Magazine article The Spectator

'Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations', by Mónica Maristain (Translated by Kit Maude) - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations', by Mónica Maristain (Translated by Kit Maude) - Review

Article excerpt

Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations Mónica Maristain (translated by Kit Maude)

Melville House, pp.274, £20, ISBN: 9781612193472

Early on in this 'Biography in Conversations' we're told that the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño 'continued to see himself throughout his life as a literary character, a fictional person.' It's a dubious claim: we might believe that about any number of Hollywood actors, pop stars, or historical monsters, but not of the author of books that, as one editor interviewed here, Ignacio Echevarría, notes, 'would lead to the recanonisation of Latin American literature.'

But it's easy to see why the idea tempted Mónica Maristain, an Argentinian journalist whose lighthearted interview with Bolaño for Playboy Mexico happened to be the last before his early death and posthumous mythologisation from outside. The young Bolaño does seem to have been, even for an adolescent poet loose in 1970s Mexico City, a spectacular self-dramatiser; and in 1998 Bolaño the mature fiction-writer immortalised his younger self and the entire milieu so gloriously, in the quasi-autobiographical novel The Savage Detectives ('even the way we were walking was graceful, our progress incredibly slow, as if we were advancing and retreating'), that no strictly extra-literary consideration of that period of his life is now possible.

In fact this isn't really a biography, nor would Maristain be the person to write one. The book rouses itself from a torpor of early-life clichés (the Bolaños were 'a complicated family', the parents 'two contrasting spirits') and becomes for the most part simply a celebratory echo of The Savage Detectives , which is a novel built as a series of monologues, a huge cast of characters taking turns in recollecting two disappeared young poets, one named 'Arturo Belano'.

Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations is likewise dominated by long passages of various people's responses to interview questions about him; Maristain's whimsical voice is only one of many, and she and her readers are here the 'detectives' looking for the real Bolaño. In the novel, the two poets lead a movement or gang called the 'visceral realists'; in real life, Bolaño and a friend were the leaders of 'Infrarealism'. And in numerous cases Maristain's interviewees are the same, i.e. the real-life bases of characters in the novel. They contradict each other about what really happened, about the merits of Bolaño, man and writer, all as in the novel. …

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