In the following excerpt from Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews explores how and why Roberto Bolaño’s became so popular in the United States:
The reception of Roberto Bolaño’s work in English began in an unremarkable way. When Christopher Maclehose, publisher at the Harvill Press in England, bought UK rights for Nocturno de Chile (By Night in Chile) in 2001, Bolaño was already a well-established author in the Spanish-speaking world. In 1998 his first long novel, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives), had won the Premio Herralde de Novela and the Premio Rómulo Gallegos. The second of these prizes, in particular, is a mark of consecration in the Hispanic literary field, and it had been won, before Bolaño, by Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Javier Marías. By the end of 2001, La literatura nazi en América (Nazi Literature in the Americas) and Estrella distante (Distant Star) had appeared in German and Italian, and the French translator Robert Amutio, who had been trying to interest a publisher in Bolaño’s work since 1996, had finally succeeded: Christian Bourgois had bought the rights to the two books already out in Italy and Germany.
By Night in Chile (2003) was positively reviewed and sold modestly (775 copies in the first 12 months). Distant Star (2004) was also well received by critics, but sold more slowly still. So far, this story conforms to a familiar pattern: an author recognized as important in his or her source culture is translated into English and published by a small press after having been translated into several other languages. Often the story stops here. Since substantial sales are not accompanying critical success, the publisher understandably decides to cut her losses and take risks on more promising new names as yet untainted by failure in the marketplace.
This, however, is not what happened in the case of Bolaño. The Harvill Press bought UK rights for a third book, a selection of stories from Llamadas telefónicas and Putas asesinas, for which Bolaño chose the title Last Evenings on Earth shortly before his death in July 2003. Across the Atlantic, Barbara Epler at New Directions, who had acquired and published the translations of By Night in Chile and Distant Star with a prompt enthusiasm, negotiated with Harvill-Secker (the Harvill Press having been taken over by Random House and merged with the Secker and Warburg list in 2005) to bring out the book of stories in the United States before it appeared in the UK. It was published in May 2006. By this stage a certain excitement had begun to develop around Bolaño’s work in North America. Susan Sontag had provided an endorsement for By Night in Chile. Francine Prose read the story “Gómez Palacio” in The New Yorker and discovered in it, as she wrote in the The New York Times, “something extraordinarily beautiful and (at least to me) entirely new.” Bolaño’s reception was already beginning to break with the sadly familiar pattern.
The publication of The Savage Detectives by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2007 was a breakthrough. The novel was reviewed widely and at length, with almost unanimous enthusiasm. In its first year, The Savage Detectives sold 22,000 copies in hardcover, a remarkable success for a translated book. But the climactic moment in Bolaño’s posthumous North American campaign was undoubtedly the publication of 2666 in November 2008, which, to reclaim a term overused by marketing departments, truly was an event. When proof copies of the book began to circulate, Leon Neyfakh claimed in The New York Observer that carrying one was like “driving an open-top Porsche.”4 The reviews were even more numerous, and, overall, even more positive. Within days of publication, Farrar, Straus rushed out a second printing, bringing the total to more than 75,000 copies.
In 2007, Ilan Stavans wrote: “Not since Gabriel García Márquez, whose masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, turns 40 this year, has a Latin American redrawn the map of world literature so emphatically as Roberto Bolaño does with The Savage Detectives.” Looking back in 2009, Jean Franco used the same yardstick: “Not since the publication in English of One Hundred Years of Solitude has there been such a rapturous critical reception of a Latin American author in Britain and the USA.” Indeed, it is extremely rare for literary works translated into English from any language to achieve such a degree of serious critical attention and commercial success without the backing of the Nobel Prize committee. Franco is right, however, to stress the critical reception, because Bolaño is not the biggest selling novelist in translation of the last ten years. Setting aside crime fiction (and the Stieg Larsson phenomenon in particular), Bolaño is no match for Carlos Ruiz Zafón when it comes to shifting stock. Critics and writers are not, however, claiming in significant numbers that Ruiz Zafón has opened up new possibilities for fiction writing.
Why has the case of Bolaño proved to be exceptional? What caused and is causing the Bolaño anomaly? At least seven explanations can be proposed, which I will characterize very baldly as follows, before considering each in turn:
Bolaño is an exceptional writer
Bolaño is an American writer
Bolaño is a translatable writer
Bolaño has given rise to a myth
Bolaño supplies a lack in North American fiction
Men like Bolaño’s books
Bolaño has been misread.