A Writer Crosses Over

Many believe in the vision and work of the late Roberto Bolaño. Above, Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Lorin Stein and translator Natasha Wimmer. Below, far left, Farrar, Straus publisher Jonathan Galassi; far right, editor in chief of New Directions Barbara Epler. Below center, Bolaño, left, with Spanish writer Alberto Olmos in 1998.
Many believe in the vision and work of the late Roberto Bolaño. Above, Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Lorin Stein and translator Natasha Wimmer. Below, far left, Farrar, Straus publisher Jonathan Galassi; far right, editor in chief of New Directions Barbara Epler. Below center, Bolaño, left, with Spanish writer Alberto Olmos in 1998. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007

So here's what you're up against if you're an American publishing house like Farrar, Straus and Giroux trying to persuade readers to shell out $27 for the first English translation of Roberto Bolaño's nearly 600-page novel, "The Savage Detectives," just out this week.

You've got to introduce them to an author of indeterminate nationality of whom, it is safe to say, 99 percent of Americans have never heard. The Chilean-born Bolaño spent most of his adult life in Mexico and Spain; he liked to call the Spanish language his homeland.

You've got to sell the book in a crowded market notoriously resistant to literature in translation. You've got to sell it without benefit of author interviews in newspapers or blogs, on television or NPR, because your author isn't around to do them: Bolaño died of liver disease, at 50, in 2003.

Most important, you've got to explain why the heck readers should want to spend large chunks of their scarce leisure time in the company of Bolaño's scruffy, combative protagonists: two obscure poets who, in the novel's key plot juncture, leave Mexico City for the Sonoran Desert -- pursued, as it happens, by an enraged pimp -- on a quest to track down an even more obscure poet from a previous generation. Bolaño never portrays the marginal lives and literary passions of the pair directly. They are glimpsed, instead, through the retrospective testimony of more than 50 narrators who have, however briefly, encountered them.

Fifty narrators! "The Savage Detectives" is simply lousy with poets and would-be poets. They drink too much, sleep with each other and feud over poetic principles never fully defined. What unites them is the conviction that literature, taken seriously, can function as a belief system, a religion, a way to confront the glorious, doomed insanity of human existence.

This is the key to Bolaño's appeal, says Farrar, Straus and Giroux president and publisher Jonathan Galassi.

Sure, he concedes, a novel peopled with penniless foreign poets might seem off-putting. But "it's a metaphor, you know, it's not literally a novel about poets. It's about poetic temperament in the world. It's romantic. It's about young idealists coming up against corruption and tragedy."

There's no doubt in his mind.

"It's a perfect book for us to publish," Galassi says.

I've been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. . . . I'm not really sure what visceral realism is.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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