January 29, 2009

Bolano: Was he a junkie, and does it matter?


Roberto Bolano

Roberto Bolano

Roberto Bolaño is one of the most outlandishly unorthodox writers to hit the mainstream literary big time in quite a while, but the New York Times wants to know if the great Chilean writer was — what, was he on Oprah or something? — a fraud. Larry Rohter reports in this story for the Old Gray Lady that Bolaño’s ex-wife had “mentioned en passant” to his agent that reports of Bolano’s heroin use were “inaccurate.”

Where did these stories come from? Mostly from an essay Bolaño himself wrote for a Spanish newspaper that the Times reports, alas, is unavailable in English. However, ever-intrepid MobyLives was able to track it down after consultation with our secret source, whom I can only tell you goes by the code name “Google.” The essay was, in fact, published on the literary site Eyeshot, here. It’s one very long sentence, which begins “I kicked heroin and went back to the little town and began taking methadone, which I was given at the outpatient clinic, and I had nothing much else to get up for each morning ….” Aha. Well.

Of course, the subject may be breaking news to the Times, but it has been under disussion in the book blogosphere for a while — for example, the terrific book blog The Millions talked about it back in November in this report, called, well, Was Bolaño a Junkie? There, Garth Risk Hallberg pointed to some more detailed consideration of how the rumor got started, such as in what may be its first airing, in this New Yorker profile of Bolaño by Daniel Zalewski, “who gave the legend its fullest and most ingenuous treatment.” But what’s the significance of it all if Bolaño did indeed make up his own myth? Hallberg points to a Scott Esposito essay for Hermanocerdo about the Bolaño myth which observes, “I believe that Bolaño’s life-story and his novels have generated a genuine interest in foreign novels here, and in a culture so typically disinterested in what foreign literature has to offer this is no small thing.” Meanwhile, he observes, “I am convinced that romance alone does not account for his burgeoning reputation over here.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.