Violencia y memoria: Una aproximación a la obra de Roberto Bolaño

2009 2009

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Abstract (summary)

This dissertation seeks to approach the major narrative works by Roberto Bolaño from two of the most recurrent themes in his texts: violence and memory. I also propose to read Bolaño inversely, and to examine how the Chilean writer enables readers to rethink the problems of memory and violence. This point is central to the arguments my chapters develop. It is not the intention of this dissertation to find the characteristics of a bestseller in Bolaño, or to seek the sources of his originality, or to locate his place in a specific literary field. This dissertation explores the ways in which Bolaño's narrative allows his readers to make connections with other fields and disciplines, among them history, philosophy, and politics. Because of this approach, several sources, theories, and authors appear together frequently in my chapters.

The hypothesis with which this dissertation starts is that Bolaño's work dismantles the notion of an "omniscient memory"; this is, a total memory that seeks to unify the meaning, and proposes itself as an untouchable discourse that does not admit any debate or appeal. Bolaño's fiction and non-fiction deals with different troubled and particularly violent moments of the 20th century: Nazism, "los desaparecidos" of the dictatorships of the Southern cone countries, the murders of women along the Mexican-American border, etc. The Chilean author, in his own words, writes about such moments with a specific premise in mind. These kinds of texts cannot be written as "una novela de las así llamada de denuncia. Para eso, es mejor no escribir nada". From then on, Bolaño carefully avoids this kind of rhetoric. At the same time, he distances himself from a privileged discourse, testimony, that was used in Latin America to approach situations and political states where extreme violence and repression was exercised.

As abundant criticism has argued, testimony was a central element for condemning and for knowing how violence and repression operated in several dictatorships. However, it is also true, at the same time, that in many places testimony became the most important and "morally valid" discourse to speak about the past. It constituted the "true" narrative of the past, relegating or dismissing all other approaches. Memory was privileged above analysis, thinking or representation. Discourses, like testimony, for example, is presented as a story whose truth is indisputable because it is written from the immediacy of the experience and from the pain that this has produced. In this sense, some critics think testimony is an untouchable and unquestionable text.

As opposed to testimony (or other fictitious narratives that imitate it), Bolaño focused on a literary discourse that always seeks to open meaning and has been hostile to being considered the absolute truth about anything. In his work, a narrator thinks from outside of experience, and puts a deep distance between the figure of the narrator and what he is narrating.

Bolaño does not introduce the topic of violence simply by denouncing violent or repressive acts. In Bolaño's work there is a vision of violence that does not intend to resolve the enigmas presented, but rather one that allows us to take a critical look and be analytical. Bolaño is not primarily interested in denouncing violence. He is more interested in analyzing how violence works and how the spaces in which it takes place are structured. As Sarlo said, what he intends is to "apoderarse de la pesadilla y no sólo padecerla".

The novels of Bolaño are written using fragments that do not intend to assemble a narrative that covers an entire epoch. They do not call for a "macho" reader who reconstructs and organizes its meaning (like in Cortázar's Rayuela). If the narrative of Bolaño allows us to rethink categories such as violence and memory from a more open and less linear view, it is not strange that his texts include an explosion of voices, stories inside other stories, etc. They cannot be reduced to a single argument or to a single voice that leads the narration. This multiplicity of voices and perspectives does not aim, as in Cortázar and others, to the construction of a heroic image of the reader as an active element that reconstructs a final meaning. The universe of novels like Los detectives salvajes or 2666 is not less fragmented than the world of Cortazar characters. It is no less multiple or divided, and Bolaño's characters do not try to reorganize or transcend that universe. There is not a conscious reader that can float above those fragments and reconstruct them. Bolaño immediately assumes the impossibility of re-organization or explanation of the world, and there is no restitution of an original cosmos. Los detectives salvajes and 2666 have a peculiar structure: the parts and fragments of both novels, although they are interdependent of one another, they never compose a unified and closed meaning.

Bolaño approaches violence not from the most visible or important characters that exercised it. The dictator "aura," that was built by Latin-American writers of the 60's and 70's, is completely deflated in his literature. Even when these characters appear in his works, they are represented as absolutely banal, without any kind of complexity. Bolaño focused more on marginal characters, second-rate writers, outsiders, and poor devils with no importance at all. From the margins, the Chilean author approaches the Latin-American history of the last forty years without great grandiloquence. He never used literature as a mere mechanism for denunciation or to try to make allegories of the nation or the continent. Through his characters, he builds different "literary genealogies" and approaches to Latin-American literature that do not necessarily belong to the "big names", but that are very useful to observe how the Latin American literary canon has been formed and developed, and the kind of discourses that have been privileged in the formation of this canon.

Indexing (details)

Latin American literature
0312: Latin American literature
Identifier / keyword
Language, literature and linguistics; Bolano, Roberto; Chile; Chilean literature; Latin American literature; Memory; Outsiders; Violence
Violencia y memoria: Una aproximación a la obra de Roberto Bolaño
Burgos Jara, Carlos
Number of pages
Publication year
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 71/01, Dissertation Abstracts International
Place of publication
Ann Arbor
Country of publication
United States
Ruffinelli, Jorge
Stanford University
University location
United States -- California
Source type
Dissertations & Theses
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
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