Chilean author shines on English literary horizon - after death

January 16th, 2009 - 12:40 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Jan 16 (IANS) For an author who died five years ago without any recognition in the English-reading world, Chilean Roberto Bolaño is the unlikely new superstar on the global literary scene as the translation of his last magnum opus has left critics searching for superlatives.The 900-page, five-part, inexplicably titled “2666″, originally in Spanish, was published in English in the US in November and instantly recognised as a contemporary classic - the New York Times hailed it as “a landmark in what’s possible for the novel”.

The book is out in Britain this week and reviewers are ecstatic. The Times and the Guardian had already named it among the most eagerly awaited books for 2009.

The Observer reviewer said ” ‘2666′ is a novel of stupefying ambition” and the Times said: “This awe-inspiring three-ring extravaganza of a novel is sure to raise a reader’s spirits as much as any Mexican circus.” The Times Literary Supplement’s verdict: “Exceptionally exciting literary labyrinth.”

The epic novel is set in a fictional city on the US-Mexico border where hundreds of young women factory workers have mysteriously disappeared. However, a real-life crime from the early 1990s provides merely an excuse for the author, a left-leaning Chilean who grew up in Mexico and spent a decade in Spain, to tell a tale of literature itself.

Bolaño’s nomadic life and tragic death at the age of 50 have suddenly become a matter of myths and legends. For example, that in the face of the certain death, he wanted to make a last big statement on literature and the result is “2666″ (blogs are debating how to pronounce it).

Most of his works - he primarily saw himself as poet but wrote a number of short stories and 10 novels in his last decade to make a living - were not available in English when he died of liver disease.

However, the translations since then have steadily seen the tribe of his fans growing.

He achieved worldwide reputation with the autobiographical, funny and rambling “The Savage Detectives” (1998/2007, translated by Natasha Wimmer). But it was “2666″ that the fans were awaiting. And the US release in November led to what the Economist described as “Bolaño mania”.

“Outside a bar in Manhattan’s East Village, a queue snakes around the corner. The crowds have come to discuss and get their hands on an early copy of a 900-page tome written by a Chilean author who has been dead for five years. Roberto Bolaño’s ‘2666′… has just hit the bookshops, and the excitement is both overwhelming and anomalous,” it noted.

Naming “2666″ as the best book of 2008, Time magazine critic Lev Grossman wrote: “It is also a masterpiece, the electrifying literary event of the year.

“Bolaño is often compared to Jorge Luis Borges, but Borges would never have written ‘2666′. He would have written a short story, an exquisite miniature about a crazy graphomane who talks about writing 2666 and then called it a day.

“But the relentless gratuitousness of 2666 has its own logic and its own power, which builds into something overwhelming that hits you all the harder because you don’t see it coming. This is a dangerous book, and you can get lost in it. How can art, Bolaño is asking, a medium of form and meaning, reflect a world that is blessed with neither? That is in fact a cesspool of chance and filth?”

The New York Times ranked it among the top 10 for the year. “Bolaño… has posthumously risen, like a figure in one of his own splendid creations, to the summit of modern fiction. This latest work, first published in Spanish in 2004, is a mega- and meta-detective novel with strong hints of apocalyptic foreboding,” it said.

The book blog of the venerable New Yorker has, in fact, announced January as “National Reading ‘2666′ Month”.

(Ashish Mehta can be contacted at

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