An Interview with Carolina Lopez
The Catalan resort town of Blanes, Spain, last summer commemorated the tenth anniversary of Roberto Bolaño’s death with “Homenatge: Bolaño a Blanes,” a three-month series of memorial events emphasizing the Chilean author’s connection with the city, where he spent the last two decades of his life. The Homenatge included the “Nocturn de Bolaño,” during which more than twenty locals read excerpts from his work with occasional jazz interludes; several lectures and roundtables; and the unveiling of a self-guided walking tour of Blanes, the Ruta Bolaño.
Handsome red-and-black plaques now mark important Bolaño sites in Blanes. They range from the deeply intimate—the progression of homes and studios Bolaño occupied; Videoclub Serra, the video store owned by his close friend Narcís Serra; the pharmacy where he collected the medication for his afflicted liver—to sites of literary relevance, like Joker Jocs, the shop where Bolaño purchased the strategy games so compellingly fictionalized in The Third Reich, and the seaside streets that inspired the setting of The Skating Rink.
Speaking alongside the mayor of Blanes and the Catalan minister of culture, Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, thanked the city and its library for memorializing her late husband. She was accompanied by their two children, Lautaro, twenty-three, and Alexandra, twelve, who have their father’s shining black hair. It was a rare public appearance for a woman who has avoided and at times refused publicity.
I met Carolina López at Es Blanc, the café lounge that serves as Blanes’s unofficial social hub. At fifty-three years old, she is petite with curly brown hair, her wide hazel eyes magnified by oblong eyeglasses. As the first American writer to interview López, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but she surprised me with her generosity and openness, her ribald and easy sense of humor, and most of all with the insightful and incisive wisdom that has guided her management of Bolaño’s estate.
When speaking of her decision to pursue legal action against parties including Mónica Maristain, author of an unauthorized biography of Bolaño, and Carmen Pérez de Vega, a woman who claims intimate involvement with the author in the last years of his life, López was measured and clear. In her biography, Maristain casts unfounded aspersions on López and Bolaño’s relationship, effectively arguing against López’s primacy in the author’s life and creative process and claiming that Pérez de Vega “wakes an obsession in Bolaño’s legal widow and heiress, Carolina López.” Since Bolaño’s death, Pérez de Vega has sold stories about the author’s last days to magazines and newspapers, seeking the public role of widow that López has eschewed out of a desire to protect her children’s privacy and her husband’s legacy.
In this interview, López reveals the level of intimacy and collaboration that characterized her marriage to the author, sacrificing a bit of her closely guarded privacy to set the record straight.
CAROLINA LÓPEZ: I was born and raised in Barcelona, in the Barri Gòtic. I grew up in an apartment on Carrer de la Boqueria. I am the ninth of ten siblings. My parents were from Andalusia. My mother was a homemaker. My father fought for the Republicans in the Civil War and ended up in a concentration camp, where he became very ill. He lived the same trajectory of many men of his generation and later on became a strict Catholic, joining a radical religious congregation. This was why I had so many siblings. When I was seventeen I began working near Girona and fell in love with a man who lived there. I moved to Girona to be with him. The relationship lasted only two years. When we split up, I continued living in Girona, and six months after the breakup I met Roberto.
Roberto was enrolled in the sculpture school in Girona, and I had a friend who was his classmate. They were walking together and we stopped and introduced each other. He asked me to dinner at his apartment that very night. I went, and he spent all night reading poetry to me. His poetry. He lived alone, with a dog called Laika, at his sister’s house in the La Pedrera quarter of Girona. I lived in the Chinese quarter, which had the advantage of being very cheap. This was November 1981. I was twenty; Roberto was twenty-eight years old.
We married in 1985. We were very much in love, but we married only to legalize Roberto’s residency in Spain. If this hadn’t been necessary, we wouldn’t have married. At that time I was anti-marriage because of the institution’s connections to the patriarchy and the subjugation of women. It was hard for me to denounce this fight; when I did, I felt that I had become normal and given up my basic values. I considered myself quite revolutionary then. But there was no question about our relationship; I wanted to be with him, absolutely.
He was very rigorous with his schedules. Before we had children, Roberto wrote all night and slept while I was at work. We were together in the afternoon and the first part of the evening. We kept a notebook of letters as a way to stay in touch, because our schedules were so different. When I woke up every morning I found these beautiful notes, many of which I saved. A typical one reads: “Get me some tobacco, please, and bring me El País.” He would tell me how many lines he had written over the night: “I’ve written fifty lines”; “I’ve written two hundred and five lines.”
Everything changed when Lautaro was born. Roberto took care of Lautaro. His son was his highest priority. He adapted his writing to Lautaro’s schedule and to my work schedule. When we had a bit more money, we registered Lautaro in a morning day care. Roberto would write in the morning, then go to pick up Lautaro at noon and make lunch for him. Financially, things were quite difficult at the beginning. Before I was promoted as a civil servant, we didn’t have much money. But slowly things got a bit easier. With my job we were able to get a bank loan. With this money we rented a studio for Roberto in Calle Lloro in Blanes and bought a computer. After that, things were much easier. Roberto also started winning some literary prizes.
We loved going to the beach, going out to eat, making love. We read many novels together. We liked going to the cinema. We didn’t have much money, but every day was like a party. We were very happy. Once we had children, we began to watch films at home. Every day we rented films, mainly crime films, and watched them together after we had put our children to bed. Roberto really liked cooking, and used to cook very often. He experimented with and invented dishes, and Lautaro and I were his tasters. It’s strange, but our children learned to eat with Roberto. Neither Lautaro nor Alexandra went through the mashed-up food stage in their early childhood. They went from dairy baby food to cut-up adult food. He used to sit them on his knees and share his food with them, even if it was spicy. Now spicy food, in all its variations, is still on our table.
Roberto loved children. He really enjoyed playing with his children and leading a family life. That took up a great deal of his free time. We played a lot with our children. I remember Roberto and Alexandra playing “Mr. Chicken,” in which he would chase her and they ran around the house until he caught her. He also played computer games with Lautaro. They were really into Civilization.
I never had any trouble understanding Roberto’s commitment to his work. We were very free. It was normal for us, and I didn’t have any problem working at an ordinary job while Roberto was writing. I always felt that even if he had not published yet, he would soon. In retrospect it might seem somewhat naïve, but it was how we lived. The problems between us were not about work or even about our relationship; it was always mundane things. We argued for years about Roberto’s refusal to do his own laundry, about who would clean the house. It seemed a huge issue to me then, if you can believe that!
We had a very honest and true relationship. We told each other everything. There were no secrets, and we fully trusted each other. Maybe we were very wild. Honesty and loyalty encompassed all aspects of our life together. Put simply, the essence of our partnership, which grew out of love and living together day after day, is that I was the breadwinner and logistician of the family and he brought utopia and faith with the success of his literature. Furthermore, he was a fun man, and games and humor were very present in our lives.
For many years I was his only reader. Until the end of his days, I was the only person allowed to read his work before sending it to his editor. His books carry a great deal of memories and emotional weight for me; I don’t evaluate them on their literary merit, as you can understand, although they are all excellent. The most sentimentally important book for me is Nazi Literature in the Americas, because this book brought us much happiness and success. I just love that book. I remember the publication of all of his books, because every time Roberto became more involved with his literary world, I could identify the people on whom his characters were based. I also love 2666. It reflects all of his literature.
I feel distant from his fame, because I have to separate his literary success, which makes me very happy, from the man who was my husband. It’s very funny, because when Roberto started publishing, at forty-three years old, he was here, and his colleagues and friends, the people around his same age, were ahead of him in terms of publication and fame, like this [picks up a glass water bottle from the table and places it a few inches behind two other bottles]. By the time he died, he had caught up, like this [moves the bottles so that they form a horizontal line]. They had become equals. But since his death, it’s like this [pushes the bottle representing Bolaño forward, well past the others, until it teeters on the edge of the table]. His progress has been astounding.
The other enormous change has been Roberto’s absence, especially in the children’s lives. I have had to lead the family alone. As a parent it has been difficult. Sometimes you are not sure, because you have to make all decisions about your children alone. My first impulse is always to protect Lautaro and Alexandra. The phenomenon of Roberto’s fame means that I can never rise to the level of expectation. It’s impossible. I will always disappoint those who come searching for more information about him. Roberto inspires people’s imaginations, but I am a very practical and normal person. It was difficult for me to learn this, but you cannot answer these expectations. He was a man with a very human quality and a great capacity for empathy; he was also very private. After he passed away, I realized that we had lived in a close circle of friends. Roberto, the children, and I lived in our own little world, with our movies and our books. Maybe we weren’t normal in that way. One misconception is that we were separated at the time of his death. We were not; this is slander. Roberto was my partner until the very end of his life. We jointly shared a life project together.
After Roberto’s death we have suffered the persistent reiteration of false statements from people wishing to achieve celebrity and economic benefits from Bolaño’s posthumous international fame. It has been very difficult for us. Given the magnitude and reiteration of the lies, and the lack of respect, which has superseded the ethical and moral boundaries that every person deserves, and even gone so far as to make details of his disease and physical agony public, we have decided to file a lawsuit—for infringement of the right to honor and to personal and familial privacy—against those who have made false statements and intimate details public in order to achieve celebrity and to make money. We are defending Roberto’s honor and private life, also mine and my children’s. Roberto had a special type of intelligence and an enormous memory. With the exhibition, I have been exposed. I feel responsible to Roberto’s legacy, and vulnerable. But it has been positive for me to open up to the world and I think it has been very good for Roberto’s work.
Special thanks to the Del Amo Foundation and to Cristina Fernández Recasens for her translation assistance.