Diego Delso, Interior of the Vasconcelos Library in Mexico City , 2015, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A few years ago, I attended an academic conference where a prominent scholar of Latin American literature announced that he hated The Savage Detectives, a novel he considered overwritten and overrated. The statement provoked enthusiastic hooting from the back of the room, as if in glee at a taboo being broken. At the coffee break, I approached the critic and confessed I was a fan of the novel. Bolaño is a one-trick pony, he replied, and his trick is to parody and empty out the genres of Latin American literature—the dictator novel, the novela negra, the novel of testimony, and so on. This trick organized his writing at the level of the sentence, the chapter, and the novel. I said this sounded like an interesting trick, at least; he conceded that it was true Bolaño was a master at this exercise—but once you saw the trick there was nothing else, and hispanophone writers were no longer interested in his work. He claimed, happily, that the Latin American sales of Bolaño’s books were down. I asked him why he thought U.S. readers, who mostly lacked familiarity with these Latin American literary traditions, had embraced Bolaño. This, he told me, was the result of a clever marketing campaign: Bolaño’s big books had been released alongside new editions of Kerouac, and American readers were encouraged to understand the Chilean writer as a Southern Cone Beat. I expressed skepticism: Did anyone remember that marketing campaign? Was Kerouac selling well? My interlocutor was losing patience. Critics love Bolaño, he said, because they can pour whatever theory they please into his work. He told me Bolaño’s work was an excuse for American readers not to read any other Latin American literature. When you read The Savage Detectives you’re not enjoying yourself, he said, as much as you think you are.
There was a lot going on. I was struck by the high-handedness of these proclamations, but I wasn’t sure they were wrong. This uncertainty was partly just a matter of how artistic judgment works. Taste, precisely because it’s an intensely subjective matter we feel compelled to make others agree with, is awash in bad feeling. The buzzkill always has the advantage over the ardent fan, an advantage the literary theorist Gérard Genette called the “authority of the negative.” The question “How can you like this?” is, he noted, always more disturbing than “How can you dislike this?” The quickest way out of this bad feeling is to imitate your naysayer: surrender your taste, learn to despise, or to believe that you despise, what you had previously enjoyed. (More bad feeling, of a new variety, ensues.) In my case, the bad feeling was as much a matter of geopolitics as of aesthetics. My enjoyment of Bolaño wasn’t quite real, my new acquaintance said, and the part of it that felt real was a function of American ignorance.
The conversation didn’t end my pleasure in Bolaño, but it stayed with me. It crystallized something that was becoming visible in the academic and academy-adjacent social worlds I inhabit: Bolaño, and especially The Savage Detectives, had become shorthand for a certain brand of American cluelessness. In a 2018 essay in n+1, Nicolás Medina Mora, a Mexico City native living in the United States, reported on a trip home during which he sat in a café listening to an expat gringo couple discuss plans to rent a house on Oaxaca’s beach-lined coast. Medina Mora invents their backstory: they’re bien-pensant gentrifiers, the kind of people who insist on calling their Brooklyn neighborhood by the Spanish name used by the Puerto Ricans they’ve displaced. Soon it becomes clear that their enclave is being overrun by finance types, and they decide to push on to fresh frontiers. “They were getting tired of going to magazine parties and gallery galas where they disliked most of the people. And then one day he stumbled on his old copy of The Savage Detectives and found himself thinking: Why don’t we just move to Mexico City?”
Medina Mora doesn’t say Bolaño’s novel is bad. But he suggests that it’s peculiarly liable to being liked in bad ways. A lot of Bolaño skepticism turned on this fine distinction. In the academic world, a 2009 essay by Sarah Pollack, a specialist in Latin American literature, offered a carefully argued version of Medina Mora’s point. Pollack made it clear she considers Bolaño a writer of “genius,” but maintained that this was only one component in the runaway anglophone success of The Savage Detectives. Pollack claimed that Bolaño’s compelling biography—his youthful wanderings and poetic experimentation, his experience of Pinochet’s dictatorship, his death at fifty, just a few years after he began to achieve massive international recognition—had played a part in his renown. So had his press’s publicity campaign: Bolaño’s previously translated work had all been brought out by New Directions, the independent publisher with a pedigree in foreign and experimental fiction, but the contract for The Savage Detectives had gone to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which had a bigger marketing budget. FSG decorated the novel’s jacket with a photo of Bolaño at twenty, long-haired and skinny and standing on what looks like a Mexico City rooftop. This picture, Pollack wrote, was “a nostalgic memento that for U.S. readers evokes the rebellious counterculture of the sixties and seventies,” and it facilitated the reception of the novel as escapist fantasy: “Thanks to Bolaño, U.S. readers can vicariously relive the best of the seventies, fascinated with the notion of a Latin America still latent with such possibilities.”
Pollack wasn’t wrong about the exoticism characterizing much of the anglophone reception of Bolaño. The worst offender may have been a New York Times piece on Between Parentheses, the 2011 English translation of Bolaño’s 2004 collection of essays and talks. The book showed Bolaño to have been a searching reader of a large swath of world literature (page through it and you’ll find discussions of Baudelaire, Borges, Highsmith, and the Goncourt brothers; Pepys, Perec, Piñera, and Walt Whitman). But the Times writer, a normally thoughtful Dwight Garner, sounded as if he were reviewing The Mark of Zorro: “The swashbuckling Bolaño could declaim and brawl at the same time,” he proclaimed. “He was a lover and a fighter.” Reading Between Parentheses, Garner averred, was “not like sitting through an air-conditioned seminar with the distinguished Señor Bolaño. It’s like sitting next to him, the jukebox playing dirty flamenco, after he’s consumed a platter of Pisco Sours. You may wish to make a batch yourself before you step onto the first page.” (The online version takes this last limp joke weirdly literally, offering a hyperlink to Epicurious’s recipe for the frothy beverage.) There is indeed an unbuttoned quality to Bolaño’s style, but it hardly demanded this cartoonish rhetoric. It was difficult not to feel that the pan-Latin whateverness of Garner’s review expressed a particular condescension to Spanish-language writing—hard to imagine the Times recommending Manischewitz to accompany your Roth, a wheel of brie with your Houellebecq.
Such patronizing praise could obviously tell nobody much of interest about Bolaño as a writer. But just for this reason, I was wary of letting the critique of the Bolaño phenomenon stand in for a reading of Bolaño—wary, that is, of letting an interpretation of this novelist’s work be captive to the stupidest things some Americans had said about it. As a fan, I of course had my own reasons not to want to see myself in Pollack’s and Medina Mora’s diagnoses. But beyond my own investments, there were questions to be asked about the logic of their arguments. As often in criticism that speculates about audience motivation, the interpretive claims didn’t always follow cleanly from the established facts: Who knows how many readers of The Savage Detectives bought the book because they saw the author photo? Who can say whether those readers wanted, as Pollack claimed, to “relive the best of the seventies” (whatever that was, and if they had lived through them the first time), and whether that fantasy took them through the novel’s 647 pages?
More striking still was the way these writers black-boxed their own assessment of Bolaño’s work while they attended to the reviews, blurbs, and promotional material that sold or distorted it. Even when they explicitly claimed admiration for his work, the arguments about Bolaño’s bad readers seemed to hint that the author himself was at fault. The suggestion was crystallized in Pollack’s “thanks to Bolaño,” with its ambiguous sense that the novelist had engineered the misreadings, or at least not armored his work against them. Soon I saw this slippery sense of causality everywhere. In 2015, the translator and critic Veronica Esposito reiterated the worry that Bolaño—a writer she loved—was loved by American readers for the wrong reasons. Bolaño’s major novels, Esposito wrote, “played off liberal American politics and curiosity about our Latin American neighbors”—a formulation suggesting that the books had been purpose-built to cater to Americans (in addition to intimating that curiosity about other parts of the world is blameworthy). Esposito’s verbs did a lot of quiet conflating, so that the work’s success was consistently described as the author’s plan: Bolaño didn’t just become a best-selling author but “was able to take advantage of and become a major commodity”; in a global market favoring books that could be translated with relative ease, “Bolaño turned such a style to his advantage”; in a literary field increasingly defined by well-publicized international prizes, “Bolaño both anticipated and profited from these developments.”
You don’t have to believe in the disinterested purity of the Artist to be struck by these critics’ faith in their demystifying logic: the suggestion is not just that most successful writers angle for success but that Bolaño’s big success was the result of his big skill as an angler. The picture that emerges is of a canny self-marketer. This logic—whereby suspicion of the work’s readers shades into disdain for the writer—reached its oddest moment in a 2009 essay entitled “Questions for Bolaño” by the eminent scholar of Latin American literature Jean Franco. The piece’s inquisitorial title was a rhetorical gesture: Bolaño, dead six years at the time of the essay’s publication, was evidently not going to be responding to these questions anytime soon. The essay is nonetheless incisive about the formal and political meaning of his work. Franco establishes the kinship of The Savage Detectives with formally jumpy, art- and politics-obsessed novels by Julio Cortázar and Roque Dalton; she is acute, and dubious, about what she calls Bolaño’s “romantic anarchist” politics—his preoccupation with friendship as the most meaningful unit of social and ethical life, the absence in his fictional worlds of explicit appeals to state reform, a fatalism that can feel apolitical. But the essay’s ambivalence goes beyond the usual scholarly skepticism; its insights are laced with animus. Near the opening, Franco describes Bolaño’s major novels as “two huge teasers”—a description she awards because of their failure to reach traditional closure (a peccadillo commonplace in most twentieth-century experimental fiction). She jokes that his prolificacy in life and the steady pace of posthumous publication make it reasonable to “suspect that Bolaño may not be a person but a company.” Finally, after noting that Bolaño is popular in a moment in which “Twitter replaces commentary,” Franco jumps to the startling claim that “Bolaño has turned illusion into a doctrine, twitter [sic] into a life project.” Never mind that Bolaño died three years before Twitter’s debut. The retrocausal logic of Franco’s swipe makes this writer not only a wily PR genius, shilling his product from beyond the grave, but a posthumous devotee of one of the twenty-first century’s more toxic media inventions.
Other writers followed suit. There was a piece decrying the “Bolaño Myth,” another warning of the “Roberto Bolaño Bubble.” The latter, in The New Republic, regretted high-mindedly that when such a small percentage of books published in English is translated from other languages—3 percent is the commonly floated number, 0.7 percent if you just count literary fiction and poetry—Bolaño was taking up more than his fair share, especially with the posthumous publications: “We have enough,” the piece concluded. Worse, this writer claimed, Bolaño’s popularity had “hidden costs,” among them the risk that anglophone readers will think “that he is the only Latin American writer of importance to emerge” since García Márquez. A curious cultural protectionism suffused these responses, a concern with a volatile product getting into the wrong hands. A kind of novelistic vibranium, Bolaño’s work apparently had the ability to obliterate continents of literature. This notion that the way to counteract American ignorance about Latin American literature would be to curb American enthusiasm for a major Latin American author was peculiar. That the Bolaño craze might result in increased interest in hispanophone writers among English readers was rarely mentioned as a possibility. (But as some of these same writers would later concede, there is a case to be made that this is just what happened: a host of writers about whom Bolaño had said nice things in print—César Aira, Rodrigo Fresán, Alan Pauls, Carmen Boullosa, Juan Villoro, Sergio Pitol, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Mario Bellatin, Andrés Neuman, Horacio Castellanos Moya—have arrived in English or seen the number of their books in English translation increase since his death, almost always with Bolaño’s stray comments used as jacket blurbs. And a host of writers too young for him to have read—Alejandro Zambra, Valeria Luiselli, Samanta Schweblin, Yuri Herrera, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Fernanda Melchor, Álvaro Enrigue, Guadalupe Nettel—have been published in English to widespread attention, in a wave of interest in Latin American literature that has been plausibly traced partly to Bolaño’s prominence.)
And yet the skepticism remains intriguing despite the factual shakiness of some of its predictions. The wariness with which these writers expressed their admiration, the careening quality of their disdain—now aimed at American readers, now at publishers, now at Bolaño—all of it bespoke a distress that wasn’t utterly clear about its origins or meaning. A few lines in Esposito’s essay hinted at the emotional and political energies swirling around this crisis of taste. Decrying the romanticizing coverage of Bolaño’s death, in particular the speculation that the liver disease that killed him was the result of a (probably apocryphal) heroin addiction, Esposito strikes a satirical pose: “The writer who boldly leaps where none have leapt before, who mixes passion and love together into art. This is the Bolaño we love to read… Our sweet hearts flutter at the thought of artists who ‘die too soon,’ and they absolutely purr for a man who lived a self-destructive life because he wanted to.”
Quite apart from the content of the claim, one notices the expression of self-contempt—parodistically expressed but vivid nonetheless. I was unpleasantly sensitive to these tones of self-blame: He did die too soon, I thought to myself. What’s wrong with saying so? I was pretty sure Esposito felt the same way, scare quotes notwithstanding. Whence this eagerness to ridicule a fairly unremarkable sense of regret for the loss of a figure you admire? Why the desire to see literary appreciation under the most contemptible aspect? Rarely had the principle of de gustibus non est disputandum felt so disputable; rarely had the space for liking something felt so besieged by a worry over what that liking might say about you. If aesthetic judgment is particularly vulnerable to “games of influence” (Genette), the game here seemed to be operating according to rules nobody wanted to state openly. The sense you got was that it was embarrassing to be caught liking Bolaño, even if it was hard to say why.
And in truth, I could relate. It was embarrassing to be an American who liked Bolaño, and not just because in doing so one may have become a dupe of marketers or indulged in exoticizing projections. It was embarrassing because, for anyone remotely alert to the distribution of world power, being American is itself embarrassing. And being an American consumer of cultural products from abroad underlines that geopolitical shame with an intellectual one: impossible to disburden oneself of the phantom image of the Ugly American, trampling over local customs, missing cultural cues, expressing even in one’s appreciative curiosity (especially there) an offensive entitlement. Even thus overdrawn, the picture has its basis in fact. As important, it forms an inevitable, if infrequently remarked upon, psychic accompaniment to any act of mildly self-aware North American cross-cultural consumption: the American ignorance and arrogance exposed by the Bolaño skeptics was in no way surprising, as anyone who has participated in the competitive anti-Americanism among Americans abroad knows. For every asshole traipsing through Mexico City brandishing The Savage Detectives, there was someone else who knew enough to bury his copy deep in his luggage and, if asked, to pretend never to have heard of it.
David Kurnick is associate professor of English at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. He is the author of Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel (2012). His writing has appeared in the Village Voice, Public Books, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and his translations from Spanish include Julio Cortázar’s Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires (2014) and work by Álvaro Enrigue. The Savage Detectives Reread will be published on February 1, 2022.
Excerpted from The Savage Detectives Reread by David Kurnick. Copyright (c) 2021 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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