Well beyond his sometimes nomadic life, Roberto Bolaño was an exemplary literary rebel. To drag fiction toward the unknown he had to go there himself, and then invent a method with which to represent it. Since the unknown place was reality, the results of his work are multi-dimensional, in a way that runs ahead of a critic’s one-at-a-time powers of description. Highlight Bolaño’s conceptual play and you risk missing the sex and viscera in his work. Stress his ambition and his many references and you conjure up threats of exclusive high-modernist obscurity, or literature as a sterile game, when the truth is it’s hard to think of a writer who is less of a snob, or—in the double sense of exposing us to unsavory things and carrying seeds for the future—less sterile.
The contours of his life are becoming well known. Bolaño died of liver failure in 2003 in Spain, where he had long resided. He was born in southern Chile in 1953—a wrenchingly different place and era. His father had been a champion amateur boxer and his mother was a teacher who encouraged her dyslexic son’s love of poetry. In 1968, the family moved to Mexico City, where Bolaño began to acquire a cosmopolitan self-education through the happily random method of shoplifting books. (As an adult his taste was wide enough to appreciate Paracelsus, Max Beerbohm, and Philip K. Dick.)
In 1973, playing his small part in the political fever of the day, he returned to Chile to support the embattled socialist cause of Salvador Allende. What happened next seems to live on in his fiction’s patterns of abrupt cessation. After Augusto Pinochet’s coup, Bolaño was detained and could have joined the thousands who were jailed, killed, or sent into official dramatic exile. Instead, he was spotted by old classmates who worked for the new regime, and let go.
He went back to Mexico and co-founded a Surrealist-influenced, anti-status-quo school of poetry. After that fizzled he went to Europe, where he took a series of low-paying but intellectually uncompromised jobs. He had a heroin habit, which he would later find out had damaged his health. But eventually he cleaned up, settled down on Spain’s Costa Brava, had a child, and by the 1990s felt the imperative to provide. He had begun to enter provincial story contests and collect modest prize money. Increasingly aware of his fragile health, he filled a shelf with compact, fresh, and potent books that might have taken decades to write: among them Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996), a funny and disturbing catalog of imaginary writers ; Amulet (1999), the tale of a woman who sits in the bathroom during the army raid on Mexico’s UNAM university in 1968; Distant Star (1996), the tale of an airman for the Pinochet regime who scribbles disturbing poems in the sky and is also a freelance murderer of women; and By Night in Chile (2000), the deathbed confession of a corrupted Chilean literary critic and priest, half-comprehending the…
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