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Roberto Bolaño and Infrarealism

Although most people know Roberto Bolaño as a novelist, he started out as a poet in Mexico City where he founded the Infrarealist poetry movement. This Buzzle article will tell you about this Chilean author and his journey from being an infrarealist to a novel writer.
Roberto Bolaño Ávalos, author of the critically acclaimed novels The Savage Detectives and 2666, generated a lot of buzz in the literary world since English translations of his Spanish-language writing began to appear. The Chilean novelist, who died as a result of liver failure in 2003, is well-deserving of the praise he received. His prose style is unique and timely without seeming transitory. In an age of novels that seem written specifically for their Hollywood adaptability, Bolaño’s uncompromising prose is refreshing, and seems guaranteed to endure for years to come.

Bolaño wasn’t always a novelist, though. He started as a poet after he moved with his family to Mexico City. This period in Bolaño’s life was crucial to his later development as a writer. In fact, The Savage Detectives is loosely based on his Mexico City years. While living there, Bolaño and his friend, poet Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, caused quite a scene in the literary world by founding a poetry movement they called Infrarealism.

The Infrarealists, of whom Bolaño and Papasquiaro were undoubtedly the leaders, wanted to react to the established Mexican literary heroes of the day, including Octavio Paz. Some of the other Infrarealists who participated in this movement included Cuauhtémoc Méndez, Bruno Montané, Juan Esteban Harrington, Oscar Altamirano, José Peguero, Guadalupe Ochoa, Edgar Altamirano, Pedro Damián Bautista, Ramón Méndez, Edgar Artaud among others. They felt that the literary world was too stodgy and too bourgeois, which made it unappealing to the common people. This was happening in the early 1970s, in the midst of a time of political turmoil in Latin America, and they were inspired by political revolutions. Bolaño and his friends wanted to stage their own revolution in the world of poetry, so Infrarealism was born.

Because the literary establishment was one of the sworn enemies of the Infrarealists, it’s a little ironic that Bolaño has achieved such renown in critical circles around the world. This irony was not lost on his fellow Infrarealists, most of whom never became known or attained any literary stature—sometimes by choice, sometimes not. His old companions occasionally accused Bolaño of being a sellout, saying that he should have stuck to poetry rather than switching to writing novels. His success as a novelist, they felt, compromised the principles of the Infrarealist movement that he founded.

Bolaño later said in interviews that he considered himself and Papasquiaro to have been the only two "true Infrarealists" and that Infrarealism died when Bolaño moved to Europe a few years after starting the movement. Based on this, it seems unlikely that he would have been too upset by the criticism he received from other self-proclaimed Infrarealists.

So far, not much information is available on the Infrarealists in English. Papasquiaro continued to write poetry until the end of his life in the 1990s, and some of this poetry is just starting to appear in translation. Although the movement was fairly short-lived, at least as Bolaño understood it, it seems likely that Bolaño’s popularity will generate enough interest in Infrarealism to make it a subject of academic study and discussion by critics today. This might be a difficult pill for some of the Infrarealist poets to swallow, but in the end, they should be pleased. In his manifesto of Infrarealism, Bolaño referenced several poets of times past, including Andre Breton and Arthur Rimbaud, both of whom would not be known to him if they had not eventually entered the literary mainstream.
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Published: September 4, 2013
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