July 8, 2013
What’s in the first Bolaño exhibit?
by Sal Robinson
If you’re a hardcore Bolaño fan, and you look at the date today, then you’ve got a reason to cry into your cups: the first major exhibition on the life and work of Roberto Bolaño has just closed in Barcelona. “Bolaño Archive 1977-2003” ran for just four months, hardly enough time to quit your job, sell all your possessions, with the important exception of all eighteen of Bolaño’s books currently available in English, buy a plane ticket, and camp out in front of the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona for your daily viewing.
Luckily, there’s the internet, which has preserved a tantalizing if incomplete record of the exhibit in the form of a trailer from the CCCB, a couple of pages from the exhibit catalog viewable online, and an article by Lisa Locascio in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The first is most useful for a swooping, Hendrix-backed overview of the dark CCCB halls, which look like a futuristic crypt. Here’s the video:
Locascio’s take gives more context: organized by Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, and Valerie Miles, head of the publishing house Duomo Ediciones, “Bolaño Archive 1977-2003” is the very first exhibit to display Bolaño’s papers, which include manuscripts of published and unpublished, photographs, IDs and passports, correspondence, books he owned, and even his copy of the board game Third Reich.
It also attempts to settle some myths: for instance, those about Bolaño’s drug use and whether he’d intended to write novels or simply turned to them to make money. The catalog asserts that:
Contrary to what has been repeatedly claimed about Bolaño the poet versus Bolaño the prose writer, his notebooks show that he had every intention of becoming a novelist [. . .] It’s also obvious that he never used heroin and that his drink of choice was tea.
Other questions, such as whether or not Bolaño was in fact in Chile during the coup that brought Pinochet to power, and whether he was arrested and jailed during the upheaval (discussed in a New York Times article by Larry Rohter a couple of years ago), will probably begin to be settled, if only tentatively, over the next decade or so, as biographies and other formal investigations of Bolaño’s life start to emerge.
But, myths and non-myths aside, the exhibit is clearly a glorious plunge into the real stuff of Bolaño’s working life as a writer. Locascio describes a case containing “the Bolaño’s infrarealist manifesto Déjenlo todo, nuevamente (Give It All Up Again), his first collection of poetry Reinventar el amor (Reinventing Love), and an anthology of infrarealist poetry Pájaro de calor (Bird of Flames),” all of which are incorporated into The Savage Detectives. And computer printouts from Bolaño’s research into Ciudad Juárez prefigure “The Part About the Crimes” section in 2666.
There are also notebooks of different makes, some carefully labeled—“diario de vida, poemas cortos, vol III” and “Prosa Del Otoño En Gerona”; diagrams about the relationships between the characters from 2666; a detailed map of the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, Ciudad Juárez’s fictional counterpart, with all the streets, bridges, and industrial parks marked out; and the after-effects of the writing: reviews, notices of prizes awarded, interviews, newspaper profiles, including one where, in what looks like Bolaño’s hand, someone has added mocking speech bubbles over the photo of himself and another writer.
No doubt this is an effect of not being able to read the Spanish text (though the catalog is bilingual, and the essays by Javier Cercas and Enrique Vila-Matas will rearrange major areas of your brain with their goodness), but I found most haunting of all a couple of photographs of the houses and apartment buildings where Bolaño lived: first, 45 Calle Tallers in Barcelona, then 29 Calle Caputxins in Gerona, then 23 Calle del Lloro in Blanes. The buildings and streets are theatrically lit and there’s no one in the shots—they’re presented not so much as documentary evidence of one man’s housing history, but as sets, prepared for the entrance of their main character.
But above all, they’re pretty ordinary-looking: a small-town road where the asphalt breaks up at the corner, a patchily-painted wall facing an interior courtyard with boxy little balconies. For all that going to the places where authors lived and worked usually seems like a hopelessly bougy and empty activity (though I am speaking as someone who once tried to go to the actual Manhattan apartment building where Dashiell Hammett set The Thin Man and found myself answering some very awkward questions at the reception desk of an 80s-era monster condo building), the photos of Bolaño’s homes remind you that it was a person, after all, who lived in these places, places you could easily imagine yourself into—not a myth or even a stalking Balzacian author figure. And if this person could throw himself as fully into literature as he did, then others can follow him, in mutual faith about the seriousness of the enterprise, the likelihood of failure, and the importance of going on anyway.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.