Roberto Bolaño on Exile and Writing

I enjoyed reading Roberto Bolaño’s essay Exiles in The New York Review of Books. Exiles was drawn from Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches (1998–2003), and translated by Natasha Wimmer.

Here is how Bolaño describes exile:

To be exiled is not to disappear but to shrink, to slowly or quickly get smaller and smaller until we reach our real height, the true height of the self… Exile is a question of tastes, personalities, likes, dislikes. For some writers exile means leaving the family home; for others, leaving the childhood town or city; for others, more radically, growing up. There are exiles that last a lifetime and others that last a weekend. Bartleby, who prefers not to, is an absolute exile, an alien on planet Earth. Melville, who was always leaving, didn’t experience—or wasn’t adversely affected by—the chilliness of the word exile. Philip K. Dick knew better than anyone how to recognize the disturbances of exile. William Burroughs was the incarnation of every one of those disturbances.

I also really like the thought process here (especially the part I emphasize below):

Probably all of us, writers and readers alike, set out into exile, or at least a certain kind of exile, when we leave childhood behind. Which would lead to the conclusion that the exiled person or the category of exile doesn’t exist, especially in regards to literature. The immigrant, the nomad, the traveler, the sleepwalker all exist, but not the exile, since every writer becomes an exile simply by venturing into literature, and every reader becomes an exile simply by opening a book.

But the passage below is my favourite, about how writers are different from other professions:

No one forces you to write. The writer enters the labyrinth voluntarily—for many reasons, of course: because he doesn’t want to die, because he wants to be loved, etc.—but he isn’t forced into it. In the final instance he’s no more forced than a politician is forced into politics or a lawyer is forced into law school. With the great advantage for the writer that the lawyer or politician, outside his country of origin, tends to flounder like a fish out of water, at least for a while. Whereas a writer outside his native country seems to grow wings. The same thing applies to other situations. What does a politician do in prison? What does a lawyer do in the hospital? Anything but work. What, on the other hand, does a writer do in prison or in the hospital? He works. Sometimes he even works a lot. And that’s not even to mention poets. Of course the claim can be made that in prison the libraries are no good and that in hospitals there are often are no libraries. It can be argued that in most cases exile means the loss of the writer’s books, among other material losses, and in some cases even the loss of his papers, unfinished manuscripts, projects, letters. It doesn’t matter. Better to lose manuscripts than to lose your life. In any case, the point is that the writer works wherever he is, even while he sleeps, which isn’t true of those in other professions.

Would you agree with Roberto Bolaño’s comparison? Note that you may sympathize with Bolaño’s description of exile (first quoted passage), but disagree with his assessment of writers.


Aside: on my reading list is Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.

2 thoughts on “Roberto Bolaño on Exile and Writing

  1. Hemingway, in the introduction to “The First Forty-nine,” talks about places that were “always a good place for working.” But he says, “Some other places were not so good but maybe we were not so good when we were in them.”

  2. Thanks for the comment, Joe. That is a great quote by Hemingway (I’ve heard it before).

    I like to re-imagine the quote and apply it to daily circumstances. How often is our opinion of a restaurant, a new experience, or even someone you meet clouded by our mood/temperament (at that moment)?

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