Roberto Bolaño: Patron Saint of Outsiders

30 Jun

Remember the energy. Philip Roth wrote that about 1950s America. It applies to Chilean expatriate author Robert Bolaño as well. Bolaño exists like some elemental thing, strontium, wolfram. Or some fundamental force: gravity, hatred, tungsten. He was a pulverizing, galvanizing, polarizing dude. A blistering beam of light.

As an author, he was undiluted by distractions. He wrote like a demon. He’s that good and that important and over the last two years, I’ve read everything that’s been translated, including the newest Between Parenthesis, which came out last month. (He’s also the epitome of cool, and thus fair game for Simone when she gets a little older.) I’ve written this little guide for her, and for those interested in this great man of letters. First, a quick biography:


Roberto Bolano as a young man.

He left Chile at 16 to become a radical poet in Mexico. He was poor. He stole books. He delivered declarations. He smoked, drank, probably began using heroin. He joined infrarrealismo, a loosely affiliated group of poets. In 1973, he returned to Chile to fight for Salvador Allende’s government, but was imprisoned by Pinochet’s goons, slated to be tortured and probably killed. He got lucky; one of his interrogators was a high school acquaintance who saved his life. He moved to Spain. He worked odd jobs. He read and read and read. He ended up in Blanes, a small town north of Barcelona. He smoked, drank, fucked, read, and wrote. In the early ’90s, he was diagnosed with liver disease. The prospect of dying pushed his talents into new territory. He stopped writing poetry. He started writing novels. The shift worked. He won contests, got published, became famous, and produced thousands of pages of work.

He wrote good novels, great novels, and wretchedly terrible novels. This is good. People of talent and drive should not walk meekly through life. People of the book shouldn’t spend their lives on one masterpiece. Better half a dozen interesting failures alongside the inevitable one or two works of genius.

The patron saint of outsiders, screw-ups, addicts, poets, lovers and lost causes.

His body of work falls into three parts: autobiographical novels, literature of exile, and prose poems. The autobiographical novels are all narrated by or follow his fictional alter ego Arturo Belaño, which are: Nazi Literature in the Americas; Distant Star; The Savage Detectives; 2666. His other stories involve various types of madness, usually brought on by disassociation due to exile, or by the aftereffects of torture and other oppressive measures. These are By Night in Chile, Amulet, Monsieur Pain and The Skating Ring. The prose poem—and many of his short stories would fall into this category—would be Antwerp and By Night In Chile. He also published three story collections here in the U.S.: Last Evenings on Earth; The Return; and The Insufferable Gaucho.

It’s a sizeable and significant body of work, with more manuscripts forthcoming.

He was an astonishing reader: learned, opinionated, passionate, insightful, funny, sophisticated, at times cutting but quick with praise. He absorbed the various schools of literature from the various countries and regions and languages around the world from the dawn of man. He is a fantastic guide through various schools of writers, and the best mentor to South American fiction and poetry from the last century. He’s a poetic encyclopedia.

Bolaño, like Roth, breathed energy into the nooks and crannies of his life to create a semi-fictional canopy, where his life collides with his passions. Understanding this gives his best fiction purpose, direction.

Start with the stories: “Last Evenings on Earth”; “Mauricio ‘the Eye’ Silva”; “The Insufferable Gaucho”; “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura.” These will give you a taste. He’s part Borges, part Bukowski, part Vargas Llosa and part Ellroy, too. He’s an amalgamation of styles, punctuated by a deep sadness and bravery examining the worst of the world. Go ahead and throw in some Bataille; there’s plenty of gonzo sex and enigma, too.

Next read Nazi Literature in the Americas. It’s a fake history/almanac of fascist and Nazi authors in the Americas. Make sure you read the last 30 pages; they are unforgettable. Then move to Distant Star. It follows one of the fascist authors covered in Nazi Literature. It’s a superb meditation on evil, a great book, weird and compelling, a history of art and exile, and an excursion into Pinochet’s Chile. Then move to The Savage Detectives, his second best novel, the book that brought him international fame and a combination of genres and writing styles.

The first section follows a down and out poet in Mexico and his group of friends, all of whom fall into trouble with a local gangster. The second section is a series of first-person interviews, where various people explain how they know Arturo Belano and his best friend Ulysses Lima, running over the course of some two decades. The third section returns to the young poets in Mexico and how they survived. It’s a great, funny, sexy, scary, disturbing book. A rattle the mental cages exercise, a reminder of how open, serious, and ambitious a novel can be.

Finally, you should take up his magnum opus, 2666, the best novel of the 21st century so far, almost 900 pages of an epic meditation on crime. Describing the plot is useless, but I’ll try. The story follows a reclusive German author, four academics obsessed with him, and the horrid rape, mutilation and murder of over 300 women in Juarez. (Which is true; he spent years going through crime reports to capture the veracity of the crimes.) There are dozens and dozens of characters throughout the book, including detectives, reporters, prostitutes, thugs, and artists. It’s an immense, towering and highly readable work, but also challenging, formidable, labyrinthine and complex. In a word, it’s art.

Avoid Monsieur Pain. It’s terrible. Avoid The Skating Ring, too. Amulet is really only for hardcore fans. Antwerp and By Night in Chile are good, but for fans of Baudelaire and Rimbaud.

In 2003, just as his fame as a writer was in its ascendency, Roberto Bolaño’s body failed him. He was 50 years old.

7 Responses to “Roberto Bolaño: Patron Saint of Outsiders”

  1. Matt! July 2, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    Is he as good as David Mitchell? 🙂
    I read Number 9 Dream. Guess what? Its also fantastic.
    Once I get done with this summer class reading, I might try to pick up some of Bolano’s stuff.

    • simoneandthesilversurfer July 2, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

      I have number9 Dream but I haven’t read it yet. Bolano is different. He’s darker, more disturbed and disturbing. I would read a few of the stories and then either Distant Star or The Savage Detectives. 2666 is his best, but it’s a monster.

  2. Sean Kilpatrick July 10, 2011 at 1:06 am #

    Maybe its just due to the fact that we had this question in trivia last month, but something jumped out at me in the first paragraph… wolfram IS tungsten. (We need to know the elemental symbol for tungsten, which is W. We got it wrong, too – the stinging helps keep it fresh in my mind, like lemon juice on a series of paper cuts.)

    Unless you were talking about Stephen Wolfram, the inventor of Mathmatica? (Thanks, Google!) Or Wolfram Alpha, a pretty fun google alternate that is good at displaying random data (do a search on your name, and you can see how popular it has been in the past 100 years. )

    • simoneandthesilversurfer July 10, 2011 at 2:50 am #


      You’ve rocked my world and outed my ignorance.

      I’m reading the Disappearing Spoon, the book about the Periodic Table, and I grabbed a couple of interesting sounding elements. I guess he hasn’t got to the point where they’re one and the same.

      How are things?


      • Sean(again) July 11, 2011 at 4:35 pm #

        Sean says:

        I loved the excerpts from that book that were in Slate – guy really did his homework. (and scared me a little bit for the future, as I learned, for instance, exactly how much phosphorus we (A) dig out of the ground; (B) use to fertilize our plants; (C) washes into the gulf and (D) is left in the ground for future generations. (hint – we may have already hit peak phosphorus, ala Peak Oil)

        All’s well in the ATL – if we can ever get you guys to come back down. HINT HINT


  1. interlude: Random thoughts as I enter the 2014. | simoneandthesilversurfer - January 2, 2014

    […] Bolaño (I love him; see my review of his life’s work here) gave a series of speeches, as his literary celebrity was rising and his body was failing him. The […]

  2. Interlude 3: The academic novel. | simoneandthesilversurfer - May 9, 2014

    […] good description of Roberto Bolano’s […]

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