roberto bolano

On Avenida Juárez, across from the Alameda in Mexico City, sits an unassuming little bookstore, three steps below street level. It was here at the Librería del Sótano where Roberto Bolaño would buy novels or poetry books or, when he was short on cash (which was often), just pocket them. For centuries Latin American literature belonged not to those passionate, young biblioklepts like Bolaño but to affluent property owners who dabbled in writing the way they might take up equestrianism or falconry. Some time in the 1960s the roles reversed and the middle class became the seedbed of national literature. Bookstores, libraries, and the literary life prevailed in the cultural scene of Mexico City and Buenos Aires just as much as they did in Paris, New York, or London. This bibliophilia, this bibliomania, this passion for the literary life binds the world together in a global industry that sadly still remains separated by language barriers and a lack of curiosity.

Serious readers are omnivorous. They want to read everything great. The best translated fiction, emerging writers, overlooked classics, small-press finds, public intellectuals of the moment, mind-bending poetry—it all goes down the hatch. The problem, of course, is that no one can read everything. Selecting which books to read requires discernment, a degree of happenstance, and an iterative process that ideally sharpens the discernment itself with each volume digested.

The establishment of Roberto Bolaño as a new worldwide baseline in Latino and Spanish literature caused considerable rearrangement of what possibilities existed for Spanish literature published in translation. Who else has his courage? His crackling good humor? His obstinate willingness to stand alone? Geographically Bolaño is an interesting but not atypical case in that he was raised in Chile, spent formative years in Mexico, but wrote most of his fiction (including his masterpieces) in Spain. The fact that his two massive novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, were set mostly in Mexico and written in Spanish masks the fact that Bolaño achieved his greatest publishing successes in Europe, not Latin America. He famously referred to the Spanish language itself as his homeland (he also called his children his homeland, which sounds even more poetic). The intertwined concerns of languages and nations are the pillars of globalization that have opened new worlds for readers. In the age of Google Translate, everything is world literature. Yet, Bolaño is now undoubtedly the marker for the dividing line between the Latin American Boom writers of Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, etc. and whatever comes next in Latin American literature. In fact, almost as soon as the Boom itself was recognized, it was rejected by many writers and movements—and those who pointed out that other steadfast literary traditions existed in Latin America long before magical realism came along. The McOndo writers, for one, rejected the focus on magical realism, concentrated more on straight realism, and found much of the political posturing that defined Latin American fiction to be obsolete or pointless. Manuel Puig resisted much of the post-Boom literary trajectory as he defied categorization as stringently as possible and achieved new artistic heights in the process. David Foster Wallace often cited Puig’s influence, especially when it came to writing dialogue. (Puig wielded “…” long before Wallace.)

In fact, Bolaño’s posthumous worldwide coronation baffled many of his contemporaries who saw him as part of a continuum that included them rather than an anomalous lighthouse. Now that the king is dead, they are free to routinely resent or openly question his place in the canon. To some, even mentioning Bolaño in the context of contemporary Latin American literature is a sad but irresistible cliche reserved for Westerners who simply don’t get it.

However, several recent books point up Bolaño’s lasting role in the literature: Beyond Bolaño: The Global Latin American Novel by Héctor Hoyos; The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel: Bolaño and After, edited by Will H. Corral, Juan E. De Castro, and Nicholas Birns; and to some degree, Chris Andrews’ Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe. All three of these see Bolaño as the writer bisecting the chronology of contemporary Latin American literature. Yet there is little question that Bolaño’s shadow recedes a bit with each passing year and each new Latin American writer who emerges on the world’s stage.

Granted that the needs and interests of academics often diverge from those of casual or even serious readers, those curious souls whom William T. Vollmann refers to as “travelers in other directions” can surely find value in perusing the lists of names included in each of these academic volumes and then reading ferociously in response. (Ilan Stavans’ canon-making Norton Anthology of Latino Literature aims at an entirely different target. Its “contemporary” second half does not include popular writers such as César Aira or Horacio Castellanos Moya but focuses more on including a wide diversity of voices and broadening the scope of what we traditionally consider “literature” to mean.) Each of these academic volumes shows that there are vast undiscovered territories for American audiences to eventually traverse, and each implies that this is what serious readers of Latino literature should be reading. But all of them also reveal this stark fact: there is no “next Bolaño” yet. Not in terms of global readership or consensus, at least. There are diverse literary movements constantly emerging in every Latin American country and of course many of these are extremely interesting. The longing for the new, the next avant garde, has defined literature for over a century now, but with the influx of translated works and the rise of online publishing, there is an even greater volume of material to sift.

Three Percent at the University of Rochester has catalogued 358 translated “literary” books of fiction and poetry published so far this year. Fifty of those books are translated from the Spanish, mostly from publishers in Spain, Mexico, and Argentina. This isn’t a huge number, but an average year sees 65 to 70 literary works translated from the Spanish and published in the U.S.—more than enough for one person to read in a single year, but hardly enough to support an entire industry. Which of those are important for historical reasons, which are potboilers, which are badly translated, which are diamonds of dazzling literary quality—all of this is for reviewers and critics and readers to sort out.

Because there are comparatively so few works of Latino literature (and here I am excluding most nonfiction books, young adult fiction, genre fiction, etc.) published in the United States in translation each year, the pressure for reviewers and critics to overly praise each one as a worthy achievement (in hopes that a success will yield more translated titles) is a side effect of a bigger problem within literary criticism itself. Literature that is chockfull of unfamiliar names and themes, politically and socially, doesn’t often register as valuable with critics and reviewers. The qualities of what is familiar often lead us back into a self-centered spiral of reading based on marketing keywords: Pynchonesque, Bolaño-like, sprawling, encyclopedic, masterpiece, etc. Books that don’t fit into these categories are usually forgotten.

The question always arises: why hasn’t Mario Bellatin or Jorge Volpi or Fernando Vallejo or Ricardo Piglia or Enrique Vila-Matas or Daniel Sada (whom Bolaño called “the most difficult, a radical writer if there ever was one”) or Rodrigo Fresan or Juan Villoro (“his stories are some of the best written in Spanish today” —Bolaño) or Sergio Pitol or X, Y, or Z attained the same status in U.S. publishing circles (and the American reading public) as Bolaño? And inevitably the answers are convoluted and usually involve the ignorance or lack of cultivation and discernment among American readers, or the sad state of the publishing industry, but the Occam’s Razor truth is often that those writers, whoever they may be, are simply not as good. And that’s okay. Many of these books still need a champion. The truly inventive ones, such as Luis Martin-Santos’ Time of Silence or Mempo Giardinelli’s Sultry Moon, still need a prominent advocate to stand up and say repeatedly, in more than one review: “This is a truly important book.” Which is what happened with the Boom writers and Bolaño.

In her fantastic study of the contemporary novel Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, Rebecca Walkowitz argues that certain contemporary novels enter the global stage primed for translation and, often, worldwide reception. Their eventual translation is simply “a condition of their production.” She cites J.M. Coetzee’s Childhood, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives as examples of novels that were simultaneously successful in multiple languages. Yet, for American readers of literature originally published in Spanish, there remains a wide gulf between what is even accessible and what enters the market “born translated.”

One way for serious American readers of Latin American literature to stay ahead of this somewhat limiting curve is to read like an acquiring editor: follow the major international literary prizes, look for catalogs and reviews, find a set of critics you trust, follow translators’ careers, search Google/Wikipedia/Amazon for names you don’t recognize, ask native speakers for recommendations, take chances.

The poet Gabriela Mistral was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945, the first Latin American recipient (and so far the only female Latin American to receive the prize), but is not widely read in the United States or Europe. Many of the names put forward as the Next Bolaño have not aged well, either. (Bolaño pointed out that dance notator Raoul Auger Feuillet was likely the most widely read French writer of his time. Being the most widely read and the bravest — or the most highly regarded — are two different things.) But prizes do often have the effect of coalescing some degree of consensus about quality. Publishers certainly pay attention to major prizes. In the Spanish-speaking world there are dozens of different prizes, but there are several prominent awards and prizes that are worth following, starting with the Romulos Gallegos Prize, which is awarded every other year to a Spanish-language novel. At 100,000 euros, it’s a big deal. The Premio Herralde in Spain has also served as a point-of-reference for some of the best novels written in Spanish. Prizes like the Cervantes Prize and Mexico’s Alfonso Reyes Prize award writers for lifetime achievement, similar to the Nobel. Looking at the list of these winners, though some of the names are familiar, one has to ask, why don’t English speakers have access to them all? Why can’t we at least read the major prize-winners in translation and judge for ourselves whether or not they are truly great? Is the market truly that small? Why? It still boggles the mind that prize-winning writers like Juan Francisco Ferré, Arturo Uslar Pietri, William Ospina, and Pablo Montoya have a combined zero books translated into English (and many other prominent writers have only one title in English). So far, only 16 of Cesar Aira’s 71 books have made their way into English.

In the U.S., the National Book Awards abandoned their brief stint at recognizing translated books and the only true prize for Best Translated Book in the U.S. is Three Percent’s Best Translated Book Award, which was founded in 2008. It’s worth noting that no book translated from Spanish has yet won the BTBA fiction prize, and only this year did a Spanish book win the poetry prize (Diorama by Rocío Cerón, who does not yet have a Wikipedia page). The PEN American Center does offer a translation prize and there is the UK’s Premio Valle-Inclan for Spanish translation, both of which are considered prestigious among translators, yet how many serious readers would recognize the titles of these translated books, much less the translators’ names? Do the American prizes ultimately lend any credibility at all?

Latin American literature in English depends on multitudes of vibrant and efficient translators. Since publishers often hire translators to work on similar projects, tracking and recognizing translators is another way to see which new writers are emerging in the field. If readers do pay attention to prizes and do track the careers of certain translators, it’s possible to discover books that pop up in multiple contexts. For example, Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death (due out in February), which won the Premio Herralde, is translated by Natasha Wimmer. Wimmer and Chris Andrews have benefited from Bolaño’s rise to fame and their careers will be tracked by editors and publishers for many years, but legendary Spanish translators such as Edith Grossman (John Updike called her “versatile” and “tireless”) and Gregory Rabassa are still working and producing fascinating work. Translators like Anne McLean, Nick Caistor, and Katherine Silver are also names worth checking for on forthcoming books.

In an effort to address the lack of Latin American literature published in translation, several publishing companies have stepped up to the plate in recent years. Deep Vellum Publishing in Dallas has emerged as a vital force, bringing Carmen Boullosa, Sergio Pitol, and Ricardo Piglia, among others, to American readers. Open Letter Books, a nonprofit division of the University of Rochester that was established in 2008, publishes translations from many languages, including Spanish. Hispabooks in Spain, works directly with Spanish authors to get their work translated for English audiences. But the publisher who has released the most titles in translation in the U.S. in recent years is Amazon’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing. A reciprocal relationship with many of the prominent Latin American publishers has not often been necessary for American publishing companies since so many critics and scholars in South America and Europe are bilingual (or trilingual) and prefer to read the literature in the original English anyway.

In any current discussion of what to expect from the future of Latin American literature in translation, there are a few names that have cracked through the dried layers of the untranslated mass and emerged frequently enough to be considered seriously. The first of those is Sergio Pitol, whose historical and experimental works have rightfully gained a prominent reputation in several languages, but are only now appearing in the United States. The second is Valeria Luiselli, who lives in the U.S. and whose sensibility seems at times familiar to American readers, but also fits into the European tradition of novels about the self. Luiselli is also similar to Bolaño in that she dwells on the literary life—one of her books even includes a publisher eager to find “the next Bolaño.” In interviews, Luiselli sheds some light on how she views her own work appearing in Bolaño’s long shadow:

I don’t think everything he [Bolaño] writes is great, but The Savage Detectives especially is a very important book. Then on the other hand, he’s no great exception. Inevitably new writers that are being translated now, into English and other languages, are being read in the light of Bolaño. I prefer that to being read in the light of Isabel Allende and the other post-boom collateral damage of magical realism. I hope Bolaño’s generation and the generation between the boom writers and him are eventually translated, and the map becomes clearer to other readers, so that Bolaño doesn’t seem to be this island in a very stale pond, but other amazing writers that also explain Bolaño can be read.

Clarice Lispector, who wrote in Portuguese not Spanish, is frequently cited as “the next Bolaño” in terms of her already stellar reputation and posthumous volumes (her complete stories were just translated for the first time to much acclaim). Alejandro Zambra, who was sanctified by James Wood in the in the New Yorker this year, likely succeeds with American readers because his books grapple with the familiar and self-referential themes of bibliophilia (as do Bolaño’s and Luiselli’s and some of the more essayistic books by Vila-Matas and Aira) and confront the struggle of the writer. Likewise, Rodrigo Rey Rosa is easier for Western readers to situate because of his association with Paul Bowles and the obvious literary influences that leak through his prose (though we have only five of Rey Rosa’s eighteen books in English so far). As a short story writer, Bolaño called Rey Rosa “the best of my generation.” In a column for the Chilean newspaper Las Ultimas Noticias, and collected in Between Parentheses, Bolaño claimed only two novels truly frightened him: La asesina ilustrada by Enrique Vila-Matas and Tadeys by Osvaldo Lamborghini. Neither novel has been translated into English. (For that matter, there are still at least four untranslated and unpublished Bolaño books.)

Keeping up with reading all the new books that are released (even the ones that get the most attention, even the ones translated from a single foreign language) is impossible. Combine that with the need to read old books that suddenly strike you, gifts, art books, children’s books, classics, and times when reading seems impossible, there is just no way that even the most diligent “well-read” critic or reviewer ever feels anything of the sort. From a reader’s perspective, it’s not that there are too few Latin American authors to choose from, it’s that there are too many.

What the three-percent problem should do is raise our awareness about the holes in our own reading. Forget keeping with the latest novels translated from Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Arabic, Chinese, and Korean—do any of our critics know the writers who work in Urdu or Punjabi? The great Telugu or Bengali writers? Philippine epics? For the first time in human history, we have access to potentially every known story or poem. The ability to instantly transmit text is limited only by rights holders and awareness of the text’s existence. The responsibility of the serious American reader is to look beyond the mainstream, the comfort zone, and to embrace the risk associated with discovering quality, original literary works about other cultures and lives. Bolaño was a name that stuck with American readers, so some of the burden is on us to build associations with names like Roberto Arlt, Ernesto Sabato, and Álvaro Mutis. For this, guides like The Contemporary Spanish-American Novel are indispensable.

For decades, major U.S. literary critics of the postwar era skewed toward reinforcing the cultural dominance of Western literature. Scholars and critics such as Irving Howe, Frank Kermode, Harold Bloom, and Lionel Trilling often promoted translated works from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union. The generation of writers and critics that followed were the first to promote writers like Borges, Cortázar, Marquez, and earlier writers the postwar critics had missed, like Macedonio Fernández and Machado de Assis. Now that Bolaño no longer needs a critic to champion him to an English audience, which Latino writers do need champions? Simply reviewing a book is not enough. Wood’s championing of Zambra is at least one marker, but there will be others. We just have to know where to look.


Matt Bucher’s essays and reviews have appeared in The Dublin Review of Books, The Scofield, Fiction Advocate, and other places. He can be found at and on Twitter @mattbucher.

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