Yesterday's NYT story about critical darling Roberto Bolaño possibly fictionalizing his heroin use cracked me up.
The guy writes about myths created around writers and conflicting perspectives on memories and events. And we are shocked, shocked that his alter ego on paper does not exactly correspond to the man in the flesh?
As Julio Ortega writes in an El País article the NYT cites, Bolaño "no había previsto que después de su muerte sería, en inglés, otro Bolaño, y tendría el papel espectacular de una nueva vida" (he had not foreseen that after his death he would be yet another Bolaño and would have a spectacular role in a new life).
It was an open secret for the last decade among those who read Spanish that Bolaño was the real deal. But not until he posthumously becomes a New Yorker favorite does he exist in the world literature market (because translations into English get refracted into other languages, and praise in US and UK literary gossip rags journals catches the attention of the English-reading elites everywhere).
This lack of imagination is one of the reasons the U.S. is still stuck using the "magical realism" paradigm to understand postmodern non-realist Latin American literature. And that even as critics and the public denounce all manner of memoirs discovered to be inaccurate or out-and-out invented, we demand more writing about "the real," a ticket to experience all the more marvelous for its too-good-to-be-true trajectory.
Did Bolaño, as he describes in the essay "Beach," quit heroin? Was he in Chile during the Allende coup and jailed, as he writes about in "Dance Card"? Personally, I don't care. I don't need a Romantic myth of the suffering dissipated artist to read his stuff. The writing is what it is -- riveting.
In the lit classes I've taught in the past couple of years (mostly Latino lit), I've been quite stunned at students' absolute embrace of the aesthetics of "realness." No matter how polished or stylized or elaborated the depictions of "street life," they judge these stories by how "true" they are to how they see their lives and the lives of those around them. Even though none of them really live in a 50 Cent video.
The absurd, fantasy, psychedelia, allegory, exaggeration, all these things they reject as "unreal" and therefore not worth their time, even though a lot play video games that are nothing if not all of the above.
I've been pondering a screed against "the real" in literature. Because the truth is that if the U.S. publishing industry is about to become extinct, no one buys books, or reads them (especially fiction), what obligation is there to playing by the rules? Why not exit the market system altogether (.pdfs as the new .mp3s), reject the distinction between the real and the imagined, write without thinking of what will sell? Maybe I am a Romantic after all.
[photo by MARCEL.LÍ SÀENZ via El País]