Roberto Bolano 2666: Latin American Influences/Insults

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Sidenote: I wrote this post a few weeks ago, but it didn’t make it into my 2666 week. So now that Bolano mania is in full swing, I’m posting it.

Bolano despised most other Latin American writers, often insulting them using humdingers like these:

  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “a man terribly pleased to have hobnobbed with so many Presidents and Archbishops”
  • Octavio Paz: The Infrarealists — a guerilla literary freedom fighter group started by Bolano — interrupted his poetry readings, and reportedly even threw wine on him.
  • Isabelle Allende: Called her a “scribbler” whose “attempts at literature range from kitsch to the pathetic.”
  • Mario Vargas Llosa: “the same sort of sycophant [as Gabriel Garcia Marquez] ‘but smoother.'”
  • Pablo Neruda: Treats him as a stage to grow out of: “By that stage, I didn’t like Neruda anymore.”

For Jorge Luis Borges, though, he had nothing but praise.
For everyone on the side of shoehorning Borges into the “magical realism” category, it should be clear that Bolano disagrees with that connection. Borges is his own category, should not be considered a precursor to magical realism, and certainly doesn’t belong in the magical realism camp.

Bolano’s connection with Borges: Both poets and fiction writers, although Borges’ infamous avoidance of the novel is clearly at odds with Bolano’s massive Detectives and 2666. Also, both booksy types, inventing books and fascination by the overabundance of books, whether in infinite libraries or imaginary books.

Bolano clearly steals techniques from the detective genre, since his major works often include a search for a writer or a mystery about a writer’s identity, and Borges uses the techniques of mystery in “The Garden of Forking Paths” and “Death and the Compass.” Yet Borges also ends up tweaking the genre to fit his own purposes, always analyzing the detective genre inside the stories and almost caricaturing them, as Borges detectives are always onhealthy canada drugs outmatched by the mysteries they pursue and become lost in labyrinthine clues.

Bolano, especially in 2666, and not just because he didn’t finish the book, also has his detectives defeated by the mystery they’re trying to solve. The riddles are not unraveled, the search for Archimboldi ends but not in the way the pursuers had hoped, the mysteries of the deaths in the Sonora desert in Mexico have many solutions but no absolutist solution (And I’m not giving anything away here — there are many revelations in the book and many progressive stages of the mystery, most of which are quite enjoyable even if you know that it’s not going to wrap up in an ending tight as a sailor’s knot.)

Francisco Goldman at The New York Review of Books notes that the biographical lives of the two writers are quite at odds, as mentioned by Bolano:

Yet the writer with whom Spanish-language critics have often compared Bolaño is the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, renowned for his singular bookishness, and for the metaphysical playfulness, erudition, and brevity of his entirely asexual writings. With those comparisons critics have wanted, partly, to emphasize their sense of Bolaño’s significance, for Borges is probably the only Latin American writer of the past century whose greatness seems uncontested by anybody, though the more you read Bolaño, the more interesting and appropriate the comparison between the two writers becomes. Bolaño revered Borges (“I could live under a table reading Borges”). He would have been happy, Bolaño told an interviewer, to have led a life like Borges’s—relatively sedentary, devoted to literature and a small circle of like-minded friends, “a happy life.” But Bolaño lived most of his life in another manner. “My life,” he said, “has been infinitely more savage than Borges’s.”

LINK: All other BookFox writing about Bolano’s 2666.

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  1. I guess I’ll have to read 2666 after all, even though I’ve got two giant Neal Stephenson’s in the pile already.
    But the Borges reference doesn’t help me: I have a tough time with Borges. I liked him when he was a undergrad, but a writer I quite like – Brian Fawcett – savaged him in an essay entitled “What is literature for?” so thoroughly that I’ve had real difficulty going back to him at all. Fawcett’s point was that Borges should be seen as a minor writer, but the JLB fan club has overrated him to the detriment of literature’s evolution. While Fawcett’s rhetoric was seriously enough overblown as to make himself look ridiculous, the basic point didn’t strike me as wrong – and I haven’t had the energy to go back and think for myself.
    Fawcett: (1) “Borges was an ignorant and dangerous man who has done incalculable damage to literature”; (2) “I am simply not taken in by this schmarmy little library wart”; (3 “Jorge Luis Borges was a technically skilled, if extremely minor writer who only legitimate claim to glory is that he concocted several delicious intellectual puzzles.”

  2. I’m unfamiliar with Fawcett, though I like the Sartrean reference in the title of his essay.
    I think, though, you could apply the “fan club” logic to quite a few other modern writers (Pynchon, Gaddis) with the same so-so, rather unconvincing results. Yes, ardent fans tend to inflate reputations. But a cadre of ardent literary fans also signifies that there’s something great about an author.
    But I’m a bit perplexed by the quotes. They are, as you mentioned, such hyperbole that I have trouble taking him seriously, especially when the first adjective he uses to describe Borges is “ignorant.” It’s generally known that Borges had the most encyclopedic knowledge of literature known in the 20th century.
    Number 2 says nothing about Borges, only about his reaction to him, and I suppose I have a different reaction.
    The “minor” writer might be claimed of someone who never wrote a novel, only short stories, but I don’t think that’s good grounds for declaring someone a minor writer. But it’s more likely that Fawcett’s claiming about the nature of the writing itself.
    I guess I admire “delicious intellectual puzzles.” They are quintessential postmodernism, and quite playful, and enjoyable for me to read.
    As far as the detriment of Literature’s evolution, I fail to see how a “progressive” author, who, it has to be said, has blazed new pathways in the construction of stories, might actually hinder literature’s evolution. Perhaps if we were talking about an author who recycled 19th century structure and technique, that might be grounds for hindering evolution, but certainly not Borges. As a new mutation, he’s a stab at growing and developing, though I suppose there’s always the danger that a certain mutation is a dead end.
    But then again, I disagree with the presupposition that “evolution” of literature is a priori a positive thing. I think this might buy into Modernism’s notion of progress, always upward and onward, while literature actually moves in a much more cyclical motion, with nothing new under the sun.
    Ultimately, only time crowns authors into the canon, and so we’ll have to wait, but I’ll still bet my money on Borges. Although, I haven’t read him extensively since undergrad/grad days, so maybe when I go back I’ll have a different opinion.
    When I can find the Fawcett essay, I’ll give it a read and perhaps have more to say.

  3. Bolaño’s dismissal of Boom writers is childish. Who cares if García Márquez is friends with Fidel? Who cares if Vargas Llosa is conservative and a jerk too? If you’re going to reject them as writers, tell me what it is about their writing that stinks.
    No one — even the most passionate Boom fan– would argue that post-Boom writers should follow in the footsteps of writers such as García Márquez. Bolaño is posturing. Well guess what, now he is the new García Márquez, the new ESTABLISHMENT. Until someone else comes along to take a dump on him for being so beloved. It’s all so childish.
    Also, Bolaño was not the first writer to break with the boom, either, as Wimmer suggests in the introduction to The Savage Detectives.