Magazine article Commonweal

A Noisy Soul: Roberto Bolano's Defiant Fiction

Magazine article Commonweal

A Noisy Soul: Roberto Bolano's Defiant Fiction

Article excerpt

Roberto Bolano, the Chilean expatriate poet, novelist, and literary prankster who died in 2003, has inserted himself into the world's literary consciousness with singular doggedness. Since the U.S. publication in that year of By Night in Chile, in an elegant translation by Chris Andrews, readers here have been able to follow the path of Bolano's fictional alter ego, Arturo Belano, and a cast of sometimes traumatized, sometimes droll Chilean characters as they bear witness to the overthrow of Chilean democracy. Some of them--including Belano--are imprisoned briefly; others are tortured; some disappear like their real-life counterparts who vanished forever in the months after Augusto Pinochet seized power.

Because I am married to a Chilean who lived through the Pinochet years from the safe and frustrating distance of the United States, Bolano's work has an uncanny familiarity, but I am not surprised that he has suddenly become so broadly appealing to U.S. readers. His fictions revive the special resonance of that era in Chile for Americans, given the shadowy but significant role our government played in the overthrow of Salvador Allende--they remind us that it is we who now find ourselves dumbfounded by our own government's use of torture, secret prisoner renditions, indefinite detentions.

And then there is the mesmerizing quality of Bolano's prose, as disturbing as it is fanciful. Drawn to the avant-garde since he was a teenage poet, Bolano invented a new form for every novel and story. His novels are hyper-literary and provide an excellent crash course in Latin American poetry and prose, as well as brush-ups on Greek tragedy, medieval philosophy, contemporary literary theory, and avant-garde arts and artists. In Amulet, we learn that as a teenager Arturo Belano loved Beckett and Genet; in Distant Star, that young Chilean poets have "suffered from Neruditis since early childhood," breaking out in hives at the sight of a Neruda poem. A high-school dropout, Bolano himself was a ferocious reader, and is prone to long lists and classifications of literary fancies and enemies. His work salutes Cortazar, Borges, Vonnegut, DeLillo, and Pynchon, and it's easy enough to see their influence. Mainly, though, he is a stylistic iconoclast--a master improviser, unnervingly sure of his own literary judgments and his own literary place.

Bolano merges fiction and nonfiction with nods, winks, and signposts. Many of his plots follow the story of his life. His family moved to Mexico City in 1968, but at nineteen, after Salvador Allende's election, he returned to Chile to support the socialist government. Within a month of the Pinochet coup he was arrested and held for a week. Though he was not tortured himself, his fiction gives a sense of what it is like to live in the presence of torture, disappearance, and death. His subsequent return to Mexico City was haunted by Chile. With his friend Mario Santiago, he founded a school of poetry called infrarealismo in Mexico City in the 1970s, inspired in part by Andre Breton and the surrealists. The two men disrupted readings and showed up in editors' offices uninvited. They reveled in their obnoxiousness (as Bolano, who gleefully attacked other writers, notably Isabel Allende, would do all his life). Both spent their lives in exile, with Bolano traveling to El Salvador, France, northern Africa, and Spain. He worked most of his adult life as an itinerant laborer, read incessantly, messed himself up with drugs, got clean, and lived the life of an obscure poet while suffering from a serious liver ailment.

And then, in middle age, he married and decided to support his children by writing prose. Whatever made him think his audacious fiction would sell--especially after a lifetime of literary marginalization--is a mystery, but he has certainly been vindicated. With a rush of work that he did not begin publishing until he was in his forties, he won literary fame in Europe and Latin America. …

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