Those familiar with the work of Roberto Bolaño will not be surprised to hear that numerous writers, critics, and other literary types populate the pages of his newly translated posthumous masterpiece 2666. Normally I’m highly suspicious of novels about writers or writing—most often it’s an excuse for self-obsessed navel-gazing or indulgence in tired, predictable metafictional exercises. Either way, the results are almost always profoundly boring.
And yet I absolutely love the fiction of Roberto Bolaño. To date I’ve read four of his books—2666, The Savage Detectives, Amulet, and By Night in Chile—all of which feature writers as characters, as well as extensive discussions of writing and literature. Given my general distaste for this kind of content in fiction, it would stand to reason that I shouldn’t particularly care for Bolaño. But if you asked me right now to name the best novels of the past decade, 2666 and The Savage Detectives would top the list.
So, what’s going on here? What’s so special about Bolaño? Why do I like his novels about writers and writing so much?
One obvious possibility is the fact that Bolaño’s books are not only about writers and writing. Both 2666 and The Savage Detectives contain the voices of a multitude of characters from many different walks of life. 2666 is particularly notable in this respect: though it opens with “The Part About the Critics,” in which a handful of European professors obsessively track down a mysterious and reclusive German writer named Archimboldi, and closes with a section recounting the story of Archimboldi’s life, the book also contains the passages told from the perspectives of cops, prostitutes, soldiers, bureaucrats, Mexican feminists, German aristocrats, maquiladora workers, boxers, journalists, and many, many others. Writers are important to 2666, but they aren’t at its heart. Instead, the book turns on the lives and fates of the murdered women of the Mexican city of Santa Teresa—a fictional stand in for Ciudad Juarez, where several hundred women (many of them maquiladora workers) have been brutally raped and murdered since 1993.
One of the central ideas of 2666 is that the voicelessness and invisibility of the book’s poor, uneducated migrant maquiladora workers leaves them especially prone to victimization. Because they live on the margins, no one pays their lives or deaths much attention, and it takes several dozen murders before those in positions of power begin to admit that there’s something more going on in Santa Teresa than just “ordinary” crime and violence. For Bolaño, having a voice and being heard translates to power, and it’s the powerlessness of the impoverished women of Santa Teresa that permits them to be so egregiously victimized.
But Bolaño is also very skeptical of the idea that writers will be able to use their powerful voices for any kind of positive change. In The Savage Detectives, the young Mexican avant-garde poets who set out at the novel’s beginning to conquer the world through their energy, vision, and art ultimately end up old, poor, powerless, and in some ways failed. For all their idealism, optimism, talent, and achievement, the world defeats them at best, and at worst badly compromises their integrity. In By Night in Chile, Bolaño asks hard questions about the ways in which artists and writers can become complicit in the unjust exercise of power by the state. And Amulet tells the story of the “Mother of Mexican Poetry,” who hides in a university bathroom during the tumultuous events of 1968, and the book offers a sometimes critical examination of the relationship between literature and revolutionary change.
When Bolaño writes about writing, his central theme is the relationship between creative expression and power. This is an extremely rich subject, and also one which novelists (or artists of any sort) rarely tackle seriously. Most are content to sit in academic offices and write about the agony of wrestling with their muses, and seem to give very little thought to the great privilege and luxury that has made it possible for them to do so. Again and again in his fiction, Bolaño insists that that this isn’t enough: that writers, critics, and other artists and intellectuals have a moral responsibility to examine their relationship with power.
For Bolaño, anyone who a voice but chooses not to speak is complicit in the victimization of the powerless. For the critics in the opening section of 2666, the writer Archimboldi is the center of their lives, to such an extent that when they come to Santa Teresa, it’s because they’ve heard a rumor that he might be there. They’re told about the murders, but they don’t give them much thought: their obsession continues. And in the closing section, we’re given Archimboldi’s life: he’s a child of World War I, and a German veteran of World War II, and he has purposefully sought invisibility as a means of running away from his past and of finding peace. Yet, when his connection with the murders is revealed in the novel’s final section (and I won’t say more than that, to avoid a major spoiler), it’s clear that he cannot avoid moral responsibility altogether, no matter how much he might like to do so. Bolaño draws a through line between the horrific abuses of power in Nazi Germany and those in Santa Teresa, and suggests that no number of beautiful novels by Archimboldi can erase those horrors, or hope to counter the parts of human nature that bring this kind of evil into the world.
I think one of the reasons that Bolaño’s work is so compelling is that he combines a deep ethical skepticism about the relationship between creativity and power with a passionate and hopeful belief in literature’s ability to move us, inspire us, and to show us what it means to be human. On the final pages of 2666, Bolaño offers a portrait of the life and works of a Fürst Pückler, obscure travel writer who became better known for “lending his name to a combination of three flavors of ice cream” than for his creative ouptut. All the same, Bolaño assesses his achievement favorably:
And so he wrote and published, and in his own way, humbly but in fine German prose, he raised his voice against injustice. I think he had little interest in knowing where the soul goes when the body dies, although he wrote about that too. He was interested in dignity and he was interested in plants. About happiness he said not a word, I suppose because he considered it something strictly private and perhaps, how shall I say, treacherous or elusive. He had a great since of humor, although some passages of his books contradict me there. And since he wasn’t a saint or even a brave man, he probably did think about posterity.
Before he died, Fürst Pückler spoke out against injustice, spoke for dignity, studied the world and its wonders, and created a flavor of ice cream that is “pleasing in spring and fall.” For Bolaño, this is a substantial and admirable legacy.