A Writer Crosses Over

Roberto Bo­laño’s Latest: Trans­lated From the Span­ish — and the Dead

The Washington Post Sunday - - Style - By Bob Thompson

S o here’s what you’re up against if you’re an Amer­i­can pub­lish­ing house like Far­rar, Straus and Giroux try­ing to per­suade read­ers to shell out $27 for the first English trans­la­tion of Roberto Bo­laño’s nearly 600-page novel, “The Sav­age De­tec­tives,” just out this week.

You’ve got to in­tro­duce them to an au­thor of in­de­ter­mi­nate na­tion­al­ity of whom, it is safe to say, 99 per­cent of Amer­i­cans have never heard. The Chilean­born Bo­laño spent most of his adult life in Mex­ico and Spain; he liked to call the Span­ish lan­guage his home­land.

You’ve got to sell the book in a crowded mar­ket no­to­ri­ously re­sis­tant to lit­er­a­ture in trans­la­tion. You’ve got to sell it with­out ben­e­fit of au­thor in­ter­views in news­pa­pers or blogs, on television or NPR, be­cause your au­thor isn’t around to do them: Bo­laño died of liver dis­ease, at 50, in 2003.

Most im­por­tant, you’ve got to ex­plain why the heck read­ers should want to spend large chunks of their scarce leisure time in the com­pany of Bo­laño’s scruffy, com­bat­ive pro­tag­o­nists: two ob­scure po­ets who, in the novel’s key plot junc­ture, leave Mex­ico City for the Sono­ran Desert — pur­sued, as it hap­pens, by an en­raged pimp — on a quest to track down an even more ob­scure poet from a pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion. Bo­laño never por­trays the mar­ginal lives and lit­er­ary pas­sions of the pair di­rectly. They are glimpsed, in­stead, through the ret­ro­spec­tive tes­ti­mony of more than 50 nar­ra­tors who have, how­ever briefly, en­coun­tered them.

Fifty nar­ra­tors! “The Sav­age De­tec­tives” is sim­ply lousy with po­ets and would-be po­ets. They drink too much, sleep with each other and feud over po­etic prin­ci­ples never fully de­fined. What unites them is the con­vic­tion that lit­er­a­ture, taken se­ri­ously, can func­tion as a be­lief sys­tem, a re­li­gion, a way to con­front the glo­ri­ous, doomed in­san­ity of hu­man ex­is­tence.

This is the key to Bo­laño’s ap­peal, says Far­rar, Straus and Giroux pres­i­dent and pub­lisher Jonathan Galassi.

Sure, he con­cedes, a novel peo­pled with pen­ni­less for­eign po­ets might seem off-putting. But “it’s a metaphor, you know, it’s not lit­er­ally a novel about po­ets. It’s about po­etic tem­per­a­ment in the world. It’s ro­man­tic. It’s about young ide­al­ists com­ing up against cor­rup­tion and tragedy.” There’s no doubt in his mind. “It’s a per­fect book for us to pub­lish,” Galassi says.

The tale of how “The Sav­age De­tec­tives” came to be pub­lished in the United States is a story about the dif­fi­cul­ties in­her­ent in lit­er­ary mi­gra­tion be­tween cul­tures. It is about the com­mer­cial food chain in which small pub­lish­ers’ suc­cess­ful ini­tia­tives get fol­lowed up by larger houses. It is about how Latin Amer­i­can writ­ing has evolved be­yond the boom sparked by Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez’s “One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude” four decades ago.

But most of all, it is the story of an ex­tra­or­di­nary writ­ing life. Bo­laño, whose work has been widely cel­e­brated abroad since “Los De­tec­tives Sal­va­jes” was pub­lished in Spain in 1998, re­mains so ob­scure here that Far­rar, Straus felt the need to com­mis­sion the book’s trans­la­tor, Natasha Wimmer, to re­search and write a lengthy bi­o­graph­i­cal es­say to in­tro­duce him.

Wimmer her­self had never heard of the au­thor be­fore Far­rar, Straus asked her to look at the book. “I was com­pletely blown away by it,” she says. “I thought it was the best thing I had read in any lan­guage in years.”

Bo­laño, she learned, was born in San­ti­ago in 1953, the son of a truck-driv­ing, ama­teur-box­ing fa­ther and a mother who taught math and sta­tis­tics in the smaller Chilean towns where they mostly lived. When he was 15, he moved with his fam­ily to Mex­ico City, where he soon, as Wimmer sums it up, “dropped out of school to de­vote him­self to read­ing and writ­ing and ado­les­cent re­bel­lion.”

She be­gins her es­say with a scene in which “a 23year-old with wild hair and avi­a­tor glasses” reads a man­i­festo in a book­store called Li­br­ería Gandhi that “urged his fel­low po­ets to give up ev­ery­thing for lit­er­a­ture, to fol­low the ex­am­ple of Rim­baud and hit the road.” This was Bo­laño in 1976, help­ing launch a move­ment known as “in­frareal­ism,” whose ad­her­ents — in Wimmer’s words — were sup­posed to “aban­don the cof­fee­house and take the part of . . . the lonely, the un­no­ticed and de­spised.”

In “The Sav­age De­tec­tives,” which is heav­ily au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, in­frareal­ism be­comes “vis­ceral re­al­ism” and Roberto Bo­laño be­comes “Ar­turo Be­lano.” In real life, as Wimmer notes, the writer lived by his prin­ci­ples for many years, “drift­ing from one me­nial day job to an­other and writ­ing by night.”

Much of this drift­ing took place in Europe, for which Bo­laño left Mex­ico in 1977. Re­turn­ing to Chile was not an op­tion. He’d gone home four years ear­lier, ar­riv­ing a few months be­fore Gen. Au­gusto Pinochet launched his 1973 coup against so­cial­ist Pres­i­dent Sal­vador Al­lende. Bo­laño had thrown in his lot with pro-Al­lende forces — though his con­tri­bu­tions were mod­est, to put it mildly. He was ar­rested and briefly im­pris­oned, es­cap­ing only through the for­tu­itous in­ter­ven­tion of a cou­ple of for­mer school­mates turned prison guards.

Even­tu­ally set­tling in Barcelona, he worked as, among other things, a long­shore­man, a dish­washer, a garbage­man and (his fa­vorite job) a night watch­man for a camp­ground near the city. Poor, sick and at one time ad­dicted to heroin, he con­tin­ued to write po­etry and scorn the lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment. Fi­nally, mar­riage and the birth of a son (in 1990; a daugh­ter fol­lowed) per­suaded him to start writ­ing prose fiction — a form he had al­ways con­sid­ered in­fe­rior, but one that might ac­tu­ally pro­duce in­come. It did. By the early 1990s he was sup­port­ing his fam­ily by writ­ing sto­ries and novel­las. By the end of the decade, “The Sav­age De­tec­tives” had won the Ró­mulo Gal­le­gos prize, the Span­ish-speak­ing world’s most sig­nif­i­cant lit­er­ary award.

But there was more driv­ing Bo­laño than money. “In 1992,” Wimmer writes, “he had been di­ag­nosed with a fa­tal liver dis­ease, which meant that nearly all his fiction was writ­ten un­der the threat of death.”

De­spite his grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion in con­ti­nen­tal Europe and Latin Amer­ica, the English-speak­ing world was slow to take no­tice.

The Brits got there first. In 2003, Harvill Press pub­lished a trans­la­tion of Bo­laño’s novella “By Night in Chile,” which takes the form of a deathbed con­fes­sion by a priest and lit­er­ary critic in­volved with the Pinochet regime. Mean­while, in New York, Bar­bara Epler — ed­i­tor in chief of New Di­rec­tions, a widely re­spected small press with a long his­tory of pub­lish­ing lit­er­a­ture in trans­la­tion — had been lob­bied by Bo­laño ad­mir­ers such as Gu­atemalan Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Fran­cisco Gold­man.

“You’ve got to look at Bo­laño!” Epler re­mem­bers Gold­man urg­ing. When Epler heard the Harvill trans­la­tion was in the works, she called and asked to see the gal­leys.

“I had never read a book like ‘By Night in Chile,’ ” Epler says. “I was be­side my­self.”

New Di­rec­tions pub­lished the book in De­cem­ber 2003. It sold a mod­est 6,000 copies or so — “that’s good for us,” Epler says — and she fol­lowed up with two more Bo­laño novel­las (“Dis­tant Star” and “Amulet”) and a story col­lec­tion (“Last Evenings on Earth”). She fig­ured New Di­rec­tions would do his longer fiction as well. No such luck. Bo­laño’s es­tate de­cided it wanted a big­ger pub­lisher for “The Sav­age De­tec­tives” and the even more mas­sive novel, “2666,” that Bo­laño com­pleted shortly be­fore his death. En­ter Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, which bought world English rights to both books (for a sum most likely in the very low six fig­ures) then spun off United King­dom rights to Pi­cador. Far­rar, Straus will pub­lish “2666” next year. Epler was dis­ap­pointed but not bit­ter. “What can we say? It’s like — rats!” she says. But Far­rar, Straus “is a good pub­lisher” whose size and cor­po­rate own­er­ship give it “more mus­cle and mar­ket­ing power.” Be­sides, any mar­ket­ing mus­cle ap­plied to “The Sav­age De­tec­tives” will surely boost in­ter­est in Bo­laño’s other work.

New Di­rec­tions has half a dozen more short Bo­laño works com­ing, Epler says, “and I think we’ll even­tu­ally do the po­etry.”

Far­rar, Straus ed­i­tor Lorin Stein has his own story of dis­cov­er­ing Roberto Bo­laño’s work.

Stein — an in­tense, slightly built man of 33 who grew up in Wash­ing­ton — is pre­cisely the kind of lit­er­ary ob­ses­sive most likely to be drawn to a writer like Bo­laño. In high school, at Sid­well Friends, he grav­i­tated im­me­di­ately to the lit­er­ary mag­a­zine. One sum­mer, he and some friends pooled their money and hired a fa­vorite Sid­well teacher to con­duct a spe­cial po­etry class.

Scuf­fling around af­ter col­lege, Stein got a part­time job at Pub­lisher’s Weekly while try­ing to find work with a book pub­lisher. He didn’t know one from the other when he started, but he learned.

One day a PW col­league pulled a book off a shelf and of­fered it to him to take home and re­view over the week­end. Far­rar, Straus is pub­lish­ing it, she told him, “so it prob­a­bly won’t be a waste of your time.”

“I’ve told my boss this so many times,” Stein says, laugh­ing, “when there was a book I didn’t think we should pub­lish.”

He landed his first Far­rar, Straus po­si­tion in 1998 — he started as Galassi’s as­sis­tant — and worked his way into an edit­ing job. He also made a Span­ish friend who’d known and loved Bo­laño, and in 2004, the year af­ter Bo­laño’s death, Stein went to Barcelona to visit her.

“We were in a book­store,” he re­calls, “and she said, ‘Look, here’s an English trans­la­tion of ‘By Night in Chile,’ you have to read this.’ ”

He took her ad­vice, in­hal­ing the book on the first leg of his flight home, and found him­self think­ing: “If this ex­ists and I didn’t know about it, then we should be do­ing a lot more for­eign fiction.”

Galassi, mean­while, first heard about Bo­laño from the late Susan Son­tag, who served as a kind of early warn­ing sys­tem for su­pe­rior lit­er­a­ture from over­seas. He read “The Sav­age De­tec­tives” in an Ital­ian trans­la­tion and im­me­di­ately wanted to pub­lish it.

Who did he see as its au­di­ence? The same peo­ple who read Faulkner, he says, or Gar­cía Márquez — though Bo­laño rep­re­sents some­thing quite dif­fer­ent from the great Colom­bian mag­i­cal re­al­ist.

“This is what’s go­ing on in Latin Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture in the post-boom years,” Galassi says. “This is a whole new kind of thing. It’s in­flu­enced by sur­re­al­ism, but it’s not in­hu­mane. It’s very ac­ces­si­ble, but it’s not quite re­al­is­tic. It’s tragic, but it’s sexy. It’s panoramic.”

It’s also re­plete with slang from, at min­i­mum, five coun­tries — Mex­ico, Chile, Peru, Ar­gentina and Spain — which made it no joke to trans­late. Wimmer says it took her close to a year.

“The ob­vi­ous chal­lenge is that there are so many voices,” she says. She’d plug id­iomatic phrases she didn’t know into the In­ter­net (“it’s re­ally good for find­ing how words are used in con­text”). She also wres­tled with the rhythm of Bo­laño’s sen­tences. Should she break them up, be­cause run-on sen­tences are far more com­mon in Span­ish than English, or should she de­clare them a stylis­tic choice not to be messed with? (Short an­swer: some of each.)

Wimmer and Stein had their share of fights, Stein says, as trans­la­tors and edi­tors will. But th­ese were out­weighed by their shared pas­sion for the book. What ex­actly makes him love it, Stein is asked? He has some trou­ble an­swer­ing, but he works at it.

For one thing, Bo­laño’s por­trait of po­etry-ob­sessed Mex­i­can youth “made me nos­tal­gic,” he says, “be­cause that’s the way we were — I mean, that’s the way any artsy kid is.” He shares with Bo­laño’s char­ac­ters what he calls “a ba­sic fruit­ful mis­un­der­stand­ing,” which is “that po­etry and books mat­ter.” Bo­laño treats lit­er­a­ture as if it’s “a church that no one quite be­lieves in any­more — but that no one can live with­out.” But there’s more. Bo­laño’s novel fol­lows its two main char­ac­ters into a fu­ture where ev­ery po­etic prin­ci­ple they cared about is lost or forgotten — but it doesn’t have to be about po­etry. “Ev­ery­thing dis­ap­pears,” Stein says, “and your own youth dis­ap­pears, and th­ese guys — they never get it back. You know? You watch them just trail off into the dis­tance.”

It sounds des­per­ately bleak. But some­how, “The Sav­age De­tec­tives” makes it ex­hil­a­rat­ing.

“I told Natasha af­ter­wards that I felt more alive read­ing it than I felt when I went out and lived my life,” Stein says. “And she said, ‘I’m so glad to hear you say that. I felt the same way.’ ”

So how do you sell some­one as strange, orig­i­nal and in­dis­putably non-Amer­i­can as Roberto Bo­laño in a U.S. mar­ket sur­rounded, as Son­tag once wrote, by a “wall of in­dif­fer­ence to for­eign lit­er­a­ture” — a mar­ket in which, as Epler cal­cu­lated a few years back, less than .5 per­cent of the books pub­lished are fiction in trans­la­tion?

That’s what Far­rar, Straus pub­lic­ity and mar­ket­ing chief Jeff Seroy is paid to think about. But Seroy laughs at the no­tion that he can wave a mag­i­cal mar­ket­ing wand and send “The Sav­age De­tec­tives” fly­ing off book­store shelves.

“I mean, we’re not pulling rabbits out of hats,” he says.

Mem­bers of the Far­rar, Straus team have tried to high­light the book’s sig­nif­i­cance in var­i­ous small ways. There was the two-page spread in the cat­a­logue, for ex­am­ple, and the roughly 3,000 ad­vance reader’s copies sent to re­view­ers and book­sell­ers. “That’s not typ­i­cal for us to do with books in trans­la­tion,” Seroy says, “so that sent a sig­nal.”

They worked hard on the type-driven cover, with its ragged, graphic ti­tle and jum­ble of ex­cited quotes on the back. And they took an un­usual approach to the front flap copy.

“Or­di­nar­ily one goes into a lengthy de­scrip­tion of the book,” Seroy says, but in this case, he and Stein de­cided less would be more. “We re­ally just needed to say: This is a daz­zling work which es­tab­lished the in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion of an im­por­tant world writer. The plot sum­mary is half a sen­tence.”

There was Wimmer’s es­say, sent to se­lected re­view­ers and jour­nal­ists and posted on a Web site built for “The Sav­age De­tec­tives.” And there was the fact that the Web site refers read­ers to the New Di­rec­tions Bo­laños — an un­usual cross-pol­li­na­tion that says: The writer is what’s im­por­tant here.

But in the end, Seroy says, their strat­egy was sim­ple: They needed to con­vey “the right kind of ex­cite­ment to the right peo­ple.” By this he means let­ting those in “the lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment and the re­view es­tab­lish­ment” know that he, Galassi and Stein truly be­lieved, in­sti­tu­tion­ally and per­son­ally, that they were deal­ing with a great and im­por­tant book. Will it work? Maybe. There’s al­ready been con­sid­er­able pre-pub­li­ca­tion press, both in smaller lit­er­ary publi­ca­tions and in main­stream mag­a­zines such as Harper’s and the New Yorker, where Daniel Zalewski wrote that the orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion of “The Sav­age De­tec­tives” in 1998 “aroused the same level of ex­cite­ment in Latin Amer­ica that ‘One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude’ had, three decades ear­lier.”

Bo­laño’s tra­jec­tory could mir­ror that of W.G. Se­bald, whose first books, writ­ten in Ger­man and un­known here, were also pub­lished by New Di­rec­tions — to wide praise — be­gin­ning in 1998. Se­bald then jumped to Ran­dom House, which made a mod­est splash with his novel “Auster­litz” — tak­ing great care, as Epler notes, not to high­light the fact that it was a trans­la­tion.

Yet even the most ec­static press doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily sell books. No one at Far­rar, Straus is ready to make profit pro­jec­tions on “The Sav­age De­tec­tives.”

“I’m not look­ing at a P&L at this point,” Seroy says. But even if the book ends up los­ing money, “it won’t put us out of busi­ness.”

Then he sums up the pub­lish­ing phi­los­o­phy, not uni­ver­sally shared, that made his col­leagues go af­ter Roberto Bo­laño in the first place:

“We’ll still al­ways be happy that we pub­lished the book. And what more could you ask?”



Many be­lieve in the vi­sion and work of the late Roberto Bo­laño. Above, Far­rar, Straus and Giroux ed­i­tor Lorin Stein and trans­la­tor Natasha Wimmer. Be­low, far left, Far­rar, Straus pub­lisher Jonathan Galassi; far right, ed­i­tor in chief of New Di­rec­tions Bar­bara Epler. Be­low cen­ter, Bo­laño, left, with Span­ish writer Al­berto Ol­mos in 1998.



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