In Canada, where I come from, we have something called “tall poppy syndrome.” This means that when anybody becomes too successful—especially outside of the frozen north—we cut them down to size. Viciously. This inclination is similar to being a zealous fan of an obscure rock and roll group who lashes out at said group when it becomes popular, deriding its newly converted fans.
Which brings us to this grumpy-ass piece at Guernica by Honduran-in-exile writer Horacio Castellanos Moya. Moya’s upset that North Americans occasionally drop lit-star Roberto Bolaño’s name, and thinks, grumpily, that:
…the construction of the Bolaño myth was not only a publisher’s marketing operation but also a redefinition of the image of Latin American culture and literature that the North American cultural establishment is now selling to the public.
I am wary of any argument that cites a “North American cultural establishment” acting with the sort of predatory agency that’s implied here. But let’s, for a moment, concede that the NACE [pronounced Nah-tsee] supreme council came up with a unified plan to profit from a densely challenging 670-page work of metafiction-in-translation by a charismatic/dead Mexican-Chilean. Yes, let’s.
Let’s assume that the publishing “market” dictated the marketing push behind Bolaño (hey, I’m suspicious of market fundamentalism as much as Moya, but srsly?), as publishing executives across the glamorous book world threw up their hands and conceded to the harsh market reality of an American public hell-bent on buying densely challenging 670-page metafictions-in-translation by charismatic/dead Mexican-Chileans. I can hear the cynical bastards now: “If that’s what the masses want, that’s what we’ll give em!”
Let’s assume the above scenario, absurd as it is, is true. Even then, I can’t see how Moya can honestly complain about an effort to popularize a challenging work in translation to a reading public sadly wary of same. Not to mention that this particular book is enticing as a gateway to the rich, diverse—almost devout at times—world of schismatic Latin-American lit. If one could export to America even a fraction of the intensity with which Bolaño characters care about literature, the (reading) world would be a better place.
Moya also cavils about Bolaño being marketed as a cross between “Jim Morrison and Jack Kerouac” (umm, because 15-year-old boys spend a lot of money on 700-page books?) and is pissed that nobody in North America ever talks about the fact that Bolaño finished his longer works in the last ten years of his life as a family man. This is really just an expression of contempt for the idea of marketing, which I can appreciate, except that it’s also the kind of deeply bitter self-defeating horseshit that prevents good art from getting out there. It’s the same kind of feverishly adolescent need to protect something you love from the bullying masses that I mentioned in the first paragraph. Meh.
But you know what? I don’t actually think this essay is about Bolaño at all. I think this whole piece is aimed at 100 years of college sophomores bringing up 100 Years of Solitude as one of their favorite books. Moya is just pissed at the cult of García Márquez, and wants North Americans to know they’re stupid for liking him, along with Allende and Coelho:
I don’t know if it’s my bad luck or if it happens to my colleagues as well, but every time that I’ve found myself on American soil—at the airport bar, at a social gathering, wherever—and I’ve made the mistake of admitting to a citizen of that country that I’m a fiction writer who comes from Latin America, that person will immediately pull out García Márquez, and will do it, what’s more, with a self-satisfied smile, as if he were saying to me, “I know you, I know where you come from.” (Of course, I’ve found myself with wilder ones who boast about Isabel Allende or Paolo Coelho, which, ultimately, makes no difference at all, since Allende and Coelho are little more than the light and self-help versions of García Márquez.) As time goes by, however, those same North Americans, at those same bars and social gatherings, have begun to pull out Bolaño.
Basically, North America, Moya really likes Bolaño’s early records, and you are kind of lame for liking him now, and why can’t everyone be cooler.