Ensayo • Abril 2008

The writer who boldly leaps where none have leapt before

The Dream of Our Youth

Por Scott Esposito
(Versión en Español)

Roberta Vassallo, Casa de la ermitaña, Ushuaia 2003

The American reading public, or what now remains of it, never tires of hearing about a hot new author. Each year, at least a couple novelists will detach from the pack and find themselves flown up in the realms of stardom under a gentle, buffeting media frenzy. As often happens with fame in our increasingly decentralized culture, that which is bestowed on these authors tends to depart as quickly and mysteriously as it arrived. But some writers to manage to wring a lasting fascination from their 15 minutes: for every few Dale Pecks (the now justly forgotten shock-reviewer who achieved transient fame by boorishly attacking Nabokov, Joyce, and a number of popular contemporary authors) there arrives a Jonathan Franzen, whose personality, and maybe also his writing, has managed to find a lasting home in the minds of readers here in the United States.

During the spring of 2007, Roberto Bolaño became a darling of the American literary media. The occasion was the first English publication of The Savage Detectives, and for a few months you could hardly open a newspaper or glossy magazine without finding a new exuberant review or essay appreciating this fine author.1 For most Americans, this would have been the first time they read his name.

The fact that a dead Latin American who wrote somewhat difficult fiction managed to become the hot new thing is nothing short of amazing. Americans are notoriously disinterested in reading translations-it’s estimated that a scant 3 percent of all books published every year in the U.S. are translations (compared to between 10 and 25 percent for most Western European nations)-and since Bolaño is inconveniently dead, he was unable to come here on a book tour, do interviews on National Public Radio, or even say something inappropriate to stir up a proper controversy. The last foreigner I can remember who received nearly as much attention as Bolaño did last spring is Orham Pamuk, but he only got it after being awarded a Nobel and fighting a high-profile censorship trial with his government.

One question now is whether Bolaño will become a permanent fixture on the American literary landscape, as he rightfully should, or whether he will become one of those sensations that rather gracelessly falls by the wayside as newer, hotter authors take precedence. There are some hopeful signs. To start, Bolaño seems well-established among America’s literati. Coverage of The Savage Detectives generally read less like a review and more like a coronation; it was as though critics-especially those in the magazines and journals with the most weight-were eagerly seizing the chance to pop the lid on a secret they had been aching to reveal. One review raves that “Bolaño himself seems to have been incapable of writing a convoluted sentence.” Another makes clear its intentions via its title: “The Great Bolaño.” It was almost poignant: for a few months American mass criticism elevated itself, it got beyond all the hackneyed prose and superficial praise, and some of our best came out to publicly declare “this is something that really matters.” It was refreshing.

Beyond the critics there is still more good news: Despite the fact that year-end lists are often filled will fall releases (for the same reason, serious Oscar contenders are rarely released before summer) Bolaño’s April-released Savage Detectives was well-remembered on those year-end lists. By December some were even talking about the “canonization” of Bolaño. The Savage Detectives has sold 22,000 copies in hardcover, a very modest success by the standards of publishing in general, but a great success by the standard literature-in-translation. Five-thousand copies is the typical make-or-break number for a translation, so when a book does four times that-and in its first year, no less-it has done quite well.2 (There is the further chance that this book will really take off in the traditionally far more sales-friendly paperback format.) And lastly, the forthcoming publication of a couple of Bolaño’s books this year gives considerable evidence that his two American publishers, New Directions and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, are taking him as more than a means of generating profit.3

All this is to the good, and yet the question of Bolaño’s future here, as well as the more important question of what his literature means to Americans, is still very much up for grabs. We are at the point when the critical and public reaction to him is just beginning, and although in some ways it has given me much hope, there are other signs that I find worrisome.

A Dangerous Calling

Despite Bolaño’s substantial popularity in the Spanish-reading world, his success in America was far from inevitable. He wouldn’t be the first foreign author-or even the first Latino-to get lost in the shuffle over here. Such a towering Latino as Manuel Puig, for instance, has never really caught on among Americans, despite having all of his major novels translated into English and having an acclaimed Hollywood film adapted from Kiss of the Spiderwoman.

Or to take a more recent example: late in 2007, the Dalkey Archive Press published Dutchman Paul Verhaeghen’s novel Omega Minor. Few translations would seem better-poised for success in the United States: Though literary, Omega Minor is a meaty read with a clear political subtext. Even better, the political subtext is directly applicable to everyday Americans: The plot centers around the Holocaust (a subject we seem to never tire of hearing about), and it also gives a prominent role to neo-fascism, a subject of more than a little interest over here post-9/11. The book was awarded the Netherlands’ most prestigious literary honor, and it even came with a rave from the famous and respected American novelist Richard Powers. But now, several months after its publication, it is safe to say that Omega Minor will be forgotten along with many other translations that washed up on our shores in 2007.

What is it about Bolaño that has permitted this author success over here? To start with, he himself makes for a great story, and that counts for a lot.4 Forgetting even how Bolaño first left Chile and then returned to fight for it and was captured and nearly executed, his lifestyle of tramping around the Hispanic world and then suddenly setting down and writing masterpiece after masterpiece appeals deeply to our idea of the romantic artist, the man who lives life on his terms and seems to grasp the muse between his fingers. Perhaps Bolaño himself best summed it up when he said, upon accepting the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, that good writing “doesn’t mean just to write well, because anybody can do that, but to write marvelously well, though not even that, because anybody can do that too. Then what is writing of quality? Well, what it’s always been: to know how to thrust your head into the darkness, know how to leap into the void, and to understand that literature is basically a dangerous calling.” The writer who boldly leaps where none have leapt before, who mixes passion and love together into art. This is the Bolaño we love to read.

This myth is further serviced by the way in which Bolaño died: too soon and at the hands of his own hard-living. Our sweet hearts flutter at the thought of artists who die “too soon,” and they absolutely purr for a man who lived a self-destructive life because he wanted to. This latter appeals to the very American concepts of individuality and personal freedom, to which we are only too glad to prove our dedication by using them to put ourselves within death’s reach. Although in truth Bolaño’s heroin addiction must have been ugly and vagabonding in Mexico isn’t terribly glamorous (Bolaño once remarked that he left a trail of teeth like breadcrumbs), our media-influenced ideas of these things are quite different from the reality, especially when an artist such as Bolaño is involved. After all, who wouldn’t love the man who said he’d never read so-and-so because she had been placed on shelves that were inconvenient to steal from? Thus the Beats, a not-terribly memorable subset of American writers that remains fresh in our national memory largely due to the romantic myths surrounding it.

Bolaño does owe a debt to the Beats, and yet, I am convinced that romance alone does not account for his burgeoning reputation over here. Let us return to Bolaño’s phrase, “a dangerous calling.” In Bolaño, art, whether great, obscure, bad, or evil, is always linked to the void, to danger, to terror. Thus Ulises and Arturo in The Savage Detectives driving off into the Sonora Desert in search of a poet who might or might not have existed. Thus Father Lacroix from By Night in Chile hollowly justifying the Chilean terror with “That’s how literature is made.” Thus the avant-garde aerial poet Carlos Wieder, that modest depiction of pure evil.

The idea of the great personal risk one runs in pursuit of great knowledge is, of course, deeply embedded in the Western literary tradition, and I think Bolaño expands upon it in ways that are new, interesting, and particularly relevant to a contemporary American reader. To citizens of a country that has just fought a war on false pretenses, that has not always functioned too admirably from its position as global hegemon, there is much to recommend an author whose fiction often depicts true political evil and the perils of letting the end justify the means. Moreover, in a country still trying to comprehend the events of 11 September 2001, there is the obvious appeal of a writer who openly wrote about violence and who said it functioned in his writings “in an accidental way, which is how violence functions everywhere.”

To the explanations of “romance” and “timeliness” we can add a third, “comfort.” Quite simply, in a country where, for a long time, Latin American literature meant either Borges and Garcia Marquez, Bolaño is both familiar enough and new enough. We know that he is neither Borges nor Garcia Marquez, but he kind of reminds us of both of them, and we like that. At the 2007 Frankfurt Book fair, translator Lawrence Venuti gave a talk about how publishers of translations can succeed in an indifferent American marketplace. He argued that readers need to understand the context in which works-in-translation were originally published if they are to catch on to them:

[Without proper context,] a reader of a translation is unable to experience it with a response that is equivalent or even comparable to the response with which the foreign reader experiences the foreign text. Entire literary traditions, even entire literary canons are never translated into a particular language, certainly not into English. And rarely is a substantial and diverse selection of contemporary works in print at any one time, regardless of how many publishers invest in translations from a globally dominant language like English. No wonder, then, that when confronted with a translation readers automatically fall back on what they do know and prefer: they read and evaluate the translation mainly against linguistic patterns, literary traditions, and cultural values in the receiving situation, which is usually their own culture.

Thanks to the popularity of Borges and Garcia Marquez, Bolaño’s books are familiar enough that we can feel like we understand him without deeply investigating his true context. Moreover, his great themes-the romantically suffering artist, the terror of naked power, the almost apocalyptic battle between the corrupt and the pure-are themes well-suited to American readers.

Though it is true that we have taken him on so suddenly because we already possess a certain context to read him in, if we reduce Bolaño’s novels to the pre-existing American context, we run the danger of misreading him. Venuti correctly states that reading an author without proper awareness of the background that she came from leads to readings that, if not incorrect, are nonetheless overly simple:

[Reading a translation without proper awareness of its cultural context] can invite a complacent reaffirmation of the reader’s cultural values and an ethnocentric rejection of a foreign culture merely because the foreign text cannot be understood in its own terms.

Unfortunately, ethnocentrism is something we do rather well. Melting pot that we are, Americans are nevertheless notorious for a provincialism born of our general lack of curiosity about other parts of the world. (One example: a commanding majority of Americans still could not locate Iraq on a map months after a majority of the country consented to its invasion). I am glad that we are reading Bolaño, but if we are not understanding Bolaño on his terms then we are missing a very significant part of the good a translation can do. At their best translations expose us to modes of life and manners of thought that are new to us; they are ways to overcome cultural barriers and help us become more worldly citizens. However, reading Bolaño from a purely American perspective, or from a perspective where you merely draw a line from Borges to Garcia Marquez to Bolaño, will not do this.

In the Sonoran Desert

Of course, context with Bolaño is a tricky matter, not only because he traveled so extensively and set his books in a number of locations, but also because Bolaño claimed that “no serious writers,” not even Borges, Cortázar, Bioy Casares, Garcia Marquez, or Vargas Llosa, or, presumably, Bolaño, wrote “Latin American literature.” The matter of context is further problematized by the fact that Bolaño’s books often celebrate his contemporaries as either heroically unpublished or dead before they were able to write anything lasting. We are given the impression that Bolaño is both a sui generis artist and the only of his kind. For these reasons-and also because Bolaño’s books tend to overlap-it’s not that bad of an idea to begin an approach to Bolaño through the context of Bolaño. On this score, American readers are fortunate because we have the opportunity of knowing him through several of his shorter works before reading The Savage Detectives.

Beyond reading Bolaño, there are things Americans lacking knowledge or translations of his contemporaries can do. Critics have been able to discern quite valid links between Bolaño and Borges and Garcia Marquez, and I think you can see other links from numerous other Latino mainstays, though it is true that in all these cases the links are not of the kind that are apparent at first blush. This is all to say that the literary context, or at least some of it, is out there for American readers, but that we’ll have to try hard for it, a concept not always in harmony with the idea of literature in this country.

In addition to having a literary context, we need to work on having a historical one. I hate to say it, most Americans are rather ignorant of what’s gone on in Latin America over the past few decades, even in spite of the heavy hand with which our government has acted again and again in this region. This is too bad, because to really understand Bolaño one should have some knowledge of the political history of Latin America. Although it is true that terror and art, as they function in Bolaño, are meant to be understood as universals, and you can get a lot out of Bolaño without knowing much about Chile or Mexico, that fact is that Bolaño’s novels are rooted in very specific times and places, and to read them without understanding the context is to miss a lot. Bolaño has called Latin America the insane asylum of Europe, and his novels explore the ways in which that continent has absorbed very different parts of Europe than North America. Latin America has given rise to permutations of concepts-fascism, for instance-that we as Americans (because we’re well-acquainted with the Nazis) may think we know but actually don’t. To read Bolaño and not be aware of the difference is to court misreadings.

Unfortunately, with regard to this matter of widening our context for reading Bolaño, we are caught in a catch-22. John O’Brien of the Dalkey Archive Press, one of our most dedicated, daring publishers of literary translations, has estimated that publishers tend to lose about $15,000 on each translation.5 This is largely due to poor sales, obviously because most Americans aren’t interested in reading translations. In order to provide a better context for reading Bolaño, we would need more translations of his contemporaries, but this won’t happen until translations are more readily profitable, which depends on greater demand. To say the least, it will be difficult to persuade American readers that they should be clamoring for something that has so long been marginalized in our marketplace, and that will remain marginalized until they start clamoring for it.

I am speaking about Bolaño because he is the hottest thing to hit foreign literature in this country for some time, and also because I think he is an important author, but all of this can be applied to foreign literature in general. The problems of provincialism that we face when we read Bolaño are, broadly speaking, the problems we face when we as Americans read any foreign author. Our literary self-isolation is exacerbated by the fact that though we publish so few translations in this country, other nations tend to publish a large number of translations from U.S. authors. (For instance, in 2002, Germany bought 4,000 U.S. books for translations, but we only bought 35 German ones.) Though far from insurmountable, these problems are nevertheless a challenge, even for those of us who make it a priority to develop a context when reading.

A Writer’s Country Is His Language

A Latino friend of mine who favors Bolaño’s works and who read Bolaño in Spanish long before he reached American shores once told me that after the media frenzy attendant to the English publication of The Savage Detectives he felt embarrassed for Bolaño. In his opinion, such a frenzy would have been precisely the thing that the author himself would have found vulgar. I, of course, can’t claim to have any idea what Bolaño would have thought about anything, but I don’t find it difficult to believe that the author who once referred to Nobel prize winners as a bunch of jerks and who mercilessly belittled Octavio Paz for courting pretension and reputation would have been at odds with the lightly felt affection of our American media. I felt a little embarrassed for Bolaño too: even though I tried to use Bolaño’s moment in the spotlight to recruit as many readers as possible to his books, I felt funny adding to the hype of an author that was so clearly over-hyped. And I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers, all too aware of how befouled we are by here-today-gone-tomorrow celebrities, recoiled from Bolaño simply because of the media frenzy. To be honest, if I hadn’t had the happy accident of reading Distant Star, By Night in Chile, and Amulet before The Savage Detectives was published, I probably would have been among them.

And yet, for as much attention as Bolaño received in 2007, I think he will get even more this year. Already we have seen the publication of Nazi Literature in the Americas, a book that is getting more rave reviews, and in November comes that monster known as 2666. Simply by matter of its heft, 2666 would be noteworthy (in our super-saturated marketplace, size is often used to obtain press coverage); but combine that with the fact of Bolaño’s current celebrity status, the legend of how he was still working on the novel when he died, and the fact that it will be one of the most ambitious, challenging novels to be published in English in years, and we have the potential to make even the frenzy over The Savage Detectives look small by comparison.

As much as I am aching to read 2666, I do wish that we weren’t getting it so soon. I believe that for those of us who really care about reading Bolaño, we’d be better off reading 2666 after we had the opportunity to digest everything else. Moreover, for the sake of Bolaño’s reputation in the United States I believe it would be better if we didn’t have another Bolaño frenzy while we were still under the influence of the last one. So harshly do we lash back at the stars of our media culture once we’ve gotten tired of them.

And also, for the sake of translation here in general I wish we’d give someone else a turn before we come back for 2666. I believe that Bolaño’s life-story and his novels have generated a genuine interest in foreign novels here, and in a culture so typically disinterested in what foreign literature has to offer this is no small thing. It would be better if we could ration out our works-in-translation mega-events, and it would be better to remember that Bolaño is only one man. To return to Venuti:

In the case of translations . . . past practices show quite clearly that publishers have not sufficiently taken into account the decontextualizing process of translating and its adverse impact on the reception of foreign texts. Focusing on a single foreign text or a single foreign author winds up exacerbating this process: it mystifies the loss or sheer destruction of the foreign linguistic and cultural contexts and therefore gives the false and misleading impression that any literary work can be understood on its own. This encourages an essentially romantic notion of original genius that militates against the contextualized reading, the implicit comparisons among texts, which informed readers always do.

This is a present danger with Bolaño, whose tendency to eulogize a lost generation of writers encourages the perception that he is the solitary genius who climbed out of the deadend world of magical realism. It would be healthier for all of us to let go of Bolaño a bit, to remember that one man doesn’t make a tradition, and to shine a little light on his worthy contemporaries. The logistics of bringing Latin American literature into English are notoriously difficult, and to divert a little of the energy from Bolaño would do a lot of good. The alternative is to quite ironically do Bolaño the disservice of putting him into the very same place that he disliked seeing Garcia Marquez in; that is, to make his brand of fiction the standard bearer for what “Latin American fiction” means to a generation of Americans, and to thus obscure everything else it could, and should, mean.

I’m Not Really Sure What Visceral Realism Is

I love literature because I love it, but also because I derive hope from it. Each time a writer sits herself down to work, she dashes herself up against the impossible task of penetrating another’s mind, and though no one ever manages to accomplish it, it’s nonetheless inspiring that so many writers have failed so well at it. And if we step back from that solitary writer and enlarge our glance to take in all the writers of the world trying to put the workings of a mind down on paper, and then if we think about how much of this writing is shuttled back and forth across languages and borders to readers trying to commune with alien minds and alien cultures, it makes me hopeful to think that something is getting across.

Amidst all this activity, to discover something that you find personally rewarding is a wonderful feeling. It is like finding a kindred soul on the other side of the Earth. The pursuit of this feeling motivates a good deal of my trips deeper and deeper into the great vault that we sometimes refer to as literature, and I admit that when I do find an author who can give it to me, I like to come back and back to that author. And yet, when I recover from my swoon and look up to all the thousands and thousands of books still out there that might potentially hold my next kindred soul, the feeling is overwhelming.

Notes

1 For what it’s worth, I contributed to this orgy of Bolaño appreciation with a review in the newspaper The Philadelphia Inquirer that ran on April 26, 2007.

2 For perspective, Swann’s Way only sold 3,000 copies in it’s first five years in America and The Magic Mountain did almost 5,000 in seven.

3 In fact, New Directions has been publishing Bolaño since 2003, doing much of the hard work of establishing him as a bona fide author of literary merit. It was their translations of By Night in Chile, Distant Star, Amulet, and a collection of his short stories that first made him available in English. A point that has not been made often enough over here is that it is largely because of these early translations that The Savage Detectives had the proper introduction that allowed it to almost immediately take off.

4 For evidence of just what a good story can do for a novelist, see, for instance, the French author Irene Nemirovsky, whose novel Suite Francaise was published here to great acclaim in 2006. Nemirovsky started it at the outbreak of World War II and was killed at a concentration camp before she could finish it, and the manuscript was onlydiscovered decades later. Most critics here have credited this striking story for its overwhelming success.

5 For those interested, O’Brien did a fascinating series on translation in America in the journal CONTEXT. His series is available online in English at the Dalkey Archive website.

Scott Esposito writes on art and culture for a number of publications. He edits The Quarterly Conversation and blogs on books at Conversational Reading.

Comments are closed.