Fiction is not truth, people

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Robert Bolaño got some more posthumous press today, regarding possible inaccuracies in his biography. A biography that hasn’t been written yet, mind you, and so only exists in “several of the rapturous recent reviews of 2666 in the United States.” Apparently, our man in Chile never used heroin, and was probably not in Chile during the Pinochet coup.

Before you start screaming James Frey or Herman Rosenblat, let’s review: Bolaño never wrote a memoir purporting these facts. The heroin rumor originated from a short piece published in El Mundo in 2000, alongside autobiographical narratives from 29 other Spanish-language writers. It was “endorsed” by his American translator, and critics ran with it in their reviews of Bolaño’s work.

‘“I knew Bolaño was a writer who played with reality, who cultivated ambiguities and false identities, so I didn’t care whether the narrative he submitted was true or invented,” Mr. Llorente [editor of El Mundo’s literary supplement] said in an interview. “To me, the only thing that mattered was its literary value.”’

Unfortunately, the piece in question wound up in a book that presented itself as a collection of essays, and so was presumed to be true. The rumor was “endorsed by his American translator” and picked up by critics reviewing Bolaño’s work. So… he never actually said he used heroin, did he? And his widow’s attempts to correct the record are just that — not some embittered attempt to cut “reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw” down to size.

The Pinochet coup experience is another matter. This was something to which Bolaño laid claim, at least verbally. His father assured the Times it was true, but his friends have other opinions. Even as they’re suggesting Bolaño lied about being in Chile in 1970, however, they’re forgiving him. Everyone loves conflating authors’ lives with their fiction, and since Bolaño’s work is often “about bands of poets and critics trying to track down the truth about writers who have vanished from history or who cloaked themselves behind murky versions of their pasts,” let’s just enjoy the mystery, and his books.

UPDATE: There is an English language translation of “Beach,” the heroin-related piece from El Mundo, online at Eyeshot. (via Maud Newton)