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Book: Woes of the True Policeman
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Translator: Laura Healy
Price: Rs 599
The mathematician-turned-poet Nicanor Parra usually figures in any list of the greatest poets of Chile and always among the most important poets in the Spanish language. In April 2003, delivering a lecture in Vienna (collected in Between Parentheses, 2004, trans. 2011, as Literature and Exile), Bolaño cited a poem by Parra that begins with Chile's obsession with its "four greatest poets". The debate always involves five poets but only four chairs: Gabriel Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Vicente Huidobro and Pablo de Rokha; or, Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra, Vicente Huidobro and Gabriel Mistral; etc. Parra posits a solution by stating the "truth" in the form of a joke: "Chile's four great poets/ are three:/ Alonso de Ercilla and Rubén Darío". Ercilla was a 16th century Castilian soldier who fought colonial wars in Chile and whose La Araucana is the "foundational fiction" for Chileans. Darío, the father of modernismo (modernism) in Latin American literature, who in his wanderings spent time in Chile, was a Nicaraguan. Chile's four greatest poets are therefore two. And neither was Chilean. Thus Bolaño, who claimed he didn't believe in exile, demolished his topic in Vienna and asserted: "Books are the only homeland of the true writer, books that may sit on shelves or in the memory."
The first lesson Chilean Bolaño, who spent his most productive years in Catalonia, drew from Parra was this: Chileans "don't have Darío or Ercilla, that we can't appropriate them, only read them, which is enough." Is it then the greatness of literature in the Spanish language, especially from Spanish-speaking America, or the impeccable machinery of the Bolaño industry, that the man who spent so many of his 50 years as an impoverished poet dissolved national and linguistic boundaries to eclipse all post-Boom Latin American novelists to be not only read but, in a way, appropriated across continents? It is true that the Hispanophone reader and the Anglophone reader did not have Bolaño's giantness imposed upon them at the same time, nor did they accept it in the same manner or for the same reasons. For the latter, it only started when the flood came. That was the translations of his novels after his death in 2003.