Roque Dalton / Roberto Bolaño

One way of thinking about Roque Dalton's influence on contemporary Latin American literature is to notice the affinities between his posthumous novel Pobrecito poeta era yo (1976) and Roberto Bolaño's 2666 (Anagrama, 2004).

Both novels are structured on a 5-part sequence of separate books, each section able to stand independently as a novella, without necessarily connecting to the others. Bolaño has also echoed Dalton's concern for the intersection of cultural and political avant-gardes from a specific generation. Bolaño's Los detectives salvajes (Anagrama, 1998) develops more of this generational focus than 2666 does.

The ambitious scope of Dalton and Bolaño's novels (attempts at a totality within the book? through the book? Benjaminian book?) influences how they symbolize the struggle for writing, life and art, seeing things as through Dantean levels, imitation. Entrance of the postmodern, or, full immersion. Beyond cosmopolitanism, they write a fictional world centered on the displacement of time through travel. The novel as a poetic form.

One element that disturbs in 2666 is the use of deliberately flat newspaper prose in the 4th book, centered on the serial killings in Ciudad Juarez, in northern Mexico. This relentless focus on evil, or destruction, could be compared to Bret Easton Ellis's prose in Less Than Zero, American Psycho or Glamourama. The novel's five sections do eventually cohere (as do Dalton's), now that I've had a few months to think about them.

At one point in Book 5, Bolaño shows us the diary of a young Russian poet in the 1930s, parts of which coincide not only with the book's narrative in WWII Germany but also with events today in northern Mexico. Like Dalton's novel, this one makes no overt claim for a political stance. Rather, the reader is moved toward introspection, against the masses conceptually. A panoptical view for the novel, anchored in a Charles Baudelaire epigraph:

"Un oasis de horror en medio de
un desierto de aburrimiento."

The question might be, How much did Bolaño's friendship with Dalton in El Salvador in the mid-1970s affect his own approach to poetry and fiction? He talks about it briefly in an interview("Entrevista a Roberto Bolaño," Revista Lateral, 1998). Surely, Dalton's death could have served Bolaño as a warning of the excesses of the political left. Both novels take a polemical stance toward utopian discourses, always returning to the individual in his or her isolation. This can seem even stranger in 2666, with its ambitious epic structure that aims at a total landscape spanning decades.

My point isin't to notice their friendship but to think about the shared concern with style, evil, travel, exile and poetry (among other topics) in these books, each one representative of a very specific generational interpretation of what a novel might accomplish. (Dalton writing from the famed Boom era and Bolaño fictionalizing our own "post-9/11" mess.) Because I've been listening to it in the last few days, I think of the ambition in The Clash's 1980 double album, Sandinista! In one of his final interviews Joe Strummer talked about how they made that LP, recording in NYC and being heavily-influenced by hip-hop culture. He spoke of the album as arrogant and omnivorous and almost seemed shocked they were able to pull it off. Dalton and Bolaño's novels do have a certain "punk" aesthetic that I put in quotation marks because it's also found in Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

"Fear is just another commodity here"
(The Clash)

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