The irony of Latin American letters is that the torch has not passed to the living. It has gone from dead giants of the boom — Paz, García Márquez, Cortázar, Borges — to a fresher voice, a voice that speaks to millennials — except that that voice, too, belongs to a dead man. Roberto Bolaño, who died at 50 in 2003 and whose fame skyrocketed soon after, has become Latin America’s trendiest literary lion in a whirl of posthumous publication. From one international triumph to another — “By Night in Chile” to “The Savage Detectives” to “Nazi Literature in the Americas” and “2666” — his frantic, fearless and perceptive narratives have captured something about the Latin American zeitgeist that the living have not. Bolaño is, for all his mortal remove, the region’s most vibrant expositor: an acid-tongued, truth-telling, peripatetic genius, who lived all too briefly, wrote in a fever and did not go gentle into that good night.
“Any thoughts about the word ‘posthumous’?” an interviewer asked him during his rapidly declining days in Barcelona. “Sounds like a Roman gladiator,” Bolaño answered. “An invincible Roman gladiator.” And so it has been for this Spartacus of the Spanish tongue. Long after his time on earth, he continues to hand down victories in the form of surprisingly avant-garde novels.
His latest is “A Little Lumpen Novelita,” which was published in Spanish a few months before his death and reaches us more than a decade later. It is an electric jolt of a novel about urban youth, anomie, sex and crime, and it takes its name from “Three Bourgeois Novelitas,” a novel by José Donoso who, like Bolaño, was a Chilean who lived in Mexico and Spain. In inimitable Bolaño fashion, the story forces us to look hard at the province of the unrooted — a bewildering place we otherwise might not go.
“Now I’m a mother and a married woman,” begins Bianca, the narrator of this account, “but not long ago I led a life of crime. My brother and I had been orphaned. Somehow that justified everything. We didn’t have anyone. And it all happened overnight.”
Left to fend for herself after her parents’ death in a car accident, 15-year-old Bianca drops out of school in Rome and spends whole days at home with her little brother, watching TV, killing time, learning about sex from X-rated movies. The city’s social services have given up on them; they have no family looking in, no adult supervision.
Bianca eventually gets a job washing hair and sweeping floors in a beauty salon. Her brother becomes a regular in a bodybuilding gym. He has big ambitions, he tells her, as he flexes the muscles of a newly adolescent body; he will be Mr. Rome, Mr. Italy, Master of the Universe. But Bianca hardly thinks about the future at all. “I had ideas, but those ideas, if I really thought about it, never extended into the future. ‘Where do they go then?’ howled my brother.” Nowhere, Bianca answers. She cooks spaghetti when they’re hungry, drifts through video stores, ambles through Rome’s streets, lingering on the city’s bridges. Yet, something indescribable is at work in Bianca’s brain. For all the numbness of her days, she finds herself awakening in the dark with a start, and staring into a strange, nocturnal incandescence.
Before long, her brother brings home two men from the gym. Bianca refers to them as “the Bolognan” and “the Libyan,” adults with mysterious pasts, no discernible roots and a vague aptitude for crime. They lure her brother into an unsuccessful caper in Milan; they slip into her bed at night; they suggest a complicated plot that could make them all very rich.
Soon, Bianca is told to visit a man from the gym, a former star who once held the title of Mr. Universe. But now, in Bianca’s estimation, he is “big and fat. . . . and a tiny part of that glory still lived on somewhere, not in his body, maybe, but in the way he moved. . . . I remember that he advanced toward the middle of the gym, where I was standing, his steps so slow that I could tell he was nervous or uncomfortable, too.”
The rest of this story will take you on a journey whose destination you, unlike Bianca, may be reluctant to pursue. All the same, you will follow this child, and you will turn the pages of her disturbing — and altogether gripping — chronicle with a rare urgency.
It would be wrong to tell you more.
Perhaps it is enough to say that Bolaño speaks for an entire continent, a whole universe of the dispossessed — more than his generation. He is, in this novel, Borges’s rebel son, Cortazar’s wiseacre nephew. He is also — and most important — entirely himself.
When asked to say what land, exactly, Bolaño represented — Chile, where he first saw light? Mexico, where he had come of age? Spain, where he would end his days? — he responded, “I’m a Latin American.” It was a simple answer, but it said much: Bolaño speaks for a hemisphere, a frame of mind, a language.
Even his profession wasn’t easy to pinpoint. According to him, anyone engaging in it was suspect. Describing what he called the “infrareality” of life was often fraught with complications. Writers were pigs. They weren’t up to the task. The hard part was knowing “how to thrust your head into the darkness, how to leap into the void, and understand that literature is basically a dangerous calling.”
What stays with us as we read this dangerous little book is the sense that we are the innocents at the center of Bolaño’s story. “We never stop being children,” he once said, terrible children, covered, at the end of the day, in sores and veins and tumors and age spots, but ultimately children.
As his life and work so clearly tell us, that deep-seated urge to cling to life — that impulse against mortality — can sometimes lead to surprising incarnations.
Arana is the former editor in chief of Book World. She is the author of “American Chica,” “Lima Nights,” and, most recently, a biography of Latin American founder Simón Bolívar.
A LITTLE LUMPEN NOVELITA
By Roberto Bolaño
Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
New Directions. 109 pp. $19.95