30 May 2013

BEA 2013: There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Bolaño

Live from BookExpo America, a major trade show for the book publishing industry.

 “It has been a real challenge to reach this place among the labyrinth and also to speak at this time of day,” said Juan Villoro, a scholar sponsored by Mexico’s Conaculta presenting at BEA this morning. “My friend Roberto Bolaño used to go to bed at this time.” Posthumously Bolaño reached a peak of fame that he never imagined in life, with commercial success and even Oprah knowing his name. Villoro compared his knowledge of Bolaño to “being friends with Bob Dylan before he performed at the Newport Folk Festival” – after long years of obscurity and a series of small publications, he happened to outlive his friend and wonder what he would have made of his renown 10 years after his death.

Villoro praised Bolaño’s work for its breadth of characters considered and the nuances of good and evil threaded through his plots. He offered three reasons for the author’s critical success: First, Bolaño lived an unconventional life through poverty, illness, repression and even a military coup in Chile. Second, he used his art as a sounding board for what he had lived through; THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES reflects his beliefs about the search for the meaning of life with a SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION meets ON THE ROAD plot. And third, most of his works are collectively narrated, full of voices “winding through the book like crowds entering and leaving a stadium.”

He idolized Mexico as the country that made him a writer and provided him the settings to most of his novels, but he didn’t live there most of his life and never ended up returning to Mexico City before his death. “’I am afraid of dying there,’ he would say, like a character in UNDER THE VOLCANO.” So most of THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES and other books were recreations from memory or the tales of his friends. He lived out most of his final years in Barcelona, not hiding his illness from his friends but still isolated by choice.

This talk was billed as an examination of Bolaño’s posthumous popularity as a case study for a successful crossover publication, but Villoro primarily ran through his memories of the author and amusing anecdotes about his career. Villoro met Bolaño at a writing competition in college, lost touch with him when he moved to Europe, and reconnected with him some years later. Bolaño affected to live a lavish life but was carefully frugal; he was often sarcastic but felt guilty when he started to pick up writing awards for fear he was becoming less of a radical. “He liked to compare himself to a Marine, ready to survive anywhere,” Villoro said, describing how he would intentionally take shots at his literary idols or tweak interviewers. 

I think Villoro protested a little too much that his friend was not interested in literary fame, given that he continued to enter literary competitions through his life and to publish, of course. (In American terms, he didn’t Salinger it up.) But I believe that if Bolaño had lived to see himself become the toast of English-language literature, he would have expressed similarly complex feelings toward it – one of those being, as Villoro said, that he “had had the last laugh.” 

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