“It has been a privilege to be involved, as a translator, in the process by which Bolaño’s fiction travelled from Blanes in Catalonia to Hyderabad and the western suburbs of Sydney, to name just two places where I know it has been read with a passion.”—Chris Andrews
In addition to being the author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews is also the translator of several of Bolaño’s novels. His roles as translator, scholar, and critic give him a distinct understanding of Bolaño’s novels.
Andrews was recently asked by Publishers Weekly to discuss a book by Bolaño that has perhaps not received as much attention as it deserves, and he selected Distant Star, a novel he translated and was published in English by New Directions in 2004. The following is an excerpt from his essay:
Bolaño knew, at least from 1993, when he was diagnosed with a progressive autoimmune disease of the liver, that his chances of a long life were slim. I like to think that in 1995, as he wrote Distant Star, he also knew that he was finding his way into an enormous and singular territory, and that, as a writer, he would not have to start over. In Nazi Literature in the Americas, under the influence of Jorge Luis Borges and a lesser-known Argentine, Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, he had described imaginary works in a work of fiction. In Distant Star, he took another step, which would prove to be decisive, bringing three more processes into play: expanding what he had already written, allowing his characters to return, and exploiting their tendency to overinterpret their surroundings.
These processes combined to form what Nora Catelli has called Bolaño’s “fiction-making system,” which would go on operating with remarkable efficiency up to his premature death in 2003. My academic terminology might give the impression that this was a purely technical feat, but the system could only produce interesting results because Bolaño had the indispensible gift of a potent imagination, and a fund of stories to tell, accumulated over years of curious living, listening, and note-taking. He is not to be counted among the writers who regard “mere storytelling” as a regrettable concession to popular taste. Nor is he a writer who aspires to ethical neutrality or blankness. As I argue in the final chapter of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction, one of the reasons why his books matter to many readers is that they are underpinned by a strong and distinctive sense of what matters in life.
Translation reorganizes an author’s body of work: the books appear in a different order and illuminate or obscure each other in new ways. By Night in Chile has enjoyed a special prominence in the anglophone world because, as well as being a dazzling (and disturbing) performance, it came first, with an endorsement by Susan Sontag, and a positive mention later on from James Wood. To judge by Worldcat’s listing of library holdings, Distant Star is one of Bolaño’s least widely read titles in English. This is a pity, because it is a sampler of the author’s various talents, and an excellent point of entry into the oeuvre as a whole. But a book’s fate is deeply contingent, as Bolaño himself knew very well. That, I believe, is the lesson of Auxilio Lacouture’s crazy prophecies in Amulet: “For Marcel Proust, a desperate and prolonged period of oblivion shall begin in the year 2033. Ezra Pound shall disappear from certain libraries in the year 2089,” and so on. And the greater part of a book’s life in the world is bound to remain private, even as blogs and social media swell the public sphere. One need not be excessively optimistic to find a certain encouragement in the thought that there is no knowing what a book may come to mean to readers scattered far away in space and time. It has been a privilege to be involved, as a translator, in the process by which Bolaño’s fiction travelled from Blanes in Catalonia to Hyderabad and the western suburbs of Sydney, to name just two places where I know it has been read with a passion.