The Semblances of Roberto Bolaño

Neil Vallelly

When a priest and literary critic returns from providing secret lessons on Marxism to General Pinochet in Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile (2000), his friend asks him what the new Chilean leader is like. “I shrugged my shoulders, as people do in novels, but never in real life” is his response (Bolaño, 2000: 97). Bolaño’s fiction displays an uncanny ability to undercut the art form at the point when it approaches the appearance of reality, to distort normative narrative and reading experiences, and to snatch from the claws of being the presence of seeming to be. He was, one could say, a writer of semblances rather than fiction. By this I mean that when his writing came together to potentially reveal meaning or to touch on a reality that extended beyond the art form of the novel itself, Bolaño often turned in the other direction. When the character of Father Urritia has the opportunity to reveal something about Pinochet, for example, he responds with a gesture that confirms his status as a fictional character, thus undermining any conclusions we may have come to from the encounter with the Chilean dictator. At the point where the narrative could point towards reality, could extend beyond itself and into the world, it turns back on itself to reveal a mere appearance of reality, a semblance.

Bolano books

A writer of semblances: Roberto Bolaño’s fiction displays an uncanny ability to undercut the art form at the point when it approaches the appearance of reality

[Images by Martin Weller under a CC BY-NC license and leblognoteur under a CC BY-ND license]

Semblance has a long philosophical history [1]. While the extent of this history is well beyond the scope of this article, I want to explore Bolaño’s treatment of the concept of semblance in line with elements of this history. “A semblance [Schein],” writes Hegel in Philosophy of the Right (1820/1991), “is a determinate existence inappropriate to the essence, namely an empty detachment and positing of essence […]. Semblance is therefore an untruth that disappears because it seeks to exist for itself” (Hegel, 1820/1991: 115). In this sense, semblance is a being that appears as an essence but lacks the “inner world,” as Hegel describes it in Phenomenology of Spirit, that makes an appearance a “Truth” (Hegel, 1807/1977: 87-88). “This ‘being’ is therefore called appearance,” Hegel concludes, “for we call being that is directly and in its own self a non-being, a surface show” (Hegel, 1807/1977: 87; original emphasis). Martin Heidegger similarly views semblance as an appearance that conceals its interior schema, but he elaborates on Hegel’s position by arguing that all appearances conceal themselves. In Being and Time (1927/2010), Heidegger notes that a phenomenon reveals itself through appearance, or a “self-showing,” but he warns that an “appearance can also turn into mere semblance.” As an example, he writes that “[u]nder a certain kind of light someone can look as if he were flushed. The redness that shows itself can be taken as announcing the presence of a fever” (Heidegger, 1927/2010: 29). The appearance of the redness is not up for debate, but its appearance reveals something that it is not: a fever. “Appearance,” Heidegger suggests, “does not mean that something shows itself; rather, it means that something which does not show itself announces itself through something that does show itself” (Heidegger, 1927/2010: 28; original emphasis). Appearance, therefore, is always a “surface show” that in some way hides its true intention. Crucially, as Heidegger points out, an appearance, in showing itself, can either reveal what does not show itself, or it can seem to reveal what does not show itself. In this sense, being and seeming are potential by-products of any appearance. In Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger devotes an entire section to the “inner connection” between “being” and “seeming” (Heidegger, 1927/2010: 107-27). He writes:

Because being consists in appearing, in the offering of a look and of views, it stands essentially, and thus necessarily and constantly, in the possibility of a look that precisely covers over or conceals what beings are in truth, that is, in unconcealment. This aspect in which beings now come to stand is seeming in the sense of semblance. (Heidegger, 1927/2010: 114; original emphasis)      

For Heidegger, semblance only exists in relation to being. And since being “consists in appearing,” then it is the appearance of being that enables the possibility of seeming to be. All appearances possess the ability to be semblances.


A philosophical reading of semblance: Hegel and Heidegger both provide us with an interrogation of the concept of appearance

[Image by peas under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

Being and seeming lie at the heart of Bolaño’s fiction. For instance, in the final part of 2666 (2004) (“The Part about Archimboldi”), the central character Hans Reiter (or Benno Von Archimboldi) is holed up in an abandoned house during World War II, where he discovers the letters of the former inhabitant Boris Abramovich Ansky, a Ukrainian Jew. In these letters, we learn of the story of Ansky’s friend Efriam Ivanov, a Russian science-fiction writer, who experiences unexpected national success with one of his novels. “Sometimes, when he was alone,” the narrator tells us, “and more often when he was alone in front of a mirror, poor Ivanov pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming, that it [his success] was all real. And in fact it was all real, at least in appearance” (Bolaño, 2004: 722). This caveat—“at least in appearance—undermines Ivanov’s ability to enjoy his success as he fears that it actually reveals something “that does not show itself.” Ansky subsequently reflects on the fears that have overcome his friend Ivanov:

Irrational fears, thought Ansky, especially when the fearful soothed their fears with semblances. As if the paradise of good writers, according to bad writers, were inhabited by semblances. Semblances that varied, of course, from one era and country to another, but that always remained just that, semblances, things that only seem and never are, things all surface and no depth, pure gesture, and even the gesture muddled by an effort of will, the hair and eyes and lips of Tolstoy and the versts travelled on horseback by Tolstoy and the women deflowered by Tolstoy in a tapestry by the fire of seeming. (Bolaño, 2004: 722; original emphasis)

Anksy, unlike Ivanov, finds the non-being that Hegel suggests lies at the heart of semblances, whereas his friend Ivanov tends towards the Heideggerian version of semblance, in which semblance is not only a “surface show” that eventually reveals its non-being, but lives as a possibility of the world that is revealed by the appearance of phenomena. That is, it is only through the appearance of success that Ivanov can suffer from fear that the success is not real—it is appearance that makes semblance possible.

When Reiter returns to Ansky’s house later in the novel, he feels “more comfortable than he would have felt at home.” Yet this realisation leads him to suffer from a fear similar to Ivanov’s:

And yet the possibility that it [the feeling of comfort] was all nothing but semblance troubled him. Semblance was an occupying force of reality, he said to himself, even the most extreme, borderline reality. It lived in people’s souls and their actions, in willpower and in pain, in the way memories and priorities were ordered. (Bolaño, 2004: 741)

Both Ivanov and Reiter, in these moments, live under the spectre of seeming as they have to endure the fact that every appearance could also be a semblance. “Humans must bring Being to a stand,” writes Heidegger, “they must endure it in seeming and against seeming, they must tear away both seeming and Being from the abyss of not-Being” (Heidegger, 1953/2o14: 121). Naturally, such endurance manifests in radical self-doubt, as is evident in the characters of Ivanov and Reiter.

It is not simply within Bolaño’s writing that we are confronted with the question of whether things are the way they seem. In the case of Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996/2008), the art form itself questions the veracity of appearance. The book appears as an academic piece in which Bolaño provides 30 short biographies of right-wing writers in North and South America. It is split into 14 thematic sections, and includes, under the title “Epilogue for Monsters,” an extensive bibliography, an overview of secondary figures involved in the movement, and lists of publishers, magazines and journals, as well as meeting locations. The book, however, exists entirely in the realm of semblance; it seems to be real, and this is exactly the point: it is real, at least in appearance. Yet none of the writers, secondary figures, magazines and journals exist—they are all entirely imaginary. What we get, therefore, is “all surface and no depth, pure gesture.”


Are things really the way they seem in Bolaño’s fiction?

[Image by telly gacitua under a CC BY-NC license]

Nazi Literature raises important questions about the relationship between aesthetics and semblance. In the early twentieth century, Walter Benjamin drew a connection between semblance and beauty in art. In an essay on Goethe, Benjamin suggests that “[t]he beautiful is neither the veil nor the veiled object but rather the object in its veil” (Benjamin, 2004/1: 351). There is a key difference here between what Benjamin calls “mere semblance” and “beautiful semblance.” The former is a form of deception in which an appearance is simply not what it seems to be: either one believes what it is not, or exposes its unreality. A beautiful semblance also appears as something that it is not, but this appearance is neither a mistake nor a deception, but precisely what creates its beauty as the object is dependent on its veil and vice versa. “There are different degrees of beautiful semblance,” Benjamin claims, “a scale that is determined not by the greater or lesser degree of beauty but the extent to which a thing has more or less the character of semblance. The law governing this scale […] asserts in an artifact of beautiful semblance, the semblance is all the greater the more alive it seems” (Benjamin, 2006/3: 3: 224). A beautiful semblance incorporates semblance into the creation of its appearance, rather than evoking semblance through its appearance—the more an artwork incorporates semblance into its construction, without exposing its semblance, the more beautiful it appears. In this sense, semblance is like a scaffolding that cannot be seen.

Beautiful is rarely an adjective used to describe Bolaño’s writing. In fact, Natasha Wimmer, the translator of 2666 and The Savage Detectives (1998), tells us in an interview that “[a]fter translating certain lines, I had to actively restrain myself from prettying them up.” In a thought-provoking essay on the relationship of Bolaño’s writing to one of his major influences, Jorge Luis Borges, Aura Estrada writes that Bolaño’s “aesthetic values do not include ‘writing well.’ What he wanted to reveal with his narrative surpassed the limits of elegance or good taste. He sought to unmask the atrocities committed in the name of ‘elegance’ and ‘good taste’” (Estrada n. pag.). However, Estrada suggests that Bolaño considered “elegance” and “good taste” as “pseudonyms for Civilisation and Power.” She continues: “His characters were marginalized, desperate beings who, in the end, lost their style. Elegance, perfection, and correctness mattered little to him; what he found transcendent was the plot, the destiny of his characters” (Estrada n. pag.). In Bolaño’s work, aesthetics does not appear on the surface, but rather in how things come to appear on the surface. That is, aesthetics occur in the process of writing, not at the end of that process.  

While Bolaño’s aesthetics may not be pretty on the surface, there is no doubt that they are alive, in the way that Benjamin proposes. Nazi Literature, for instance, is a beautiful semblance of the highest degree, in line with Benjamin’s scale, because it is precisely through its appearance as an academic or biographical piece that it reveals its beauty. Crucially here, the semblance is only alive in the appearance because the appearance breathes life into semblance and sustains its vitality. The beautiful semblance, therefore, is a delicate balance since the more it lives in the appearance the closer it gets to revealing itself as a mere semblance. This delicateness is evident in the paratextual information that accompanies the New Directions English translation, in which we are told that Nazi Literature is “[c]omposed of short biographies of imaginary authors.” The blurb subverts appearance before it has the chance to seem at all and denies the ability of the semblance to become beautiful. “No work of art,” Benjamin writes, “may appear completely alive without becoming mere semblance, and ceasing to be a work of art” (Benjamin, 2006/3: 224). The blurb, by revealing the complete aliveness of Bolaño’s book, transforms Nazi Literature from a beautiful semblance into a mere semblance.

trompe l'oeil

“The illusion is created that there is no illusion”: Adorno’s analysis of semblance and trompe l’oeil deconstructs the appearance of totality that the artwork presents

[Image by cynthialawson under a CC BY-NC license]

Semblance plays a central role in Theodor Adorno’s theory of aesthetics. “Nature is beautiful,” he writes in Aesthetic Theory (1970/2002), “in that it appears to say more than it is. To wrest this more from that more’s contingency, to gain control of its semblance, to determine it as semblance as well as to negate it as unreal: This is the idea of art” (Adorno, 1970/2002: 78). Adorno posits that the truth of art lies not in its ability to reproduce nature as it appears to us, but to integrate the things that escape appearance, but are there nonetheless (the “more”), into the artwork itself; it is to bring semblance to the surface while at the same time dissolving its unreality. Adorno differentiates his theory of semblance from previous philosophical traditions, particularly Hegel. Where Hegel viewed the “spirit” of art as an objective totality, shifting away from Kant’s subjective-centric approach to artistic beauty, Adorno argues that spirit is not an objective fact but a continual and evolving process. This process of development and formation opens the possibility for “aesthetic semblance”:

If the immanent closure of artworks is not to be taken strictly, however, semblance overtakes them precisely at the point they imagine themselves best protected from it. They give the lie to the claim to closure by disavowing the objectivity they produce. They themselves, not just the illusion they evoke, are the aesthetic semblance. The illusory quality of artworks is condensed in their claim to wholeness. (Adorno, 1970/2002: 101)

Aesthetic semblance, according to Adorno, does not occur during an encounter with an artwork, but actually governs the entirety of this encounter. An artwork, therefore, might appear to produce an experience that is total, in the way that Hegel proposes, but it is the appearance of that totality that is illusory. “Through its appearance it lays claim to substantiality,” Adorno concludes (Adorno, 1970/2002: 101).

The experience of Nazi Literature as a biography is not a perceptual mistake or deception, like seeing a ball instead of a rock, but rather the book can only be welcomed as a biography of right-wing writers in its not being so. The relationship between the being-so and not being-so is fundamentally chiastic because the book’s appearance is dependent on its semblance, and its semblance can only exist in its appearance. In this way, Nazi Literature is an aesthetic semblance because its “claim to substantiality” can only be achieved through its appearance, which is obviously illusory. “[E]very element of aesthetic semblance,” Adorno claims, “includes aesthetic inconsistency in the form of contradictions between what the work appears to be and what it is” (Adorno, 1970/2002: 101). There is clear contradiction between what Nazi Literature appears to be and what it really is, but this contradiction is not a result of its aesthetics, it is its aesthetics.

In the gruelling fourth part of 2666 (“The Part about the Crimes”) a Tijuana cop Ramirez asks an Arizona sheriff Harry Mangaña: “Do you think things are the way they seem, as simple as that, no complicating factors, no questions asked?” (Bolaño, 2004: 442). This is a question that Bolaño also asks of his readers. Whether it is the hallucinatory first-person narrators of novellas such as By Night in Chile or Amulet (1999), the fluidity and unreliability of memory that permeates The Savage Detectives, or the aesthetic semblance of Nazi Literature itself, Bolaño continually refuses to let his reader accept appearances as totalities. A minor character in The Savage Detectives at one points tells us: “Lately I’ve noticed a disturbing tendency to accept things the way they are” (Bolaño, 1998: 270). Such a thought would most certainly have been “disturbing” to Bolaño, and his body of work could be viewed as a continual attempt to arrest such perturbation. In order to do so, he brought semblances to the surface of his writing and let them live amidst the world of appearances. In the case of Nazi Literature, the surface itself is a semblance. Thus, in the world of Roberto Bolaño, things are rarely what they seem. Or to put it another way, seeming is precisely what things are.

CITATION: Neil Vallelly, “The Semblances of Roberto Bolaño,” Alluvium, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2016): n. pag. Web. 31 May 2016,

Dr Neil Vallelly is a former Commonwealth Scholar (2012-2015) at the University of Otago in conjunction with Shakespeare’s Globe. His research and publications focus on phenomenology, particularly through the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He is also interested in theories of space, place, and perception. He formerly studied at Queen’s University Belfast and is presently based in Dunedin, New Zealand. [/author_info] [/author]


 [1] Emmanuel Kant used the term “semblance” in several of his works, and explores its aesthetic implications in Critique of Judgement (1790), which Friedrich Schiller then built upon in his Aesthetic Letters (1794). Both Kant and Schiller distinguished between aesthetic and non-aesthetic judgement as the difference between non-truth and truth. Schiller, however, argued that aesthetic semblance was a form of play in which one revelled in semblance because it was semblance. Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), argued that empirical reality itself was a semblance that mirrored the artistic drive for semblance. In the twentieth century, semblance played a role in several distinct lines of thought, such as Husserl’s phenomenology, Lacan’s psychoanalysis, and Baudrillard’s postmodernism. For contemporary applications of semblance, see Martin Seel, Aesthetics of Appearing (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005) and Brian Massumi, Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).

Works Cited:

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London and New York: Continuum, 2002). Print.

Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Vol. 1: 1913-1926. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

—. Selected Writings, Vol. 3: 1935-1938. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

Bolaño, Roberto. 2666. Trans. Natasha Wimmer (New York: Picador, 2004). Print.

—. By Night in Chile. Trans. Chris Andrews (London: Vintage, 2009). Print.

—. Nazi Literature in the Americas. Trans. Chris Andrews (New York: New Directions, 2008). First published in Spanish in 1996. Print.

—. The Savage Detectives. Trans. Natasha Wimmer (New York: Picador, 2007). Print.

Estrada, Aura. “Borges, Bolaño, and the Return of the Epic.” Trans. T. G. Huntington. Words Without Borders: The Online Magazine for International Literature. Oct. 2006. Web. 10 May 2016 (accessed 20 May 2016):

Hegel, G. W. F. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). First published in German in 1820. Print.

—. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977). First published in German in 1807. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Stambaugh (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2010). First published in German in 1927. Print.

—. Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2014). First published in German in 1953. Print.

Massumi, Brian. Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011). Print.

Seel, Martin. Aesthetics of Appearing. Trans. John Farrell (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005). Print.

Wimmer, Natasha. “Interview: Natasha Wimmer, translator of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.” By Zach Baron. The Village Voice, 25 Nov. 2009. Web. 10 May 2016 (accessed 20 May 2016):

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