The New York Times. 27.01. 2009
Few writers are more acclaimed right now than the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died of an unspecified liver ailment in 2003, at the age of 50. His posthumous novel, 2666, appeared on many lists of the best books of 2008, and interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw.
But his widow, from whom he was separated at the time of his death, and Andrew Wylie, the American agent she recently hired after distancing herself from Mr. Bolaño’s friends, editors and publisher, are now challenging part of that image. They dispute the idea, originally suggested by Mr. Bolaño himself, endorsed by his American translator and mentioned in several of the rapturous recent reviews of 2666 in the United States, that he ever “had a heroin habit,” that his death was “traceable to heroin use” or even that he had “an acquaintance with heroin”.
At the same time, some of Mr. Bolaño’s friends in Mexico, where he lived for nearly a decade before finally settling down near Barcelona, Spain, are questioning another aspect of the life story he constructed for himself.
They say that Mr. Bolaño, who is rapidly emerging as the pre-eminent Latin American writer of his generation, was not in Chile during the military coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power, despite his claim to that badge of honor.
Regarding Mr. Bolaño and drugs, numerous Latin American and European critics and bloggers have taken the side of his widow, accusing American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist. Mr. Bolaño’s life and work have been made into “a trivial spectacle”, Julio Ortega, a Peruvian critic and scholar, wrote in El País, the leading daily in Spain.
The focus of the heroin controversy is a four-page narrative that appeared in a collection whose title translates as “Between Parentheses,” published the year after Mr. Bolaño’s death but not yet available in English. Called “Beach,” the text consists of a single long sentence, whose opening words are, “I gave up heroin and went back to my town and started on the methadone treatment administered me at the clinic...”.
The title page of “Between Parentheses” describes it as a collection of “essays, articles and speeches”. In the introduction Ignacio Echevarría, a Spanish critic and editor whom Mr. Bolaño named as his literary executor, explains that the book should be seen as “a type of ‘fragmented autobiography’ ” and “personal cartography” of Mr. Bolaño.
In separate interviews, however, Mr. Echevarría and Jorge Herralde, Mr. Bolaño’s publisher, said that the introduction and title page of future Spanish-language editions of the book would be changed to incorporate language to indicate that “Beach” is fiction, as will the English-language version, which New Directions intends to publish next year. “The situation lends itself to confusion because Bolaño liked to play tricks and create mysteries”, Mr. Herralde acknowledged. “But he may just have been trying to lay a trap for his future biographers”.
“Beach” was originally published by the Madrid daily El Mundo in July 2000 as part of a series in which 30 Spanish-language authors were asked to write about the worst summer of their lives. The editor of the newspaper’s literary supplement, Manuel Llorente, said most of the writers responded with “narratives that were clearly and unquestionably autobiographical”, but that he was never sure about the Bolaño contribution.
“I knew Bolaño was a writer who played with reality, who cultivated ambiguities and false identities, so I didn’t care whether the narrative he submitted was true or invented”, Mr. Llorente said in an interview. “To me, the only thing that mattered was its literary value”.
Mr. Wylie, who began handling Mr. Bolaño’s work last year, said in a telephone interview that the writer’s widow, Carolina López, whom Mr. Bolaño met after moving to Spain in the late 1970s, had “mentioned en passant” to him during a recent dinner in Barcelona that she regarded reports of her husband’s heroin use as “inaccurate”. Still, he balked at discussing the matter further, saying “literary detective work” did not interest him.
But literary sleuthing was one of Mr. Bolaño’s favorite themes. Both 2666 and its equally praised predecessor, The savage detectives, are about bands of poets and critics trying to track down the truth about writers who have vanished from history or who cloaked themselves behind murky versions of their pasts.
In interviews by telephone from Spain and Mexico, Mr. Bolaño’s friends and associates suggested that he also embraced ambiguity. “He created his own myth”, said the woman with whom the writer was romantically involved at the time of his death, but who asked that her name not be published because she wants to preserve her privacy. “Nobody can deny that he played that game, and he would be the first to admit it”.
According to the standard biographical accounts, Mr. Bolaño moved to Mexico in 1968, but returned to Chile in the early 1970s to support the Socialist government of President Salvador Allende. He was then supposedly arrested and jailed during the coup that brought General Pinochet to power on Sept. 11, 1973, but was saved from possible execution and allowed to escape by two guards who were high school classmates and recognized him.
But several of Mr. Bolaño’s Mexican friends, some of whom were in Chile themselves during the Allende years, say that the writer was in Mexico during the time he claimed to have been in Chile.
In the mid-1970s, “we talked a lot about Chile, and it was obvious to me that Roberto had not been there and was letting people think he had”, said Ricardo Pascoe, a Mexican sociologist and diplomat whose home was the setting for some of the parties and readings Mr. Bolaño later described in The savage detectives. “He would ask me about things that anybody who was there and on the left, or related to the left, would have known”.
Mr. Bolaño’s father, León, a former truck driver and boxer, said in a telephone interview from Mexico that he believed his son was in Chile, recalling a conversation in which the younger Mr. Bolaño said that he “was going to travel overland” to visit his father’s sister there. Though not sure of the date of that trip, León Bolaño, now 82 and ailing, said that after the coup he sought and obtained through his employer assurances from the Mexican government that it would evacuate his son through its embassy there.
Mr. Pascoe was one of thousands of young Latin Americans who went to Chile after Allende was elected in 1970 to participate in the revolution they all expected. During the bloodletting that accompanied the Pinochet coup, he and several hundred other fugitives took refuge in the Mexican Embassy in Santiago until they could be repatriated. Mr. Bolaño, Mr. Pascoe said, was “definitely not there”. He said that he once asked Mr. Bolaño directly if he had been in Chile and “his response was vague enough that it made me want to say, ‘Why don’t you just answer yes or no?’. But I liked him, and our friendship was not based on politics, so I didn’t really mind. But it was clear he had not been there”.
Mr. Bolaño’s Mexican friends said that he was simply ashamed to admit he was absent from what even today is considered his generation’s defining political experience, with status and credibility conferred on those who participated. “I understand why he lied, because he was remorseful at having missed out, at not having been there”, said Carmen Boullosa, a novelist, playwright and poet who corresponded with Mr. Bolaño.
Rodrigo Fresán, an Argentine novelist living in Barcelona, said, “Roberto’s biography is going to be interesting to read, and I am thankful that I was only his friend and not the one who is going to have to write it”. Somewhat ruefully, others who know Mr. Bolaño only from his work have come to the same conclusion.
“It’s a tough dance trying to keep up with the games of a writer who is playing with fact and fiction”, said Marcela Valdes, one of the American critics who has referred to heroin use in her essays on Mr. Bolaño. “On this one, he may have got us”.