We never stop reading, although every book comes to an end, just as we never stop living, although death is certain. This certain death came tragically early for the Chilean poet and novelist Roberto Bolao, writer of that lapidary sentence, who died twenty years ago this month at the age of 50.
In the years after his death, though, his literary afterlife grew into one of the most extraordinary in recent memory, especially for an artist who wrote mainly about desperate poets and obscure writersnot material usually predictive of strong sales or worldwide fame. A writer with avant-garde origins who worked in almost total obscurity for most of his career, Bolao somehow emerged as the first global publishing phenomenon of the 21st century, leaving behind a large body of posthumous work that is still expanding and a life story shot through with mythos and confusion.
Today, what might seem almost as surprising as Bolaos extraordinary success, is the fact that two decades after his death no one has yet written a biography of him.
A cradle-to-grave tome is a rite of passage for an author of Bolaos stature. Richard Ellmans massive biography of James Joyce came out 18 years after his death. The first of many biographies of Sylvia Plath was published 13 years after her suicide. Bolaos idol Jorge Luis Borges saw biographies in Spanish and English begin to appear just over a decade after his death.
More recently, the death-to-biography cycle seems to be accelerating. D.T. Maxs biography of David Foster Wallace appeared four years after his suicide. Blake Baileys biography of Phillip Roth came out three years after his (before being disowned by its publisher because of a scandal worthy of a Roth novel). And some biographies appear while the author is still alive, like Gerald Martins doorstopper on Gabriel Garca Mrquez, a Latin American author whose wild international success prefigured Bolaos own, but who was emphatically not his idol.
Bolao somehow emerged as the first global publishing phenomenon of the 21st century, leaving behind a large body of posthumous work that is still expanding.
Why isnt there yet a Bolao biography? Does it matter that there isnt? And more broadly, what is Bolaos legacy today? I spent six weeks this spring trying to answer these questions on Zoom calls to Mexico, Chile, Australia and the United States, and interviewing people in Barcelona who knew Bolao during the quarter century he lived in Catalonia, Spain.
I found a few answers, and also lingering ambiguities. But as if prophesizing his own future, Bolao had already warned of this. Its hard to talk about emblematic figures, he wrote in an essay found among his papers after his death, who might serve as a totem between the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries.
The one thing everyone I spoke to agreed onwhile disagreeing about plenty elsewas that Bolaos life would make for a rich biography. Born in Chile in 1953, his family emigrated to Mexico City when he was 15. There he co-founded a rabble-rousing poetic movement that positioned itself against the literary establishment, disrupting readings by grandees like Octavio Paz.
In 1973, Bolao was back in Chile during the overthrow of the Allende government, and he was imprisoned and narrowly escaped execution. In 1977, he followed his mother and sister to Spain, where he worked odd jobs, including as a salesman of cheap jewelry and campground caretaker, while quietly and determinedly creating a literary universe all his own. This is the other point of consensus about Bolao: his singular body of work.
In his literary criticism Bolao wrote often of the role of courageand its dark sibling, cowardicein the lives of writers. He loathed anyone who sold out artistic or political ideals, and he upset more than a few people with his cutting categorical judgments. The Spanish word insobornableunbribeable, literally, but usually translated as incorruptibleis an adjective people who knew Bolao often use to describe him. This uncompromising quality of mind and heart led him to take true risks, both formally and thematically, with no promise of artistic or commercial success.
There are the risky story lines, from fascist poetic skywriting in Distant Star to the hard-to-read accounts of femicide in Jurez in 2666. Risky first-person narrators, from the compromised (read: bribeable) priest of By Night in Chile to Amulets exiled Uruguayan Mother of Mexican Poetry, trapped in a bathroom stall of the National Autonomous University of Mexico during the armys siege in 1968. Risks in structure, from the encyclopedic entries of the slim Nazi Literature in the Americas to the tripartite, choral sprawl of The Savage Detectives. Risks in tone, the author walking a tightrope between earnest moral inquiry and flashes of hilarity. And risks in figurative language that can twist meaning almost to its breaking point, burning unforgettable images into a readers brain, like: The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower.
Bolao took all these risks while living just a train ride away from Barcelona, the nerve center of Spanish publishing, yet he had been in Spain for nearly 20 years before an established press, Seix Barral, finally took a risk on him, publishing Nazi Literature in 1996. When I asked Jorge Herralde, who became his longtime editor at a different publisher, Anagrama, if he suspected Bolao would break out to the extent that he did, he joked, I could respond that it was a sure thing, but naturally, thats not true.
Sitting at an outdoor caf just a few blocks from Anagramas offices this spring, Valerie Miles, an American editor and translator who is a fixture in the Spanish-speaking literary world and co-founder of Granta en Espaol, told me, Theres a lot of speculation about Bolaos life, a lot thats not known yet about him. She is one of the few people who has had access to the immense archiveover 14,000 pagesBolao left behind. He didnt have a computer [in the 1970s and ’80s], so he had notebooks and his pen and paper and mechanical typewriter and paper. Theres a whole bunch of stuff. Much of the material is autobiographical, Miles said, and offered insights into his inner life. He kept diaries.
Miles immersion in the archive began in 2008 at the request of Bolaos widow, Carolina Lpez, who stunned Barcelonas literary establishment by moving her husbands estate from the most famous agency in the Spanish-speaking world, the Balcells Agency, to global giant, The Wylie Agency. Miles acted as interpreter for Andrew Wylie when he visited Barcelona. Years later, Lpez would break with Bolaos publisher, Anagrama. Long before this, she had already had a falling out with his close friend, the critic Ignacio Echevarra, who had shepherded the manuscript of 2666 to publication.
Some members of Bolaos inner circle believed that Lpez had made these changes because of their friendship with a woman the author was apparently involved with near the end of his life. Lpez denied these claims, stating publicly that her only motivation was to do what was best for her husbands legacy, both editorially and financially, and that meant finding a different publisher.
It was in this heated atmosphere that Miles worked secretly, for several years, to inventory the Bolao archive and assess newly discovered manuscripts. Her painstaking work culminated in a 2013 exhibition of pieces from the archive, a fragmented biography of sorts in a museum-like format for which Miles was the co-curator.
But in the decade since then, Lpez has kept the archive closed and restricted rights to quote from unpublished material. The tensions and limitations around Bolaos estateand perhaps also the costs of extended research visits to Chile, Mexico, and Spain that a proper biography would requirehave discouraged several would-be biographers from taking on one of the most significant writers ever to come out of Latin America.
I wrote to the Wiley Agency to request an interview with Carolina Lpez, though I wasnt especially hopeful that it would happen. In recent years, she has granted few interviews; she is a private person wary of the spotlight, and journalists like me are naturally after new information to make public.
Yet to my surprise, within a day of my request being forwarded to her, Lpez agreed to a written interview. Im not quite sure why. Perhaps because Im an outsider in the Barcelona publishing world, or perhaps because I had expressed my long-time admiration for Bolao. In any case, she wasnt put off by my nosy questions.
When I asked why the archive isnt open for research, Lpez was candid. For his widow, Bolaos legacy isnt only literary, but a family matter tooand a painful one. Its difficult to explain how devastating his death was for my children, aged two and 13, she told me, not to mention what it meant for me. I didnt even have time to grieve, given that my priority was my children.
Then came the Bolao boom in the English-speaking world, complete with widely publicized falsehoods about Bolao having been a heroin addict and having lied about his presence in Chile during the coup (friends in Chile have confirmed that he was there). All the garbage in the media, the lies, even stating that we were separated, complicated the mourning process for the family. We all needed professional help to process the level of suffering and to keep going All this has left us needing protection and with a great sense of distrust with everything related to Roberto, including, of course, visits to the archive.
In 2013, Lpez filed several lawsuits for violations of intimacy and honor relating to statements that had appeared in different articles and documentaries. One of those she sued was Ignacio Echevarra, who, by now openly feuding with Lpez, had published two articles in which he discussed aspects of Bolaos personal life. (The suit is still working its way through the glacially slow Spanish judicial system.)
As time passes, Echevarra pointed out, the people who knew Bolao personally are dying. The longer the biography is delayed, further important sources will be lost.
Sitting in a plaza in Barcelonas Galvany neighborhood, Echevarra spoke about Bolao with the fondness of a good friend and the admiration of a passionate critic. Hes a writer who changed the paradigm of the Latin American author, he said. Every time I fall into Bolaos work again, he dazzles me. The court battle has been a stressful experience for him. No one wanted to fight, he lamented. Id never had a legal problem in my life. Despite his troubles, he managed to have a chuckle at his situation. If I had known what I was getting myself into, maybe I wouldnt have had such a need to say things!
As time passes, Echevarra pointed out, the people who knew Bolao personally are dying. The longer the biography is delayed, further important sources will be lost. What if a biography were written without permission from Bolaos estate? After all, plenty of unauthorized biographies of public figures appear every year.
Echevarra agreed that this was possible, but would be lacking in depth and detail compared to a work that could freely quote Bolaos diaries, letters, and published works. A determined biographer could make a first go of it for future biographers to build on, if and when the archive does eventually open. Lpez says she will leave that decision to her children, although she revealed, In a few years the archive will have a destination, probably a public one.
Has the lack of a biography been a bad thing for Bolaos legacy? In recent years, the cult authors visibility has declined. If we place the ecstatic high-water mark of peak Bolao at 2008, following the posthumous publication of 2666 in English, its perhaps inevitable that he feels a less imposing a figure now that so many years have passed.
Meanwhile, in certain corners of academia critics grumble about Bolao being overrated; and in parallel, the many posthumously published works may have prompted readerly fatigue among some fans, and perhaps bafflement for people new to Bolaos interconnected literary universe who dont find the right place to start. Even so, his books keep selling in 35 languages around the world. A biography would introduce him to new readers, suggest fresh approaches to his work and life, and revitalize the conversation about him. But Bolao himself might not have cared either way.
Jonathan Monroe, Cornell professor and editor of Roberto Bolao in Context, reminded me of a passage from Amulet, in which the author lampoons the idea of artistic immortality and satirizes literary fads: Vladimir Mayakovksy shall be reincarnated as a Chinese boy in the year 2124. Thomas Mann shall become an Ecuadorian pharmacist in the year 2101 For Marcel Proust, a desperate and prolonged period of oblivion shall begin in the year 2033 Jorge Luis Borges shall be read underground in the year 2045. Vicente Huidobro shall appeal to the masses in the year 2101. That sound you hear is Bolao laughing.
A delayed biography could potentially allow the turmoil around the authors legacy to die down as trends shift, so that we can more clearly appreciate his impact. As Valerie Miles said, We editors know its not a bad thing making people wait.
Reputations and book sales will always wax and wane, but Roberto Bolaos work seems destined to stand the test of time (it already has so far) and the lack of a biography for now. As if to confirm this, one day I met an old friend of Bolaos at the caf of the Centre de Cultura Contempornia de Barcelona, which exhibited the archive in 2013. Sure enough, at a table near us a young woman was reading 2666. When I pointed this out to him, he said, See, thats what matters. Thats all that matters.