Roberto Bolaño (b. 1953–d. 2003) is widely considered to be the most important Latin American novelist of the turn of the 21st century. Bolaño’s reputation rests primarily on the fictional works he produced during a period of extraordinary creative activity from 1996 to his death in 2003: the novels La literatura nazi en América (1996), Estrella distante (1996), Los detectives salvajes (1998), Nocturno de Chile (2001), and the posthumously published 2666 (2004) as well as the short story collections Llamadas telefónicas (1997) Putas asesinas (2001), and El gaucho insufrible (2003). However, his oeuvre also encompasses a diverse corpus of poetry, fiction, and literary criticism written between the 1970s and the early 2000s, a substantial portion of which appeared in print for the first time after his death. Born in Santiago, Chile, and raised in southern Chile, Bolaño moved to Mexico City with his family in 1968, the year of the infamous Tlatelolco student massacre. In 1973, he went to Chile to “support” Salvador Allende’s socialist government (as he later put it). After briefly being detained in the aftermath of the Pinochet coup of 11 September 1973, he left the country and returned to Mexico City. Shortly after, he co-founded the avant-garde poetry movement infrarrealismo with close friend Mario Santiago Papasquiaro. In 1976, he traveled to Europe and eventually relocated to Spain, living in Barcelona and Gerona before settling in the small Spanish coastal city of Blanes. Bolaño’s fiction of the 1990s and early 2000s obsessively reconstructs this itinerary—often through the guise of his alter ego Arturo Belano—as a means of exploring the effects of the Latin American dictatorships on an entire generation of writers, political activists, and ordinary citizens. Critics have thus tended to classify Bolaño both as a major practitioner of Latin American post-dictatorial fiction and as a prominent figure within the contemporary Spanish-language tradition of autofiction. The critical discussion on his final work, 2666, on the other hand, has revolved around his turn to a “depersonalized” style of narration and a new scene of violence in Latin America: the ongoing murder and disappearance of women in the US-Mexican border city of Santa Teresa (a fictional version of the real-life Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez). His novels, short stories, and essays have been translated into multiple languages. Bolaño’s posthumous canonization in the United States has led to a voluminous body of English-language criticism of his work.
Numerous book-length studies of Bolaño have been published since his death. The main contours of Bolaño criticism emerged from the early edited volumes on his work Manzoni 2002 and Espinosa 2003 (both cited under Edited Collections), and the first monographs on Bolaño largely follow the interpretive lines established in those volumes. Bolognese 2009 offers an impressionistic reading of the major themes in Bolaño’s work. González 2010 and Candia 2011 explore the key theme of literature and evil in Bolaño, with Candia 2011 emphasizing the need to attend to the more redemptive elements of his literary project. Ínigo 2015 concentrates on the centrality of social commitment to Bolaño’s literature. Maristain 2014 constitutes the only biography of Bolaño to date, though Herralde 2005 also includes useful information about Bolaño’s life and career from the perspective of his longtime publisher. The most expansive overviews of Bolaño’s work have appeared in the second decade after his death. Andrews 2014 is the definitive book on Bolaño’s fictional technique. Gutiérrez-Mouat 2016 is the best comprehensive account of Bolaño’s literary trajectory and an invaluable resource for students and non-specialists alike. Monroe 2019 is a more focused study that traces the arc of Bolaño’s career by way of his decades-long experimentation with the prose poem.
Andrews, Chris. Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
Excellent study of the formal features of Bolaño’s work by one of his English-language translators. Begins with an account of Bolaño’s reception in the United States, then proceeds to detail the compositional principles that Bolaño used to construct his fictional universe (narrative “expansion,” “metarepresentation,” etc.). The final chapter shifts from narrative/character analysis to an argument about the “values implicit” in Bolaño’s fiction: minimalism at the level of ethics and anarchism at the level of politics.
Bolognese, Chiara. Pistas de un naufragio: Cartografía de Roberto Bolaño. Santiago, Chile: Editorial Margen, 2009.
First book-length treatment of Bolaño’s work. Basic thematic overview of Bolaño literature with a short biographical introduction. Journalistic in style, reads more like an extended literary essay than a scholarly investigation. Explores Bolaño’s relationship to postmodernism, Latin Americanism, urbanism, travel literature, etc. Retreads much of the ground of earlier criticism (Manzoni, Espinosa, Echevarría, etc.).
Candia, Alexis. El “paraíso infernal” en la narrativa de Roberto Bolaño. Santiago, Chile: Cuarto Propio, 2011.
Thematic study of Bolaño’s novelistic corpus. Claims that Bolaño’s aesthetic derives from the constant interplay between an exploration of human evil and a celebration of the “magical” aspects of human existence (sex, adventure, literary and social play). Intended as a corrective to the work of Manzoni, Espinosa, and González, whose focus on the centrality of evil to the Bolañian corpus has, according to the author, led to a relative lack of attention to the more redemptive dimensions of his work.
González, Daniuska. La escritura bárbara: La narrativa de Roberto Bolaño. Lima, Peru: Fondo Editorial Cultura Peruana, 2010.
Thematically oriented analysis of Bolaño’s work that centers on his treatment of literature’s relationship to evil (el mal). Readings rely heavily on a post-structural theoretical framework (Lyotard, Baudrillard, Kristeva). Each chapter approaches Bolaño’s treatment of literature and evil from a different perspective (absolute evil, radical evil, etc.).
Gutiérrez-Mouat, Ricardo. Understanding Roberto Bolaño. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2016.
Best overview of Bolaño’s life and literature to date. Contains a short biography (culled partially from Bolaño’s semi-autobiographical fiction) and analysis of Bolaño’s major works in chronological order. The book’s historicist approach makes it a good starting point for students and scholars slightly less well versed in Latin American literary history. Its meticulous readings of Bolaño’s poems, novels, and stories also make it a significant contribution to Bolaño studies. Particularly notable for its skillful recapitulation of the existing criticism.
Herralde, Jorge. Para Roberto Bolaño. Barcelona, Spain:: Acantilado, 2005.
Series of brief personal reflections on Bolaño by his longtime publisher/editor at Anagrama, Jorge Herralde. From a critical standpoint, worth reading for its description of Bolaño’s relationship to the publishing industry (particularly in the section “Vida editorial de Roberto Bolaño”) and Herralde’s insider account of how Bolaño became a global literary phenomenon.
Ínigo, Ainoa. El universo literario de Roberto Bolaño. Madrid: Verbum, 2015.
Thematic study of Bolaño’s work, with an emphasis on his conception of writing as a form of social commitment. Informative if somewhat wandering overview of existing criticism in chapter 1, followed by chapters on Estrella distante, Los detectives salvajes, and 2666. Rehashes much of existing criticism.
Maristain, Mónica. Bolaño, a Biography in Conversations. Translated by Kit Maude. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2014.
Only book-length biography of Bolaño available as of 2019. Written by the Mexican journalist best known for having conducted the “last interview” with Bolaño. Most of the material comes from interviews with Bolaño’s friends, family, and literary acquaintances. Fills in some gaps about Bolaño’s life, but as the author herself remarks in the preface, the lack of access to Bolaño’s diaries, letters, and archives leads to somewhat speculative conclusions about his life and works.
Monroe, Jonathan. Framing Roberto Bolaño: Poetry, Fiction, Literary History, Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Comprehensive reading of Bolaño’s literary corpus that concentrates on his engagement with the history and legacy of the prose poem. Argues that Bolaño’s achievement stems from his novelistic incorporation of the rhythm and style of the prose poem and his thematization of the distinct cultural economies of poetry and fiction in the modern world. Each chapter presents a meticulous close reading of a Bolaño text. Particularly strong on Bolaño’s exploration of different genre/media forms in Los detectives salvajes and 2666.
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