Way beyond magical realism

Times Staff Writer

WHILE norteamericanos were rereading dog-eared copies of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “Love in the Time of Cholera,” a dyslexic, globe-trotting high-school dropout and ex-heroin addict was publishing the most celebrated Latin American novels in three decades.

Then, in 2003, he died.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 15, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Roberto Bolano: A headline on an article in today’s Arts & Music section about Chilean-born author Roberto Bolano misspelled his first name as Robert.

But the reputation of the Chilean-born Roberto Bolano, whose old pictures make him look like the guitar for a psychedelic garage band, continued to grow: Young Latin writers in particular sang his praises, and he became, in the Spanish-speaking world, the most admired author of his generation. Though he is still mostly unknown in the North, Bolano’s mystique in Latin America combines Allen Ginsberg’s (lusty, nomadic poet), Thomas Pynchon’s (difficult postmodern polymath) and Norman Mailer’s (macho media provocateur).

Now the major works of Bolano are appearing in the United States for the first time, four years after his death in Spanish Catalonia, at age 50, of a ruined liver. This month, Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish “The Savage Detectives” -- a novel about a gang of young avant-garde poets that combines elements of the gangster film, the road movie and the private-eye story -- with plans to bring out the gargantuan “2666" next year.

“It’s the freshness, the vitality of its appetite for life,” FSG president and publisher Jonathan Galassi said of the work’s appeal. “I thought the range of styles, the way he treats politics, the way he sort of ingests the whole world in this book, was unlike anything I’ve ever read.” Galassi, like others in the publishing world, was turned on to Bolano by Susan Sontag.

Other fans revere a transnational bad boy who could not be contained by a single country or genre, who had the guts to insult Nobel poet Octavio Paz and gave contradictory, self-mythologizing interviews. “He’s kind of this angry writer who everybody loves to celebrate,” said Ilan Stavans, a scholar at Amherst College. “And now he’s incapable of making anybody angry anymore.” The fact that his work arrived after a couple of decades of relatively undistinguished fiction in Latin America, Stavans said, only made his comet blaze brighter.


The Bolano surge, in fact, happened so fast that he’s managed to become the toast of the literary mainstream (the New Yorker, FSG) and its bohemian fringes (New Directions, the Believer) at virtually the same time.

But unlike the warm, folkloric tone of the “Boom"-era writers of the 1960s -- the phrase “not since Garcia Marquez or Mario Vargas Llosa” is often heard -- “The Savage Detectives” can be almost forbiddingly literary. Its first line is a diary entry from a teenage poet who is one of the novel’s several dozen narrators. “I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists,” he writes flatly. “I accepted, of course.”

For literary folk, Galassi said, the book’s mix of romanticism and irony is thrilling. “He captures the sexiness and yearning of a young poet, but also laughs at it too.”

The novel quickly picks up from its cryptic opening sentence, with graphic sex and a picaresque cast of characters, but the narrative fragments into collage about 100 pages in, as its protagonists flee a violent pimp and go searching for a lost poetess in the Sonora Desert.

A fascinating generation

THE imaginary movement “visceral realism” is itself a kind of literary inside joke: It may startle American readers that Bolano’s work has almost nothing to do with magic realism, but this reflects not only the sensibility of a generation younger than the Boom writers but Latin American tastes as well. Bolano often derided magic realism as something for exoticism-seeking Yanquis.

For Latin American writers under 40, sometimes called the “crack generation” for their breaking with tradition, this iconoclasm was part of Bolano’s charm. “The image of Latin America described by magical realism,” said the young Peruvian-born writer Daniel Alarcon, “is fake; it no longer describes the current moment.”

But Bolano, said Alarcon, comes from a fascinating generation that came of age with the upheavals of the ‘70s. “That kind of anomie his characters inhabit was one of the few options to the political situation of the time,” said Alarcon, who is 30. “What are they running from? Where do you go when your beautiful dreams turn out to be useless? And the answer is ‘everywhere.’ No one has captured that as well as Bolano.”

He’s not alone in his admiration.

“It was incredible how Bolano’s books spoke to younger people in Mexico,” said novelist Francisco Goldman, who led New Directions to publish Bolano’s novellas, one of which, “Nazi Literature in America,” comes out this fall. “He was born in the ‘50s, and he’s writing so often about the experiences of that generation, why does he appeal so strongly to people born in the ‘70s and ‘80s?

“It’s because he was one of the first to write about the young, urban experience, about Mexico City as a place where people were in love with poetry, discovering these rites of passage.... There were almost no books like that. In Cortazar,” he said, referring to the author of “Hopscotch,” an important experimental novel of the ‘60s, “to have a bohemian experience you have to go to Paris.”

Risk aversion

HOW did Bolano remain such a secret in the Anglo north even while becoming a cult hero across Latin America?

“The English-speaking norte and Spanish-speaking sur are two galaxies onto themselves,” said Stavans. “Globalism seems only to have made readers more tribal.”

Barbara Epler, editor in chief of New Directions, pointed out that translations are a tough sell even with great reviews. “I can see why other publishers are afraid of them. I’ve had endless morose conversations like this over drinks. But we’re independently owned,” and don’t answer to shareholders.

The isolation, she said, comes from the increasing risk aversion of commercial publishing.

“These young editors, who mostly staff publishing companies, have enough trouble with an American writer whose name you can pronounce. They have to do spreadsheets, with profit and loss; they’re putting their credibility and maybe their job security, on the line.”

But Bolano’s books come packaged not just with the Borgesian, cerebral quality of his work but also with the mystique of his ragged life. Born to a truck driver and teacher in Santiago in 1953, Bolano dropped out of school and worked, over the years, as a grape picker, dishwasher and Trotskyite revolutionary.

Despite spending his teenage years in Mexico, he returned to Chile during the Pinochet regime to fight for the resistance: He was briefly imprisoned but released when a policeman turned out to be a friend from school.

After years of writing poetry, in the mid-'80s he moved to Spain, lived a libertine life and then cleaned up, settled down and began writing novels. Then in 1999 he won the Romulo Gallego Prize, Latin America’s equivalent to the Man Booker, for “The Savage Detectives”

“He started giving these interviews that turned him into an enfant terrible of Latin American literature,” Stavans said. “A writer’s writer who scandalized other literary figures.... And then he died. He was like a firefly who announces himself at the end of his life.”

While Stavans considers him “enthralling” at his best and calls the novella “Distant Star” a masterpiece, he thinks the reputation benefited from his early death. “Bolano had the advantage of being a martyr who didn’t have time to either repeat himself or get absorbed into government.

“He performed for the last 10 years, and then disappeared, magically. Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, Paz became part of the establishment. Latin American literature had become so domesticated, by writers becoming ambassadors and part of academia. This was the literature that was supposed to be subversive, but now everyone reads it at school.”

Whatever Bolano is, his iconoclasm is surely easier to take now that he’s not around to scandalize his rivals and forebears. Alarcon, who admires his fearlessness, isn’t sure he would have wanted to meet his idol.

“I think he was one of those guys you hoped would have liked you,” said Alarcon. “Because if he didn’t, he would have made sure you knew.”