The Times‘ Larry Rohter reports on the controversy that has erupted over the details of Roberto Bolaño’s life story.
Bolaño himself fostered the idea, enthusiastically embraced by U.S. critics and readers, that he had a heroin habit. But his widow and agent dispute this detail, as do Latin American critics. Julio Ortega, a Peruvian scholar, charged in Spain’s leading daily that North Americans have made “a trivial spectacle” of Bolaño’s life and work.
An important clarification, though: Rohter asserts that “The Beach,” the story at the center of the heroin controversy, is “not yet available in English.” In fact, I read a translation at the literary magazine Eyeshot in early December. The piece is one very long sentence that starts this way:
I kicked heroin and went back to the little town and began taking methadone, which I was given at the outpatient clinic, and I had nothing much else to get up for each morning, and I would watch television and try to sleep through the night, but I was unable to, something was keeping me from closing my eyes and resting, and this was my routine until I couldn’t take it anymore, so I bought a black swimsuit in a shop at the center of town and went to the beach with my black swimsuit, a towel, and magazine, and I would roll out my towel at a distance from the water, stretch out and read for awhile, considering whether or not to go in the water, and there were many reasons that occurred to me in favor of doing so, though many reasons not to go in also occurred to me, the children playing along the shoreline, for example, so that finally I would simply sit there killing time before returning home, and the next morning I bought some suntan lotion and went to the beach again and at noon I marched to the outpatient clinic and took my dose of methadone and nodded at the familiar faces, not one of them a friend, just faces I knew from the methadone line, surprised to see me standing there in my swimsuit….
Translator Riley Hanick is slightly apologetic about his efforts. A note following “The Beach” reads “While I’m sure that it has some problems, there is currently no English translation of the piece available, and perhaps this will offer a placeholder before more definitive translations of the work … are published. Because my own Spanish is frequently shaky, I’m very much in debt to Leah Leone for her help with the original text.”
The original text of the story appeared in Entre paréntesis, a collection described by executor Ignacio Echevarría as as “a type of ‘fragmented autobiography'” and “personal cartography.” More recently, however, Echevarría “said that the introduction and title page of future Spanish-language editions of the book would be changed to incorporate language to indicate that ‘Beach’ is fiction.” Publisher Herralde agreed, noting that the writer enjoyed playing tricks, speculating “he may just have been trying to lay a trap for his future biographers.”
The questions about Bolaño’s biography are not limited to drug use. His friends in Mexico say that the writer “was not in Chile during the military coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power, despite his claim[s].”
(Eyeshot editor Lee Klein and I exchanged a little email about Bolaño this morning. “Pretty interesting stuff about auto-mythologizing,” he said. “Reminds me of our zany early-21st century exploits in Greenpoint: the hard drugs, the all-night raves, the homicide sprees, the failed plot to implode Bedford Ave with explosive pierogis . . .”
Klein started Eyeshot years ago. He posted a couple pieces of mine there when, unbeknownst to us, we lived in the same neighborhood. Eventually we had some pints, and the pierogi plot was hatched — or not. He’s in the midst of publishing a short, dense novel by someone named Eyeshot al Sheriff.)