The Chilean author Roberto Bolaño would have been 61 today, but like so many others, he died too young — in 2003, at the age of 50, of liver failure, in beautiful Barcelona.
In 2004, his "masterwork" was published — the five-part, nearly 1000-page epic 2666 — and the hip young things of the literary world fell on Bolaño's posthumous oeuvre like it was fresh meat. Which it was, kind of, at least for English readers. Once the English version of 2666 came out in 2008, Bolaño-in-translation was suddenly everywhere, and English readers were canonizing him, as Public Books wrote, "with astonishing rapidity." For a few years there, it seemed like everywhere you turned, there was more Bolaño, marketed as "new" but written in the '90s or earlier, popping out of the woodwork. In 2011, The Paris Review had a veritable Bolaño heart attack, serializing The Third Reich and filling up almost every issue with his poetry. I remember going into a bookstore in Silverlake, seeing two or three Bolaño novels that the Spanish-speaking world had known about for years perched on the New Arrivals table, and feeling that wave of bitter annoyance when you realize that your special thing is now everybody's special thing.
But that's the thing about an author like Bolaño — he makes people crazy. He doesn't have fans, he has a cult; a cult of obsessive, snobby, unbearable, impassioned Bolaño-ites (you may recall that I called for 2666 to be banned solely because of the number of infuriating bros who claim to "love" it on OKCupid). There are authors that one "checks out" and then there are authors that one reads obsessively, accompanied by only a flask of whiskey and a magnifying glass. That's what Bolaño does to his readers. Whiskey and magnifying glasses.
Want to join?
1. You'll have nightmares.
I dreamt I was coming back from Africa on a bus full of dead animals. At some border crossing a faceless veterinarian appeared. His features were like gas, but I knew who he was. —From A Stroll Through Literature
So many nightmares. If you make it through the fourth part of 2666 — called "The Part About the Crimes," but more accurately known as "the part with so many rapes and murders of young women that it becomes impossible to keep count and yes, that's sort of the point, but when will it end because I can't take another discovery of a mutilated dead body" — understand that you will probably not sleep for about a week, and you will definitely never walk home alone across an abandoned parking lot again.
2. You'll become obsessed with the abyss.
…at last coming to where the way and all effort has led: terrible, immense abyss into which, upon falling, all is forgotten. —2666
Why is it always referenced in Bolaño? What is it? Does he know? Is he just bluffing? Is the abyss a metaphor for something even worse? Is it looming just outside of my consciousness? How can I avoid it? Wait, should I be embracing it?
Good luck finding an answer!
3. The literary world will finally think you're cool.
Ugh, fine, I'll admit it. Reading Bolaño makes you cool. Or, at the very least, reading Bolaño situates you within in a potentially cool group of readers who are hip enough to know what's good, in a high-literary-art sense, but still down-to-earth enough to appreciate grit, cynicism, and a sense of underlying horror — all that slasher-movie stuff tinged with real seriousness, which is what makes Bolaño so great.
4. You'll develop a terrible case of the dark jokes.
Bolaño's not afraid to go there, even when "there" is a bunch of policemen sitting around making the darkest anti-female jokes you've ever heard in your life. (It's in 2666 somewhere. I don't have the heart to go hunting for it.) But he maintains a masterful distance from his truly despicable characters, so as a reader, you're able to appreciate the wicked humor that runs beneath all the darkness. And his knack for off-the-wall wisecracking is just incredible, like in one of my favorite Bolaño quotes from The Savage Detectives: "There's a time for reciting poems and a time for fists. As far as I was concerned, this was the latter."
5. You'll learn to lie.
Or at least, you'll appreciate the power of of a good untruth. After all, Bolaño was famous for making things up about his past. Certain contested details include an alleged heroin addiction — an idea that Bolaño himself started — as well as whether or not he was in Chile during the coup that brought Pinochet to power, which was another rumor that Bolaño liked to perpetuate. While his tendency to slip around in the truth might frustrate biographers, any artist can appreciate Bolaño's urge to craft not just his writing, but his image as a writer — as a wild man, grappling with demons and experiencing history from the front row.
6. Your preoccupation with "place" may vanish.
Books are the only homeland of the true writer, books that may sit on shelves or in the memory. —From Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches
If reading Márquez teaches you how to obsess over your own magical hometown, learning about Bolaño's life will make you wonder if perhaps we put too much precedent on where we're from. Though he was born in Chile, he lived in both Mexico and Spain for significant periods of time, and always resisted identifying with a particular place. When he did associate himself with Chile, it was often to stretch the truth. (See: Pinochet's coup.) And his writing doesn't bother staying home, either; Ignacio Echeverria, former literary editor of El País, said Bolaño wrote about an "imaginary, extraterritorial mirror of Latin America, more as a kind of state of mind than a specific place."
7. You'll join a worldwide cult.
Granted, everyone in the cult is extremely annoying and pretentious about Bolaño, but it's a brother- and sisterhood that's worth being a part of. Speaking of homelands-away-from-home: I'll never forget a fleeting, powerful moment in a bar in Europe when I bumped into another member of the cult of Bolaño. A raggedy group of young people from all over the world had squeezed around a dirty little table, and we were all talking about dead girls (a cheerful subject), when I mentioned Bolaño in passing. The guy wedged in next to me turned toward me with a big smile on his face and said, simply, "I've read him." I don't think anyone else heard him. The conversation was swirling around us too fast and loud for anything beyond that, but we had what I believe is known as "a moment" — this literary buzz that passed between us like a crack of electricity. It was a flash of, "Oh, you, too?" And that's what literature is meant to do to us, isn't it?