulet'—New Directions recently published a translation—is less potent than the hypnotic ten-page cadenza in 'Detectives,' which is enriched by its connection to other tales of political confusion."

"Compared with the sprawling 'Savage Detectives,' most of Bolano’s novels are impressively distilled performances; seven are under two hundred pages. Two of his best short works, 'By Night in Chile' (2000) and 'Distant Star' (1996), have also been published by New Directions. 'By Night in Chile' may be Bolaño’s most searing monologue: a Chilean priest, on his deathbed, attempts to justify a shameful past."

"'Distant Star' handles similar themes, but is more surreal in tone."

"Bolano’s first novels attracted critical praise but few readers; the 1998 publication of 'The Savage Detectives' made him instantly famous. It aroused the same level of excitement in Latin America that 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' had, three decades earlier, and won the Romulo Gallegos Prize, the Spanish-language equivalent of the Booker Prize."

"Growing increasingly ill, he worked for five years on his final, hugely ambitious project: '2666,' conceived as five discrete but linked narratives. In June, 2003, he confessed to a Spanish publication, 'I’m not capable of doing the work that finishing ‘2666’ requires....' He died a month later."

"In the days before his death, Bolano asked his editor to publish the five sections of '2666' individually, in order to secure a sizable inheritance for his children. After consultation with Bolano’s wife, the publisher issued it as a single volume. (The book, which is eleven hundred pages long, is currently being translated by Wimmer.)



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