Roberto Bolaño and Exile

Posted By Peter Vilbig on Feb 22, 2011 in Literature | 0 comments

Roberto Bolano’s 2000 speech to a Viennese literary conference on the topic of exile was published recently in The Nation (translation by the great Natasha Wimmer) and I’d recommend that you read it here in its entirety.

About it, I’d like to offer only these most tentative thoughts: Bolaño is one of the world’s more famous contemporary literary exiles. Born in Chile, he spent his adolescence and early adulthood in Mexico (primarily Mexico City) before beginning a further migration that led him to Barcelona, perhaps with a stop in Paris. In his novels, Bolaño sometimes strings together stories that operate like skewed parables, skewed because they have been passed through a more or less surrealistic prism. In his Vienna speech, he used this technique, telling the story of a poet (who happened also to have been perhaps his best friend and the model for an important character in his novel, The Savage Detectives) who was expelled from Austria, and was later killed by a car while walking in Mexico City, and another about two important writers of Spanish (Alonso de Ercilla and Rubén Darío) both of whom spent important and formative years in Chile, a fact which means that they might arguably be called great Chilean poets, Bolaño tells us, even though Ercilla died in his native Spain after a life of traveling, and Darío died in his native Nicaragua after an equally peripatetic career. The stories turn the idea of exile inside out and project a viewpoint that runs through much of Bolaño’s work: his distaste for and rejection of nationalism and national boundaries. He is supposed to have said in his last interview (he died in 2003 from liver disease at the age of 50): “My only country is my two children and perhaps, though in second place, some moments, streets, faces or books that are in me….”

But the point I find myself drawn to is that Bolaño refuses the opportunity to boast about his own exile, or even to put it to good use in constructing a speech whose topic was given to him by the organizers of the conference. He ignores his own history despite the fact that compiling it must have cost him a good deal along the way, and instead goes on to explode the idea, the idea of exile, not in the sense that he blows it to smithereens, so that no useful concept adheres to it, but in the sense that he expands it rapidly in the way that gasses expand rapidly in explosive devices. Seen in slow motion, we can even understand the phases of the object in its explosive flight. In this case, it seems that Bolaño is telling us that exile may be the natural state of the writer, whether this exile is from the world she must leave in order to write—which is always the case; that much must be stipulated; there must always be a departure—or the exile is from writing itself, a form of flight from the task such as that practiced by Henry Roth for decades or more famously by Rimbaud.

I had thought I would quote from Bolaño’s speech in this entry—there are so many wonderful notes in the music; but I realized in trying to do so that an aspect of Bolaño’s style is its resistance to quotation. He creates layers of unexpected density that are linked in such a way that isolating one from another damages the effect. I would therefore suggest reading at the link above. It will be worth your while.

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