How ironic for Roberto Bolaño—how heartbreaking, really—that his rise to international literary superstardom followed such a well-trod track: from drunken days as an enfant terrible to the midcareer struggle against obscurity to late-career acclaim to canonical apotheosis (posthumous, of course) after his epic 2666 hit critics and sent them scurrying to find new and more complicated ways to say, "This is the best thing I've read in decades."
Bolaño began life in Chile, graduated to being a young poet in Mexico City, cofounded a movement (the Infrarealists), terrorized other writers (storming into their readings, shouting epithets), traveled the world, practiced revolution (he was thrown in jail during the Pinochet coup and was sprung by one of the guards, an old schoolmate), and may or may not have done some time as a junkie (accounts vary, including his own). He simmered down long enough to write a few masterpieces, gain acclaim in the Spanish-language world, and die of liver failure at 50, just when his career should've hit high noon.
Knowing how his story ends is just another way of confirming that he's dead: no more life for him, no more books for us. Except this one, a collection of interviews from his final years. The Last Interview is, in fact, a long introduction and four interviews with peers, admirers, and journalists. It's difficult to say how much the interviews reveal about Bolaño: He answers like a man in the habit of fucking with people. Parts of his actual last interview, with Mónica Maristain of Playboy's Mexican edition, read like flirting:
MM: Why don't you have air conditioning in your studio?
RB: Because my motto is "Et in Esparta ego," not "Et in Arcadia ego."
MM: John Lennon, Lady Di, or Elvis Presley?
RB: The Pogues. Or Suicide. Or Bob Dylan. Well, but let's not be pretentious: Elvis forever. Elvis and his golden voice, with a sheriff's badge, driving a Mustang and stuffing himself full of pills.
MM: Have you stolen a book you later didn't like?
RB: Never. The good thing about stealing books—unlike safes—is that one can carefully examine their contents before perpetrating the crime.
And another cute exchange:
MM: Is the world without remedy? [This may be my new favorite question.]
RB: The world is alive and no living thing has any remedy. That's our fortune.
MM: Do you have hope? For what and for whom?
RB: My dear Maristain, again you push me toward the land of bad taste, which is not my native land. I have hope for children. For children and warriors. For children who fuck like children and warriors who fight like brave men.
But Bolaño lived in a different world from his interlocutors. He knew he was dying as he gave these interviews and answers even goofy questions, which he might've mocked in his youth, with startling sincerity. He talks about Borges ("there is only Borges"), his Poe-steeped adolescence (which might account for the morbidity of his stories), and how he feels about his children: "All of the fears and terrors I experienced as an adolescent re-emerged and duplicated, multiplied themselves by 100... I won't say any more. I'll start to cry. The only explanation I could give would be to start to cry."
At 121 airy pages (with margin notes explaining his Latin-American literary references) and $14.95, The Last Interview isn't a general-interest volume. But for fans of Bolaño, who wonder what he thought about Herman Melville and Isabel Allende and his day jobs as an outdoor-camp manager and a costume-jewelry salesman (and his candidate for the most beautiful woman in the world), The Last Interview is a light pleasure, good for bus rides and waiting rooms.