By Night in Chile: Biography: Roberto Bolanoe
Roberto Bolaño Ávalos was a Chilean poet and author who shot to international fame in recent years for his highly inventive, politically charged novels. Bolaño received the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, a prestigious award given to novels written in Spanish, for The Savage Detectives (Los detectives salvajes) in 1999. In 2008, some five years after his premature death from liver failure, he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his novel 2666.
Bolaño was born in the capital city of Santiago, Chile, on April 28, 1953, and spent his childhood in various southern and coastal cities. He was dyslexic and had trouble in school, but early on, enjoyed writing poetry after the style of his hero, Chilean “antipoet” Nicanor Parra. At age fifteen, he moved with his family to Mexico City, where he dropped out of school and became a journalist.
The young man’s passion for left-wing political causes brought him back to his native Chile in 1973. He hoped to support the socialist government of President Salvador Allende. However, shortly after Bolaño’s arrival, on September 11, 1973, Allende was overthrown in a bloody U.S.-backed coup staged by General Augusto Pinochet. Along with thousands of other Allende loyalists, Bolaño was arrested and jailed. Luckily, the twenty-year-old Bolaño was held only eight days before being released by guards who were former high school classmates. Nearly 3,200 Chileans were killed or disappeared during Pinochet’s military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. Some 30,000 were imprisoned and tortured.
Bolaño escaped back to Mexico City, a thriving center for literature and thought. He became part of a new movement in poetry known as infrarrealismo, or infrarrealism. The infrarrealists saw themselves as literary terrorists, and held as their goal to “volarle la tapa de los sesos a la cultura oficial,” or “blow out the brains of the official culture.” This motto expressed the strongly critical, rebellious nature of Bolaño. He felt himself an outsider to the dominant culture, and became a controversial figure for his attacks on prominent authors, such as Mexican writer Octavio Paz and Chilean novelist Isabel Allende. He especially detested those writers who—like the character Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix in his novel By Night in Chile—he felt implicitly supported fascist political regimes in Latin America.
During his early twenties, Bolaño lived in various places, including El Salvador, France, and Spain, finally settling near Barcelona. He worked at menial jobs by day and wrote poetry by night. A collection of Bolaño’s poetry was published in English translation as The Romantic Dogs (2000).
Bolaño married a Spanish woman, Carolina Lopez, and they had two children. In his forties, he began to focus on fiction as a way to support his family. Altogether, he wrote thirteen novels—including Distant Star (Estrella distante) (1996) and By Night in Chile (Nocturno en Chile) (2000), both of which deal in a satirical way with the brutality of the Pinochet regime. Two more unpublished novels were found in 2009 among the papers Bolaño left behind in Spain after his death. Five collections of short stories have been published, and more are slated for publication in coming years. Bolaño’s fiction is noted for being highly original; it differs sharply from the the magical realist style popularized by other great Latin American writers of the late twentieth century. Not long before his death Spanish newspaper El País called Bolaño “the brightest literary star of the current Latin American panorama.”
In his later years, Bolaño became ill from a chronic liver disease. He died on July 15, 2003, while waiting for a transplant. He was fifty years old. Bolaño left behind many unpublished works that were released after his death, cementing his reputation as one of Latin America’s greatest contemporary authors and bringing him worldwide acclaim.