Everyone knows Roberto Bolaño these days and this is a good thing. Bolaño has done much to change the nature of Latin American literature over the past two decades. This book is the closest thing we have to a biography on the man, made up of interviews of people who knew him best, from his earliest years growing up in Chile to his years in Mexico through his final years in Spain.
Bolaño, to me, is a very inspirational writer. Not only was his output immense, but here was a writer whose love of literature was complete and total. He was a writer with his own unique style, his own voice, his own vision. His appearance on the Latin American literary scene caused some consternation from the old guard giants of Latin American literature — those of the “Boom” years. Many did not take him seriously, many didn’t even bother to acknowledge his presence. His work announced the arrival of a new generation of writers, many of whom were tired of the old guard and were looking for something new.
He’s inspirational not only because he was a brilliant writer and poet but also because he’s a model for how many writers should be: sitting down and getting the work done. Bolaño saw himself primarily as a poet for most of his life. He only turned to fiction when he was in his 40s. A steady stream of novels followed and like many other novelists (i.e Milan Kundera, Henry Miller), his work should be looked at in totality and not by individual novels. He was a writer who had a lifelong plan, a mission, and he did the work. He was most definitely not an overnight success as this biography takes great pains to point out. Many of the people who knew him often speak about how for many years not many people paid any attention to him, despite the numerous awards and prizes he had won in his lifetime. His relationship with the literature of his own country was contentious, having no time for the Chilean “giants” such as Isabelle Allende or Antonio Skármeta, both of whom refused to acknowledge this young upstart.
What a young writer (or other writers) can learn from this book is his dedication to his work, his insistence on remaining himself, to carve out his own place in the literary tradition. His influences were all over the map, everything from Borges (who he considered “a God”) to detective novels and even science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick. While this book does touch on some of his lesser known work, it is his two most adventurous and ambitious novels, “The Savage Detectives” and the posthumous “2666” that get the most attention; for these are the novels that made his name and eventually gave him world wide attention and the respect from the more important literary figures the world over.
Like any other human being, Bolaño was a complicated figure, often at odds with his own popularity. He never believed in posterity although it seemed — according to many who knew him — that he was writing for posterity. Unfortunately his literary popularity would grow to an immense size after his premature death (he died at 50 years old) and it makes one wonder had he been alive to experience how much his work is now respected around the world how he would have dealt with it all. The book could have delved into his work a bit more than it does but this was more about the man himself and what drove him to produce the work he did. For fans, it’s an absolute must but perhaps one day a more in depth biography will emerge that explores his work more thoroughly. For now, this is the best we have. Get reading.