Reviewed: Archivo Bolaño at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona

Roberto and the detectives.

Chilean writer Roberto Bolano in 1999. Photograph: Getty Images

Archivo Bolaño
Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona

A video montage greets visitors to Roberto Bolaño’s archive at the Centre of Contemporary Culture, Barcelona. In a kaleidoscopic cascade of footage, it interleaves scenes from the Pinochet coup in 1973, a student massacre in Mexico in 1968 and a Hitler rally. Two of these conform to what Bolaño’s American editor, Barbara Epler, has called “the Latin- American nightmare”; all three fed the Chilean novelist’s preoccupation with state power and repression. Given the difficulty of presenting the work of a writer – even a globally renowned one – in an exhibition space, it’s a good solution. The film sequences are not allowed to retain their historical dignity but instead are seen tumbling down the rabbithole of a captivated mind, hinting at how real events might feed the imagination.

The noirish, unsettling nature of most of Bolaño’s writing has contributed to some convenient myths. Combine the atmosphere in the books with a roguish, itinerant youth – he worked as a night-shift security guard at a campsite; sold jewellery; wrote fiery manifestos for “Infrarealist” poets – and you have a perfect storm of literary posterity. One rumour says he was a heroin user, another has him as a tortured soul whose only redemption lay in Beats-inspired automatic writing. The debate flares up again with the publication of each new posthumous novel, but so far, facts have been thin. The new exhibition aims to set the record straight.

Some of the myth of Bolaño as chaotic rambler is dispelled with a glance at his notebooks (which, in large number, make up the majority of the display). Bolaño’s handwriting is supremely legible and even after the purchase of his typewriter he would copy out and revise whole novels until they were practically ready to be typeset. These fine copies often come complete with a title in large lettering on the inside cover of the notebook, plus dedication and epigraph. Deliberate, neat biro lines attest to methodical work.

Juan Insua, one of the curators of the Archivo Bolaño, said at the opening that the exhibition more or less owes itself to this legibility. Carolina López, Bolaño’s widow, added that they have also been helped by the fact her husband “kept everything” – once she found a poem that had been written on a napkin in a Mexico City bar 30 years previously. The collateral of this hoarding habit is a colossal workload for cataloguers: López and her helpers have been at it since 2006. She has made clear that the works now on display represent “the tip of the iceberg”.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically. The section that runs from 1985 up to his death in 2003 has the most exhaustive store of material. At that time Bolaño was producing some of his most important novels: The Savage Detectives and 2666. The display cases dedicated to these books are deeply satisfying, and include handwritten and typed drafts, newspaper cuttings and miscellanea ranging from a hand-drawn geometrical map of philosophers to a list of phobias (“Chromatophobia: fear of certain colours. Gephyrophobia: fear of crossing bridges.”). Early vascillations over character names, even changes between first- and third-person narration, are now available for scrutiny. If the physical products of a writing life are ordinary in themselves, they become thrillingly ordinary when connected with such a figure as Bolaño. For true Bolañistas, though, the most interesting items will be glimpses of what López has referred to as the “possible books” to come, the unpublished manuscripts. Four novels and many more stories are immediately identifiable but López is in no hurry to publish.

None of this would be happening if Bolaño had survived his illness. But it is tempting to wonder what he would have made of it all. Valerie Miles, Insua’s co-curator, told me he would have found all the fuss “hilarious”. Not only that – he may even have known it was coming and slipped in a few digs at the archivists. Miles, as she trawled the archive, was familiar with a mantra that cropped up across years of Bolaño’s diaries and notebooks: “I am immensely happy”. One day, reading an unpublished novel, she came across a passage that described an archivist – a woman – riffling through the papers of a deceased writer and excitedly stumbling on the phrase, “I am immensely happy”. This may have been as uncomfortable as it was exciting: “And the woman in the story is not stopping to think about whether it’s moral or not to be going through somebody’s hidden notebooks,” she added. “There are moments when you say, he did this on purpose . . .”