At this point, even the contrarians at N+1 agree: the late Roberto Bolaño’s burgeoning reputation rests primarily on the audacity and beauty of his fiction. Nonetheless, as the current installment of “The Intellectual Situation” points out, the vagaries of the novelist’s life haven’t hurt his reception here in the U.S. Ever since Whitman celebrated himself, biography has has played an outsized role in the making, and marketing, of our literary celebrities (e.g. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kesey). And Bolaño’s years of vagabondage have provided American publishers (notoriously translation-shy) with a ready-made marketing hook: This guy not only wrote about dissolute poets – he was one.
The Savage Detectives was one of the best-reviewed books of 2007, both in the sense of receiving favorable marks and in the sense of eliciting good writing. Much of this writing, notably Francisco Goldman’s essay in The New York Review of Books, and Benjamin Kunkel’s in The London Review of Books, used Bolaño’s life as an organizing principle. Later, Scott Esposito, writing in hermanocerdo, would offer a thorough survey and critique of “the Bolaño legend.” The salients of that “legend” – rebellion, exile, early death – were familiar. They were the ingredients of Beatnik integrity, rock star incandescence, and the holiness of religious martyrs; now, they were helping to canonize the first literary immortal of the 21st Century.
It was Daniel Zalewski, writing in The New Yorker who gave the Bolaño legend its fullest and most ingenuous treatment. His article, “Vagabonds,” included a particularly (one wants to say, Americanly) salacious detail: Bolaño was “addicted to heroin.” This datum has since reappeared in articles written for The Nation and The New York Times, as well as the aforementioned N+1 piece, and, yes, The Millions. It has been used to explain everything from Bolaño’s dental problems to the liver failure that killed him at age 50. But this month, the Spanish-language blog puente aéreo has suggested that at least this much of the Bolaño legend – the heroin – merits skepticism.
My Spanish is next to nonexistent, but Gustavo Faverón Patriau, a literature scholar and the proprietor of puente aéreo, seems to be arguing that Zalewski picked up the heroin detail from a short Bolaño piece called “Beach,” and that this source is, at best, unreliable. As yet untranslated into English, “Beach” appeared in a Spanish newspaper, and later in a Spanish-language collection of Bolaño’s essays, articles and speeches. The piece, which recounts a methadone treatment, has a confessional feel, and given that it was originally published under the heading “The Worst Summer of My Life,” it seems reasonable to take it as memoir. On the other hand, memoirists are prone to exaggeration, and the stylistic excess of “Beach” – a single, torrid sentence – has more in common with Bolaño’s fiction (e.g. By Night in Chile) than with his occasional writings. Moreover, the status of autobiography in Bolaño’s writing puts him closer to Philip Roth than to Robert Lowell; the line between fiction and fact in his is always hazy.
Given the formidable reputation of The New Yorker’s fact-checking department, I’m hesitant to gainsay Zalewski. And perhaps Mr. Faverón Patria’s view of things is not crystal-clear. After all, he called The Millions “uno de los blogs literarios más importantes del mundo anglosajón.” It is worth noting, however that most of the myriad references to Bolaño’s heroin addiction in English-language publications appear to be founded on secondary sources. My own attempt to trace these sources back to their sources has yielded a frustrating, and perhaps telling, circularity.
So: was Bolaño an addict? Perhaps someone close to the author will make some statement about this…or maybe someone already has, and we who read in translation are merely lagging behind. Ultimately, however, the matter of the novelist’s vices, to the degree that it holds any interest, reveals more about us than about Bolaño’s oeuvre. For Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano and Auxilio Lacoutre and Benno von Archimboldi, the glory (and horror) of writing is the way it liberates the writer from the tedium, the tyranny, of real life. Perhaps we might honor Bolaño by granting him his own measure of freedom.
[Addendum (11/30): In response to this post, the fine folks at hermanocerdo adduce a couple of additional pieces of evidence suggesting that Bolaño was not, in fact, a heroin addict. First: Bolaño's good friend, the novelist Enrique Vila-Matas, writing in El País, calls the New York Times Book Review's mention of heroin "an absurd biographical error that could have been avoided." Second, some Spanish-language and Catalan-language bloggers cite Bolaño's widow, Carolina López, as affirming that he "nunca probó el caballo": "never touched horse." It should be noted that translator Natasha Wimmer, in her introduction to the paperback edition of The Savage Detectives (published several months after the Zalewski article) does suggest that Bolaño was an addict. Her source? "Beach." Things grow curiouser and curiouser... I'll do my best to track down a definitive answer in the coming days.]