Two years ago I wrote an essay about correspondences between Roberto Bolaño’s two masterpieces, The Savage Detectives and 2666 and Roque Dalton’s only novel, the posthumous (and still untranslated) Pobrecito poeta que era yo... (1976). Since then, my essay (“Poor Poets: Roque Dalton and Roberto Bolaño”) continues to be the single most read post at Venepoetics, and I recently noticed someone cites it at Bolaño’s Wikipedia page. I not only compared their novels, but spoke of a possible friendship between the two, when they allegedly met in San Salvador in the mid 1970s. But I might have been mistaken about this encounter between Dalton and Bolaño.
As with much of my work, I now find my essay to be clumsy and repetitive, clouded by poor prose and vague arguments. I wrote the text after noticing a brief fragment in a 2005 feature about Bolaño in The New York Times by Larry Rohter, “A Writer Whose Posthumous Novel Crowns an Illustrious Career.” I was intrigued by Rohter’s suggestion that Bolaño had met Dalton in San Salvador in late 1973 or early 1974: “After an interlude in El Salvador, spent in the company of the poet Roque Dalton and the guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, he returned to Mexico living as a bohemian poet and literary enfant terrible [...].”
I spent two years seeking evidence about this alleged meeting, but Rohter’s article was the only thing I found that directly linked the two writers. I suppose I should have simply written him to ask where he’d gotten this piece of information. Bolaño himself mentioned having lived briefly in El Salvador where he befriended Dalton’s young killers (the most famous of which is the former FMLN commander Joaquín Villalobos, who is currently a scholar at Oxford). Back then, that hardcore band of Maoist guerrillas didn’t even call themselves the FMLN, they were an ultra-leftist group of kids barely out of their teens known as the Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP).
Dalton eventually fell out of favor with this faction he was aligned with during his time living underground in a series of safe houses in San Salvador, from December of 1973 until his death in the spring of 1975. Because so much of his life depended on secrecy back then, it’s still not clear exactly who ordered his murder and why exactly he was killed. I’ve heard all sorts of reasons, including that they suspected him of being a CIA agent, that he had slept with one of their girlfriends, or that they mistrusted his advice about not rushing into revolutionary action before the time was right. It’s likely the truth about Dalton’s disappearance will never be known, as even his body was never recovered.
Two days ago, Rohter published another article about Bolaño, “A Chilean Writer’s Fictions Might Include His Own Colorful Past,” in which he quotes old friends in Mexico and Spain who claim he may have invented portions of his own life for public consumption. The most prominent of these possible inventions is the story that he was in Chile during the coup against Salvador Allende. I won’t go further into the article, as much of it seems like mere literary gossip. What matters about Bolaño is his magnificent work, not how he chose to portray his life or the stories he may have invented in order to become the writer he was destined to be. If anything, Bolaño’s possible distortions of his own life seem like a marvelous extension of his visionary work, further blurring the line between art and lived experience.
But reading the article has confirmed certain doubts I began to have soon after writing my essay on a possible friendship between Dalton and Bolaño. I have to admit that after four years of research and detective work, in El Salvador, the U.S. and Venezuela, I still have no idea if the two writers ever did meet. I’m pretty sure Bolaño could have befriended members of the ERP, but I have yet to find convincing evidence or testimony that he was in direct contact with Dalton. I don’t know what this means for my essay. However, I stand by the parallels I point out between their novels.
By the way, when will somebody finally translate Dalton’s Pobrecito poeta que era yo..., probably the only Latin American Boom masterpiece that hasn’t been published in English yet? I’d love to try it, but someone would have to provide the money I’d need to take on such a gargantuan task. Then again, Dalton’s book remains unread even in Latin America. It seems to have disappeared into a stack of the infinite library, a fact Bolaño & Borges would appreciate. When Pobrecito poeta que era yo... is finally read throughout Latin America, and once American readers finally get to know the novel, the one-sided perception of Dalton as being merely a “revolutionary” or “political” poet will seem like an antiquated misreading. I still have no doubt that Roberto Bolaño read Roque Dalton’s novel and was deeply influenced by its bohemian, revolutionary and psychedelic meanderings. Plus, the account of their friendship in San Salvador would make a great Bolaño story. Here’s to the secret books.