“A writer’s patria or country, as someone said, is his language. That sounds pretty demagogic, but I completely agree with him….” That is from Roberto Bolaño’s acceptance speech for the 1999 Rómulo Gallegos Prize, an award given by the government of Venezuela for the best Spanish-language novel of the year in Latin America or Spain. Bolaño won the prize for The Savage Detectives, his sprawling, exuberant account of two Latin American poets over twenty-some years, which made him a literary celebrity and established him as one of the most talented and inventive novelists writing in Spanish. Bolaño was routinely asked in interviews whether he considered himself Chilean, having been born in Santiago in 1953, or Spanish, having lived in Spain the last two decades of his life, until his death in 2003, or Mexican, having lived in Mexico City for ten years in between. One time he answered, “I’m Latin American.” Other times he would say that the Spanish language was his country.
“Although I also know,” he continued in his acceptance speech,
that it’s true that a writer’s country isn’t his language or isn’t only his language…. There can be many countries, it occurs to me now, but only one passport, and obviously that passport is the quality of the writing. Which doesn’t mean just to write well, because anybody can do that, but to write marvelously well, though not even that, because anybody can do that too. Then what is writing of quality? Well, what it’s always been: to know how to thrust your head into the darkness, know how to leap into the void, and to understand that literature is basically a dangerous calling.
The inseparable dangers of life and literature, and the relationship of life to literature, were the constant themes of Bolaño’s writings and also of his life, as he defiantly and even improbably chose to live it. By the end of that life, Bolaño had written three story collections and ten novels. The last of these novels, 2666, was not quite finished when he died of liver failure in 2003, which did not prevent many readers and critics from considering it his masterwork. It is an often shockingly raunchy and violent tour de force (though the phrase seems hardly adequate to describe the novel’s narrative velocity, polyphonic range, inventiveness, and bravery) based in part on the still unsolved murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez, in the Sonora desert of Mexico near the Texas border. (2666 is currently being translated into English and is due to be published next year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)
Yet the writer with whom Spanish-language critics have often compared Bolaño is the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, renowned for his singular bookishness, and for the metaphysical playfulness, erudition, and brevity of his entirely asexual writings. With those comparisons critics have wanted, partly, to emphasize their sense of Bolaño’s significance, for Borges is probably the only Latin …