- “I Read even the Scraps of Paper I Find on the Street”:A Thesis on the Contemporary Literatures of the Americas
1. Introduction: Good Readers
The characters in Roberto Bolaño’s fiction often travel between the US and Latin America. The American detective Albert Kessler crosses the US-Mexican border in 2666 (2006), the Mexican poet Rafael Barrios relocates to California in Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives, 1998), and numerous other figures make hemispheric journeys north and south. So it might be curious to note that Bolaño, a Chilean-born writer who spent nearly 10 years in Mexico City in the 1960s and 1970s, never once set foot in the US. In a 2002 interview Bolaño stated that he had no intention of visiting the country: “unlike many Chilean writers of my generation, I never heeded the call of Uncle Sam.” How, then, can we explain Bolaño’s consistent desire to represent this place he had never been, the US, and, equally importantly, how can we explain the desire for Bolaño in the US, that is, the explosion of interest in his work and his life over the past few years among American readers who are notoriously slow to embrace contemporary foreign writers?
In a recent article, Sarah Pollack convincingly argues that Bolaño’s popularity in the US derives in part from a market logic of substitution whereby Bolaño’s “visceral realism” has replaced Gabriel García Márquez’s “magical realism” as the new stereotyped image of Latin America for the American reading public (353). Yet if Pollock skillfully elaborates the politics of the translation of Bolaño’s texts and image, his effect on readers and writers in the US must also be sought in his frequent depictions of (North) American [End Page 536] characters, from the world-traveling Californian Anne Moore in Llamadas telefónicas (Phone Calls, 1997) to the most complex literary character in Bolaño’s American repertoire, Oscar Fate, the African-American journalist whose journey to Santa Teresa forms the central plot of the third part of 2666, Bolaño’s monumental final novel. While it might be tempting to see Bolaño’s cast of American characters and representations of American scenes as evidence of his imaginative capacity, the fact is that Bolaño’s oeuvre is filled with traces of the textual sources of these depictions of the US. His numerous reviews of US writers in the book of essays Entre Paréntesis (Between Parentheses 2004) include pieces on Mark Twain, Herman Melville, William Burroughs, and Patricia Highsmith as well as more contemporary writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Walter Moseley. Though Bolaño never spent time in the US, it is clear from his fiction and criticism that he obsessively read about the US in the works of its authors.
In this sense, Bolaño’s literary relationship to the US must be considered as part of the larger programmatic defense of the role of reading in contemporary Spanish-language writers such as the Argentine Ricardo Piglia, the Spaniards Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Cercas, and the Mexican Juan Villoro. For these “addicted” readers, as Piglia asserts in El último lector (The Last Reader, 2005), “reading is not only a practice; it’s a way of life” (21).1 Indeed, Bolaño foregrounds this defense of the writer as reader in his frequent declarations of his literary principles, from his “Preliminary Autobiography,” where he claims, “I’m much happier reading than writing” (Entre Paréntesis 20) to an essay describing the aftermath of his first encounter with Camus: “I went from a cautious reader to a voracious reader [un lector voraz] . . . I wanted to read everything” (318). In Cercas’s Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis, 2001), the first words spoken by the fictionalized character Bolaño are straight from the quintessential novel about the obsessed reader, Don Quijote: “I read even the papers I find on the street” (146). Bolaño shocks Cercas the narrator, a down-and-out writer, by claiming to have read every novel Cercas has written. He walks up to Cercas, books in hand, a...