The Ghost of Latin Literature

By Margolis, Mac | Newsweek International, April 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Ghost of Latin Literature


Margolis, Mac, Newsweek International


Byline: Mac Margolis

Roberto Bolano's talent haunts the field.

Asked once what he might have been if he hadn't taken up writing, Roberto Bolano didn't hesitate. "A homicide detective," he said. "I would have been the sort of person who comes back alone to the scene of a crime by night, unafraid of ghosts." That was his last interview, granted in 2003, weeks before he died of liver failure at age 50. No one knows what the Chilean author's ghost has been up to since, but he's certainly still haunting Latin American literature.

How to explain that the most celebrated Latin writer since Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz has been dead for nearly a decade and yet has published more posthumously than most authors manage in a lifetime? A respected novelist while alive, in death Bolano has soared to cult status, translated globally, with stories rolled out in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books. A Facebook page devoted to Bolano boasts 43,000 fans and a feature film, El Futuro, based on one of his short stories, is in production.

Dying young can increase an artist's cachet, but in Bolano's case, that's not what has bewitched the critics and set the gears of canon-making in motion. Bolano was a rare and luminous talent in an uneven and often dull literary landscape. A frustrated poet, he turned to prose in his 30s to pay his bills--and shone. Many of his novels may seem facile, packed with talky introspection and postpubescent brooding, but in fact are densely layered tales, with scores of narrators, soaked in erudition and mordant social comment. A ferocious reader, Bolano wrote with Cervantes, Dante, and Homer looking over his shoulder. The poet protagonists of The Savage Detectives, who launch a grail-like quest across the Mexican desert, are named Ulises and Arturo. And yet Bolano's writing is always direct and wry, uncluttered by ornament or cliche--a blessing in a region taken with rococo flourishes.

The fuss over Bolano began last decade with the world debut of 2666, an 1100-page epic, by turns comic and brutal, which roams from World War II-era Eastern Europe to a drug-infested Mexican border town hauntingly like today's Ciudad Juarez. Bolano had abandoned the novel when illness overwhelmed him, but his family salvaged the manuscript and allowed it to be published in 2004 and translated into English four years later. It is now hailed as the author's masterpiece.

Last year tomb raiders turned up The Third Reich, a compact novel written by Bolano two decades ago but forgotten in a drawer. Now comes The Secret of Evil, a collection of essays and short stories out on April 24. Some of the entries have been published before and others are barely more than sketches, but there are gems in the scrapings. "Scholars of Sodom," an admiring but also severe take on V.S. Naipaul's legendary visit to Argentina, is well worth the $23 cover price. Given the fevered pace of his later years, no doubt the Bolano factory is scouring the estate for even more of his oeuvre.

And no wonder. Bolano had few equals in Latin America, or beyond. A ventriloquist, he switched countries and voices with uncanny ease as he wandered from his native Chile to Mexico, France, and Spain. …

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