Roberto Bolaño: Hay que mantener la ficción en favor de la conjetura / Eduardo Cobos

Roberto Bolaño: One Must Maintain Fiction in Favor of Conjecture

Roberto Bolaño and Eduardo Cobos at the entrance of the Hotel Ávila in Caracas, 1999. Photograph: Lisbeth Salas.

Editor’s Note
July 15 marked ten years since the death of the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. In 1999, when his reputation was beginning to acquire the delirious dimensions of his particular condition of literary auteur and editorial success, he visited Venezuela to receive the Rómulo Gallegos Prize for The Savage Detectives. This interview was previously published by its author, the journalist Eduardo Cobos, in the magazine Mezclaje, which he edited at the time with Anwar Hasmy. To commemorate the mournful anniversary of the author of 2666, Cobos now offers this corrected version for the enjoyment of readers of Letralia.

Roberto Bolaño surprises us with his good mood and the unexpected turns his assertions take. In any case, his conversation isn’t the least bit intellectual, instead he likes to explain or provide examples with what he knows how to do: telling stories, one after another, and confirming what one suspected, that many of his characters, as incredible as they might seem, have existed in the flesh, beyond the verisimilitude demonstrated in his writings, or they serve as the undeniable confirmation that Arturo Belano, the character in several of his books, is the alter ego of this prolific writer. For anyone who has read him, there is no doubt that with him Latin American fiction will recover the vitality from which it had seen itself excluded since the death rattles of the Boom, as the structures of his works reveal an original complexity.

During the month of August, the rain is sporadic in Caracas, but it’s always threatening to show up. This is the city that received Bolaño, of Chilean origin, who came from Blanes, a little town in Catalonia, to receive the Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize (1999) for The Savage Detectives (1998). He stayed in the Hotel Ávila, whose name is a tribute to one of the mountains that surrounds the valley, and which owes all its prestige to the Modernist architecture from the time of Isaías Medina Angarita, when the sudden economic development begins in Venezuela due to the extraction of petroleum. We spoke one afternoon, in which the constant running around at times prevented us from being more at ease during the interview.


You published a novel with Antoni García Porta, Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic (1984). Can you talk about the experience of writing a novel with someone else?

Toni’s a good friend. He wrote a text and gave it to me. I took the pages of the novel and did nothing but destroy it, absolutely all of it, and then I put it back together. I played with that. By the way, the title is a nod to a poem by Mario Santiago, he’s a great Mexican poet with whom I started, in Mexico, the Infrarealist movement, which is the Visceral Realists in The Savage Detectives. In the novel, he’s the character named Ulises. Mario wrote a poem called “Advice from A Marx Disciple to A Heidegger Fanatic,” in the year seventy five, which was emblematic for a whole generation of young poets, whether they were Infrarealists or not. It’s a marvelous poem, quite long, with about twenty sections.

I saw Mario read that poem aloud, it had a supernatural force. He died a few days after I finished correcting The Savage Detectives, in early ninety eight. And it was a violent death; since he was run over by a car on the street. He existed on the complete edge, he was passing through a very bad time and each day he was acting more and more violently, in an intransigent manner. Mario is a great poet, for me he’s the best poet of the last twenty years in Mexico. He was really impressive, the closest thing I’ve seen to Rimbaud’s proposals: the radicalness and the absolutely biased glow. He was one of those people that frightened whoever he was near.

One can observe two types of narrative voices that speak to others in your books. On the one hand voices that, in fragments, put together stories and on the other, the ones telling the narrator an anecdote that will be developed further. In this perspective, what’s the structural necessity of the story that makes you set up those narrative voices?

I believe, I presume, I’m not telling you this as something that’s set, it just occurred to me, that the intention is to maintain fiction in favor of conjecture, which means: this guy told me that someone else said to him and also, stories that arrive in some type of an oral manner. This attenuates the work of the structure. If I put it in there as is, if I didn’t give it the lightness of orality, the narrative structure might become too arduous for the reader and especially for the writer.

Does that, perhaps, makes sense if one thinks for example of One Thousand and One Nights?

From that point onwards everything is said. In One Thousand and One Nights, or in medieval European texts, the orality that advances is key within the interior of the tale that’s being narrated, that moves the different perspectives. This makes the work’s shell, which sometimes can’t help being heavy, become lighter, softer and it allows us, in this manner, to enter into its core.

This last point might relate to something very alluring in your work, which is the repetition of characters, who each time gain new dimensions. What relationship exists between voices and stories?

They're voices that come and go, they’re faces that come and go, stories like Stendhal wanted: any story that goes, at some point returns, but it comes back transformed and in the process of returning it has become another story, it’s like the passing of time. Besides, I’m insatiable when something comes out right for me, I squeeze it until I get the very last drop.

In my work’s project —I say work with the understanding that it’s still in process— the initial plans encompass that: stories that bifurcate, that get lost but return. That’s how characters like Abel Romero, the researcher that appears in The Savage Detectives, although that’s not the case with Amulet (1999), is included in my most recent work. Belano runs into Romero at a Chilean party in Paris, they talk about causality and chance. And Romero returns in another novel I’m writing, which is called Woes of the True Policeman, settled in Chile with his funeral parlor, he has carried out the promise he made to Belano in Distant Star (1996), which was to set up that strange business. In the same way, he has invested the money they paid him to eliminate Carlos Wieder. In any case, Romero has an ethics, which he sometimes overlooks, but he has one.

Like the detectives in Raymond Chandler?

Abel Romero is what in Chile is called a tira, and moreover a leftist tira, with class consciousness. But it’s best not to put both one’s hands in the fire for a tira, it’s best to just put one in. In the novel I mentioned, Romero is in Chile and he’s given a case, which will be his last, because from that point on this character is finished. The truth is I actually don’t know what happens with him, since I haven’t finished writing the novel yet. This is how other characters and places keep appearing: Villaviciosa, the town in The Savage Detectives, is really a city that appears in a very old poem of mine, from ninety or ninety two.

How did you elaborate the structure, for example, in The Savage Detectives?

It’s the only one it could have. It was an enormous task. It doesn’t seem like it, but the work I put into it was enormous. On the other hand, Distant Star was written in a state of grace, it took a month and a half. That one has changes regarding “Ramírez Hoffman, the infamous one,” the character from Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996), which is where I got him from. There was a moment when I was taken by the desire for the well-made work, the game or experiment, and there are moments when emotiveness is more present, when it imposes itself above luxury, above the text’s sumptuous aspect.

On the other hand, in Amulet, where a story that was profiled in The Savage Detectives is recovered, the writing maintains the project with a complete coldness, even the original commas are respected. That is, the pages that provided its origin are the same as the hundred and fifty definitive ones; the incisions are surgical. That’s the relationship I’ve had with certain types of painting, I love variations in painting, serialization, despite the fact that in literature this can only be done with short texts. In that sense, Raymond Queneau has a book that clearly illustrates what I’m saying, it’s called Exercises in Style, where he repeats an anecdote a hundred times, with dissimilar techniques.

The most surprising of your books, because of the imagination you handle, is Nazi Literature in the Americas. There we see the presence of literature in many dimensions. How did those fictions originate?

Without a doubt, that’s a novel where literature is the character. And yet, it’s the latest fruit from a great branch that goes from Rodolfo Wilckoc’s The Temple of Iconoclasts, passing through Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy, and also includes Alfonso Reyes’s Real and Imagined Portraits. Of course, the itinerary falls back on Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, stopping in the prose in capsules of the French encyclopedists.

In Nazi Literature... there’s nothing beyond an exercise that turns to that tradition and in that sense it’s the most literary, where literature is the protagonist, because even though it seems to be a book of short stories it’s a novel in chapters. Besides, it’s a satyrical novel about the misery of writing, the misery of writers, the picaresque rabble of a world so apparently distant as literature apparently is and where Nazis are merely the mask to make a caricature of the modus vivendi, any writer’s existence within literature.


Regarding your ars narrativa, how do you resolve writing’s day to day difficulties in a practical manner?

By waking up early, sitting in front of the computer and working. Writing lots of junk that will eventually be eliminated. I have a pretty rigorous method, I work on the structures and infrastructures of the novel; I elaborate the argument quite a bit, which is dragged along for a long time until it’s completely clear. Without a doubt, the structure gives you the material’s order ahead of time, the structure is the material, the plot enters within the structure, it’s all prepared from that point onwards.

And what about the correction of the text?

Polishing the text is like molding in sculpture: correcting, reading, rereading. Each time I correct less, I think I have more of a trade. However, in terms of a text’s correction I think Flaubert’s is the most radical project. I’m incapable of spending five or eight years writing a novel. But in relation to the text’s sedimentation time, I’m closer to Stendhal than Flaubert. The former took fifty three days to write The Charterhouse of Parma. That’s a writer. He’s the novelist in all his aspects, I feel closer to him even in terms of sexuality.

Could you give us a type of short story writer’s Decalogue?

I was once asked to write a Decalogue about how a short story should be written, and I did it as a joke, but the last point was quite serious, I said the two greatest short story writers were Anton Chekov and Raymond Carver. For me Carver is a giant among short story writers, better even that Hemingway, his capacity to create an atmosphere that has weight in any situation, he’s unrivaled. We’ve all learned from what they call the atmospheric short story, which weighs on you as a reader, where the characters move by pushing things aside, you feel the physical pressure, as though you were on another planet, in another gravity.


As for the authors who stayed in Chile, those who were formed under the dictatorship, the ones that began to publish in the nineties, people who today are between thirty and forty years old, what’s your opinion of them?

The truth is I don’t know them very well. Personally, I met Carlos Franz during a recent visit to Chile. He was one of the presenters for the new edition of The Skating Rink (1993, 1998). I also met Gonzalo Contreras, Arturo Fontaine Talavera and Diamela Eltit.

Honestly, Eltit bores me. Now, this doesn’t mean I like Luis Sepúlveda; between Spúlveda and Contreras I’m not sure which one I’d choose. I think neither of them. Although, without a doubt, there’s more inquiry in Contreras than in Sepúlveda. However, when I want to read Henry James I read him directly and the last thing that would occur to me is to read a Jamesean from Santiago de Chile.

Does it seem to you that Chilean fiction today has no weight?

A Spanish poet pointed out that poetry is a danger zone. Or it isn’t. This applies to all literature. The novel isn’t, as they think in Chile, a social island or a social display window, it’s not about marrying ministers or about being discotheque stars.

Literature is a lot like a samurai fight, but the samurai doesn’t fight against another samurai, he fights a monster, and he generally knows he’ll be defeated. To be brave, knowing ahead of time you’ll be defeated, and going out to fight, that’s literature.

Could José Donoso be a Jamesean?

It’s different, Donoso has a certain disproportion. And additionally, he wanted to be a disciple of James, but he was really a writer who didn’t owe much to the North American, with the exception, of course, of Three Bourgeois Novelettes. In certain texts, the influence of Virginia Woolf is notable, for example, in parts of The Obscene Bird of Night, or the closeness to Ford Madox Ford.

It seems Donoso was a fan of the English language, he grew up reading the classics in that language.

That’s right. But there’s even shameful things in him, that actually come from French literature. The influence of André Gide on him, the prose of The Catacombs of the Vatican could be decisive, that can be detected. Although Donoso was a very complex author and with very pendular tastes, which is something I don’t see in more recent Chilean authors.

In that sense, Donoso’s ambition corresponds with the Boom, where the search for the total novel stigmatized that generation. Does the ambition for the total novel seem valid to you?

I don’t think the total novel exists. But it seems magnificent to me when the writer says: I’m going to achieve the total novel. That seems admirable to me. The work of a Lezama Lima, of Cortázar, of Vargas Llosa, got very close; the work of Fernando del Paso or Donoso himself in The Obscene Bird... and later on with A House in the Country. With the latter he tries to cover the entire tragic destiny of Latin America. In him, that experience is crucial.

The way you say it, it seems to be an act of great heroism...

All those protean writers that confront the impossible novel, they seem to me like the advanced Spaniards who came almost adrift on the ships. The attempts to seek the total novel seem magnificent to me, no one will achieve it, because the very nature of the novel escapes totality, there is no total novel; if it ever existed, it was made by Stendhal, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Flaubert. The latter, in that respect, had an extreme lucidity, superior to all of us. Bouvard et Pécuchet is a laboratory where, among many things, the impossibility, not only of the total novel but of the novel itself, is demonstrated time and time again.

Besides, that appearance and disappearance of characters in different books of mine, I can see it as proof of my impossibility of arriving at the total novel, as a symptom and as a demonstration, both things at once. I love unattainable challenges.

On the other hand, we have the writers of “minor” works.

Indeed. Magnificent writers who opted for the minor work, for the miniature. In that regard, I refer myself to perfectionists of minimal prose, such as, for example, Julio Torri, Augusto Monterroso or even Juan José Arreola, all of them Latin American authors who are opposed to the conception of the novel that we’re talking about. Well, there’s also Rodrigo Rey Rosa, among the more recent ones, who opts for the apparently minor text, not even the perfect text, if one compares him to Donoso. There are short stories by Rey Rosa where you check a phrase and it makes you think that phrase could have been written in a better and more effective manner, and yet, he has constructed it in that way while being fully aware of what he was doing.

You met Donoso, you even refer to your encounter with him, in a cyphered manner, in The Savage Detectives. What impression did he make on you?

Yes. The encounter is described in the novel. I spent a whole afternoon with him, he seemed like a good person, very simple, from all points of view. On the other hand, he had the sincerity to portray himself in a ruthless manner. That’s how I see him in The Garden Next Door, his last great book, besides the lucidity with which it’s written, he describes himself with an astonishing cruelty. This is a characteristic of worthy novelists.

Donoso’s fate is quite a paradox. It’s sad. He returned to Chile to take up the position of rector in literature. That is, the place of the rooster in the chicken coop. But you can’t be a rooster without critical thought, and he was a born fiction writer, who barely had any other aptitudes. His nature didn’t allow for the leader’s rude temper, he didn’t have the Nerudian or Huidobrian boldness to be a rooster and he was basically a good person, because in order to be the rooster in the hen house you have to be a bad person. The figure of Donoso is respected in Chile, but not very much and his fate seems to me that of the typical Latin American writer, a very sad fate.

Roberto Bolaño at the Hotel Ávila, in Caracas. Photograph: Eduardo Cobos.

{ Eduardo Cobos, Letralia, 5 August 2013 }


Erika Davis said...

"Distant Star" was literally THE turning point for me. I felt like it was my first experience with real literature. Followed by "Nazi Literature" and now "By Night in Chile," I feel as though there's a rabbit hole Bolano has created with his novels and I've fallen into it. It's a place where things are so intensely different and interesting, surreal, I guess, and not many people know about it. Everyone else is pleased to go on reading their autobiographies and teen fiction stories because they have no idea the world in the rabbit hole exists and, from the outside, it doesn't seem all that appealing.

Guillermo Parra said...

Hi Erika,

I had a similar experience when I first read The Savage Detectives in 2003. Ever since then, I've been a fervent admirer of Bolaño.