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the Complete Review
the complete review - interviews

Roberto Bolaño:
The Last Interview

Roberto Bolaño

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To purchase Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview

Title: Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Genre: Interviews
Written: (2009)
Length: 123 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview - US
Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview - UK
Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview - Canada
Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview - India
  • & Other Conversations
  • With an Introduction by Marcela Valdes
  • With Annotations by Tom McCartan
  • Translated by Sybil Perez
  • Includes:

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good introductory volume; entertaining (if a bit thin) conversations

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 23/8/2010 Jonathan Gibbs
The Observer . 21/3/2010 William Skidelsky

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)n indispensable acquisition for anyone with more than a passing interest in Bolaño." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Independent

  • "This compilation of interviews seems destined to inflame the legend more than it will further the truth." - William Skidelsky, The Observer

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview includes four separate interviews with Roberto Bolaño (first published between 1999 and 2005), with the one with Mónica Maristain apparently the last he gave. The volume also includes Marcela Valdes' review of 2666 (first published in The Nation), which functions -- quite effectively -- as an Introduction (to Bolaño and his work) -- and which opens with a mention of one of the responses Bolaño gave in that final interview (the tongue-in-cheek claim that he would have preferred to be a homicide detective, rather than a writer).
       The interviews are a very mixed bag. The one with Carmen Boullosa -- "Reading is always more important than writing" -- is more of a conversation between two writers than an interview. Elsewhere, Bolaño expresses admiration for Boullosa's work, and here Boullosa pontificates nearly as much as Bolaño does.
       The 'final interview', on the other hand, is one in which Mónica Maristain peppers Bolaño with questions, and doesn't bother to try to delve into any depths: they cover a tremendous amount of ground, but it feels fairly frivolous -- as, indeed, quite a few of Maristain's questions are. So, for example, she asks a series of questions as follows:

MM: Have you ever seen colorful fish underwater ?
RB: Of course. Without going further than Acapulco, in 1974 or 1975.
MM: Have you ever burned your skin with a cigarette ?
RB: Never voluntarily.
MM: Have you ever carved the name of your beloved in the trunk of a tree ?
RB: I have committed greater abuses, but let's draw the veil at that.
       Maristain is all too obliging, happy to draw the veil there -- or anywhere; often, it doesn't seem she's even paying attention to his answers, simply moving on to the next questions on her long list. The sheer number of questions -- it is the longest interview, in terms of the number of pages it covers, and she asks by far the most questions -- mean that a decent amount of information about Bolaño is conveyed, but she truly simply skims the surface. The repartee may be amusing enough, but it's poor work for the final interview with an author, as a tremendous number of questions about him and his work remain unanswered.
       Bolaño doesn't take himself too seriously in these conversations, deflecting much of the praise the interviewers mention him receiving (which they mention rather a lot). The humility and humor make for a sympathetic interview-subject, but also a rather tame one. Bolaño belittles his own beliefs, ascribing his political-philosophical positions simply to his contrarian instincts:
The problem is, once among the Trotskyites, I didn't like their clerical unanimity either, so I ended up being an anarchist. I was the only anarchist I knew and thank God, because otherwise I would have stopped being an anarchist. Unanimity pisses me off immensely. Whenever I realize that the whole world agrees on something, whenever I see that the whole world is cursing someone in chorus, something rises to the surface of my skin that makes me reject it.
       Bolaño doesn't even take on many other writers: instead of the Octavio Paz-bashing of The Savage Detectives he offers only very roundabout criticism, and expresses -- very carefully, admittedly -- some praise. There's implicit criticism (of the two-birds-with-one-stone variety, no less) when he says, speaking of admiring Paz's essays: "He is more interesting as a prose writer than Fuentes is as a prose writer", but he doesn't try to knock these old masters off their pedestals. True, Bolaño is rather condescending about the likes of Isabel Allende and other popular writers, but he's hardly insulting in his dismissal of even such dismissible authors.
       There's much talk about writers and influences in the interviews. Bolaño was a very bookish person, and it's interesting to see what and who he appreciated and praised. From García Márquez's No One writes to the Colonel -- "simply perfect" -- to Nicanor Parra to Juan Rodolfo Wilcock and his The Temple of Iconoclasts (which Bolaño cites as an influence on Nazi Literature in the Americas), Bolaño's enthusiasms are fascinating to read about (helped also by the fact that his enthusiasm is great and comes across well).
       Names are tossed out, but in the mishmash of these interviews and questions it's not that easy to get a sense of how his reading and interests developed. In quick succession he'll mention "the endless caverns of the Marquis de Sade", then Twain and Melville, Emily Dickinson and Whitman, before concluding:
As a teenager, I went through a phase when I only read Poe. Basically, I'm interested in Western literature, and I'm fairly familiar with all of it.
       Only a limited amount of biographical detail emerges, too, with most of that focused on Bolaño's development of a writer. The odd jobs he held, the difficulties he had in making a living from writing are mentioned in passing, and little more attention is devoted to his ultimately fatal liver ailment. He loved his two kids, but there's no sense of what his family life was like.
       There are many good lines in the interviews -- indeed, many of them (especially the quick answers in the final interview) feel a bit too polished, which makes them sound less straightforward than answers given in more natural conversation likely would. However, this also means the short volume reads quickly and well. And it's not all about books and writing:
I don't believe in the hereafter. Were it to exist, I'd be surprised. I'd enroll immediately in some course Pascal would be teaching.
       Bolaño was at various stages of success when these interviews were conducted, finally able to make a living off of his writing (and, by the last ones, enjoying considerable critical acclaim), but the one line that is repeated too often is his claim along the lines that: "knowing what I know now I wouldn't want my child to be a writer either". Variations on this notion -- that it's crazy and far too hard to be a writer -- crop up repeatedly, down to the closing claim that: "I should like to have been a homicide detective much better than being a writer." None of them ring true, as Bolaño throughout clearly comes across as a man who is obsessively a writer (and reader), and who likes nothing better than to immerse himself in any and all things literary.
       Marcela Valdes' Introduction may be a recycled book review, but is a welcome and informative piece of padding -- though a more generous selection of interviews might have served equally well. Admirably, the Melville House volume offers marginal annotations (by Tom McCartan) to the interviews, providing brief information and context about (most of) the authors cited; given the limited space to pack information in, these are quite well done; they are certainly welcome.
       Given how little biographical information about Bolaño is readily available -- and given how the myth(s) around the man proliferate -- Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview is a welcome and handy little volume that anyone interested in the author will likely enjoy. There's not nearly enough substance here, but one does get some sense of the man, and a bit of background -- and all the interviews are entertaining reads -- so it is certainly worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 November 2009

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Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview: Reviews: Roberto Bolaño: Other books by Roberto Bolaño under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean author Roberto Bolaño lived 1953 to 2003.

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