10 October 2011

"Latin America, a Hologram" (Jorge Volpi)

Volpi at a book fair in Bogotá, 2011. (Photo by: periodismosinafan.com at Flickr)

One of the best takes on the Bolaño phenomenon was that by Jorge Volpi, a Mexican novelist, essayist, literature scholar, and former lawyer. Volpi's best known novel is En busca de Klingsor (1999, In Search of Klingsor), a fusion of WWII history, Nazism, and scientific inquiry. He had been an acquaintance of Bolaño, having spoken to him on many occasions. Like Javier Cercas in the novel Soldiers of Salamis and Enrique Vila-Matas in Montano, Volpi has featured Bolaño as a character in one of his novels, El fin de la locura ("An End to Madness", still untranslated).

The following is an excerpt from a speech he gave on "The Future of Latin American Fiction." The essay titled "Latin America, a Hologram" was serialized in five parts in Three Percent, 9-13 November 2009. This is from part 3 of the speech, a section called "Bolaño, perturbation."

3. Bolaño, perturbation
by Jorge Volpi

Not since the Boom, or to be precise, since García Márquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, had a Latin American writer enjoyed such sudden celebrity as Roberto Bolaño: After his success in Spanish—winning the Herralde and Romulo Gallegos prizes and his conversion into the guru of the new generation—he received unanimous praise from the French critics, his fame spread to the rest of Europe, and, five years after his death, it exploded in the United States, one of the most difficult media for foreign literature to penetrate. The publication of 2666 in English at the beginning of 2009 became the fifth moment of the Bolaño delirium, and so began the construction of a global icon: thousands of copies sold, each article and review more praise-filled than the last—including in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker, the trend-setters of intellectual fashion—and the launch of a legend that combined his personal excesses and his early death. And if that were not enough, his heirs abandoned the agency of Carmen Balcells, the mythical co-founder of the Boom, for Andrew Wylie, aka the Jackal, the New York literary agent who has concentrated more Nobel prizes and cult authors per square meter in his office (and who has already announced the recovery of a novel that Bolaño left among his papers) than any other agent.

While reading the reviews and articles published in the North American literary media about Bolaño, I was continually surprised that the American reading of Bolaño, especially the reinvention of his biography, had almost nothing in common with the reception of Bolaño in Spanish. I do not believe, as some Spanish critics and even some of his friends do, that the American Bolaño is a falsification, a marketing product, a forced reinvention, or a simple misunderstanding: on the contrary, maybe the power of his texts lives in the diverse interpretations, sometimes contrasting or opposed, that it is possible to extract from his books. But the reception of his American critics reveals, however, another phenomenon: not only does the Bolaño read and recreated by them have nothing to do with his Spanish reception, but it seems that none of his panegyrists took the trouble of reading what the Spanish speaking critics had been saying about him—with almost always the same admiration—for more than a decade. When he arrived in the United States, he suddenly became a cult author; Bolaño got across the desert, crossed the border, and escaped the literary migration, but he could not take his family with him: as a whole, the American critics boasted about their discovery, as if they were responsible for unearthing Bolaño; they considered only their contrived mythological creation and didn’t take the real world into account.

Few authors were so conscious of their place in world literature, especially in the Latin America world, as this Chilean author: each one of his texts is a double answer—it might be worthwhile to say a slap in the face—to the traditions that obsessed him. Of course, none of that appears in the readings of the American critics. For a Mexican like myself, who also had the opportunity to converse with Bolaño dozens of times, it’s hard to believe that a book as plagued with references to Mexican literary history as The Savage Detectives—in my opinion, a boxing ring in which Bolaño settles accounts with his past—could be read, understood, and enjoyed by a media that totally ignores them. However, that is what happened: his success in the United States was absolute. What does that mean? In the first place, the book is so universal—and so open—that Bolaño’s scholarly winks lose their importance; and perhaps the prejudices and the superficiality of the American reading are huge. Bolaño has not been glorified in English for being Latin American or Chilean, nor because of his ties with this part of the world—he could easily have been Thai or Kuwaiti—but for other reasons, literary as well as extra-literary, and his case is not comparable, in any measure, to other writers of the region—or even Isabel Allende—and perhaps only to Haruki Murakami, the only international literary star capable of casting a similar shadow in English.

You can read the rest of part 3 here, and the rest of the essay at these links: part 1, part 2, part 4, part 5.

Volpi so far has three books published in translation: In Search of Klingsor, Season of Ash, and most recently, In Spite of the Dark Silence.

More on Volpi at the following links:

Wikipedia page  
Interview at BOMB magazine


  1. Rise, thanks for bringing this to my attention. I'll have to read the rest of the Volpi piece before making any specific comment, though, because as much as I enjoyed reading this excerpt, I'm not really sure what Volpi's point is about American critics vs. Spanish or Latin American critics and their reception of Bolaño. Does he even have a point? I've had En busca de Klingsor at home unread for about 5 years now I think--I guess I better get to it one of these days!

  2. Richard, I think you'll find the whole piece interesting. I was reminded of this by recent talk (again) of insularity of American authors, as revived by Tomas Tranströmer's recent Nobel win. Volpi's introduction - with its reference to the historical origin of "nationalist" and Latin American literatures and the emergence of a "post-nationalist" one - was possibly relevant in profiling the kind of writers who were most likely considered for the prize (i.e., the post-nationalists).

  3. Great article on the phenomenon that surrounds Bolano & his reception Into the pantheon of deified writers complete with his papers correctly stamped. It's is quite funny how some writers reach a mythological status with no perceived history to hinder their acceptance or one that's purely made from quotes from the right sources. The funny thing is that if,Bolano is about anything It's that past that history of writers whose trail he's either followed or attempted to obscure by kicking the dust over.PS, wondered why I'd not seen this post before, then realised I followed your main blog, but not this - now rectified.

  4. Gary, thanks for following (though I'm having problem with the blog's layout now).

    I also think Bolano had to be situated in the history of literary movements in order to see where he's coming from and what mannerisms he is trying to subvert. He himself is partly responsible to an autobiographical reading of his books. He made slippery the distinction between fiction and reality in his stories and poems.