As the person to have last interviewed Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño before his death from liver failure in 2003, it’s fitting that Mónica Maristain should write his biography. In “Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations,” Maristain artfully assembles interviews with the writer’s family members, friends, enemies and artistic colleagues of the late novelist, poet, essayist, short-story writer and l’enfant terrible of the Spanish-language literary world.

Bolaño: a Biography in Conversations

Mónica Maristain
Melville House Publishing
September, 2014

The unique and sometimes menacing power of the biographer is determining how and what is presented from a person’s life. Particularly with literary biography, this license includes writing a narrative of the interaction between the person’s life and the author’s work. They define, as T.S. Eliot put it in his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the distance between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Sometimes the former is sacrificed to the latter, diminishing an understanding of the work to be so much enriched by the life it was a part of and effacing that life for a fiction of textual purity.

Maristain’s skill lies in precisely illustrating this relationship with measure and meaning. To do otherwise, as Maristain’s portrait of Bolaño the social animal demonstrates, would be to lose the episodes from Bolaño’s life that he adapted into situations and characters in works such as “The Savage Detectives” and “2666.” From his parents’ friends to his literary compatriots, Bolaño constructed a fictional world out of the relationships he made during his life. Maristain’s method of oral collage, if perhaps presenting an overly literal and mosaic picture of the life of this writer, succeeds brilliantly in staying faithful to Bolaño’s tendency to make art of his life and life of his art.

Maristain lavishes attention on Bolaño’s involvement with a movement called Infrarealism during his days in Mexico, where he and others terrorized the “Pazist” literary establishment (called so for the hegemonic devotion to Mexican poet and 1990 Nobel laureate Octavio Paz). Interrupting poetry readings, often heckling the readers and generally practicing a sort of wine-soaked bohemianism, they theorized forms of literature such as “anti-poetry” that consciously divorced itself from established traditions in a way that reflects (though not to suggest a causal relationship) the oppositional lifestyle.

Bolaño’s personal involvement with the group ended when he moved to Spain in 1977, more or less precipitating the end of the movement. However, Bolaño would then re-live and reanimate his time as an Infrarealist through his writing even as he moved beyond it in his personal life.

Maristain’s biography is a welcome and enjoyable salve to any inclination to write out the life of an author, as if writers in writing forgot to live or only did so by accident. Hers is a story informed by personal correspondence (she notes Bolaño’s e-mail address, “robertoba”) with the writer. Her biography delights in presenting Bolaño’s life from the ground level, both from the perspective of her personal connection and the connections of those who played a significant part of the life of this massively significant author of the twentieth and twenty-first century.

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