March 22, 2012

Melville House Recycling: What Bolaño Read

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This is the tenth installment in the two-week series “What Bolaño Read” by former Shaman Drum Bookstore manager Tom McCartan. The series celebrates the publication of Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview & Other Conversations, which is just out from Melville House. Click here to read all posts in the series.

"Life itself is a quotation."

The work of Jorge Luis Borges made an indelible mark on Bolaño. When speaking of the books that marked his life, Bolaño referred simply to “the complete works of Borges.”

In an interview with Eliseo Ãlvarez published in 2005 in the Spanish literary journal Turia Bolaño describes the Borgian influence: “Borges illuminates a ton of writers and painters. For example, Xul Solar, who, if it weren’t for Borges, would probably only be known in Argentina. Perhaps Solar‘s paintings deserve only to be known in Argentina, but by being touched by Borges, through the Borgian experience, they become paintings that transcend the limits of Argentina.”

In an essay in Entre paréntesis, Bolaño further expands on the influence of Borges by saying “While Borges was alive, Argentine literature became what most people now know of it.” He goes on to enumerate a list of Argentine authors like Roberto Arlt, Ernesto Sábato, and Julio Cortázar who were “illuminated” by personal contact with Borges. Bolaño seems to have be enamored with the entire literary scene surrounding Borges: people like Macedonio Fernández (Borges’ mentor) and Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose book The Invention of Morel Bolaño describes as “the first and best fantastic novel in Latin America.” According to Bolaño,”When Borges died, everything stopped. It was as if Merlin had died, even if the literary salons of Buenos Aires weren’t exactly Camelot…Apollonian intelligence gave way to Dionysian despair.”

In a wonderful essay entitled “Windows into the Night,” published in The Nation in 2008, Marcela Valdes notes “that it was Borges who moved Bolaño from Dionysus’ to Apollo’s side. In “The Book That Survives,” Bolaño recalls that the first book he bought after he moved from Mexico City to Europe at 24 was the complete poems of Jorge Luis Borges. Almost thirty years later, he still remembered the ‘completely irrational’ joy he felt at holding the volume in his hands. ‘I bought it in Madrid in 1977,’ he writes, ‘and, though Borges’s poetry wasn’t unknown to me, that same night I read it until eight in the morning, as if the reading of those verses were the only reading possible for me, the only reading that could effectively distance me from a life that was, until then, immoderate.’”

Bolaño’s admiration of Borges cannot be overstated, not even by Bolaño himself. In a 1999 interview with the Chilean magazine Capital he notes that “Borges said practically everything.” In fact, when asked in in the same interview to describe his dedication to the Book, Bolaño echoes the famous Borges quote “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” by saying “In one way or another, we’re all anchored to the book. A library is a metaphor for human beings or what’s best about human beings…a library is total generosity.”

In an another essay, Bolaño further simplifies by saying Borges was “Probably the greatest Latin American writer ever.”

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