- Autonomy after Autonomy, or, The Novel beyond Nation: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666
“Let’s be radical,” writes Jorge Volpi in El insomnio de Bolívar (2009), “Latin American literature no longer exists” (165).1 What was known as Latin American literature, he explains, emerged fully in the second half of the twentieth century, and particularly with the Boom of the 1960s, “that nomadic brotherhood” whose works “crushed the obsolete bourgeois nationalism of their countries.” At the same time, insofar as writers such as Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa contributed to the creation of a “Latin American front with deep Bolivarian roots,” Volpi maintains that “[p]aradoxically, in escaping from their cages,” they also “contributed to founding a new nationalism, Latin American this time” (167). “The result,” he continues, “was a resounding success”:
[O]n the one hand, local media were once again satisfied to have a literature of their own, distinct from what was produced elsewhere, capable of providing a “unique identity” to Latin American nations as a whole; on the other hand, foreign readers, editors, and critics discovered a last redoubt of exoticism—of difference—within the increasingly predictable margins of Western literature.(Volpi 167–68)
The Boom, in this sense, not only contributes to the creation of a Latin American nationalism, but also gives rise to “literatura latinoamericana©” (as Volpi writes it), a market phenomenon that meets consumer demand at home and abroad. According to Volpi, this is the idea of a national literature against which a generation of authors born after 1960 will define their own work. Unlike their Boom predecessors, these more contemporary writers “have no Bolivarian aspirations and do not aspire to become spokespersons for Latin America” (Volpi 170). “Witnesses to the collapse of real socialism and to the discrediting of utopias, and increasingly skeptical of politics,” Volpi writes, “these authors seem to have finally freed themselves from any [End Page 396] national constraints” (168). What remains are novels “tracing a hologram,” the “mystery of Latin America” (176). But if Volpi suggests that, in this way, writers such as Ignacio Padilla, Mario Mendoza, Cristina Rivera Garza, and he himself refuse to meet the literary market’s demand for “exoticism” and Latin American “difference,” he also believes that, while the Boom novelists had aimed for “literary purity,” the writer’s aspirations today include “money” (164). Considering the Boom has long been identified with what Angel Rama described as the moment of “literature’s absorption within the mechanisms of consumer society” (53), we have every reason to be skeptical of this reading. And yet it is just as true that the Boom emerged in a period when “real socialism” and “utopias” to which Volpi refers not only lent credence to the Bolivarian aspirations of an earlier generation, but also sustained the belief, however impractical, in “literary purity,” the belief in a literary autonomy understood today as the Boom’s aesthetic ideology. For Volpi, then, it is as if what is to be found beyond the nation—beyond “national constraints”—is literature’s more complete embrace of the market.
Importantly, Volpi notes that this contemporary novel finds its “best model” in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (1998) and, above all, 2666 (2004). “After Bolaño,” he observes, “writing with the Bolivarian conviction of the Boom has become irrelevant. This does not mean that Latin America has disappeared as stage or focus, but that it begins to be perceived with a postnational character, devoid of a fixed identity” (176). Thus, for Volpi, Bolaño offers a blueprint of sorts for the “postnational” Latin American novel. But if Bolaño would, for this reason, become the “guru of new generations” (171) of writers, in what follows, we will see that Bolaño’s fictions also suggest that, far from resulting in a more complete embrace of the market, the hollowing-out of this “Bolivarian conviction” has instead given rise to the possibility of a literary autonomy after autonomy.
One of the many places where 2666 takes up art’s relationship to commerce is the story of the fictional British artist Edwin Johns. In “The Part about...