Roberto Bolaño's masterwork, The Savage Detectives, arrives in English. PW spoke with Natasha Wimmer, translator of the novel, ahead of its publication.
Roberto Bolaño (1953—2003) and The Savage Detectives, which you translated, have near-legendary status abroad. What's the background?
Bolaño was born in Chile, but growing up he lived mostly in Mexico. He returned to Chile during the coup in 1973, and he was taken off a bus and put in prison because of his Mexican accent, but he wasn't in prison long. That abortive foray into revolution gave him material for novels like Distant Star and by Night in Chile, but his most autobiographical book is The Savage Detectives. He started out writing poetry: the poet "Arturo Belano" is mostly Bolaño, while Belano's friend, "Ulises Lima," is his best friend, Mario Santiago. In the novel, the two start a literary movement, the visceral realists—in real life, Bolaño and Santiago started a group called the infra-realists in the early '70s. They'd do things like go to Octavio Paz readings and shout out their own poems.
So how did the novels come about?
In the early '80s, something snapped. Bolaño was in his 30s, and he'd been working odd jobs and writing poetry for years. He got married, he moved to a small town near Barcelona, he ran a jewelry store, and he might have had a drug problem (he wrote an essay about detoxing on methadone). Then in the '90s he decided he'd never make money with poetry, so he started writing stories to win prizes from contests. Still, he didn't get a big break until 1998—
When Los detectives salvajes came out?
Right. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and it generated incredible excitement. There was a word-of-mouth madness about it. Francisco Goldman said that when he was in Mexico City at that time, people were talking about Bolaño like they had talked about García Márquez.
Was Bolaño comparatively hard to translate?
I've translated nine books, from Vargas Llosa to Fresan. Vargas Llosa, for instance, has a very international style. His sentence structure is almost transparent. Bolaño has all these different voices. A big part of doing the book was getting the humor in the distinctive ways the other characters talk about these same two guys, Belano and Lima. It's like a fugue.
What's next for you?
I'm working on Bolaño's posthumous novel, about the killings of women in Ciudad Juárez, 2666. That ought to be out in 2008.