The posthumous success of the Chilean poet and novelist Roberto Bolaño is almost emblematic of our desire, as readers, for stories behind our stories.
After a lifetime of more-or-less penurious existence, Bolaño saw his novel The Savage Detectives jump the language barrier to reap acclaim in the English- as well as Spanish-speaking world. He then raced to complete its 900-page successor, 2666, apparently putting off treatment for the liver failure that killed him to do so.
Now we are seeing the gradual emergence of earlier Bolaño books into English translation. Picador has given us The Amulet and Nazi Literature in the Americas, with The Skating Rink to come this autumn. Positive though their reception has been, much of it seems to buy into the romantic idea of Bolaño the tragic, solitary genius.
This slim collection of four interviews, the first from 1999, the last "shortly before" his death, does a little to feed the myth, and much to correct it. They contain pathos ("my children are my only motherland"), humour ("The good thing about stealing books – unlike safes – is that one can carefully examine their contents before perpetrating the crime") and tough-tender mixtures of the two.
More important is the sheer profusion of Latin American writers that Bolaño references, from the familiar to the currently obscure. Whether Bolaño is the best writer of his generation or not, he was inextricably bound to it, and we make a mistake if we read about them only through him.
The interviews come with an introduction by US journalist Marcela Valdes that sheds light on the genesis of 2666. She goes into detail about the spate of murders – of over 400 women and girls – in the Mexican state of Chihuahua in the 1990s, the crime spree that forms the backbone of Bolaño's novel. She gives due honour, too, to the Mexican journalist Sergio González Rodríguez, who exposed the corruption and connivance between state, police and drug traffickers that allowed the murders to continue.
Bolaño and Rodríguez corresponded, and met, and Bolaño made him a character in the novel – under his real name, which understandably seems rather to have unnerved Rodríguez. All of this makes The Last Interview an indispensable acquisition for anyone with more than a passing interest in Bolaño.