Bolaño: Writing to stay a step ahead of death


Bolaño: Writing to stay a step ahead of death

JOAN HAMBIDGE looks at the oeuvre of a dyslexic druggie who did not fit into the Chilean literary system.



Why are certain writers so prolific and why do they write extensive texts shortly before their deaths? In Afrikaans there is Karel Schoeman. In Chile Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003). With both, the reader is mesmerised by the prose. Long sentences in which seemingly nothing happens. As with Henry James. In Bolaño's novel 2666 (2004), one finds a paragraph that is one sentence. A tidal wave. A burner waiting to break…

He was born in Chile, lived in Mexico and Spain. A drug addict waiting for a liver transplant. He was a boxer, garbage remover, security man, dishwasher and therefore someone who could work with his hands. Experiencing life first hand.

Apparently dyslexic as a child and bullied at school. He was a member of the Chilean literary system with its rankings and snobbishness and he especially could not stand Isabel Allende.

2666 activates the biblical Exodus and the flight from Egypt 2,666 years after God created the earth. Other critics say that's the number of pages he left behind. Written in a feverish haste.

The novel has five sections. The first deals with the critics and four European scholars, Frenchman Jean-Claude Pelletier, Italian Piero Morini, Spaniard Manuel Espinoza and Liz Norton, a young English academic with whom all the men are in love. Everyone desires her.

There is a search for the mysterious German writer (bearing an Italian name), Benno von Archimboldi. Mrs Bubis, his publisher, plays an important role, like Rodolfo Alatorre, who claims they were friends. The search for the author initially yields nothing

Mrs Bubis turns out to be Baroness von Zumpe, just as the identity of the author is later revealed.

898 pages.

He saw literary culture as a harlot and regarded himself above all as a poet.

For a longer reflection.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:


I was introduced to Bolaño by Sue Robinson, the Russian in Etienne Leroux's 18-44.

She introduced me to several great Spanish writers. The longer novel claims a different kind of readership. One with stamina, just as we experienced in Michel Houellebecq's annihilation (translated by Johann Rossouw). A reader willing to take detours with the narrator(s) on a long journey of reading.

Bolaño takes you to Cervantes, Sterne, Melville, Proust, Musil and Pynchon, says noted critic Richard Gwyn. On page 856 we read:

Archimboldi had almost nothing to do with other German writers, in part because the hotels where they stayed when they went abroad weren’t the hotels where he stayed.

2666 was published posthumously and its five parts can be read separately and together. In the novel, the so-called “imperfect, torrential works" by Amalfitano are commented on.

Perhaps the title also refers to a cemetery in the year 2666, we wonder  with one of the characters. A novel that reflects how one is forgotten and shoved into a communal grave (520). And with cynical commentary on how a killer gets media attention akin to that of a pop star these days.

Natasha Wimmer's translation reads fluently.

His Savage Detectives (1998) was considered one of the best books in 2007, when Wimmer's translation was published.

The authors mentioned all operated outside the system. And we still read their books because every book becomes a sort of library.

Books lying on the floor in Liz Norton's abode (62). She is in a hurry to get to the right library and read on.

Poem by Bolaño:

Self-portrait at twenty years

I set off, I took up the march and never knew
where it might take me. I went full of fear,
my stomach dropped, my head was buzzing:
I think it was the icy wind of the dead.
I don't know. I set off, I thought it was a shame
to leave so soon, but at the same time
I heard that mysterious and convincing call.
You either listen or you don't, and I listened
and almost burst out crying: a terrible sound,
born on the air and in the sea.
A sword and shield. And then,
despite the fear, I set off, I put my cheek
against death's cheek.
And it was impossible to close my eyes and miss seeing
that strange spectacle, slow and strange,
though fixed in such a swift reality:
thousands of guys like me, baby-faced
or bearded, but Latin American, all of us,
brushing cheeks with death.

Translator: Laura Healy

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.