Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
This interview is featured, along with thirty-four others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.
Roberto Bolaño belongs to the most select group of Latin-American novelists. Chile of the coup d’état , Mexico City in the 1970s, and the reckless youth of poets are some of his frequent subjects, but he also takes up other themes: César Vallejo’s deathbed, the hardships endured by unknown authors, life at the periphery. Born in Chile in 1953, he spent his teenage years in Mexico and moved to Spain at the end of the ’70s. As a poet, he founded the Infrarealist movement with Mario Santiago. In 1999 he won the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, previously awarded to Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, for his novel Los detectives salvajes [The Savage Detectives], for which he also received the prestigious Herralde Prize.
A prolific writer, a literary animal who makes no concessions, Bolaño successfully combines the two basic instincts of a novelist: he is attracted to historical events, and he desires to correct them, to point out the errors. From Mexico he acquired a mythical paradise, from Chile the inferno of the real, and from Blanes, the town in northeast Spain where he now lives and works, he purges the sins of both. No other novelist has been able to convey the complexity of the megalopolis Mexico City has become, and no one has revisited the horrors of the coup d’état in Chile and the Dirty War with such mordant, intelligent writing.
To echo Bolaño’s words, “reading is more important than writing.” Reading Roberto Bolaño, for example. If anyone thinks that Latin-American literature isn’t passing through a moment of splendor, a look through some of his pages would be enough to dispel that notion. With Bolaño, literature—that inexplicably beautiful bomb that goes off and as it destroys, rebuilds—should feel proud of one of its best creations.
Our conversation took place via e-mail between Blanes and my home in Mexico City in the fall of 2001.
Carmen Boullosa In Latin America, there are two literary traditions that the average reader tends to regard as antithetical, opposite—or frankly, antagonistic: the fantastic—Adolfo Bioy Casares, the best of Cortázar, and the realist—Vargas Llosa, Teresa de la Parra. Hallowed tradition tells us that the southern part of Latin America is home to the fantastic, while the northern part is the center of realism. In my opinion, you reap the benefits of both: your novels and narratives are inventions—the fantastic—and a sharp, critical reflection of reality—realist. And if I follow this reasoning, I would add that this is because you have lived on the two geographic edges of Latin America, Chile and Mexico. You grew up on both edges. Do you object to this idea, or does it appeal to you? To be honest, I find it somewhat illuminating, but it also leaves me dissatisfied: the best, the greatest writers (including Bioy Casares and his antithesis, Vargas Llosa) always draw from these two traditions. Yet from the standpoint of the English-speaking North, there’s a tendency to pigeonhole Latin-American literature within only one tradition.
Roberto Bolaño I thought the realists came from the south (by that, I mean the countries in the Southern Cone), and writers of the fantastic came from the middle and northern parts of Latin America—if you pay attention to these compartmentalizations, which you should never, under any circumstances, take seriously. 20th-century Latin-American literature has followed the impulses of imitation and rejection, and may continue to do so for some time in the 21st century. As a general rule, human beings either imitate or reject the great monuments, never the small, nearly invisible treasures. We have very few writers who have cultivated the fantastic in the strictest sense—perhaps none, because among other reasons, economic underdevelopment doesn’t allow subgenres to flourish. Underdevelopment only allows for great works of literature. Lesser works, in this monotonous or apocalyptic landscape, are an unattainable luxury. Of course, it doesn’t follow that our literature is full of great works—quite the contrary. At first the writer aspires to meet these expectations, but then reality—the same reality that has fostered these aspirations—works to stunt the final product. I think there are only two countries with an authentic literary tradition that have at times managed to escape this destiny—Argentina and Mexico. As to my writing, I don’t know what to say. I suppose it’s realist. I’d like to be a writer of the fantastic, like Philip K. Dick, although as time passes and I get older, Dick seems more and more realist to me. Deep down—and I think you’ll agree with me—the question doesn’t lie in the distinction of realist/fantastic but in language and structures, in ways of seeing. I had no idea that you liked Teresa de la Parra so much. When I was in Venezuela people spoke a lot about her. Of course, I’ve never read her.
CB Teresa de la Parra is one of the greatest women writers, or greatest writers, and when you read her you’ll agree. Your answer completely supports the idea that the electricity surging through the Latin American literary world is fairly haphazard. I wouldn’t say it’s weak, because suddenly it gives off sparks that ignite from one end of the continent to the other, but only every now and then. But we don’t entirely agree on what I consider to be the canon. All divisions are arbitrary, of course. When I thought about the south (the Southern Cone and Argentina), I thought about Cortázar, Silvina Ocampo’s delirious stories, Bioy Casares, and Borges (when you’re dealing with authors like these, rankings don’t matter: there is no “number one,” they’re all equally important authors), and I thought about that short, blurry novel by María Luisa Bombal, House of Mist (whose fame was perhaps more the result of scandal—she killed her ex-lover). I would place Vargas Llosa and the great de la Parra in the northern camp. But then things become complicated, because as you move even further north you find Juan Rulfo, and Elena Garro with Un hogar sólido and Los recuerdos del porvenir. All divisions are arbitrary: there is no realism without fantasy, and vice versa.
In your stories and novels, and perhaps also in your poems, the reader can detect the settling of scores (as well as homages paid), which are important building blocks in your narrative structure. I don’t mean that your novels are written in code, but the key to your narrative chemistry may lie in the way you blend hate and love in the events you recount. How does Roberto Bolaño, the master chemist, work?
RB I don’t believe there are any more scores settled in my writing than in the pages of any other author’s books. I’ll insist at the risk of sounding pedantic (which I probably am, in any case), that when I write the only thing that interests me is the writing itself; that is, the form, the rhythm, the plot. I laugh at some attitudes, at some people, at certain activities and matters of importance, simply because when you’re faced with such nonsense, by such inflated egos, you have no choice but to laugh. All literature, in a certain sense, is political. I mean, first, it’s a reflection on politics, and second, it’s also a political program. The former alludes to reality—to the nightmare or benevolent dream that we call reality—which ends, in both cases, with death and the obliteration not only of literature, but of time. The latter refers to the small bits and pieces that survive, that persist; and to reason. Although we know, of course, that in the human scale of things, persistence is an illusion and reason is only a fragile railing that keeps us from plunging into the abyss. But don’t pay any attention to what I just said. I suppose one writes out of sensitivity, that’s all. And why do you write? You’d better not tell me—I’m sure your answer will be more eloquent and convincing than mine.
CB Right, I’m not going to tell you, and not because my answer would be any more convincing. But I must say that if there is some reason why I don’t write, it’s out of sensitivity. For me, writing means immersing myself in a war zone, slicing up bellies, contending with the remains of cadavers, then attempting to keep the combat field intact, still alive. And what you call “settling scores” seems much fiercer to me in your work than in that of many other Latin-American writers.
In the eyes of this reader, your laughter is much more than a gesture; it’s far more corrosive—it’s a demolition job. In your books, the inner workings of the novel proceed in the classic manner: a fable, a fiction draws the reader in and at the same time makes him or her an accomplice in pulling apart the events in the background that you, the novelist, are narrating with extreme fidelity. But let’s leave that for now. No one who has read you could doubt your faith in writing. It’s the first thing that attracts the reader. Anyone who wants to find something other than writing in a book—for example, a sense of belonging, or being a member of a certain club or fellowship—will find no satisfaction in your novels or stories. And when I read you, I don’t look for history, the retelling of a more or less recent period in some corner of the world. Few writers engage the reader as well as you do with concrete scenes that could be inert, static passages in the hands of “realist” authors. If you belong to a tradition, what would you call it? Where are the roots of your genealogical tree, and in which direction do its branches grow?
RB The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word writing is the exact opposite of the word waiting. Instead of waiting, there is writing. Well, I’m probably wrong—it’s possible that writing is another form of waiting, of delaying things. I’d like to think otherwise. But, as I said, I’m probably wrong. As to my idea of a canon, I don’t know, it’s like everyone else’s—I’m almost embarrassed to tell you, it’s so obvious: Francisco de Aldana, Jorge Manrique, Cervantes, the chroniclers of the Indies, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, Pedro Henríquez Ureña, Rubén Darío, Alfonso Reyes, Borges, just to name a few and without going beyond the realm of the Spanish language. Of course, I’d love to claim a literary past, a tradition, a very brief one, made up of only two or three writers (and maybe one single book), a dazzling tradition prone to amnesia, but on the one hand, I’m much too modest about my work and on the other, I’ve read too much (and too many books have made me happy) to indulge in such a ridiculous notion.
CB Doesn’t it seem arbitrary to name as your literary ancestors authors who wrote exclusively in Spanish? Do you include yourself in the Hispanic tradition, in a separate current from other languages? If a large part of Latin-American literature (especially prose) is engaged in a dialogue with other traditions, I would say this is doubly true in your case.
RB I named authors who wrote in Spanish in order to limit the canon. Needless to say, I’m not one of those nationalist monsters who only reads what his native country produces. I’m interested in French literature, in Pascal, who could foresee his death, and in his struggle against melancholy, which to me seems more admirable now than ever before. Or the utopian naiveté of Fourier. And all the prose, typically anonymous, of courtly writers (some Mannerists and some anatomists) that somehow leads to the endless caverns of the Marquis de Sade. I’m also interested in American literature of the 1880s, especially Twain and Melville, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Whitman. As a teenager, I went through a phase when I only read Poe. Basically, I’m interested in Western literature, and I’m fairly familiar with all of it.
CB You only read Poe? I think there was a very contagious Poe virus going around in our generation—he was our idol, and I can easily see you as an infected teenager. But I’m imagining you as a poet, and I want to turn to your narratives. Do you choose the plot, or does the plot chase after you? How do you choose—or how does the plot choose you? And if neither is true, then what happens? Pinochet’s adviser on Marxism, the highly respected Chilean literary critic you baptize Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a priest and member of the Opus Dei, or the healer who practices Mesmerism, or the teenage poets known as the Savage Detectives—all these characters of yours have an historical counterpart. Why is that?
RB Yes, plots are a strange matter. I believe, even though there may be many exceptions, that at a certain moment a story chooses you and won’t leave you in peace. Fortunately, that’s not so important—the form, the structure, always belong to you, and without form or structure there’s no book, or at least in most cases that’s what happens. Let’s say the story and the plot arise by chance, that they belong to the realm of chance, that is, chaos, disorder, or to a realm that’s in constant turmoil (some call it apocalyptic). Form, on the other hand, is a choice made through intelligence, cunning, and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death. Form seeks an artifice; the story seeks a precipice. Or to use a metaphor from the Chilean countryside (a bad one, as you’ll see): It’s not that I don’t like precipices, but I prefer to see them from a bridge.
CB Women writers are constantly annoyed by this question, but I can’t help inflicting it on you—if only because after being asked it so many times, I regard it as an inevitable, though unpleasant ritual: How much autobiographical material is there in your work? To what extent is it a self-portrait?
RB A self-portrait? Not much. A self-portrait requires a certain kind of ego, a willingness to look at yourself over and over again, a manifest interest in what you are or have been. Literature is full of autobiographies, some very good, but self-portraits tend to be very bad, including self-portraits in poetry, which at first would seem to be a more suitable genre for self-portraiture than prose. Is my work autobiographical? In a sense, how could it not be? Every work, including the epic, is in some way autobiographical. In the Iliad we consider the destiny of two alliances, of a city, of two armies, but we also consider the destiny of Achilles and Priam and Hector, and all these characters, these individual voices, reflect the voice, the solitude, of the author.
CB When we were young poets, teenagers, and shared the same city (Mexico City in the ’70s), you were the leader of a group of poets, the Infrarealists, which you’ve mythologized in your novel, Los detectives salvajes. Tell us a little about what poetry meant for the Infrarealists, about the Mexico City of the Infrarealists.
RB Infrarealism was a kind of Dada á la Mexicana. At one point there were many people, not only poets, but also painters and especially loafers and hangers-on, who considered themselves Infrarealists. Actually there were only two members, Mario Santiago and me. We both went to Europe in 1977. One night, in Rosellón, France, at the Port Vendres train station (which is very close to Perpignan), after having suffered a few disastrous adventures, we decided that the movement, such as it was, had come to an end.
CB Maybe it ended for you, but it remained vividly alive in our memories. Both of you were the terrors of the literary world. Back then I was part of a solemn, serious crowd—my world was so disjointed and shapeless that I needed something secure to hold on to. I liked the ceremonial nature of poetry readings and receptions, those absurd events full of rituals that I more or less adhered to, and you were the disrupters of these gatherings. Before my first poetry reading in Gandhi bookstore, way back in 1974, I prayed to God—not that I really believed in God, but I needed someone to call upon—and begged: Please, don’t let the Infrarealists come. I was terrified to read in public, but the anxiety that arose from my shyness was nothing compared to the panic I felt at the thought that I’d be ridiculed: halfway through the reading, the Infras might burst in and call me an idiot. You were there to convince the literary world that we shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously over work that wasn’t legitimately serious—and that with poetry (to contradict your Chilean saying) the precise point was to throw yourself off a precipice. But let me return to Bolaño and his work. You specialize in narratives—I can’t imagine anyone calling your novels “lyrical”— and yet you’re also a poet, an active poet. How do you reconcile the two?
RB Nicanor Parra says that the best novels are written in meter. And Harold Bloom says that the best poetry of the 20th century is written in prose. I agree with both. But on the other hand I find it difficult to consider myself an active poet. My understanding is that an active poet is someone who writes poems. I sent my most recent ones to you and I’m afraid they’re terrible, although of course, out of kindness and consideration, you lied. I don’t know. There’s something about poetry. Whatever the case, the important thing is to keep reading it. That’s more important than writing it, don’t you think? The truth is, reading is always more important than writing.
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson.
Carmen Boullosa is the author of novels and novellas, collections of poetry, plays, and several theater adaptations, short stories and critical essays. Her last work published in English translation is Leaving Tabasco, a novel (Grove Press, 2001). Her books have also been translated into French, German, Dutch, and Italian. She has received the Xavier Villaurrutia Mexican Literary Award (1989), a Guggenheim fellowship (1992), and a DAAD grant (1995). She is a Fellow of the Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.