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from the October 2006 issue

Borges, Bolaño and the Return of the Epic

During their lifetimes, Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolaño struggled against vanity and all things pretentious, aspirational, ordinary, and obliging. They are peculiar cases in literature, ones that the literary machine itself seems to reject. They were not bestsellers. During a substantial part of their lives, they existed either under the shadow of public rejection, or in the clandestinity of aesthetic infringement. The relationship they sustained with "their time" and the writers of their time was complex and peppered with barbs. Certainly, what they understood as literature had little to do with the desire to appease any aesthetics (social, moral, political, philosophical) other than their own. Their relationship with literature was almost sacred. They believed in little else and were consecrated to her alone, as if literature were (perhaps because it is) a matter of life and death.

As with Flaubert or Kafka, literature for them was not a path to respectability, recognition or personal fulfillment; nor a difficult and perverse means of scaling the social or economic ladder; but rather a martyrdom or a pilgrimage, or a martyred pilgrimage towards complete annulment: the literary nirvana. "The man is nothing, the work is everything!" Flaubert postulated in an exalted letter to his friend, the novelist George Sand. By comparison, in a speech given in Barcelona a year before his death, Bolaño declared, "Literature is an armored machine. It doesn't care about writers. Sometimes it doesn't even realize that they're alive." Borges maintained this notion in numerous essays, from "Everything and Nothing" to "From Someone to No One," "The Nothingness of Personality," and "The Argentine writer and Tradition," in which he speaks of artistic creation as a "voluntary dream" to which one must abandon one's self.

Beyond sharing an almost religious devotion to literature, however, it is difficult to reconcile the work of Borges with that of Bolaño. When Spanish critic Ignacio Echevarría wrote that Bolaño's was "the kind of novel Borges would have agreed to write," he paid a compliment to the Chilean writer, but what do the erudite games of Borges' very short stories have in common with the sagas of fortune and misfortune that are Bolaño's voluminous novels? Borges is simply not the precursor who naturally comes to mind when we read Bolaño.


Borges is a curious case within the vastness of twentieth-century Latin American literature. Among the works of such writers as Carpentier, Lezama Lima, Asturias, Rulfo, Cortázar, Fuentes, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and others, Borges' work stands alone: he never wrote a novel. His longest story, "The Congress," totals fourteen pages. His work erases the biographical, the psychological, and the local. As a result, his stories acquire a philosophical nuance that transforms them into mystic meditations, essays, or allegories that question the nature of reality. (The number of authors who have been willing to use their talents to destroy or correct the structures of world history as we know it is small; Kafka and Joyce would begin such a short list.) Furthermore, Borges dismissed the realist and psychological novel and defended adventure stories. This rejection can be read as a clever break with Borges' own immediate traditions, the Argentine and Latin American literature of the first half of the twentieth century, and all the "isms" of the 20s, 30s, and 40s. For him, the writer--whether poet or novelist--was a maker, a rápsoda, a teller of stories, and the epic was the highest form of art.


Once Bolaño had established himself as a writer, he didn't miss many opportunities to declare himself a disciple of Borges, "Like all men, like all living things," he wrote in the Diari de Girona. In "Borges y los cuervos" ("Borges and the Crows") he wrote about his lugubrious visit to the cemetery in Geneva where Borges was buried. In "El bibliotecario valiente" ("The Valiant Librarian"), he lauds the merits of his precursor: "clear writing, a reading of Whitman (...) a dialogue and monologue before history, an honest approach to English verse. And he gives us classes in literature that no one listens to. And lessons in humor that everyone thinks they comprehend yet no one understands."

"Borges and Paracelsus," "Borges and the Crows," and "The Valiant Librarian" are the only three articles that Bolaño explicitly dedicated to the emblematic figure of Borges, but the mention of his name is a common denominator in his collaborations with various publications throughout Spain and Latin America--now collected under the title Entre paréntesis (In Parentheses)-in which the vast debt felt by Bolaño, like many other Latin American writers of his generation, towards Borges is revealed.

In The Book that Survives, "an exercise in memory that isn't," Bolaño nostalgically recalls the Madrid afternoon in 1977 when he first acquired the Collected Poetry of Jorge Luis Borges, which he devoured in one night. There he discovered "intelligence as well as courage and desperation, that is to say, the only things that incite reflection and keep poetry alive." The Poetic Works was the first book purchased by Bolaño in Europe (during his stay in Mexico, he did not buy books, he stole them). In "Derivas de la Pesada" ("Weighty Digressions") Bolaño placed The Collected Poetry of Jorge Luis Borges on the axis of the literary canon in Argentina (a position he shares with Macedonio Fernández, Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar, Roberto Arlt). For Bolaño, Argentine literature lost its balance following the death of the blind poet. It burst out of the serene waters of a pleasant dream into the turbulent chaos of nightmares.

Positioning Borges at the center of the Argentinean literary canon is, for Bolaño, a modest way of placing him at the center of a personal canon.


The Spanish novelist and critic Eduardo Lago notes in a revealing essay about Bolaño's complete works that "his debt to Borges is incalculable, but it is difficult to imagine anything further from the piecemeal intellectual fictions of the Argentinean" than Bolaño's peripatetic plotlines.

Borges cultivated a summary prose that was the expression of succinct, precise thought: an almost mathematical equation. The eradication of the psychological "I" is in an atemporal space and would postulate itself as eternal, if not for certain variations. These variations, Borges murmurs in "Man on the Pink Corner," are also forms of eternity. One of them is personality. Every man is Shakespeare and Shakespeare is Everyman. Personality is a myth or mental mirage assailed by Borges. The eradication of the ego is, of course, a literary trick that in the end becomes one of the characteristics of Borgesian works. His "story-essays" possess a devastating brevity. His writing suppresses, or hopes to suppress, any biographical impressions, for the sake of literary nirvana.

Bolaño's novels advanced from the brevity of his first incursions in narrative to the mastodon proportions of his posthumous novel, 2666, which totals over a thousand pages. His prose takes place in the Here and Now. It is soaked in immediacy, the totalizing present. In it are found endless characters who are librarians and poets but also murderers and pimps, insane, desperate, resentful. His awkward mode of narration gives the impression of being impulsive, like his characters, but eventually it is revealed that a single motor is moving apparently disparate parts. Dating back to his first novel, co-written with Antonio Porta and published in 1984, Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce (A Morrison disciple's advice for Joyce fans), a puerile inclination was manifest: his rebellious nature, nonconformist, unwilling "to ever settle down," as he himself put it. Bolaño wrote with his guts, Borges with his head.

Why, then, choose Borges as The Precursor? Why not Onetti, Cortázar, Puig, Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, or any of those writers forced to come together under the elastic umbrella of the Boom? The writers whom Bolaño read with admiration, affection, curiosity, and sometimes hatred? He gives us the answer in an interview:

The territory marking my generation is one of rupture. It is a highly rupturist generation, a generation that wants to leave behind not only the boom but what the boom has generated, which is a generation of very commercial writers. It is the territory of parricide on one hand. And on the other, it is the territory of the Borgesian. One must investigate every fringe, every path that Borges has left behind.

For Bolaño, the writing of his predecessors was somewhat profane, its most obvious expression being its unprecedented commercial success. Like Kafka, Bolaño understood literature as an intense mode of Prayer. At times even a hypnotizing cadence can be heard in his prose, as if it were a litany sung while exposed to the elements.

His aesthetic values do not include "writing well." What he wanted to reveal with his narrative surpassed the limits of elegance or good taste. He sought to unmask the atrocities committed in the name of "elegance" and "good taste." In his universe, these were pseudonyms of Civilization and Power. His characters were marginalized, desperate beings who, in the end, lost their style. Elegance, perfection, and correctness mattered little to him; what he found transcendent was the plot, the destiny of his characters. This "lack of style" is another form of rupture distancing him from his immediate precursors--the crystalline, correct prose of García Márquez or the hyperrealism of Vargas Llosa--and from his more distant ones, such as Flaubert, for whom the acoustics of prose was consubstantial to its efficiency, its beauty.

On this note, in "The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader," Borges attacked the "vanity of style" and aspiration to "perfection," taking up as his banner the unkempt prose of Cervantes:

Changes in language erase lateral meanings and shades of meaning; the "perfect" page is one consisting of these delicate values that can be worn down with greater ease. Conversely, any page that has an immortal vocation can endure the fire of errata, of approximate versions, of distracted reading, of incomprehension, without leaving its soul behind in the proofs.

What lasts, Borges argues, cannot be found in style, in form, but rather in a deeper space: the space of mystery, the inexplicable, all that language doesn't manage to say. Human experience, time.


Like Borges--whose stature as a poet within the Latin American literary tradition Roberto Bolaño, on several occasions, attempted to vindicate--Bolaño began his career as a poet, but, to be precise, as a poet maudit. He founded an ephemeral school called "infrarealism" that was both ephemeral and dispersed. Bolaño's new start as a narrator did not make him lose his passion for poetry, which he knew well and followed closely. He once declared that the best poetry of the twentieth century had been written in prose, citing Joyce as an example.

The figure of the poet is a central, almost mythical figure in his novels. In them are encoded lucidity and bravery. In his article "La mejor banda" ("The best gang"), he writes these lines to justify the plots of one of his one of his major novels, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives):

If I had to rob the most secure bank in Europe and could freely select my partners in crime, I would definitely choose a group of five poets. Five true poets, Apollinean or Dionysiac, it's all the same, but real ones, that is to say, with a poet's destiny and life. There is no one in the world more valiant. There is no one in the world who can face disaster with greater dignity and lucidity... like astronauts lost on planets with no possible escape; or in an exile without readers or editors, only verbal constructions or idiot songs sung not by men, but by ghosts. In the writers' guild they are the most prized and least coveted of jewels. When a crazed youth decides to become a poet at age sixteen or seventeen, it's a surefire family disaster.

In this paragraph is encoded the plotline of Detectives, a novel in which a group of young poets set out in search of Cesárea Tinajero, a mysterious avant-garde Mexican poet who disappeared from the literary scene in the early twentieth century. During their quest, some go mad, others prostitute themselves, others die; but all fervently read or write or admire or detest poetry.

In Bolañesque mythology, poets are beings who have nothing to lose. Only from that detachment can true literature be born. Warning: when he talks of poets, Bolaño isn't thinking of the respected Pablo Neruda or the dreaded Octavio Paz, he's thinking Borges, Roque Dalton, Gabriela Mistral, Enrique Lihn, Rodrigo Lira, and above all, Nicanor Parra, who was according to him the poet by antonomasia. Yet for all his love of poetry, Bolaño never forgets to tell a story in his novels. In this sense, he shares with Borges a classic vision of the novelist as maker, as storyteller.

In one of six famous talks Borges gave at Harvard University in 1967, Borges spoke of the novel's future and said:

There is something about a tale, a story, that will be always going on. I do not believe men will ever tire of telling or hearing stories. And if along with the pleasure of being told a story we get the additional pleasure of the dignity of verse, then something great will have happened. Maybe I am an old-fashioned man from the nineteenth century, but I have optimism, I have hope; and as the future holds many things-as the future, perhaps, holds all things-I think the epic will come back to us. I believe that the poet shall once again be a maker. I mean, he will tell a story and he will also sing it. And we will not think of those two things as different, even as we do not think they are different in Homer or in Virgil.

Borges felt anachronistic in all his optimism that autumn in '67, and so Bolaño would have felt during the decade of the 90's, writing epics while many of his contemporaries set sail on the ship of postmodernity with their erudite and avant-garde games. Bolaño didn't fully subscribe to either of these two affiliations, but he made use of his resources in order to return to themes as old as exile, war, and the struggle between good and evil. In his most ambitious novels (The Wild Detectives, 2666) he sang the adventures of Latin America, not because he considered tragedy a resource exclusive to that continent, but as a means of exploring the world, human fortune and misfortune.

Next to Borges, Bolaño's prose reminds us that literature, when it isn't aspirational, when it isn't servile, unleashes another literature, in which the values of profane, a-literary reality do not function (that is to say, in those exceptional cases when it isn't made to serve a social, economic, political, ideological or personal system ((public or secret)) ). What are we to make of despising worldly success for a parcel of literary nirvana that doesn't sell? It is a suicide-mission that few writers, poets, or novelists are willing to join. Yet these are the cases that renovate literature, opening up new paradigms. Theirs are not examples to follow, but to be read.

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