Blog Post

On the Reception of Roberto Bolaño

I would like to start my contribution at Arcade by proposing a distinction between “comparative literature as content” and “comparative literature as form.”

Indeed, in battling against the former, more traditional, conception of comparative literature, recent obituaries of the discipline, such as Gayatri Spivak’s Death of a Discipline (2005), seem to continue a battle already won. But, on the contrary, there is a possibility of fostering a new perspective based upon the concept of “comparative literature as form.”

Let us then start by briefly defining “comparative literature as content.” More than simply implying the predictable “comparison” of two or more authors, usually, at least in the original formulation of the discipline, from different cultures and languages, the truly distinctive feature of “comparative literature as content” is the neglect of different critical traditions. A telling example of this neglect was keenly diagnosed by Jorge Volpi in his thought-provoking essay "El insomnio de Bolívar." Volpi studied the current process of mythologization in the United States of the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. According to Volpi, scholars in the US have been busy transforming Bolaño into a Rimbaud of the twenty-first century, overemphasizing both the nomadic nature of Bolaño’s life and his irreverent attitude towards the literary establishment. This operation has, of necessity, overlooked the writer’s relationship with the distinguished publisher, Jorge Herralde, from the powerful publishing house Anagrama. Indeed, from the beginning of their productive relationship, Bolaño’s life became much more stable, at least from a financial viewpoint, which calls into question the insistent critical emphasis on Bolaño’s marginality vis-à-vis the literary establishment he is  portrayed as having despised.     

However, this was not the most relevant aspect of Volpi’s research. After all, the creation of literary myths has been one of the historical functions of literary criticism--even within the well-guarded walls of academia. The truly disquieting issue raised by Volpi lies in another direction. The reading and recreation of Bolaño [by critics in the U.S.] has not only had little or nothing to do with the way he is read in Spanish, but apparently none of his apologists [in the U.S] have taken the trouble to read what Spanish-speaking critics have been saying about Bolaño--almost always with the same admiration--for more than a decade" [emphasis added].[1]

The creation of potential dialogs between different critical traditions may be an alternative to the discipline of comparative literature - then conceived as "comparative literature as form." After all, such comparison would at least trigger a constant and healthy reevaluation of one’s own theoretical presuppositions. One example should suffice to give a sense of the potential of this approach, which could refresh our understanding of the discipline as a whole. The writers of the so-called “boom” in Latin American literature in the 1960s and 1970s have always explicitly acknowledged the importance of William Faulkner’s fiction to the development of their writing style. Gabriel García Márquez, for instance, has, on more than one occasion, clarified the reasons for this elective affinity: Faulkner revealed a complex treatment of different narrative temporalities as well as a rereading of traditional and contemporary literary forms. Moreover, he dealt with topics, and especially an ambiance, particularly akin to the one invented in García Márquez’s oeuvre.

Therefore, in order to fully seize the phenomenon of the “boom,” Latin American literary critics have produced a considerable body of studies on the work of William Faulkner. Naturally, their perspective differed from the studies undertaken, for instance, in the United States. A relevant task would be to establish a dialog between, at least, these two critical traditions. This dialog would not, naturally, establish the “correct” reading of a given author; rather, it would produce creative tensions, which ideally would help us to understand that author in a different, much more complex, light. Likewise, the recent reception of Roberto Bolaño would gain in quality and intensity if such a systematic exchange was favored.

[1]Jorge Volpi, El insomnio de Bolívar: Cuatro consideraciones intempestivas sobre América Latina en el siglo XXI (México: Random House Mondadori, 2010) 172. My translation.

João Cezar de Castro Rocha's picture
João Cezar de Castro Rocha is Professor of Comparative Literature at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). He is the author of Literatura e cordialidade: O público e o privado na cultura brasileira (1998; Mário de Andrade Award, National Library, Rio de Janeiro); O exílio do homem cordial: Ensaios e revisões (2004); Exercícios críticos: Leituras do contemporâneo (2008); and Crítica literária: em busca do tempo perdido? (2011, forthcoming). He has edited more than 20 books, among which are a collection of six volumes of Machado de Assis's short stories (Record, 2008); Producing Presences in Portuguese: Branching Out from Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's Work (2007); The Author as Plagiarist: The Case of Machado de Assis (2006); and Brazil 2001: A Revisionary History of Brazilian Literature and Culture (2001). His book of dialogues with René Girard and Pierpaolo Antonello, Evolution and Conversion (2008), has been translated into seven languages, and received in 2004 the Prix Aujourd'hui in France.   Among others, Castro Rocha has received the following distinctions: the Endowed Chair Machado de Assis of Latin American Studies (Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana / Brazilian Embassy, Mexico, 2010); Hélio and Amélia Pedroso/Luso-American Foundation Endowed Chair in Portuguese Studies (University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, 2009); Research Fellowship (Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung / Freie Universität - 2005-06); Ministry of Culture Visiting Fellow (University of Oxford, Centre for Brazilian Studies, 2004); Tinker Visiting Professor (University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2003); Overseas Visiting Scholar (Cambridge University, St John's College, 2002); John D. and Rose H. Jackson Fellow, (Yale University, Beinecke Library, 2001).