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Against the Bolaño industry

In continuing to ransack Roberto Bolaño’s sketchy drafts, his estate has reached a new, degrading low.

By Chris Power

When the Chilean novelist, story-writer and poet Roberto Bolaño died in 2003 at the age of 50, on the waiting list for a liver that never came, only one of his novels, By Night in Chile, had appeared in English. Since then another 22 volumes have followed, the latest of which, Cowboy Graves, compiles three texts written during the extraordinarily productive final decade of his life. The blurb calls them novellas, despite one of them being less than 10,000 words long. The publisher John Calder holds the crown for this kind of nonsense, once describing the 1,100-word text of Samuel Beckett’s Imagination Dead Imagine as “possibly the shortest novel ever published”, but the stewards of the posthumous Bolaño industry are emerging as strong challengers: like carnival barkers they have been attempting, for several years now, to persuade people that their increasingly tired act is still in great shape.

In his lifetime, Bolaño published, or made ready for posthumous publication, ten novels, three collections of short stories, a book-length prose poem and several poetry collections. They aren’t all masterpieces; Monsieur Pain, The Skating Rink, A Little Lumpen Novelita and the story collection The Insufferable Gaucho, which appeared shortly after his death, are little more than diverting. But much of the work he produced in the last decade of his life, most notably The Savage Detectives (1998), the book that made him a superstar in the Spanish-speaking world, and 2666 (2004), which made him a superstar everywhere else, are stunningly good. This network of novels and stories – the Bolañoverse – features internecine poetry feuds in Mexico City, meditations on literature’s power as a force for good and evil, the genocidal crimes of the 20th century, and critiques of the teamed depredations of neoliberalism, misogyny and sexual violence.

Two of the three stories in Cowboy Graves expand this network without enriching it. The title story comprises fragmentary scenes from the early life of Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s recurring alter ego. Like most of the work in which he appears, it incorporates elements from Bolaño’s own biography: Belano’s family leaves Chile for Mexico City in 1968; he has a fractious relationship with his father, an ex-boxer; he is obsessed with books and movies; and in 1973 he returns to his homeland during the coup d’état, to support the socialist president Salvador Allende (a claim of Bolaño’s that has been disputed since his death). Fictional locations central to Bolaño’s later work are also mentioned: Villaviciosa, the Sonoran “town of lost assassins”, and the nearby city of Santa Teresa, site of the terrible events described in 2666.

As with much of his fiction, the narrative line in the title piece – which is more miniature story collection than novella – wanders between drifting recollections and more tightly constructed scenes, making time for discussions of writers, summaries of movie plots, and other stories within stories. Mostly, however, these aren’t up to anything like the standard of his best work. One of the most intense pleasures of Bolaño’s prose is the way he can unpredictably and seamlessly transform an atmosphere from sadness or nostalgia to menace, and from comedy to nightmare, but there’s little of that here. By far the best section, “The Grub”, is a story that first appeared in the collection Telephone Calls in 1997, and in English a decade later, in Last Evenings on Earth. Of the unfamiliar material, only the closing section, “The Coup”, gives any real sense of Bolaño’s extraordinary abilities.

The last story in Cowboy Graves, “Fatherland”, was written before both the title story and the comic squib “French Comedy of Horrors”. In it we meet a prototype of Arturo Belano: Rigoberto Belano, the alter ego of Bolaño’s alter ego. An editorial note states that “Fatherland” was assembled from three separate files, which prompts the question whether it should be considered a single work at all; comprised of short, discrete sections, it’s fragmentary to the point of disintegration, and in a way that feels neither intentional nor productive. Its most striking line, from a letter written to Rigoberto by his dead girlfriend’s mother, speaks ironically to Bolaño’s situation today: “When time has done its healing work, I’ll be able to calmly and patiently collect my daughter’s scattered writings and publish them in worthy fashion.”

Bolaño has now been a successful dead author more than twice as long as he was a successful living one. In the 1970s he became notorious in Mexico City as a member of the Infrarealists, a rowdy group of poets he later mythologised in his fiction. In 1977 he left Mexico for Europe, settling eventually in Catalonia. In the 1980s, when his manuscripts were consistently being rejected, and throughout the 1990s, when his books began appearing and his liver disease was diagnosed, he wrote as compulsively as he had always read (appearing as a character in Javier Cercas’s novel Soldiers of Salamis, Bolaño claims to “read everything, even bits of paper I find blowing down the street”).

His sustained productivity left his heirs and literary executors with access to a large amount of unpublished material just when his global reputation was going supernova. The peak spanned 2007 and 2008, between the publication of The Savage Detectives in English and 2666 winning the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US. The collision of burgeoning reputation and a reserve of available – you could say exploitable – material has resulted in more than a decade’s worth of underwhelming novels and story collections slouching into the world, reaching its nadir (so far) in 2019 with the slight but interminable novel The Spirit of Science Fiction (written in the 1980s, when it failed to find a publisher). In the heady post-2666 period there was genuine expectation – unrealistic in retrospect – that another masterpiece might emerge. Now the hope surrounding a “new” Bolaño is that it won’t suck.

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Editorial notes and brief critical essays accompany these unearthed texts. The best that can be said about them is that they possess an author-appropriate atmosphere of sleuthing (Bolaño once said he would rather have been a homicide detective than a writer). What’s offensive is the way they pretend to an irritating semi-academic scrupulousness in tracing a particular work’s journey across Bolaño’s desk from handwritten manuscript to typescript to computer file (“part of a collection of loose sheets of graph paper from a half-folio notebook… typewritten on an electric typewriter used between 1992 and 1995”). Really they’re just a diversionary tactic: unconvincing arguments that fail to mask the commercial imperatives controlling decisions about which works remaining in Bolaño’s archive should to be published (clue: all of them). If these texts were presented as fragments, sketches and abandoned projects that would be one thing; it’s the strenuous attempt to brand them as complete that offends.

In his prologue to Woes of the True Policeman (2011), for example, the Spanish academic and novelist Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas writes gnomically (in Natasha Wimmer’s 2012 translation) that “we may ask ourselves when a novel begins to be unfinished, or when it hasn’t yet begun to be unfinished”. He calls the published book the “faithful and definitive” version of a text that is in fact highly provisional: Bolaño tinkered with it from the late 1980s onwards, eventually cannibalising it for parts of 2666. You don’t need access to his archive to grasp that, as the latter novel grew in scope and ambition, it absorbed and superseded Woes of the True Policeman in both ambition and quality. Had Bolaño lived, it’s difficult to see any situation in which he would have endorsed its publication. There are things in it I’m glad to have read, particularly the backstory of 2666’s mournful philosophy professor Óscar Amalfitano, but presenting it as a complete and valuable novel in its own right is an act of bad faith.

This tactic originated four years earlier in Ignacio Echevarría’s preliminary note to the scrappy short story collection The Secret of Evil. Echevarría is the Spanish critic and friend of Bolaño who was most closely involved in bringing his work into print after his death (readers of The Savage Detectives will remember Echevarría’s fictional counterpart, Echevarne, fighting a duel with Arturo Belano on a Catalonian beach). But Echevarría was removed from subsequent projects by Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López Hernández, who over the past 15 years has been taking steps to distance herself from anyone with ties to Carmen Pérez de Vega, Bolaño’s lover in his last years. This policy, according to Echevarría, is what prompted the 2016 transfer of Bolaño’s work from the literary Spanish publishing house Anagrama to the more commercial Alfaguara (part of Penguin Random House).

Echevarría’s note in The Secret of Evil described Bolaño’s work as being “governed by a poetics of inconclusiveness”, a reasonable observation that he then used to argue, less reasonably, that “the inconclusive nature of Bolaño’s novels and stories makes it difficult to decide which of the unpublished narrative texts should be regarded as finished and which are simply sketches”. But, given the growing body of evidence, it doesn’t seem difficult at all. For Bolaño, inconclusiveness was an artistic choice; to place the sketchy work that’s appeared over the last ten years on anything like the same level as 2666 – which, to use one of the book’s occasional descriptions of itself, resembles “a chaotic assemblage of dark cubes stacked one on top of the other”, yet generates a profound narrative unity – does a serious disservice to its creator’s artistry. The intentionally inconclusive and the simply incomplete are as different from one another as order and chaos.

I don’t think Echevarría intended to justify the subsequent ransacking of Bolaño’s unpublished works, but the ground his argument broke has led us to the farcical endpoint of Ródenas’s afterword to Cowboy Graves, in which he writes: “As always, there’s no point in trying to decide whether we’re faced with three independent sections or a work with the unity of a novel.” Referring as it does to a book consisting of three separate and unrelated stories written across a ten-year period, ranging from the largely unpolished to something apparently confected from scraps and sweepings, it’s difficult to tell if this is monumentally stupid or astonishingly cynical. Either way, it shows how degraded the conversation around Bolaño’s work has become.

The danger here, given the regularity with which new material has been released since Bolaño’s death, and the willingness of those in control to publish more or less anything, is that the terminal moraine of Bolaño’s work – the justifiably rejected novels, the works in progress, the dregs scraped from hard drives; material that belongs in a university archive, not on bookshop shelves – might erode the standing of the legitimate work. This is a writer, after all, who produced not just one but numerous masterpieces: Distant Star, By Night in Chile, the short stories “Last Evenings on Earth”, “Enrique Martín”, “Gómez Palacio” and “Sensini”, and most of all his pair of long novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666; one a polyphonic romance about the ecstasy and disaster of literature, the other an intense political and philosophical chamber of horrors. In 2666, Amalfitano complains that nowadays readers “are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters.” Bolaño wrote both kinds, but the posthumous publications are neither.

In his afterword to Cowboy Graves Ródenas tells us that the version of “The Grub” contained in its pages includes “some significant changes” from the original, which is “evidence that Bolaño never relinquished his texts”. Tantalising, but untrue: the stories are exactly the same (for English readers the only differences derive from this “new” version being translated by Natasha Wimmer, while the one in Last Evenings on Earth was by Chris Andrews). I couldn’t imagine a better illustration of the absurdity of the posthumous Bolaño project: the republication of a 25-year-old story that an editorial note tells you is, in fact, brand new. “Only the dead are quiet,” the old man known as the Grub says at one point, then reconsiders: “Not even the dead, when you think about it.” But who is making them speak? And is what they are saying – being forced to say – worth listening to?

Speaking to the Mexican poet and novelist Carmen Boullosa in 2001, Bolaño defined the difference between story and form. Story and plot “arise by chance”, he said, “they belong to the realm of chance, that is, chaos, disorder”. Whereas form “is a choice made through intelligence, cunning, and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death”. If the stories in Cowboy Graves were set aside, it wasn’t because of Bolaño’s poetics of inconclusiveness, but because he hadn’t formed or structured them to his satisfaction, “and without form or structure there’s no book”. Or at least there shouldn’t be.

Cowboy Graves
Roberto Bolaño
Picador, 132pp, £9.99

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