A Decade without Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño died ten years ago today from liver disease. For the last two decades of his life he lived in the Spanish seaside town of Blanes. Bolaño left behind a body of work that any living writer would kill for. His fame, if one can call it that, has been mostly posthumous, and his reputation has only continued to grow. Yet, that reputation has been attached, like a great shadow, to his early death. There is something of a James Dean, Marilyn Monroe ghostliness that hangs over Bolaño.

Numerous articles have been written about Bolaño and his life and work was recently the subject of a multi-media gallery exhibition in Barcelona. His literary fame has, in fact, rendered him immortal. Bolaño wrote against time, with the knowledge that he was dying, and with the unerring desire to continue to write. When reading his non-fiction, and his latest collection of poetry, The Unknown University, what comes across most strongly is Bolaño’s need to write. There is nothing about his need for fame; writing itself is the goal. As long as Bolaño continued to write, he states in several places in The Unknown University, he would be okay. He frantically wrote to finish his masterpiece 2666, even putting off going to the doctor to write. I’m not sure if such determination, such self-discipline, is to be admired or despised, but I do know that the world would be poorer without his writing.

In the ten years since Bolaño’s death, the world (especially the English-speaking world) has had a chance to experience one of the greatest literary minds of the twenty-first century. I don’t believe that it’s at all accidental that Bolaño’s work contains such violence, since that is how the twenty-first century began, in explosive violence. Bolaño is the first truly great literary artist to emerge in the twenty-first century, thus opening the door for a horde of talented writers from Latin America in the way that Garcia Marquez opened the door decades before. Roberto Bolaño should be thought of a kind of patron saint for those young writers who dared not to go the MFA route and instead decided to spend their time reading and writing, smoking and drinking. In fact, Bolaño is the anti-MFA-type writer: his writing is not polished, nor does it follow a logical path. Bolaño’s writing is a living thing that bites and fucks us into a kind of glorious submission. His characters are the lonely and the desperate. His writing may not be the feel-good genre that one sees being discussed in so many book clubs, but it is realistic fiction in the most resonant sense. Bolaño’s writing is that thunder we hear before the first drops of the shit storm.

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