The independent news organization of Duke University

He'll Peak When He's Dead

Pictured: Roberto Bolaño (left), 2666 (right) Courtesy: villagevoice.com

It looks like a Spanish-language triumvirate of fiction writers is on the verge of forming in the United States. Roberto Bolaño's newly published posthumous novel 2666 is set to catapult him into the realm of Jose Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, two of the most highly regarded Spanish-language authors to see a great deal of their work translated into English. Out of these three, Márquez is the only one still alive; Borges died in 1986 and Bolaño in 2003. While diverging in nationality (Bolaño - Chilean, Borges - Argentina, Márquez - Columbia) the three share the weight of being their respective nations' literary emissaries to the rest of the world.

Being leading figures in Latin-American nations that have all seen great deals of turmoil over the last 50 years, all three have some interesting political backstory. Both Borges and Bolaño tangled with dictators (the former with Perón and the latter with Pinochet), and Márquez was an "intellectual" friend of Fidel Castro as well as holding the honor of having written Bill Clinton's favorite book, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Márquez and Bolaño also spent much of their writing careers in Spain, which is where Bolaño finally managed to kick a heroin addiction and make a name for himself. His death was attributed to Hepatitis C, collateral damage of his former needle-sharing, and from all accounts this death is only now being recognized as the loss to the international literary community as it certainly was.

Bolaño began his rise to fame with The Savage Detectives (Los detectives salvajes) published in 1999. His is a more postmodern style than Borges or Márquez, who both erred closer to magical realism and explorations of the life of the gaucho and the common man. In contrast, Bolaño deals with overarching metaphors and explorations of the life of the literary figure. I have unfortunately had limited exposure to his work so far, but an excellent sample is the story "Clara," which can be read on the New Yorker's website (it was published in August). 2666 has received rave reviews from almost everyone—of course, you can leave it to the New Yorker to knock him down a notch—with the Complete Review calling it "Nearly perfect," and "No question, the first great book of the twenty-first century."

2666 is revitalizing the notion that a big, epic, masterful novel can still move and amaze the way the medium used to. And thank God. It is quite likely that we haven't seen a book of this gravity in many, many years (not that I, at 19, can remember anything that would compare) and its potential is tremendous. However, this isn't the first time that a release has been met with such extraordinary praise, but the air smells differently than it did when Franzen released The Corrections and Safran Foer wrote Everything is Illuminated and Foster Wallace unleashed Infinite Jest. Unlike those authors, Bolaño is not American. The national literary community is not riding on his back, hoping for great things, pressuring him to succeed, and this is not our first exposure to his work. It is no surprise that Bolaño is a genius, and 2666 is not unprecedented. Instead, what we seem to have on our hands is an event, the publishing of a work of art that could be heralded for decades and longer. If you ever wondered what it would've been like to experience the births of the classics, the Salingers and Roths and Updikes and Bellows and Hemingways and Fitzgeralds and Mailers and Delillos and Pynchons and McCarthys and, naturally, the Márquezes and the Borgeses, go out and get a copy of 2666 (all 912-1119 pages, depending on what printing you buy) and experience great literature fresh and undiluted.

Discussion

Share and discuss “He'll Peak When He's Dead” on social media.