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Bolaño, Roberto

Entry updated 25 September 2023. Tagged: Author.

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Working name of Chilean journalist, poet and author Roberto Bolaño Avalos (1953-2003), who was garlanded with awards for works largely outside the sf genre (see Mainstream Writers of SF). Most of his short fiction skirts the fantastic, though his Beast Fable, "El policia de las ratas" (in El gaucho insufrible, coll 2003; trans Chris Andrews as "Police Rat" in The Insufferable Gaucho 2010), is a direct homage to Franz Kafka's "Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse" (in Ein Hungerkünstler, coll 1924; trans Clement Greenberg May-June 1942 Partisan Review as "Josephine the Singer, or, the Mouse Folk"); Bolano thought of Kafka as the most important writer of the twentieth century. There is also a touch of occult mesmerism in La senda de los elefantes ["The Path of the Elephants"] (1984; rev vt Monsieur Pain 1999; trans Chris Andrews 2010). La literatura nazi en América (1996; trans Chris Andrews as Nazi Literature in the Americas 2008) is his masterpiece of sustained Fabulation: an entirely fictional encyclopedia of fascist authors, detailing their non-existent bibliographies, scandals, love-lives and grubby literary spats. Dates of death and citations within the text extend well into the twenty-first century, as if the book itself were a Time Travel artefact from the Near Future. Three sf authors are included, with details of their chilling yet ludicrous magna opera, in much the same manner as the Alternate-History Adolf Hitler lampooned in Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (1972). The narrator of Amuleto (1999; trans Chris Andrews as Amulet 2006), who thinks of herself as the crypto-transtemporal muse of Mexican poets, narrates her life story while hiding from the military in 1968; this narrative incorporates events taking place many years after.

Bolaño may have intended to return to narratives that implicated the future in his final work, 2666 (2004; trans by Natasha Wimmer 2008). Though the text as published offers no clue as to the relevance of its title, Bolaño's career-long strategy of cross-referring passages and characters from one tale to another does more than hint that his works as a whole were intended to comprise facets of some a mosaical over-text he did not live long enough to bring to full maturity (though in fact throughout his career he affirmed an intuition/principle that the inherent incompleteness of the work of art was an essential tool in seeing the world aright); this strategy also allows the reader specifically to treat his reference to the year 2666, in a passage from the ostensibly unrelated Amulet (see above), as relevant. The protagonist imagines herself in a desolate suburban Zone, which she likens to "a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child ..." in the year 2666, allowing us through a Bolañian circumbendibus to conceive of 2666 as seen or refracted through the eyelid of that corpse: though no surety for this reading is available, it may well seem that what the reader is intended to surmise – with dread – is that the novel 2666 is what the future sees. We are trapped in what the future sees. In this sense, 2666 may be described as pure sf, though it seems most influential on a generically-complex work like Mariana Enriquez's Our Share of Night (2019).

All the same, it remains the case that the surging intertextuality of Bolano's work as a whole – which reads as a dance of palimpsests in a never-to-be-completed mosaic – forbids any fixed determination of genre or centrality, very conspicuously in the texts posthumously assembled as Sepulcros de vaqueros (coll 2017; trans Natasha Wimmer as Cowboy Graves: Three Novellas 2021). The two most famous tales published in his lifetime, Los detectives salvajes (1998; trans Natasha Wimmer as The Savage Detectives 2007) and Nocturno de Chile (2000; trans Chris Andrews as By Night in Chile 2003) centrally confirm a sense that a vast Commedia dell'Arte is unfolding. More narrowly, Los sinsabores del verdadero policia (written 1980s-2003; 2011; trans Natasha Wimmer as Woes of the True Policeman 2012) features several characters from 2666, but with significantly different lives. And El espíritu de la ciencia-ficción (written circa 1989; 2016; trans Natasha Wimmer as The Spirit of Science Fiction 2019) contains elements of the fantastic problematized by complicated framing. One strand comprises letters sent by a character to various sf authors including Forrest J Ackerman, Ursula K Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, Robert Silverberg and James Tiptree Jr, all these missives imploring, directly or indirectly, for the conspectual gaze of sf to lift the protagonists of the tale into the light of the world. The letters were apparently all fictional. Answers come there none. [JC/JonC]

see also: Equipoise.

Roberto Bolaño Avalos

born Santiago, Chile: 28 April 1953

died Barcelona, Spain: 15 July 2003

works (selected)

  • La senda de los elefantes ["The Path of the Elephants"] (Toledo, Spain: Ayuntamiento de Toledo, Concejalía del Area de Cultura, 1984) [binding unknown/]
    • Monsieur Pain (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Anagrama, 1999) [vt of the above: with new introduction: pb/]
      • Monsieur Pain (New York: New Directions, 2010) [trans by Chris Andrews of the above: hb/Allen Frame]
  • La literatura nazi en América (Barcelona, Spain: Seix Barral, 1996) [pb/]
  • Estrella distante (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Anagrama, 1996) [pb/]
    • Distant Star (New York: New Directions, 2004) [trans of the above by Chris Andrews: pb/Semadar Megged]
  • Los detectives salvajes (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Anagrama, 1998) [hb/]
    • The Savage Detectives (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) [trans by Natasha Wimmer of the above: hb/Rodrigo Corral]
  • Amuleto (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Anagrama, 1999) [pb/]
    • Amulet (New York: New Directions, 2006) [trans by Chris Andrews of the above: hb/from Gerardo Suter, "un visitante nocturno"]
  • Nocturno de Chile (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Anagrama, 2000) [pb/]
    • By Night in Chile (New York: New Directions, 2003) [trans by Chris Andrews of the above: pb/Semadar Megged]
  • 2666 (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Anagrama, 2004) [hb/]
    • 2666 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008) [trans by Natasha Wimmer of the above: hb/Charlotte Strick from Gustave Moreau, "Jupiter and Semele"]
  • Los sinsabores del verdadero policia (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Anagrama, 2011) [written 1980s-2003: hb/]
    • Woes of the True Policeman (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) [trans by Natasha Wimmer of the above: hb/Charlotte Strick from Jacopo Ligozzi]
  • El espíritu de la ciencia-ficción (Madrid, Spain: Alfaguara, 2016) [written circa 1989: binding unknown/]

collections and stories

  • Llamadas telefonicas (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Anagrama, 1997) [coll: binding unknown/]
  • Putas aesinas (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Anagrama, 2001) [coll: binding unknown/]
    • Last Evenings on Earth (New York: New Directions, 2006) [coll: trans by Chris Andrews of half the contents of the above two: hb/Allen Frame]
    • The Return (New York: New Directions, 2010) [coll: trans by Chris Andrews of half the contents of the above two: hb/Allen Frame]
  • Amberes (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Anagrama, 2002) [novella: chap: binding unknown/]
    • Antwerp (New York: New Directions, 2010) [novella: chap: trans by Natasha Wimmer of the above: hb/Erik Rieselbach]
  • El gaucho insufrible (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Anagrama, 2003) [coll: some nonfiction: pb/]
  • El secreto del mal (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Anagrama, 2007) [coll: some nonfiction: binding unknown/]
    • The Secret of Evil (New York: New Directions, 2012) [trans of the above by Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer: hb/Rodrigo Corral]
  • La Universidad Desconocida (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Anagrama, 2007) [poetry: coll: collected but not complete: binding unknown/]
    • The Unknown University (New York: New Directions, 2013) [poetry: coll: trans by Laura Healy of the above: hb/Claudia Dias]
  • Sepulcros de vaqueros ["Cowboy Graves"] (Madrid, Spain: Alfaguara, 2017) [coll: binding unknown/]
    • Cowboy Graves: Three Novellas (New York: Penguin Press, 2021) [coll: trans of the above by Natasha Wimmer: hb/Na Kim from photo by Bas van Wieringen, "In the end the book will save itself"]


about the author


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