martes, 7 de abril de 2009

Latin America’s literary outlaw

William Skidelsky
The Observer, UK. 11.01.2009

Roberto Bolaño's last work was his masterpiece. Now, five years after his death, we can read it in English.

When Roberto Bolaño died five years ago at the age of 50, he was already a major star in the Spanish-speaking literary firmament, widely seen as the most important Latin-American writer since Gabriel García Márquez. His reputation among English-speakers has, inevitably, been slower in the ascent. Translations of his novels and short stories began appearing shortly after his death, and gradually a buzz grew up around the Chilean author. But it was only two years ago, with the translation of his dauntingly bulky novel The savage detectives, that Bolaño's true significance began to be appreciated.

The savage detectives tells the story of a fictional poetic movement called visceral realism, founded in Mexico City in the mid-1970s. Its roots are autobiographical: Bolaño lived in Mexico during this period (his family moved there when he was 15) and was the founder of a short-lived "punk-surrealist" movement called infrarrealismo. Two things in particular mark The savage detectives as Bolaño's work. The first is the milieu its characters inhabit. Almost all Bolaño's fiction concerns itself with the lives of writers, especially poets. His poet-protagonists tend to be impoverished outcasts, cut off from the literary mainstream; often, there is little to distinguish them from criminals. They are also incredibly libidinous.

His preference for literary outlaws can again be traced to his own life. Until he married, had children and settled in northern Spain in the early 1990s, Bolaño was essentially a vagrant, moving from place to place, supporting himself with odd jobs and writing poetry at night (and developing, in the process, a heroin habit). He even had a card printed with the words "Poet and Vagabond".

The other thing that makes The savage detectives typical of Bolaño is its unorthodox narrative method. The novel begins conventionally enough, in the form of a diary belonging to a poet on the fringes of the visceral realist movement. But then, after about 100 pages, it abruptly changes tack and the next 400 pages, which span the subsequent two decades, are taken up with the oral testimonies of various people who encountered the two leaders of visceral realism, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, on their wanderings across South America and Europe. It's an odd way to go about telling a made-up story and the effect is disorienting; it is almost as if what you're reading isn't a novel at all, but the transcripts of interviews for a documentary that someone (Bolaño himself, perhaps?) is making about the poets. In anyone else's hands, the trick might seem contrived. But so assured is Bolaño's ventriloquism that the sequence is a triumph.

The savage detectives was rightly lauded when it appeared in English, yet it proved to be only a warm-up act. For the last few years of his life, Bolaño was at work on an even more ambitious project, a mammoth novel that he regarded as his master statement. During this period, Bolaño knew that he was dying (he had a long-standing liver ailment, possibly connected with his earlier drug use). In the end, he didn't quite get to finish the novel -he was about to embark on a final revision when he died-. But his literary executors deemed the work fit to publish anyway and now, four years after it came out in Spanish, it has been superbly translated into English.

Like its predecessor, 2666 is a novel of stupefying ambition with a mock-documentary element at its core. It is divided into five loosely connected sections, each of which could stand as a novel in their own right (and indeed Bolaño expressed a wish, ignored by his executors, for them to be published separately). We begin in familiar territory, with a tale of four literary critics from different European countries who are united both by their promiscuity and their obsession with a cult German novelist called Benno von Archimboldi. Little is known about Archimboldi other than that he is very tall, very old and that he disappeared in early adulthood (although he has continued writing ever since).

Discovering his whereabouts has long been a dream for the critics. At a conference in Toulouse, a chance meeting throws up evidence that Archimboldi recently travelled to the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa. The critics go there in the hope of tracking him down.

Both the next two sections are set in Santa Teresa but the critics have disappeared from view (this is a novel with many disappearances). Instead, the focus switches to two other outsiders: a depressive Spanish literature professor who moved to the town after his wife's death, and a black American journalist who is there for a few days to cover a boxing bout. Gradually, the tone darkens and an atmosphere of menace takes over. Snatches of conversation are overheard in bars and restaurants - references to "the killings". It emerges that Santa Teresa is the scene of one of the most horrific crime sprees imaginable.

The killings in question -the murders of young women- have been occurring there for several years (the novel is set in the mid to late 90s). Bolaño isn't just relying on his imagination here. Santa Teresa is a fictionalised version of a real Mexican border town, Ciudad Juárez, which became notorious during this period for the extraordinary number of women murdered. For several years, on an almost weekly basis, the bodies of young women -some as young as 11 or 12- would turn up in the desert surrounding the town.

The majority were workers in the town's maquiladoras (American-owned factories). Most had been raped and savagely assaulted. A remarkably high percentage of the cases were unsolved (often the bodies weren't even identified). It was never satisfactorily established whether a single psychopath or a group of copycat murderers were behind the crimes, although various arrests were made.

In his final years, Bolaño became obsessed by the murders and set about finding out everything he could about them. He struck up correspondences with journalists who had covered the cases, bombarding them with requests for details covering everything from the forensic aspects of the killings to the politics and geography of Ciudad Juárez (he never visited the town). And he needed whatever information he could get, because in the novel's fourth section -its astonishing centrepiece- he undertakes another of his epic reconstructions. For nearly 300 pages he takes us through the murders chronologically, describing in the cold, hard language of the forensic report where each body was found, what state it was in, what the cause of death was and so on.

Threaded through the sequence are accounts of the various attempts to solve the killings, by policemen, private detectives, journalists and, in one case, a psychic. As the bodies mount up and all the investigations come to nothing, it becomes clear that what we are being presented with is a vision of hell, a place where horror is unending and meaningless. It is hard to think of a grislier sequence in literature.

Yet the most startling thing about it is that it is literature. For it is easy to forget, as Bolaño lays down his litany of carnage, that none of what he is describing actually happened. Of course, something nearly identical to it did, in Ciudad Juárez. But Bolaño's town is Santa Teresa, and the women whose deaths he evokes so chillingly never actually existed. Critics have talked for years about the blurring of fiction and reality, but it seems to me that Bolaño, in this sequence, is doing something genuinely novel. He is deploying a technique of non-fiction (the forensic report) to describe something imaginary, but which nonetheless mirrors almost exactly an actual sequence of events. This is neither fictionalised history (attributing imaginary thoughts and deeds to real people) nor fictional documentary (as in a film such as Best in Show). It is something else again - a kind of imaginative documentation of reality. Here, as in the oral testimony sequence of The savage detectives, it is almost as if Bolaño were attempting to carve out a new territory -a third space, if you like- between the real and the make-believe.

2666 is indeed Bolaño's master statement, not just on account of its length and quality but also because it is the fullest expression of his two abiding themes: the writing life and violence. Bolaño's interest in the former is easy to explain -he believed that a life dedicated to literature was the only one worth living-. But his fascination with violence is more complex. One explanation can be found in his background. As someone who came of age during the era of South America's dirty wars, it is understandable that he should side with the view he attributes to one of the characters in 2666, who sees history as a "simple whore... a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness".

But Bolaño's interest in violence is also bound up with his conception of literature. He described writing as a "dangerous calling" and throughout his life saw it as something fundamentally lawless, antagonistic to the norms of society. There is a visceral quality to his prose, and often in his fiction he forges explicit connections between literature and violence. His novella Distant star is about a poet who is a serial killer, and in the final section of 2666, which returns to Archimboldi, a link emerges between the novelist and the Santa Teresa killings.

In his last interview, Bolaño declared, in all apparent seriousness, that what he would most liked to have been was a homicide detective. By writing 2666 he got to enact his fantasy. And, in the process, he created as disturbingly original a work of art as you could encounter.