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Does it matter that posthumous literary darling Roberto Bolaño fibbed about his past?

by Tommy Wallach, World Books contributor

My World Books review of “2666″

A couple days ago, “The New York Times” published an article suggesting that Chilean novelist and posthumous literary darling Roberto Bolaño may have fictionalized aspects of his own biography. In question are two “facts” central to the Bolaño mythos: 1) His heroin use/addiction, and 2) his presence in Chile during the Pinochet coup.

When word of an author’s lies surfaces in the media, respondents inevitably fall into one of two categories. There are those who forgive authors anything, arguing that all art exists in a vacuum where any reference to history or reality is pedantic and pretentious. Then there are the manufacturers of outrage, who are never particularly angry themselves, but feel it necessary to stand up for all those who were credulous enough to fall for the hoax, and now feel betrayed. Nor am I trying to put members of this second group down as captious or whiny; I’m actually one of them. More than that. I’m their president. I’m that guy who doesn’t even read David Sedaris collections, because I know he’s making up all of his punchlines. Nobody could be more eager than I to take an author to task for his dishonesty.

A cursory Google search provides a solid showing from both camps on the Bolaño question. But all of these blog posts fail to answer the fundamental question: has something happened that’s really worth talking about?

At this point, if word got out that Roberto Bolaño had enjoyed eating toast with mayonnaise, the fact would provide grist for a back page essay in “The New York Times Book Review” at the very least, so maybe the question is moot; for better or worse, Bolaño is the new Jonathan Safran Foer (about whose New York townhouse I know more than I ever wanted to). Still, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between what Bolaño is accused of, and the numerous other scandals that have rocked the shantytown that is the current literary establishment.

Kicking off the most recent batch of unmaskings, back in August of 2006, German Nobel laureate Günter Grass admitted to having been a member of the Waffen SS at the end of World War II. The “Times” article on the German’s admission began with this paragraph:

In novels, plays, essays and newspaper interviews, Günter Grass has often told Germans what they did not want to hear: about their history, about their politics, even about themselves. For many on the left, since the 1960’s he has come to represent the conscience of a country with much to lament.

The point here was clear: Grass’ crime wasn’t being a Nazi. It wasn’t even having lied about his past for his entire life. His crime was hypocrisy, plain and simple.

Likewise with Milan Kundera, who was at the center of a controversy last October, when it was discovered that he might have informed on a young Czech pilot who’d fled Czechoslovakia to avoid joining the infantry, and then secretly returned. If Kundera hadn’t been the recipient of numerous awards for writing on humanitarian subjects (such as the Jerusalem Prize), there wouldn’t have been nearly as great an uproar.

It turns out that most literary scandals center around the notion of hypocrisy. JT Leroy and James Frey both took on the personas of bad boys finally coming clean. They had messages, gleaned from hard experience, about how to live one’s life. When it turned out that there was a calculating, greedy businessman behind the façade of the big-hearted guru, people felt duped. The recent choice to cancel publication of Herman Rosenblat’s falsified Holocaust memoir, “Angel at the Gate”, stemmed from outrage at what was not quite hypocrisy, but also more than just a lie. A camp survivor should have been more keenly attuned to morality. The pathos of a Holocaust story stems from a belief in the fundamental goodness of the protagonist (“Schindler’s List” and “Life Is Beautiful” come to mind). When Rosenblat was revealed to be as flawed and selfish as anyone else, he destroyed his own story.

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Bolaño’s masterpiece — was the author a calculating liar?

In Bolaño’s case, however, I fail to see how there’s any kind of hypocrisy at work. He seldom takes on the theme of drugs in his books, and certainly not in any way that makes claim to some vast, personal knowledge of the subject. As for being in Chile at the dawn of the Junta, it’s possible that Bolaño was embarrassed, as the “Times” article suggests, at not witnessing one of the seminal moments in his country’s history. He would hardly be the first to inflate his own mythology with hot air. Consider Ernest Hemingway: “In the war that I had known men often lied about the manner of their wounding. Not at first; but later. I’d lied a little myself in my time. Especially late in the evening.”

Somehow, in spite of Bolaño’s penchant for literary games, I doubt that there was anything particularly calculating about his lies. Besides, a true literary scandal requires that the author’s oeuvre be transformed by the revelation. One finds it difficult to read Grass in the same way now as one could before. But Bolaño’s fiction hasn’t changed as a result of this new information. So he wasn’t in Chile when he said he was; I bet he still knew more about the coup than most people who were there. His novels are premised on a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of culture and history, and a unique, lapidary prose style. He channels his neuroses and passions, not his experiences.

A few months back, someone asked me if I’d read Bolaño’s breakthrough novel, “The Savage Detectives.” I knew I should have. I’d looked at it a thousand times in the store. I’d read dozens of reviews. I knew its plot, its characters, its themes. But if I answered that I hadn’t gotten around to it yet, I’d look totally out of the loop. And I wasn’t out of the loop! I’d read other of his books. I’d read articles and essays and reviews and blogs. And I’d be damned if one novel was going to stand between me and the image I deserved for all that effort.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve read it. Great book.”

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  One Response to “Roberto Bolaño and the Half-Hearted Hoax”

Comments (1)
  1. I have not seen any accounts of Bolano’s life that were not both extremely murky and also thoroughly cluttered with equivocations (“may have been,” “is said to have done,” “possibly because of,” etc.).

    Since the man is dead, there would seem to be no way to separate the fiction on the page, the fiction not on the page, and the various things that may or may not have gone on in his “real life,” whatever that was. Blaming Bolano for this is like castigating Shakespeare for having “made up” the “dark lady.”

    The biographical equivocations of all of his characters, by the way, is pretty much the central theme of Bolano’s supposed masterpiece, “2666.” Even the number in the title is said to have some kind of biographical significance (a date?), but no one can say for sure what it might have been.

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