17 November 2011

The construction of the Bolaño backlash

Horacio Castellanos Moya (Image from Sampsonia Way)

If Jorge Volpi presented a novel take on the "Bolaño phenomenon", then Horacio Castellanos Moya wrote something misinformed and misleading about it. The infamous essay was called "Bolaño Inc." and a translation of it appeared in Guernica in November 2009.

I had told myself I wasn’t going to say or write anything more about Roberto Bolaño. The subject has been squeezed dry these last two years, above all in the North American press, and I told myself that there was already enough drunkenness. But here I am writing about him again, like a vicious old man, like the alcoholic who promises that this will be the last drink of his life and who, the next morning, swears that he will only have one more to cure his hangover. The blame for my relapse goes to my friend Sarah Pollack, who sent me her insightful academic essay on the construction of the “Bolaño myth” in the United States. Sarah is a professor at The City University New York and her text “Latin America Translated (Again): Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in the United States” was published in the summer issue of the journal Comparative Literature.

Albert Fianelli, an Italian fellow journalist, parodies a quote often attributed to Herman Goering and says that every time someone mentions the word “market,” he reaches for his revolver. I’m not so extreme, but neither do I believe the story that the market is some kind of deity that moves on its own according to mysterious laws. The market has its landlords, like everything on this infected planet, and it’s the landlords of the market who decide the mambo that you dance, whether it’s selling cheap condoms or Latin American novels in the U.S. I say this because the central idea of Pollack’s work is that behind the construction of the Bolaño myth was not only a publisher’s marketing operation but also a redefinition of the image of Latin American culture and literature that the U.S. cultural establishment is now selling to the public.

I don’t know if it’s my bad luck or if it happens to my colleagues as well, but every time that I’ve found myself on American soil—at the airport bar, at a social gathering, wherever—and I’ve made the mistake of admitting to a citizen of that country that I’m a fiction writer who comes from Latin America, that person will immediately pull out García Márquez, and will do it, what’s more, with a self-satisfied smile, as if he were saying to me, “I know you, I know where you come from.” (Of course, I’ve found myself with wilder ones who boast about Isabel Allende or Paolo Coelho, which, ultimately, makes no difference at all, since Allende and Coelho are little more than the light and self-help versions of García Márquez.) As time goes by, however, those same North Americans, at those same bars and social gatherings, have begun to pull out Bolaño.

The key idea is that for thirty years, the work of García Márquez, with its magical realism, represented Latin American literature in the imagination of the North American reader. But since everything tarnishes and ends up losing its luster, the cultural establishment eventually went looking for something new. It sounded out the guys in the literary groups called McOndo and Crack, but they didn’t fit the enterprise—above all, as Sarah Pollack explains, it was very difficult to sell the North American reader on the world of iPods and Nazi spy novels as the new image of Latin America and its literature. Then Bolaño appeared with his The Savage Detectives and his visceral realism.

Castellanos Moya's full essay was published here.

There were several strong reactions to this essay, but I think Garth Risk Hallberg at The Millions offered the most cogent refutation of Castellanos Moya's thesis which was inspired by Sarah Pollack's analysis of Latin American literature.

A year after his essay appeared, Castellanos Moya was still patting himself on the back. From his interview in Sampsonia Way:

In “Bolaño Inc,” which appeared in Guernica in 2009, you bemoan publishers’ marketing of Latin-American literature in the U.S and the mythologized image they assign to popular writers such as Roberto Bolaño. Did you see some of the responses you got when that was published?

Yes. Some people sent me emails. But all the anger of these people is normal. Bolaño is an idol, so people don’t read him as a writer. We live in very empty times, so you look for someone to fill your emptiness, and some people read fiction looking for truth, for a kind of salvation, which is why a writer like Paulo Coelho is so popular. And it’s funny, these attacks on that article, most of them came from Latin American residents in the USA, because those are the ones who feel much more vulnerable when you attack all this celebrity crap of American culture that they believe in. [Laughs] When the article was first published in the daily newspaper La Nación from Buenos Aires, the reactions were very positive.

Castellanos Moya is a Salvadoran novelist. He is the author of Senselessness, Dance With Snakes, The She-Devil in the Mirror, and Tyrant Memory. According to Bolaño, who read four of his books, his best novel—"or at least the darkest, a long tirade against El Salvador that caused Castellanos Moya to receive death threats obliging him to go into exile yet again"—was El asco. Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador ("Nausea: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador"). Bolaño wrote further in Between Parentheses:

El asco, of course, isn't just a settling of scores or a writer's response to a moral and political situation that he finds profoundly discouraging, it's also a stylistic exercise, a parody of certain works by Bernhard, and the kind of book that makes you laugh out loud. Sadly, very few people in El Salvador have read Bernhard, and fewer still have a sense of humor. One's country is no laughing matter. [...] Herein lies one of the book's many virtues: nationalists can't abide it. Its acid humor, like a Buster Keaton movie or a time bomb, threatens the hormonal stability of the idiots who, upon reading it, feel an irresistible urge to string the author up in the town square. Truly, I know of no greater honor for a real writer.

I'm not sold on "Bolaño Inc.", but I'm game with El asco. Anything that invoked Bernhard, even in a mode of parody, and apparently doing so with skyrocketing humor, and politically motivated, should have a place in the reading list.

Related links:

"The Peculiar Art of Cultural Formations" by Sarah Pollack (pdf)
"Snatch" (fiction)
Excerpt from the novel Senselessness (1)
Excerpt from the novel Senselessness (2)
"A Dangerous Homage"—appendix to El asco
Interview and excerpts from "Revulsion"
The Nation profile written by Natasha Wimmer
Q&A With Horacio Castellanos Moya
On Heinrich von Kleist
The Poet Versus Lady Macbeth
Read This Next: Tyrant Memory
Snapshot: El Salvador
A Conversation With Horacio Castellanos Moya

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