Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post: What Bolaño Read: The Spaniards

By Jane Ciabattari

This is the ninth and final installment in the series “What Bolaño Read” by former Shaman Drum Bookstore manager Tom McCartan. The series deals with the reading habits of the author of 2666, winner of this year's NBCC award in fiction, and celebrates the publication of  Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview & Other Conversations, with an introduction by former NBCC board member Marcela Valdes, which is just out from Melville House.


Cervantes according to Dali

Cervantes according to Dali

Bolaño spent much of his life in Spain, and he was deeply interested in the country's literature. He was well versed in everything from the Spanish Golden Age to the works of Spanish friends and contemporaries. But when outlining Spanish literary history Bolaño traces it back to one man: Cervantes.

What better praise could Bolaño give Cervantes than this from a 1999 interview with the Chilean magazine Capital?

“I think all writers who write in Spanish have or should have a Cervantean influence. We are all indebted to Cervantes, in large or small part, but we are all indebted.”

Except maybe when, in an essay in Entre paréntesis, he claims that Cervantes may have “invented the novel.”

Here is a word on the strength of Quixote from the same 1999 interview:

“A work like Don Quixote can resist even the worst translator. As a matter of fact, it can resist mutilation, the loss of numerous pages and even a shit storm. Thus, with everything against it—bad translation, incomplete and ruined—any version of Quixote would still have very much to stay to a Chinese or an African reader. And that is literature.”

Cervantes isn't the only Spanish Golden Age author cited by Bolaño; he also names Francisco de Aldana and Jorge Manrique as parts of his Spanish canon. Both were military men and poets; Manrique died storming a castle.

Of his Spanish contemporaries, Bolaño was most impressed by the literature of Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías. Bolaño claimed that the Vila-Matas novel La asesina ilustrada and the Marías novel Los dominios del lobo “marked a point of departure for our generation.” Neither of these works are available in English, though both men have enjoyed success in English. New Directions published two Vila-Matas works, Bartleby & Co. and Montano's Malady, translated by Jonathan Dunne and Marías' acclaimed Your Face Tomorrow series translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

Bolaño was also a fan of Javier Cercas, whose works The Speed of Light and The Soldiers of Salamis are both available in English from Bloomsbury, as translated by Anne McLean. Of The Soliders of Salamis Bolaño says “Javier is in the small group at the head of the Spanish narrative. His novel plays with hybridism…and hyper narrative…without any generic slip into poetry, into epic…it is always moving forward.” In fact, Bolaño is himself a character in The Soliders of Salamis.