A Little Lumpen Novelita, by Roberto Bolaño, trans Natasha Wimmer, New Directions, 128 pp, €19.95, ISBN: 978-0811223355
One of the last of Roberto Bolaño’s books to appear in English bears the curious title of A Little Lumpen Novelita. The diminutive serves as a disingenuous shrug: this old thing? It is a short book, but not one lacking in significance in its role in European literature and Bolaño’s fictional universe. Indeed it reinforces its author’s status as the most important Latin American writer of his generation and a towering figure in the world of letters.
The story of the novella is straightforward, but manages to weave together several of Bolaño’s signature themes in its taut simplicity. When their parents are killed in a motor accident, Bianca and her brother must live alone and struggle to survive. Eventually the two give up on school and find menial jobs. One day Bianca’s brother returns to the apartment with two men: one from Libya and the other from Bologna. The two men become roommates of sorts, cleaning and cooking but not working, eventually finding their way into Bianca’s bed. Economic conditions deteriorate and the foursome relies on Bianca’s meagre income as a hairdresser. Like a wave of nausea approaching, Bianca feels herself teetering on a life of crime.
Dreams occupy a unique place in Bolaño’s narratives. Like more traditional magical realists such as Borges or Garcia Márquez, he uses dreams not only as a projection of the subconscious but also as the focal point of creation. Throughout the novella, Bianca is haunted by the death of her parents and her projected dreams assume the function of films that both terrify and distract her.
The Bolognese and the Libyan convince Bianca to visit the home of an old man named Maciste (or “Giovanni Dellacroce” or “Franco Bruno”), a former Mr Universe and actor who is now blind. She plays a prostitute but secretly searches Maciste’s mansion, looking for a safe holding enough money to allow her and her roommates to escape their miserable lives. Maciste is the Hercules of Italian cinema. Maciste/Hercules appeared in dozens of silent films before being resurrected as a kitschy superhero in the 1960s. Bolaño’s Maciste is an emblem of faded glory, and as his health deteriorates throughout the story, Bianca finds him to be more pitiful and endearing. Through this relationship, however, Bianca finds the strength to shake off the guilt of her parents’ death and find a new job, a new place to live, a new life.
Eventually, Bianca realises there is no safe in Maciste’s house. Extracting any money out of the old movie star would require a greater crime than prostitution. Maciste’s health deteriorates and Bianca tells him she is leaving for good, to start a new life. She tells the Bolognese and the Libyan to get out of her apartment, half-expecting them to go out and kill Maciste. She imagines seeing photos of Maciste’s dead body or mugshots of the two killers appearing on newspapers and TV stations, as if these photos “were evidence of the storm that still raged, a storm not located in the skies of Rome, but in the European night or the space between planets, a noiseless, eyeless storm from another world, a world that not even the satellites in orbit around the Earth could capture, a world where there was a place that was my place, a shadow that was my shadow.”
Bianca is a half-formed thing—the archetypal Bolaño hero in that she sublimates her desires and sacrifices herself for Maciste’s dignity (and life), not because she expects anything in return, but because she views her life as malleable, stretched out across a long span of time. Her first words to the reader are “Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime.” She is an aimless drifter, focused on survival and susceptible to persuasion. Like a Dickens character, she is an orphan; like a Bernhard protagonist, she is existentially alone, facing a grim life. Yet Bolaño values this ability to make something of one’s life.
It is difficult to consider the importance of this novella or its place in Bolaño’s fictional universe without looking at his ongong reception and overall cultural impact (for readers of English). When The Savage Detectives burst onto the American literary map in 2007, Bolaño took a while to situate in the context of global literature. Although he was recognised as a crucial figure in the landscape, for many readers “Latin American literature” still equated to the Boom period of Cortazar, Márquez, Fuentes, and Vargas Llosa. Bolaño’s rise played a major role in the contemporary idea of literature in Spanish shifting toward post-Boom ideas and writers.
This stasis is partly due to the fact that in the 1980s and 90s, there was a concurrent shift toward including writers of diverse backgrounds in various canonical lists and anthologies. Representative of this trend were writers such as Julia Alvarez, Isabel Allende, and Sandra Cisneros, who were widely included in US high school literature textbooks and the essential Norton anthologies. But the matter of who we recognise as “Latin American” or even “Spanish” or “American” is complicated. For example, Alvarez and Cisneros were both born in the United States and write in English. Allende obtained US citizenship in 2003, but writes only in Spanish and remains more widely read and published in the US than any other Chilean writer, including Bolaño.
Bolaño’s first books published in the US were from New Directions, a small literary publisher, and they received virtually no attention. By Night in Chile received a few key reviews in 2003 but did not make Bolaño a recognizable name, even among readers of serious fiction in America. The New Yorker published two stories (“Gomez Palacio” and “Last Evenings on Earth”) in 2005, and typically, this is a key marker of serious literary achievement, but it did little to showcase Bolaño’s mastery of the novel form; nor did it seem to spark much of a public thirst for more of his work. The cult of Bolaño required more effort in order to be born.
Then, in 2007, The Savage Detectives burst onto the scene with the full force of a major marketing campaign. FSG, one of the most respected “literary” publishers in the US, pushed very hard to get Bolaño’s work in front of every periodical and reviewer who mattered. Literati who wanted to read the next hot thing were beside themselves with joy at having something relatively dense and highbrow to gnaw upon. The Savage Detectives received all the cultural signifiers that are supposed to indicate to somewhat savvy readers that a work is worth the expended effort of purchasing and reading and engaging. Of course when readers actually engage with books and these signifiers seem to outweigh the literary quality of the work itself, the whole masquerade gets relegated to the trash heap of over-hyped marketing buzz. Bolaño’s reputation thrived because enough readers enthusiastically found something like “literary quality” in his fiction.
In the years since, that shared enthusiasm has provided a further market for a new mini-Boom of Hispanic literature in the United States and Europe, including but not limited to Horacio Castellanos Moya, Cesar Aira, Enrique Vila-Matos, Valeria Luiselli, and many others.
But reading just one of Bolaño’s novels or this little lumpen novella does not even partially reveal the full iceberg of contradictions, themes, motifs, and aesthetic projects floating below the surface of his work. Now, a decade after the author’s death, we have access to almost all of his works in English. There are poems, interviews, essays, and fragments that show in great detail how Bolaño constructed a vast oeuvre of interlinked and often conflicting stories, characters, settings, and morals.
The myth of Bolaño then is that it was supposedly created by book marketers and the media. The myth is that there is only one way for an American (or English-speaking) idea of a “Latin American author” to exist. If an author’s story or works do not neatly fit into that mould, then the reality will be twisted into the desired shape. But that logic creates a counter-myth if the myth itself is easier to comprehend than the reality at stake.
Part of what makes Bolaño so appealing and so confounding is his wide interest in various subjects and themes. His work operates on a hyper-realistic model of everything-all-at-once. A Little Lumpen Novelita is unique in his fictional universe because it is set in Rome (and features a Libyan character), but throughout his many novels and stories he explores the history and literature of dozens of countries, the politics of Europe, Mexico, Central and South America. His books examine religion and Catholicism, the nature of death, drama, academia, games, World War II, the lives of the poets, drinking, sex, the police, oceans, disappearances, murder, sports and film, just to name a few. His literary styles and techniques are equally varied diverse. And yet he manages to return to several key motifs and characters throughout his four decades of writing.
Unlike A Little Lumpen Novelita, which is highly focused on a single plotline, the signature of Bolaño’s two lengthy masterworks is a fast-changing plot with a vast number of characters. Rarely does a page turn without a day elapsing, rarely does a character alight in one place longer than a nervous butterfly, rarely does a single page focus on solely one character. Both 2666 and The Savage Detectives contain hundreds of characters, hundreds of references to real and fictional locations, hundreds of references to real and fictional people—to say that they are encyclopaedic is limiting, since the plot of an encyclopaedia is so thin. And besides, Bolaño wrote a “pure” encyclopedia, modelled after Wilcock’s Temple of Iconoclasts, in Nazi Literature in the Americas. If all of Bolaño’s writing is viewed as a single work, or a Gesamtausgabe, the encyclopedic nature of his ideas and interests is obvious, but in their synchronicity of their engagement with the world, they are aware that actual occurrences outpace the writer’s ability to record them. In A Little Lumpen Novelita, we see Bolaño once again grappling with crimes, quests (to find the safe), cinema (Maciste’s films), dreams, drifters, and courage.
However, not all of Bolaño’s work can be said to encompass the same “theory” since much of it relies on paradoxes and the question of what is literature. At one point in The Savage Detectives, as Belano and Ulises Lima are driving across the desert, looking for Cesarea Tinajero, Juan Garcia Madero sits in the back seat and quizzes the others on literary modes and techniques—the more obscure the terminology the better. It’s easy for the reader to notice Madero’s (and implicitly, Bolaño’s) delight in finding a mechanism for defining a list of dozens terms: epicedes, threnodies, alcaics, and Archilochians. The polyphonic voices in the middle section of The Savage Detectives reveal a deep interest in the nature of storytelling, the diversity of human experience, and yet, for many readers, this section becomes a test of their will to read five hundred pages of continuous first-person narration. Throughout all his works, Bolaño goes to great lengths to provide back stories for each of his characters, no matter how minor. He revels in the writer’s power to conjure up new characters, new lives, new people to explore.
When 2666 won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction, Natasha Wimmer, the translator of 2666 and The Savage Detectives, accepted the award and quoted from Bolaño’s last interview:
He was asked what he thought of when he heard the word posthumous. “Posthumous.” It sounds like the name of a Roman gladiator, an unconfident gladiator ‑ at least that’s what poor Posthumous thinks. It gives him courage.
Even when asked to consider an adjective, Bolaño can’t help himself. He must create a character.
If The Savage Detectives whetted the American appetite for long novels by Bolaño, then 2666 left the reading public sated. The posthumous novel appeared on all the major “Best of” lists, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was generally considered a publishing event of historic proportions. The factors that led to its success included 1) the quick time-to-publication after the success of The Savage Detectives ‑ less than a year separated their publication in the US; 2) the packaging and design of the book (two editions were published simultaneously: a single volume hardcover and a paperback boxed set with the novel divided into three volumes); 3) the literary hype generated by the launch party; 4) the length of the novel, which to many signified that this was indeed Bolaño’s masterwork and 5) the true-crime story, mysterious New Journalism of sorts, that revolved around the dead women of Juarez. The fact that Bolaño was dead and could not comment on his work only added to the mystery.
For a lengthy, translated novel, it was a surprise bestseller. I asked the book’s editor, Lorin Stein, about the sales numbers of 2666:
MB: I’m sure you expected 2666 to be successful, but did its success exceed your expectations?
LS: It did. It outsold The Savage Detectives, which I did not expect. I find it a more difficult book. Emotionally difficult. Weirder. I was afraid it would stand in relation to The Savage Detectives roughly as Gravity’s Rainbow stands to V., or Finnegans Wake to Ulysses. The book for hardcore Bolaño-heads.
The fact that there were “hardcore Bolaño-heads” in 2008 is a testament to both the quality of Bolaño’s work and the marketing savvy applied to The Savage Detectives and 2666. Of course Bolaño’s appeal lies partly in the fact that he writes about writers, books and the literary life. Some of this thematic overlap is self-sustaining, but Bolaño romanticises both his own experiences with the infrarealist movement in The Savage Detectives and the academic world bound to writers in “The Part About the Critics” of 2666.
Some of these reasons should explain why Bolaño ended up in the role of “the most important Latin American writer of his time”, and yet the curious reader should question why ‑ years after Bolaño’s death and years after his last works are translated ‑ other great Latin American writers still rate barely a fraction of the name recognition ‑ Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda for example. How then do we define “literary quality” if the standards are not applied equally? The success of Bolaño’s novels in the English-speaking world seems to prove the maxim that there is a demand for more fiction to be published in translation, that there are masterpieces still unknown to us, and that some monumental writer, now deceased, will pass us by unless readers demand publishers focus on more translated works.
Bolaño often wrote that he considered his home country not Chile or Spain or Mexico but simply the Spanish language. In his acceptance speech for the 1999 Rómulo Gallegos Prize, he tried to answer this question about “literary quality” by saying “it’s true that a writer’s country isn’t his language or isn’t only his language ... There can be many countries, it occurs to me now, but only one passport, and obviously that passport is the quality of the writing. Which doesn’t mean just to write well, because anybody can do that, but to write marvellously well, though not even that, because anybody can do that too. Then what is writing of quality? Well, what it’s always been: to know how to thrust your head into the darkness, know how to leap into the void, and to understand that literature is basically a dangerous calling.”
Matt Bucher is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas. He runs the Bolaño website bolanobolano.com.