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11 June 2011

The dead South American who makes me feel illiterate

I’ve been reading Roberto Bolaño’s collection of non-fiction, Between Parentheses, with a mixture of appreciation and, more than anything, a growing sense of my own ignorance in the field of literature.  This is because to read Bolaño is to take a sort of crash course in the literature of the Spanish speaking world.  Some literary authors I know fairly well, such as Javier Marías,  Julio Cortázar, and César Aira, but then we come to a list of novelists such as this:

Javier Cercas
Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Horacio Castellanos Moya
Enrique Vila-Matas
Osvaldo Lamborghini
Sergio Pital
Juan Marsé
Juan Goytisolo
Olvido García Valdés
Álvaro Pombo

And so on and so on.

And I don’t even want to begin with the poets.  Whew!  The other impression I get from reading Spanish and, to a lesser extent, French literature, is that as a nation, Americans are painfully shallow and uninterested in the books department.  We are not, as a country, well-read, or even interested in reading at all.  We have our books super chains, dying as I write this, or else being transformed into specialty department stores offering a smattering of the best-sellers along with puzzles, games, coffee cups, movies, video games, and electronic amusements of all varieties.  These monstrosities are almost always staffed and managed by individuals who could tell you more about an episode of their favorite soap opera or the marketing principal behind their display piles than they could about a single book in their care.  Countless times I have heard questions such as “who wrote The Great Gatsby” answered with a vapid look by a bookseller before resorting to the computer to look up the information.  The small bookstores may be the last refuge for a public serious about books, or at least serious about good books.  Perhaps the online market is picking up the slack, but a glance at the profit lists suggests that this is not the case.

So, what has happened in the cultures of Bolaño and Marías that has not happened here?  Any thoughts?

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