Fame after death: Why Roberto Bolaño became a literary superstar posthumously

Essay: Bolaño died ten years ago. Novelist Andrés Neuman salutes a friend and accounts for his fame

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Ten years ago (although it seems like it was either yesterday or centuries ago), Roberto Bolaño left. The idea of disappearing, of leaving people stranded at the least expected moments, always entertained him. His work is full of fugitives taking flight for unknown reasons. In 2666, Beno von Archimboldi is a literary absence pursued over a thousand pages. In The Savage Detectives, even before they start wandering the world, Belano and Lima spend their youth disappearing from Mexico City. Visceral realists are fugitives from their own writing.

One day Bolaño called me from his house in Blanes and asked me to read out loud an article about the Buenos Aires Book Fair. When I went to look for the newspaper, I saw a huge photo of him. The article announced that Bolaño was in Argentina. "What do you make of that?" he asked me, accentuating his hoarseness. "You see? I'm here and not there, now I'm not here but there, now I'm neither here nor there, this is a recording, bye, this message will self-destruct in five seconds, four, three, two, one..." And the call was cut off. This anecdote, which appears invented but isn't, reminds me of the interrupted conversations in his short story "Phone Calls".

There are several reasons for Bolaño's worldwide acclaim. The first is obvious: his immense talent, capable of adding sex to Borges, muscle to Nicanor Parra, lyricism to Rodolfo Wilcock. But in addition to this undeniable gift, other factors contributed to drawing attention to his voice. One of these was a lack of clearly identifiable reference-points in the Latin American literature of the last few decades. Following the Boom of the 1960s and 1970s, there was a certain sense of an empty throne. Bolaño deservedly filled this vacuum. He was the last writer to revolutionise Latin American literature in the 20th century. This was confirmed with The Savage Detectives, a compendium of the author's literary world: his combination of short-story writer and novelist; his poetry that plants a Beat tree-trunk in the garden of French Surrealism; his ludic, sarcastic understanding of the essay.

Another factor is the generational one: Bolaño poeticised the trajectory of rebellion, search and disillusion experienced by young people whose formative years took place between the Cuban revolution and May '68 in France. Then there is a third cultural factor: the Latin American literary tradition, as it had been understood ever since the Boom, needed a change of theme. Bolaño fulfilled this role perfectly.

Besides being a colossal writer, like all profound people Bolaño was an extremely contradictory individual. He was capable of a child's tenderness and lacerating cruelties, of complete freedom when he wrote combined with an unconfessed concern for the rumours of the profession. I only knew him for three years. Despite, or perhaps because of this, I dwell on every moment that this brief friendship offered me like someone revising an unfinished manuscript.

I remember his devotion to each and every page of Borges, including his worst poems, which he was capable of defending like a swordsman saving his grandfather's honour. I remember a lengthy game of chess in his home, and the raucous protest-rock music from Alex Lora in the background, that Bolaño took it upon himself to howl along to. And I remember the study he had opposite his house: that musty shack full of boxes and empty of furniture that Bolaño never refurbished, the very same place where he plotted his vast pages, and on whose flimsy walls he was always pinning scraps of paper and cuttings from newspapers.

Bolaño kept the daily routine of a vampire: he went to bed at dawn, got up for lunch, and barricaded himself in his study at night. Spending the early mornings awake left him out of kilter with the world, that dislocation which he describes in the short story "Sensini": "all I ever did was write and take long walks that began at seven in the evening after I woke up, a moment when my body experienced something similar to jet-lag, a sensation of being and not being somewhere".

This passage takes me back to the only night I spent in Bolaño's study, on a very uncomfortable camp-bed. I had to catch the first train to Barcelona, and as I was going to bed I realised that there was no alarm-clock in the study. This may sound odd today, but in those days I hadn't a mobile phone. Bolaño had just left, and the thought of going across to his house, ringing the bell, and startling his family at four in the morning seemed terrible. So I decided to concentrate my mind on an imaginary clock and promise myself I would open my eyes at the appointed time – an experiment that had never worked for me in the past. To my amazement, when I woke up I discovered day was dawning.

HOSPITAL

Of late, apart from the amazing multi-tentacular edifice of 2666, our thirst for Bolaño has been quenched by irregular posthumous works. The first one was The Insufferable Gaucho. Particularly impressive is the piece entitled "Literature + illness = Illness", which can be read as a testament, a masterly lesson on how to undermine a lecture, an autobiographical short story, and text commentary. Those 20 sombre pages speak of writing as a conversation with death, as a fight from the centre of sickness. Bolaño lived for many years like a man close to death, saying goodbye. That was how he wrote as well: with the fury of last chances, the life-affirming melancholy of the seriously ill. Nowadays I think that is what we should have to do: always to write like people close to death. Like healthy people close to death.

The second of these posthumous books, Between Parentheses, was a compilation of speeches, articles, reviews and occasional texts. That book ends with an interview published in Playboy shortly before his death. In a hypnotic game of ping-pong, Bolaño paints his last self-portrait. Whom would he like to meet in the great beyond? "I don't believe in the great beyond. What a surprise if it did exist. I would study a course taught by Pascal." What sort of things make you laugh? "My own and other people's misfortunes". What sort of things make you weep? "The same: my own and other people's misfortunes".

The character that emerges from this interview is remarkably like the emotional, unshaven person that was Roberto Bolaño. In response to a question about what changes he noted when he learned of his illness, he replies: "I realised I was not immortal, which, at the age of 38, was high time I realised it". Such was Bolaño's wisdom: a mixture of zen maestro and old cowboy, of tramp and chess-player.

DESERT

What desert do writers go to when they depart, leaving behind an unfinished book? One day Bolaño told me on the phone about a huge, thousand-page long novel he had been writing for some time, and which could be no other than 2666. A novel, he explained in anguished tones, "as long as the Thousand and One Nights". I suggested he leave it at 1001 pages, something he of course did not do. At one point in our conversation, Bolaño said that perhaps he would abandon it. Unaware of the state of his health, I asked him why. His reply was: "Because I'm not Tolstoy".

If I had to pick out just one of Bolaño's gifts, I think I would choose desperation. Bolaño did not tell stories: he needed them. His writing has a profoundly agonising quality about it; perhaps that is why it is so moving, whether it is talking about crimes or encyclopedias, sex or metonymies. As he points out in Nazi Literature in the Americas, the contemporary novel tends to lack compassion, to be unable to "understand pain and therefore to create characters". Bolaño lays bare his characters' intimate life while they are busy reflecting on literary minutiae. Nothing exists as a fact in Bolaño's texts: everything is a death rattle.

At the start of The Unknown University, a compilation of his juvenile poetry, we read about Bolaño's frustration with all the publishers' rejections he had received. These poems operate like a self-affirmation in the desert. If I am alone in the desert, Bolaño appears to prophesy, then that desert is mine. And so it turned out: he staked his claim to a new, huge space nobody else had occupied. A century after Virginia Woolf, Bolaño had a desert of his own. Almost all his books share a fascination for images of a desert: literal or metaphoric, claustrophobic or open to the skies, walls or landscapes. The epiphany of the deserted plain that somebody is staring at all alone, like a low-life Caspar David Friedrich.

The meaning of the desert fluctuates in Bolaño's work. Sometimes it is seen as a kind of exile, that alien space where you do not want to be. At others, it is more ambiguous, a visitable mystery. Or again, it is suggested that the desert might be a home, the only one possible for the rootless. These three senses can be clearly observed in his poetry collection Tres.

Bolaño's literature creates a fanatical pole of attraction for readers, who end up searching for its author just as his characters search for weird poets. Of course, the example of such a rebellious figure should inoculate us with both the Bolaño virus and its anti-bodies. "All poets, even the most avant-garde," as we read in The Savage Detectives, "need a father. But these were orphans by vocation". I suspect that, rather than a taste for avant-gardes or messianism, the aspect that most attracts my generation has to do with this idea.

The difference between Bolaño and other writers was not purity, that cowardly or hypocritical virtue. Nor was it bravery, which the author himself over-valued thanks to a certain romantic penchant. The difference was his unshakeable conviction that, whatever might happen, whether their dreams of grandeur were fulfilled or not, true writers learn writing, live writing, and die writing. Against all the odds. Against everything and everyone. Also against themselves. That was Bolaño's radical university.

Translated by Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia. 'Traveller of the Century' by Andrés Neuman (Pushkin Press) won the Alfaguara Prize in Spain and was shortlisted for the 'Independent' Foreign Fiction Prize

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