Roberto Bolaño’s Novels Were a Love Letter to His Generation, But What He Had to Say Many Chileans Didn’t Want to Hear
Any account of Roberto Bolaño’s life has to be divided into at least two stages: before the publication of The Savage Detectives in 1998, and after. Before there was rage, poverty, and obscurity. After, there was rage, security, and fame. In essays, lectures, and interviews, Bolaño’s friends often mention his kindness, his loyalty, his doting love for his two children. There’s no reason to doubt that their statements are true. In private, the man who is now widely recognized as the most influential Latin American novelist of the past three decades could have been a peaceful gentleman. But in public, in print, Bolaño preferred war. Before he died of liver failure in 2003, he told several interviewers, “My motto is not Et in Arcadia ego, but Et in Esparta ego.”
That creed may have come together during the years Bolaño worked as a garbage man, dishwasher, waiter, longshoreman, night watchman, reporter, grape picker, and seller of costume jewelry—all to support his habit of writing poetry. He was forty before he could ditch the odd jobs and live off his writing; forty-five when he won the Rómulo Gallegos Prize (AKA the Hispanic Booker) for The Savage Detectives. By then, he’d lost most of his teeth. “Bolaño lived through and for literature,” one of his best friends, Antoni García Porta, wrote. He read and wrote fanatically, and if he liked to toss bombs, his targets were usually literary.
Take for example, his 2002 essay, “On Literature, the National Prize in Literature, and the Strange Consolations of Service,” a napalm shower that burned many of Chile’s most prominent writers and included this backhanded compliment to the country’s bestselling author Isabel Allende:
Made to choose between the frying pan and the fire, I choose Isabel Allende. Her glamour of South American in California, her imitations of García Márquez, her unquestionable boldness, her practice of a literature that goes from kitsch to pathetic and that somehow resembles, in a creole and politically correct fashion, the work of the author of Valley of the Dolls, winds up being, although it seems difficult, much superior to the literature of born functionaries like [Antonio] Skármeta and [Volodia] Teitelboim.
When it came to his countrymen, Bolaño was always especially generous with insults, but he didn’t restrict himself to slighting Chileans. He once dismissed Columbia’s Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez as “a man delighted to have met so many presidents and archbishops” and Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa as the same sort of sycophant “but smoother.”
Journalists abetted these proclamations, of course—nothing makes better copy than a fight—but Bolaño hardly needed egging on. He appears to have relished the idea of making enemies. A few days before “On Literature” was published, for example, Bolaño sent the text to his good friend, the Spanish literary critic Ignacio Echevarría, who would later edit Bolaño’s posthumous collection of essays, Between Parenthesis. Bolaño attached the following note: “Dear Ignacio: Restif de Bretonne on the barricades or how to keep making friends in Chile. The neo-pamphlet will be the great literary genre of the XXII century. In this sense, I’m a minor author, but advanced.” A few days later, he added: “The reactions, frankly, mean nothing to me.”
Combative, sarcastic, high-handed, Bolaño could sound obnoxious, and the public record of trash talk has naturally led many people to see him as a sort of chest-thumping provocateur. But Bolaño wasn’t just a Norman Mailer-esque showman. His hatred of born functionaries and of people pleased to have met archbishops fits logically into his obsession with evil’s relationship to art, a subject that appears in almost all of his fiction. “Literature,” Bolaño told the reporter Luis García in the 2001, “has always been close to ignominy, to vileness, to torture.” Nowhere is this connection more clear than in Bolaño’s two little novels about Chile—Distant Star and By Night in Chile—a pair of subtle, damning romans à clef that exposed a history of collusion among critics, poets, and the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
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Technically Bolaño is a Chilean writer—he was born in Santiago in 1953—but his background was more mongrel than mere birthplace implies. His formative years were spent in Mexico City, most of his adulthood in Spain. As a result, Bolaño’s accent never settled. Mexicans thought he talked like a Chilean; Chileans thought he sounded Spanish, and Spaniards took him for Argentine. One could argue that Bolaño never moved back to Chile because from September 1973 until December 1989 the country was ruled by a military dictator. Bolaño, however, always rebelled against the idea that he was a political exile. “My only nation,” he declared again and again, “is my library and my children.” Yet Bolaño remained tied to Chile by more than a few memories and a passport. His novels and his essays suggest that he always kept close tabs on Chilean arts and politics. And like many Chileans, he was tattooed by the events of 1973. In his essay “Exiles,” Bolaño explains that he returned to Chile that year, for five near-fatal months, because “despite everything, the shadow of my native country was never erased, and in the bottom of my stupid heart there subsisted the conviction that in those lands my destiny was being forged.” In many ways, his stupid heart was right.
Bolaño’s ambitions first intertwined with Chilean politics in the summer of 1973, three years after Chile made international headlines by electing Salvador Allende as its president. Allende, who headed a left-wing coalition called Popular Unity, became the world’s first democratically-chosen Marxist leader. Although he took the presidency by a slim margin—in a three-way race, he had only 36% percent of the vote—his election was nonetheless seen as a resounding victory for socialist ideals.
Bolaño may have spent the election in his bedroom. In 1968, after living in a series of rural and port towns, his family had left Chile for Mexico City. Shortly after the move, fifteen-year-old Bolaño announced that he was dropping out of high school to become a poet. His father, who’d worked as a truck driver and boxer in Chile, objected to this decision, but his mother, a math teacher who liked to read Pablo Neruda, supported her son. That was all Bolaño needed. By the time the poet Jaime Quezada came to visit the family three years later, Bolaño was living like a hermit. “He didn’t come out of his bed-living-dining-room,” Quezada later recalled, “except to go to the toilet or to comment out loud, pulling on his hair, about some passage in the book he was reading.” Day and night, Bolaño studied in his homemade academy, tearing through books at nearly the same rate that he chain-smoked cigarettes. In the Spanish-speaking world, Bolaño is renowned for his erudition; all his books are packed with literary allusions. He read everything: from the ancient Greek warrior-poet Archilochus of Paros (a personal favorite), to the European modernists and existentialists, to the American noirists (he loved Philip K. Dick), to the innovators of the Latin American Boom. And according to his editor Jorge Herralde, he kept up the pace of his reading until he died.
It was Chile that lured Bolaño from his self-made ivory tower in August 1973, when he was twenty years old. By that point, Allende’s bold program to socialize Chile was running aground. Allende had expropriated land from the wealthy and divided it among the poor. He’d frozen prices and raised wages and nationalized the country’s banks and copper mines. He’d even invited Fidel Castro for a visit. For a while, these changes seemed to work, but after a brief high, the economy began to tank. Shortages of goods like toilet paper, sugar, and panty hose became commonplace. My uncle, who worked in an emergency room in Santiago, still recalls the day when a good chunk of the hospital staff disappeared because they heard someone was selling toothpaste down the street. Inflation rose to 1,000% a year. Strikes, demonstrations, and kidnappings became everyday events. How many of these catastrophes were caused by American CIA agents? How many by right-wing Chileans? How many by Allende’s own radical policies? The answers to these questions remain under shouting-match dispute. What’s certain, however, is that by the time Bolaño left Mexico City to join the Revolution, Chile was divided irrevocably into two opposing camps—those who wanted Allende to continue his programs, and those who wanted him deposed.
Because he was young and poor, Bolaño took the slow route to Chile, traveling overland through Mexico and Central America to Panama, then from Panama to Chile by boat. He arrived in Santiago in early September, and was 320 miles south of there, in the university town of Concepción, on the 11th of September 1973, the day the Chilean Army drove its tanks into the capital and staged a coup d’état. Gunfire and explosions can be heard in the background of Allende’s 9:10 a.m. radio speech. “This will surely be my last opportunity to address you,” Allende began. A little while later, another voice came on the radio, announcing Allende’s death. According to statements made later by his doctor, Allende committed suicide rather than surrender to the coup.
That same morning, the military began collaring leftists all around the country, and a few months later Bolaño was picked up at a road check between Concepción and his old hometown of Los Ángeles. He was the only person the police took from the bus, and he feared that they would kill him on the spot. Bolaño’s revolutionary activities until then appear to have consisted of little more than passionate talk and the guarding of an empty street. But his foreign-made clothes and his Mexico City accent aroused the suspicions of the officer in charge: he decided that he’d captured a Mexican terrorist. Bolaño was locked up in a local school that held other recent arrestees. He could hear the torture sessions through the walls.
The military’s purge would eventually lead to the torture of more than 28,000 Chileans, and to the murder or disappearance of some 3,200 others. Among these casualties lay an enormous number of university students—men and woman around Bolaño’s age—but he himself emerged relatively unscathed. Though he was given no blankets or food during the eight days that he was imprisoned, Bolaño was not otherwise tortured. His release was a stroke of pure luck: a pair of detectives walking among the prisoners recognized him from the days when they all went to school together in Los Ángeles, and they sprung him free.
A few months afterwards, in January 1974, Bolaño fled back to Mexico, where he and his best friend, Mario Santiago, launched a notorious, Dada-inspired poetry group called the infrarrealists, whose adventures Bolaño would later immortalize in The Savage Detectives. In 1977, he left Mexico for Europe. He would not see Chile again until he was well into middle age.
Bolaño’s first novel about Chile, Distant Star (1996), opens in Concepción and the first six of its ten chapters are set largely around the time that Bolaño himself was in Chile. Part detective story, part surrealist nightmare, Distant Star imagines the “sinister legend” of one Carlos Wieder, a charismatic young man who passes himself off as leftist poet until he emerges as a pilot in the dictatorship’s Air Force. After Wieder skywrites Catholic and patriotic poetry over a few rural Chilean cities, his work is promoted in the pages of Chile’s oldest newspaper, El Mercurio, and he becomes the mascot of the new regime. He is the man, they believe, who could “show the world that the new regime and avant-garde art weren’t, in the least, at odds,” and they call on him to stage something “spectacular” in the capital to prove that this is true.
So Wieder produces a long sky-poem in praise of death (“Death is friendship / Death is Chile / Death is responsibility / Death is love,” etc.), followed by a small photo installation in his apartment. The bedroom that holds the installation is kept closed during most of the post-flight party, and its contents an absolute secret. But late in the evening, Wieder guides his guests into the room one by one. What they find is a space plastered with photographs of women who have been tortured and killed, including an image of “a young blonde who seemed to fade into the air” as if she had been thrown from an airplane. It soon becomes clear that Wieder himself is the man behind all of these snapshots, and that they represent his greatest artistic achievement: the kidnapping, torture, and killing of Chile’s female poets.
Bolaño’s detached tone in recounting these events, as well as his haunting atmospherics and his use of character doppelgangers, earned him comparisons to Jorge Luis Borges. But where the Argentine’s tales were pure fantasy, several key points in Distant Star were inspired by facts. According to Chilean literary critic Patricia Espinosa, who edited a critical anthology about Bolaño called Fugitive Territories, and who is completing a dissertation on the relationship between evil and the avant-garde in Bolaño’s work, the character of Carlos Wieder was modeled on a real Chilean poet and performance artist named Raúl Zurita. “Zurita,” she explained to me in an interview, “was a poet who burned his face with acid in a museum.” He engaged in several acts of performance art using his body and, later, he contracted some biplanes and wrote poetry in the skies over New York and northern Chile. Zurita was neither a torturer nor a murderer; in fact, he opposed the military dictatorship. But his first works of poetry, like Wieder’s, were boosted by glowing reviews in El Mercurio. In Distant Star, these reviews are written by a fictional literary critic named Nicasio Ibacache, who writes a weekly column for El Mercurio and attends a daily Mass. Zurita’s reviews were written by Ignacio Valente, an influential and conservative Catholic priest who published a weekly literary column in El Mercurio for twenty-five years. He is also parodied in Bolaño’s novel By Night in Chile.
Why did Bolaño use a man who had opposed the dictatorship as the model for his villain? Perhaps because Zurita embodied the characteristic that Bolaño hated most: the courtly spirit. In his interview with Luis García, Bolaño argued that literature is close to ignominy “in proportion to its use or its fabrication by courtiers, of whatever kind and whatever creed.” “The problem,” Bolaño said, “lies in the courtly spirit. And also, of course, in fear.” Born functionaries and sycophants abetted evil, he believed, and any artist who achieved success during a military dictatorship would have been suspect to him, no matter what his declared political views. During the dictatorship many Chilean artists went into exile, but the majority of those who stayed made works of resistance on the margins. It wasn’t possible to promote such work publicly; there was censorship. But writers and artists who gained favor with Pinochet’s regime, like Zurita, had access to money, to publicity, to cultural events, to publication, to glowing reviews in El Mercurio. Zurita’s very success implicated him and the fact that he became a cultural attaché for Chile after the dictatorship would have only worsened Bolaño’s opinion of him. Though Zurita is a solid poet, perhaps Bolaño’s assessment of his character was not so far off the mark. In 2000, Zurita caused a minor scandal in Chile by dedicating one of his books, The Militant Poems, to the country’s incoming socialist president, Ricardo Lagos. A courtier indeed.
Distant Star sold fewer than 2,000 copies worldwide during its first two years, but the small number of copies that sold in Chile landed on fertile ground. In Santiago, Distant Star developed a cult following among book critics and university students, who circulated Bolaño’s books from hand to hand. Early fans like Espinosa were impressed not only by Bolaño’s hypnotizing prose style and his bottomless knowledge of Chilean literature—one could build a library based on his allusions—but also startled by the difference between his works and the literary novels that were generally praised in Santiago during the 1990s.
For years after the dictatorship ended in 1989, Chile’s literary scene was dominated by a movement known as the New Chilean Narrative. Its novelists—Alberto Fuguet, Sergio Gómez, Jaime Collier, Gonzalo Contreras, and Arturo Fontaine Talavera, among others—focused mostly on contemporary Latin American culture, not skywriting military poets. “In some ways, they attempted to make a kind of postmodern literature,” Espinosa says. At the same time, they aimed for a less identifiably Chilean prose style. They avoided Chilean colloquialisms, for example, and the history of Pinochet. Indeed, politics was something the New Narrative didn’t care to touch. The movement, like Chile as a whole, aimed to leave the days of the dictatorship in the past. It was, Espinosa says, “as if they wanted to unhitch themselves from memory.” Naturally, Bolaño hated their work.
I got the clearest idea of how unique Distant Star seemed in Santiago during the 1990s when Espinosa told me that, for some time after its publication, fans speculated that the name “Roberto Bolaño” might be a pseudonym. It did not seem possible to them that he was really Chilean. At issue was not so much the subject of Bolaño’s novels as his angle. Before him, many Chileans had written books about the dictatorship—Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits was for some time the genre’s gold standard—but none of these books bore the influence of Kafka and Philip K. Dick. And none of them were so determined to explore the history of passive collaboration among Chilean artists.
In 1998, a month before Bolaño arrived in Santiago for his first visit since 1973, General Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London. The Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón wanted to extradite Pinochet to Madrid, where he planned to charge him with genocide, torture, kidnapping, and murder, but in March 2000, after sixteen months of legal wrangling, Great Britain sent Pinochet home uncharged. His arrest nonetheless provoked a massive reckoning in Chile during the fall of 1998. University students and relatives of the disappeared flooded the streets with demonstrations. Pinochet-supporters marched in candlelit parades and declared that his arrest was an insult to the country’s sovereignty. Newspapers wobbled between indignation and doubt and private citizens contemplated—with hope, anger, or fear—the idea that the coup might have legal consequences after all.
Though Chile had returned to democracy in December 1989, when Patricio Aylwin was elected president, Pinochet wrote the constitution that guided Aylwin’s rule. In it, Pinochet reserved a few special powers for himself. Until 1998, he remained the Army’s Commander in Chief and upon his resignation he had himself appointed Senator for Life. His constitution put limits on the full exercise of democracy and made the military the “guarantors” of the government’s “institutionality.” While Aylwin and his successor Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle held office, Pinochet also staged unannounced military maneuvers as if to remind everyone that he could, at any moment, seize the government again. Such tactics kept him and his allies shielded from almost all human rights prosecutions. In 1991 he declared, “The day they touch one of my men, the rule of law ends.”
Given the continuous cycle of debates and marches that occurred during his November visit, it’s strange that the first essay Bolaño published about this trip makes no mention of politics. Paula magazine had flown Bolaño, his wife, and their eight-year-old son from their home in Spain to Santiago so that Bolaño could judge a short story contest. While he was there Paula also commissioned “Fragments from a Return to the Native Country,” which they published several months later in February 1999. In it, Bolaño’s tone is ambivalent: waspish observations rub against genuine praise; words of indifference are countered by lines of irritable affection. “The pretentiousness of Chileans has no match on the planet,” Bolaño declares at one point, then softens the blow: “Neither does their hospitality, which in my case never stops.”
It was as if, for once in his life, Bolaño was actually trying to please. In November 1998 he was on the cusp of celebrity: The Savage Detectives came out that same month. Could it be that in the first flashes of international recognition (the call back home, the round of interviews, the requests for nonfiction pieces) the once-obscure writer momentarily lost his bearings and gave in to the common courtier urge? For “Fragments” does not appear to reveal his true thoughts.
Between Parentheses includes an unpublished paper that seems to date from around this time. “Not long ago I was in Chile,” Bolaño writes,
and I had the opportunity to witness two or three televised dialogues among politicians of diverse inclinations. The dialogues […] consisted of a public display of patience on the part of the politicians from the center and the left and a display of bad manners, when not of save-the-nation hysterics, on the part of the politicians from the right. I had the impression (possibly fantastic) that some of them, precisely the ones who enjoyed the favor of the majority of the voters, retained an attitude of just-liberated prisoners who were still subject to the will, less real than imagined, of their ex-jailers, and that the others, the ones who enjoyed the favor of many fewer voters, retained an attitude of pride, of most deeply wounded gentlemen, but also of rude children, of little bullies.
This biting tone also pervades Bolaño’s second essay about his 1998 trip to Santiago, “The Corridor with No Apparent Exit,” which was published in Barcelona in May 1999. In it, Bolaño recounts a sordid secret that he learned during his visit from the novelist Pedro Lemebel. At the height of the military dictatorship, Lemebel tells him, when a curfew emptied Santiago’s streets every night, some of the writers who snubbed Bolaño during his visit, and who snubbed Lemebel all the time, used to gather at the home of a pretty, aspiring writer who lived in the outskirts of the capital. There the writers enjoyed whiskey and good wine, sometimes even dinner. One a night a guest, who was probably tipsy, got lost on the way to the bathroom. The house was large and the guest wound up in the basement. He opened a door that was “at the end of a long corridor that resembles Chile,” Bolaño writes, and there, in the darkness, he saw the body of someone who had recently been tortured. Terrified, he returned to the party and said nothing. Thus, the parties went on and on.
“Surely, the people who attended these evenings of post-coup cultural pretentiousness,” Lemebel says, “will be able to recall the bothersome power surges that made the lamps blink and the music skip interrupting the dancing. Surely, they never knew of another parallel dance, where a twist of the cattle prod made the tortured calf arch.”
Espinosa confirms that the story Lemebel and Bolaño recount is true. The pretty, aspiring writer was Mariana Callejas. Her husband was Michael Townley, an American who posed as a businessman but worked for Chile’s secret police. In the basement of their home, Townley interrogated leftist dissidents before they were shipped to detention centers where sometimes they “disappeared.” According to Espinosa, several important Chilean writers launched their careers at the Callejas-Townley salon, but nobody talked about the parties in public after Townley was arrested 1978. He was extradited to the US by the FBI for organizing the 1976 assassination of Allende’s foreign minister Orlando Letelier, who was killed by a car bomb in Washington, DC. By turning evidence against the men he hired for the killing, Townley brokered a reduced sentence and was eventually freed through the Witness Protection Program. His wife also agreed to testify in exchange for a reprieve. Some have said she was an informer for Chile’s military police.
“The Corridor with No Apparent Exit” did not take long to circulate through Chile’s literary establishment, where many writers, on the left and the right, were wounded by its splinters. By the time Bolaño returned to Santiago for a book festival at the end of 1999, he had become the country’s most famous writer, but in Santiago he also was widely loathed. “Almost all the Chilean writers,” he wrote in another unpublished work, “decided to attack me in a flock, as they say in Chile, that is, in a group; I suppose to celebrate my recent Rómulo Gallegos Prize. I counterattacked.”
The confrontation was wholly predictable. Still, it’s hard not to sympathize with the feelings of the flock. Here was a man who’d lived outside the country during its most oppressive years, a man few of them had ever heard of, who had suddenly become famous and who had used that fame to turn the world’s eyes on them, yelling, Collaborators!
They responded with boycotts, envy, and anger. A pact of silence arose around Bolaño; many Chilean writers refused to talk about him. Indeed, when Espinosa was preparing Fugitive Territories, she tried to get some of them to contribute essays, and many turned her down. “Sergio Gómez, for example,” she says, “sent me an email indicating that he didn’t want to say anything about Bolaño because he wasn’t worth the time. He hadn’t even read his work. He wasn’t interested.”
Bolaño’s own counterattack was By Night in Chile (2000), a novel he originally wanted to title The Storm of Shit. (He was persuaded to do otherwise by Herralde and Echevarría.) Clearly modeled on one of his favorite books, The Fall by Albert Camus, By Night in Chile brought the story of Callejas and Townley’s parties into even wider circulation. Its main character, an old literary critic named Father Urrutia, is obviously patterned on Ignacio Valente, the same critic who appears in Distant Star. Like Valente, Urrutia is a member of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei. Like Valente, Urrutia gives Pinochet private classes in Marxism, so the General can better combat his enemies. But Urrutia struggles with his decision to help the military regime. At one point, he asks someone, “Did I do right or did I do wrong?” And the person responds by asking: “Was the performance necessary or unnecessary?” Urrutia answers, “Necessary, necessary, necessary.” Teaching Pinochet Marxism may have been necessary, the novel suggests, because Urrutia could have been killed if he didn’t accede to the General’s wishes. But when Urrutia begins enjoying himself at lavish parties in a Townley-like safe house, while the rest of Santiago hunkers under a curfew and dissidents all over the country are rounded up, the question arises, was this really necessary too?
Bolaño never returned to Chile after his 1999 trip to Santiago. He had been chronically ill with liver problems since 1992, but he kept postponing the necessity of getting on the wait list for a transplant because he was determined to finish his most ambitious novel, 2666. The last time he visited his editor Jorge Herralde in the offices of Anagrama in Barcelona on June 30, 2003, he spent hours talking about books, praising them or decimating them as was his wont. That night he went to sleep in his house in the small costal town of Blanes, where he lived with his companion, Carolina López, and their two children. At daybreak, he began to hemorrhage. On July 14, he died.
In Spain, his death released a torrent of praise for his novels and for his character. And in Chile, many of the writers who had stonewalled him while was he alive began to publicly recognize his worth. Among them was Sergio Gómez, the writer who had told Espinosa that Bolaño was not worth reading and who now published a marvelous eulogy in praise of his books.
Today Bolaño is a legend in Chile, a hero adored by young writers who buy cheap, pirated copies of his books from street vendors. His most popular novels are his fattest, The Savage Detectives and 2666, both clocking in at over six hundred pages. Both are set primarily in Mexico. It is possible that young Chilean readers prefer these novels because they are more extravagant, more structurally complex than Bolaño’s slim novels about Chile. It is also possible that they too would like to unhitch themselves from the complications of historical memory.
For Bolaño, such a choice was never possible. “Sometimes I have the fatal impression that the Eleventh of September has trained us in some irreversible way,” Bolaño wrote long before America was burned by its own 9/11. His experiences in Chile during the months after the coup forever shaped his literary preoccupations. More than three decades after he was held as a “Mexican terrorist,” Bolaño declared that
to a great extent, everything that I have written is a letter of love or of goodbye to my own generation, to those of us who were born in the fifties and who, in a given moment, choose military service, in this case it would be more accurate to say militant service, and who gave the little that we had, the lot that we had, which was our youth, to a cause that we believed to be the most generous cause in the world, and that in certain ways was, but that in reality wasn’t.
Bolaño rejected Marxism after the 1970s— eventually he realized that its leaders would have gladly have jailed a writer like him—but he continued to cherish the young people who fought and died for it. “All of Latin America is sown with the bones of these forgotten youths,” he said in his Rómulo Gallegos acceptance speech. They were “stupid and generous, the way young people are.” They gave “everything away and ask[ed] for nothing in return.” There were no born functionaries or courtiers among them. And when they died in the political wars of Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Nicaragua, Columbia, and El Salvador, he believed that noblest part of his generation had disappeared.