by Marcela ValdesThe Virginia Quarterly Review. Winter 2008.
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.