A Writer Crosses Over
Roberto Bolaño’s Latest: Translated From the Spanish — and the Dead
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.