‘My literary project is in direct relationship with my life. My literary project is my life… The literary project, the poet’s poem, is the poet himself.’

Roberto Bolaño


Of the many places in which he lived, Roberto Bolaño spent the longest in Blanes, a smallish seaside city about an hour north of Barcelona on the southern tip of the Costa Brava. He moved in 1985 after allegedly discovering the city by chance. Flocked with tourists each summer, Blanes was founded before the Roman Conquest and has nearly been levelled twice since—first by a fire in the eighteenth century and later by a storm in 2008. From his apartment just a few blocks up from the beach, Bolaño helped raise his two children while hurriedly writing the works that would secure his legacy before his death in 2003.

Downtown Blanes has a mix of large buildings from the time of Franco, fashionable takeaway businesses, outdated video rental stores, and small fishermen’s houses. This eclectic mixture is typical of Blanes—the name of which comes from the Latin blanda, meaning soft—a town in which inconsistency seems to be the only consistent feature. Bolaño described Blanes as ‘a city which is older than New York and sometimes seems like a rabid mix of Tire, Pompeii, and Brooklyn.’

And so we passed time at a bench in front of the beach, just a few hundred feet from Bolaño’s old apartment. In the distance, a rock promontory extended into the water and split the otherwise flat beach into two halves. Here, prompted naturally, we began to discuss Bolaño’s story, ‘Beach’, in which a narrator describes his life as a recovering heroin addict in Blanes. Following his death, this story formed the basis of a rumour that Bolaño himself had a problem with drugs that factored into his early death. In fact, it is all but impossible to parse the mythological from the actual in the story of Bolaño’s life. Just as with Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima in The Savage Detectives, his life has continued to be a source of conversation amongst a chorus of his friends, enemies, and acquaintances.

Much later, from the bench by the beachside, we called Carla Rippey, one of Bolaño’s friends from his youth in Mexico City.

CARLA RIPPEY, on a Zoom call from Mexico City

Well perhaps let me begin by introducing myself. I’m Carla Rippey, but you know that. I was born in the Midwest, in Kansas City, and I left as soon as I could. I went to Paris and then I studied in New York, and that’s where I met a Mexican student [Ricardo Pascoe] who went down to Chile to study when Allende was in power. And at that time, I was extremely involved in the feminist movement, but I left it all to go down and get married to Ricardo in Chile—being involved in the Chilean Left seemed even more interesting. But then the coup came, and Ricardo’s school was shut down and we had to leave because everyone knew that foreigners were Leftists. So we came to Mexico and I’ve been here ever since.

In Mexico City, Ricardo was very involved with the Chilean refugees. Somebody, probably Juan Estaban Harrington, took Roberto to meet Ricardo and then they came home to our house. From there we were really quite good friends. But then Roberto’s family got into a complicated situation. But as you said, with Roberto everyone has their own version of the story. His sister had an ex-boyfriend who was arrested for holding up a restaurant, I think. So the police got involved with the family and took Roberto down to the immigration headquarters and he took his articles about his poetry and said, ‘I’m not a thief! I’m a poet!’ Then Roberto’s mother and sister went to live in Barcelona and he followed them. I never saw him again. I remember I went to the airport with my kids to see him off. That’s where I met his father, in the very first days of January 1977.

We wrote for four or five years until my life got really complicated and it got very hard to answer Roberto back. But then, around ’95—like 12 years later—I wrote him a long letter and sent him a package of my shows because I had decided to dedicate myself to being an artist. He said that when he got the package he was afraid it was a manuscript being returned. Then he wrote me a 10-page letter back, the first letter I ever got from him written on a computer. It was a wonderful letter, but I never answered it.

Finally, in the year he died, we started writing again. In May, he called me but I didn’t answer, and I tried calling back but I couldn’t find his number. When I eventually got in touch with him, he said, ‘Carla, Carla, I can’t have my number public with all my fans.’ We had a really nice long talk. I think, in a certain way, he was saying goodbye.

Then he wrote one last letter to me, I think in June—something about the light on the Mediterranean. Then he died, and I found out from the newspapers. And I remember I was working in a school and I just went around crying all day. It’s funny—in one of his letters he writes about meeting me and Ricardo and he says, ‘You all gave me so much and I felt like I could never really give anything back.’ But he really did—not just to us but to everyone.


The Sailing Club of Blanes is an austere, modern establishment in front of a small marina full of the wealthy locals and tourists who so intrigued Bolaño. He probably never ate here. It’s easier to imagine him at a cheap bar in front of the beach, where he could watch the mass of tourists whom he praised as ‘Europe’s bravest’, by which he meant the ‘people from here and from the other side of the Pyrenees, the fat, the ugly, the skeletal, the prettiest girls of Barcelona, children of all kinds, the old, the terminally ill, the hung over, the half naked…’, an image that reveals both Bolaño’s fascination with crowds and his occasional penchant for cruelty.

José Peguero had known Bolaño since the days of the Infrarealist movement in Mexico, where they were young pranksters agitating at the fringes of the mainstream literary circles. Some four decades later, he spoke of these times with a mix of candour and sincere enthusiasm.

JOSÉ PEGUERO, at The Sailing Club of Blanes, Blanes

In The Savage Detectives, I appear as Jacinto. I do not recognise myself in the novel except in some parts. And in other places he describes things that happened to me but he ascribes them to different characters. In the Detectives my name is Jacinto. In another, he didn’t even bother to change it and my character is named ‘Peguero’.

There were several Infrarealists who were angry at Bolaño’s portrayal of them, but the ones who were really angry were those from the ‘official culture’. So much so that until very recently he was not mentioned in Mexico, and up to this day the Infrarealists are excluded from the history of Mexican literature. Us characters are wondering if one day we should all get together and tell the story as we saw it. Remake the Detectives with the real witnesses…

CARLA RIPPEY, on a Zoom call from Mexico City

He did other portraits of women in that book which were rather terrible but mine came across well. My role (Catalina O’Hara) was very small, but there were parts of it which were true, like when I was going around crying because I was having trouble with men. Actually, I had written to Roberto about my breakup with Ricardo.

He really was a myth-maker, and he was himself part of his myth. But he was not a narcissist. He was much more involved with everybody else than he was with himself. That’s why he was such a good writer because he had enough empathy that he could write about female characters as if he was them.


We met Bruno Montané at Bar Cèntric, a small tavern in the centre of Barcelona—the same bar where his character, Felipe Müller, offers his testimony in The Savage Detectives. Like Bolaño, Montané was born in Chile, lived in Mexico City, and was involved with the Infrarealists before moving to Spain. After settling in Barcelona in 1976, he became the publisher of Editorial Sin Fin, where he still prints, among others, the works of fellow Infrarealists. Like Bolaño, he is also a poet.

Bar Cèntric was dominated by noise, people who had just left work and the regular customers already sitting down, ordering beers and carajillos—a short coffee with rum or cognac. From time to time, a walker stopped in front of a nearby signpost, small and darkened, that read: ‘The writer and poet Roberto Bolaño Ávalos lived in this house (Santiago de Chile 1953 – Barcelona 2003.)’

BRUNO MONTANÉ, Bar Cèntric, Carrer de les Ramelleres, Barcelona

I found it funny that he put me in his book, but a lot of things are made up or distorted with endearing genius. You have to smile. At the time there was a very sensitive, somewhat hurt, reading from the Infrarealists which I suppose was unavoidable. The Detectives is a novel of a generation, but there is a distortion of the biographical image. I have always said that the Detectives is 77 per cent fiction and the rest is biography. Recomposing the theatre of your past is a very curious manoeuvre, but it is always done and has to be done. Roberto managed to build and rebuild a world.

But, as a matter of fact, we did not go so much to Bar Cèntric—which was a bit expensive—but we went to La Granja Parisién, which has since closed. In its place they have set up a phone shop, as they always do.

PIEL DIVINA, in an email from Fontainebleau, France

Another interview about Roberto Bolaño, his work and friends, I thought everything was said a thousand times. The questions are crap and pointless. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll feel more inspired. Good night.

PIEL DIVINA, on the phone from Fontainebleau, France

The nickname ‘Luscious Skin’ was born with the Infra-Realist group. Mara Larossa—Maria Font in the Detectives—was caressing my skin one day and she told me I had ‘Piel Divina’. Sometimes these things are imposed on you and you just have to accept them.

It is necessary to separate the novel—which is totally fictional—from the real. But it is clear that Roberto could not start from scratch; a real departure point is necessary. The Luscious Skin in the novel is a fiction, and the one in real life is someone else. The person who has dedicated himself to becoming a sculptor is separate from that of the novel. Now I’m doing what Bolaño never did, in a literal sense, being a sculptor. I am grateful that Roberto made me more famous, and it did not create any conflict or sense of schizophrenia in me. It’s funny, you know, my character, who seems the most invented, is the only one who does not have a pseudonym, the only real one.


It is a black and white photo of Roberto in a public square. Where? Maybe in Barcelona. He stands on the right side of the frame, staring plainly at Enrique Vila-Matas, who in this instance is the photographer. He is dressed smartly—

yet casually—in a black jacket. His glasses, as usual, take a dominant position on his face. His expression is neither enthused nor unenthused. There is a bag slung over his left shoulder. We must assume it holds books. Behind his left shoulder is a man in a suit, rushing head down with a cellphone pressed against his ear. In motion he blurs such that Roberto, in comparison, seems statuesque.

ENRIQUE VILA MATAS, Crep Nova, Carrer del Comte d’Urgell, Barcelona

Bolaño was not a Beatnik. He was passionate about Kerouac and had read all the Beats. And his demeanour could be like that sometimes, but he was not a professional beatnik in the way he lived his life, nor was he in the past.

The myth about his drug addiction is completely false. It emerged from a commission series called ‘The Summer Story,’ which was a common thing here, some years ago. So El Mundo newspaper commissioned him to write a short story, not an essay. There, he told the story of a drug addict. He had known some addicts in Blanes. But then the piece was written, and I don’t know how but it inflated his myth. The people who knew him know that it is nonsense. I think that in The New York Times Jonathan Lethem confused it for an essay. It was one of the first important articles on Bolaño and it kickstarted the story. It was not in the interest of the publisher to negate it, because it created an aura.

PIEL DIVINA, on the phone from Fontainebleau, France

In attitude towards life and literature, Roberto could be comparable to a Beat artist. This was the point of the Infrarealists. We were not sponsored by any sacred cow of Literature and we were totally self-taught. Before being the revered writer he is today, Roberto did a lot of miserable little jobs. In Mexico City we lived on a minimal budget. But he was not a Beat in the sense of being an alcoholic. He was a very serious writer, dedicated to his work. He was never a drinker, he always had tea instead. He didn’t take seriously that gospel that claims that Beatniks have to get high and drink. He was a sort of scribe of two Beatnik groups, observing them from a distance. The rest of us were more destroyers, we liked getting to the bottom of things. We could get very drunk if necessary. This legend of Bolaño as an alcoholic or drug- addicted writer is just an invention for commercial reasons. Roberto was always on the sidelines—he had to be—for he was the scribe of the time and he gave his testimony of the time.

BRUNO MONTANÉ, Bar Cèntric, Carrer de les Ramelleres, Barcelona

There is something fundamental for me in his writing, his capacity for fabulation, his desire to tell, which comes from the poem, which always has a narrative core. There are infinite passages in his prose that are absolutely poetic in character. I open a book, read five lines, and identify his style. I think it is absolutely identifiable. But of course, I’m biased, because I was his friend.

ENRIQUE VILA-MATAS, Crep Nova, Carrer del Comte d’Urgell, Barcelona

I would say that Roberto didn’t have style. He has a very recognisable prose, but he was not looking for a specific style. It is not what counts in his texts. I think of him mainly as a storyteller. This is one of the reasons why he worked so well in the US, because he returned to narration, the old novel form. Many storylines, characters… As you might know I am not that interested in narration. For example, right now I am reading a lot of essays, things that escape the strictly narrative art, maybe because I feel that at bottom we already know all the stories. That’s why I’ve always preferred Don DeLillo to Philip Roth. But I nonetheless admire Bolaño’s almost heroic drive to narrate.

And of course, he is more complex than just that. There is in him the meta- literary thing. There is no doubt that he is a devout Borges-ian. I think it is Borges’ influence that makes Bolaño’s poetry interesting, among other things. I don’t think it is great poetry, but I have found things in it that I like. Not so much because of the quality of the verses but because of what is said in them. In that sense he is like Borges. Borges is an essayist writing poems, which is not ideal; but sometimes the ideas are of such quality that one forgets about the rest. And then he has some images, the evening falling, the colours fading in the patio, which, as images, are beautiful. I think that Borges started by feeling he had to write poetry to become a complete writer. But then he found his way, which was to never write a novel like Tolstoy. He knew he couldn’t compete with the great novelists of the nineteenth century, and he knew that their kind of literature was not suited to the century he lived in. Which was a great intuition, because he wrote short stories which are incredibly relevant. Bolaño had read Borges well. It was very important for him. He considered himself from the Borges side, because all writers come from somewhere. He came from Borges. Nazi Literature In The Americas comes from Marcel Schwob, who Borges vindicated.


From the centre of Paris we walked along the Seine to the Gare de Lyon. After buying the train tickets, we shared a beer which cost us €10 in a regular bar. On our way to Fontainebleau, the almost-empty train halted suddenly and the lights went out. The loudspeakers warned us that another train had derailed but provided no further information. We looked at each other and decided to search the news to see if we could find out anything about the event. We did not find anything. After nearly an hour, the voice announced that we could proceed. When we checked our mobiles again, we saw that the next French presidential elections were leaning towards the right.

Piel Divina came to meet us at Fontainebleau Station in an old silver Citroën Picasso. He was wearing jeans, leather work boots, and a hat that made him look like a cowboy but which he called ‘a tramp’s sombrero’. Once in the car we looked at each other and then to him, checking whether his skin was still ‘luscious’. The journey to his house took us fifteen minutes in which we barely talked about Bolaño. He told us that the Fontainebleau forest was originally a desert and only after the intervention of Louis XIV—who did not want the sand to reach Paris—was it transformed into a forest.

JOSÉ PEGUERO, at The Sailing Club of Blanes

We were very direct. When Piel Divina arrived in Mexico and did not wait to be introduced or sent a message, he came directly to someone’s house. The Infras are like that, and even if they don’t write much their work is very much alive and written like we are face to face, talking. We looked for this very lively contact. Some poems can take generations to be understood; there are texts that take years to come to terms with. This is not the case with us, we are not cryptic, it is a language of proximity to the street…


We left the main road and turned onto a dirt path. Before long, we arrived at his house—a low, slim building from the 70s, designed by the father of his wife, Joel. Inside the house, Piel Divina showed us the wooden sculptures that he and his wife make. When we asked him what he was working on currently, he replied: ‘In the vacuum. I’m trying to capture the forcefulness of no-space.’ He also showed us some books that he had brought from his last trip to Mexico, most of them penned by his Infrarealist friends.

PIEL DIVINA, in the forest at Fontainebleau, France

I was a person with a lot of energy, with a lot of vitality. I had things that Roberto didn’t have, so I think that made him notice me.

Bolaño didn’t come out of nowhere. He drew on all Latin American literature, which he knew very well. Huidobro, Vallejo, Cortazar… His narratives arose from all he read, though he transformed it all. He read many Latin Americans and the Surrealists in translation, though he never mastered any other language apart from maybe Catalan.

Perhaps Roberto’s fame in the United States occurred because he broke from tradition. He was the opposite of a creative-writing-school writer. He escaped from all that. The Infrarealist intention from the beginning was to subvert the entire order of the moment, all the academies, all the dominant programmes. It was an aesthetic challenge that he took to the maximum in his novels.

It’s difficult to say if Bolaño is a writer without style. For me Bolaño is a universal writer, neither Chilean nor Spanish nor Catalan. Maybe he went beyond styles, to a sort of neutral zone. He is almost a traditional storyteller. When you pretend to be a universal writer, you erase everything, and perhaps also erase your style. You lose your peculiarities. But, of course, you get other things.

ENRIQUE VILA-MATAS, Crep Nova, Carrer del Comte d’Urgell, Barcelona

But Bolaño cannot be understood only through Borges, because, as I said, he is essentially a narrator. When I wrote El Viaje Vertical, a work which won the Romulo Gallegos prize because it was a conventional novel (although exploding from the inside…), the story was of a man in his 50th year of marriage whose wife tells him that she is tired of him. He is on his own with his children, but that is not enough, and so he sets out on a trip in Portugal. Lisboa, Oporto, Madeira. And when I told Bolaño the novel I was writing I said to him, you see, nothing happens. I said that because there was no action, only thought. The narrator was increasingly worried, following his trip. And Bolaño said, ‘How come you say that? A thousand things are going on in this book.’ He saw narration everywhere; everything was interesting for him. And when he had to read novels for a jury, he said that everything was badly written, but that in itself was super interesting for him, to discover that people had many stories to tell. See, he knew where stories lay.

BRUNO MONTANÉ, Bar Cèntric, Carrer de les Ramelleres, Barcelona

The Bolaño style was crafted more by cynicism than by anyone like the Beats. Cynicism understood as in ancient Greek which means ‘dogs’. His style was the style of dogs. Bolaño was interested in the sect of the dog and Diogenes the Cynic and the others. But, as you know, who inspired him a lot was the figure of Archilochus. His poetry must be read, there are many leads there, everything is there.

ENRIQUE VILA-MATAS, Crep Nova, Carrer del Comte d’Urgell, Barcelona

It is true, he had a first epoch where he was quite experimental. Amberes is interesting but would have never sold if he did not write the rest. The more commercial things. Commercial not as in ‘made to sell’, to be sure. It is sometimes said that he quit poetry to make money. But that is not true: he did not sell so much when he was alive. And if selling had have been his goal, he would’ve probably failed. No, Roberto was very honest with himself. I did love the enthusiasm he expressed when he found an editor. First Seix Barral, for Nazi Literature in The Americas. And in fifteen days he wrote Distant Star for Anagrama.

PIEL DIVINA, in the forest of Fontainebleau

Roberto had a somewhat ambiguous version of poetry. His poems were descriptive, narrative, cinematic. It was anything but poetic. He drew heavily on poetry, but he did not dare to be a poet. He stopped on the edge of that abyss.

JOSE PEGUERO, at The Sailing Club of Blanes

Roberto was a very political person, but he was not a militant. In Mexico, when you were a foreigner in those years it was difficult to get involved. We were all very close to Trotskyism, which was the purest position you could hold on the Left. But as we say in Mexico, there are only three or maybe five Trotskyists remaining, and they are constantly fighting.

One of the constants of the Infrarealist movement was the affection we had for each other, and the union in the fight we had against established cultural groups. We fought that because it had nothing to do with literature—all the grants, the residencies, the institutional endorsement. You write and you can write a single poem and you can say that you are a poet, without having to appear in institutional lists or anthologies. Poetry, literature should not be about that. There is an obscene need to publish text that is worth nothing but money.

The political programme of the Infras was that of the revolution of the Surrealists. We had a purist position on the Left, but we did not expect to achieve anything; it was idealistic, not militant.

Once, after we were particularly successful in an attack against the literary establishment, we celebrated. Roberto went to the store and bought a small bottle of tequila, and we mixed it with a large bottle of Coca Cola, and we distributed it to each other. Though I think he never drank because he always knew about his liver.

PIEL DIVINA, in the forest of Fontainebleau, France

The Infrarealist poetic movement was not political or ideological. If there was a political commitment from any of the members, they were not representatives of the movement. It was purely an aesthetic and cultural movement. We were coming out of a very hard and cruel historical moment in which several of our peers had decided to join a fight and ended up being killed. The Infrarealist movement was like a desire to survive all that. Roberto was rather apolitical. He was fed by literature and he lived for literature. I do not see him committed to any political attitude. I don’t want to say neutral, but apolitical.

JOSÉ PEGUERO, at the Sailing Club of Blanes

The trip that he made to Chile to go to defend the government of Allende— that trip was fantastic because he did it almost all on foot. He was penniless, walking around doing small jobs, looking for the poets in each country he passed through. He told me about the trip in detail. He travelled with some Germans who were cycling all over Latin America. They got on a boat with the Germans, and he said they were amazing, because they were cycling all over the world, despite their very young age. Bolaño’s father also confirmed to me that he went to defend Allende.

BRUNO MONTANÉ, La Central del Raval, Carrer d’Elisabets, Barcelona

About Chile. I met him two or three months after his return from Chile. He told me the truth, and be careful, you have to be very careful. The story of memory is constructed each time it is told. Telling things as they happened is not possible. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember exactly what he said. The main scene that he told me was that he was linked to a party and they were waiting for a contact who was going to provide them with weapons to fight Pinochet but that it ended in disappointment.

CARLA RIPPEY, on a Zoom call from Mexico City

He was in Mexico during the coup against Allende, I think. But he had written or talked about going back or being there. I’m pretty sure he was not in Chile when the coup happened. He would have told us, obviously, because we were there and we would have compared notes. So I think a lot of that he kind of elaborated on in his head.

ENRIQUE VILA-MATAS, Crep Nova, Carrer del Comte d’Urgell, Barcelona

Now, about Chile, it is true that he was there. But he did not go there to fight Pinochet, it was accidental. He was there travelling, visiting someone, I think. He was not very politically engaged, although he has been read like that and can be read like that.

PIEL DIVINA, in the forest of Fontainebleau, France

He wrote about Chile and about his participation against Pinochet’s coup to enlarge his mythology. If in real life you tell a lie, you become known as a mythomaniac, but if you tell it in literature you are just a fabulator. I don’t want to say that Roberto was a liar, but he was an excellent fabulator.

ENRIQUE VILA-MATAS, Crep Nova, Carrer del Comte d’Urgell, Barcelona

With Bolaño’s biography there are some fictions that keep repeating, no? Is it not what happens with everyone? There are some clichés that keep coming without remedy. It happens to all of us.

In my case, people always recall that I lived with Marguerite Duras in Paris, something to which I didn’t ascribe any importance in the moment that it happened. She was not the writer that she has become today. And I was mostly worried about not paying her. I was quite afraid of her. I lived on the sixth floor and she lived on the third, and every time I went through her door I was afraid she would ask for the money I didn’t have. And then the fake interview I did with Marlon Brando for Fotograma magazine. I was working for a magazine and I did not want them to know that I could not speak English, so I made everything up.

JOSÉ PEGUERO, at the Sailing Club of Blanes

Even with all his stories and fabrications, he never made us angry. Living with him, the days became long, stretched. We spent hours arguing, talking. Planning attacks on institutions or on the hierarchs of the culture of Mexico. He loved to tell stories, whether they were real or not. His descriptions of Mexico City are very accurate. There are things that he also invented, which is funny because here people have continued to affirm them as they happen in the novel; now over the years they have become historical truths.

Even to this day I think that the fantasies he told us then were much better than the ones that appear in his novels. For example, we were in a café and he said that he lived in the world of the flu, or that he had the flu, and then he started talking as if he was dreaming. He wore winter clothes when it was hot and acted bizarrely with other people. He liked to act like that. Roberto and I always spoke to each other truthfully and always said what we truly believed to one another. Yes, it was an invention. But of course we believed it. That became real and we enjoyed it like little dwarves.

PIEL DIVINA, in the forest of Fontainebleau, France

Fabulating is a part of all the people who live in and for the world of literature because they are creating stories and universes all the time. We used to say to him, ‘no mames, párate’. But who are we to criticise or judge? In the end everyone makes up their lives in one way or another. Bolaño, at first, when he was still not famous, did not introduce himself as a poet or a novelist, but as a sculptor, of sculptures of thought. And that is what he did to his life, he treated it like a sculpture.

ENRIQUE VILA-MATAS, Crep Nova, Carrer del Comte d’Urgell, Barcelona

Almost everything I have written is autobiographical but also changed. It responds to a reality, to a truth. In Bolaño this is very evident in The Savage Detectives. He is writing about his life in Mexico, but it is at the same time a creation of that life and different from what actually happened. You have the same thing in the birth of the novel, Don Quixote. Reality and fiction merge. Reality is there but it cannot fully get into the text. When you are writing you are inventing a mirror whose reflection you will never find. That is the beginning of everything; that’s the novel. When people speak of non-fiction I laugh because as soon as we speak, we are always modifying reality, we are performing a literary construction.