Louis Amis

The writer who showed the West there was more to South America than magic realism

A review of Bolano: A biography in Conversations. More of a whimsical detective novel than a real biography

The writer who showed the West there was more to South America than magic realism
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Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations

Mónica Maristain (translated by Kit Maude)

Melville House, pp. 274, £

Early on in this ‘Biography in Conversations’ we’re told that the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño ‘continued to see himself throughout his life as a literary character, a fictional person.’ It’s a dubious claim: we might believe that about any number of Hollywood actors, pop stars, or historical monsters, but not of the author of books that, as one editor interviewed here, Ignacio Echevarría, notes, ‘would lead to the recanonisation of Latin American literature.’

But it’s easy to see why the idea tempted Mónica Maristain, an Argentinian journalist whose lighthearted interview with Bolaño for Playboy Mexico happened to be the last before his early death and posthumous mythologisation from outside. The young Bolaño does seem to have been, even for an adolescent poet loose in 1970s Mexico City, a spectacular self-dramatiser; and in 1998 Bolaño the mature fiction-writer immortalised his younger self and the entire milieu so gloriously, in the quasi-autobiographical novel The Savage Detectives (‘even the way we were walking was graceful, our progress incredibly slow, as if we were advancing and retreating’), that no strictly extra-literary consideration of that period of his life is now possible.

In fact this isn’t really a biography, nor would Maristain be the person to write one. The book rouses itself from a torpor of early-life clichés (the Bolaños were ‘a complicated family’, the parents ‘two contrasting spirits’) and becomes for the most part simply a celebratory echo of The Savage Detectives, which is a novel built as a series of monologues, a huge cast of characters taking turns in recollecting two disappeared young poets, one named ‘Arturo Belano’.

Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations is likewise dominated by long passages of various people’s responses to interview questions about him; Maristain’s whimsical voice is only one of many, and she and her readers are here the ‘detectives’ looking for the real Bolaño. In the novel, the two poets lead a movement or gang called the ‘visceral realists’; in real life, Bolaño and a friend were the leaders of ‘Infrarealism’. And in numerous cases Maristain’s interviewees are the same, i.e. the real-life bases of characters in the novel. They contradict each other about what really happened, about the merits of Bolaño, man and writer, all as in the novel.

The conceptual nebulousness of ‘visceral realism’ is a running joke in The Savage Detectives. But what was Infrarealism? The mountain of English-language journalism about Bolaño reveals almost nothing about the movement other than its implacable hostility toward the poet and essayist Octavio Paz. The ‘Infras’ fiercely denounced Paz and his followers, heckled them at their readings, once splashed drink over Paz’s ‘elegant blazer’, and so on (Paz won the Nobel Prize in 1990).

Maristain’s book is not much more illuminating; a publisher’s memory of the speeches at the group’s first meeting — ‘I didn’t understand a thing, so I distracted myself with shapes the smoke from Roberto’s cigarette was making in the air’ — is one of many lines that could almost have been taken from the novel. Bolaño’s own ‘First Infrarealist Manifesto’, one of his earliest available writings, is a surrealist prose-poem reminiscent of García Lorca’s New York period, eg: ‘The Infrarealists propose Indianism to the world: a crazy, timid Indian’; but Maristain and Echevarría agree that the group ‘never created its own aesthetic’.

But this book proves that even though their proposal for a crazy, timid Indian was never widely taken up, the Infrarealists did at least actually exist. The other protagonist of the novel, ‘Ulises Lima’, was based on the tragic figure of Mario Santiago — real name, José Alfredo Zendejas — Bolaño’s best friend. Here was someone who did think of himself as a ‘fictional person’ throughout his life: ‘He created a character for himself…Mario Santiago was his texts,’ one fellow-poet remembers. An alcoholic, Santiago died in an ‘absurd’ traffic accident in 1998, before he could read The Savage Detectives. His own only book, The Howl of the Swan, was already out of print.

Bolaño, meanwhile, had settled in Spain to write the novels that ‘recanonised’ Latin American literature — which is to say, provoked in Anglophone readers the wild surmise that something other than magical realism had been happening on the continent for many years. Bolaño himself was only the tip of the iceberg. And the ‘conversations’ here, among the Infra-realists, and, towards the end of the book, the other Latin American writers who were Bolaño’s friends in later life offer an exciting glimpse of more of that iceberg.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £18 Tel: 08430 600033