César Aira is a mad scientist. His short books are seemingly pieced together from segments of other novels, creating a Frankenstein of a story. Somehow he sends a bolt of lightning through it, and it haltingly comes to life. I’ve been a bit disappointed in some of the recent Aira books that New Directions has published (such as The Hare, which came out earlier this year, and which I reviewed here). I’m pleased to say that Shantytown (La Villa, 2001; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2013), with its crazy threads that somehow come together — even if they don’t (it’s strange (that word’s going to come up frequently below)) — pleased me a great deal.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
This particularly delightful messed-up mix begins with a few chapters devoted to Maxi, a young (“he was entering his twenties”), relatively affluent body-builder who lives in a decent condo and suffers from night blindness. Maxi’s night blindness aggravates his acute sleepiness. Once it gets dark, it’s all he can do to get home before he falls asleep. These afflictions have not made it easy for him to find a life, but he sort of stumbles on a routine that gives him a sense of place: he helps the poor people who come in from the nearby shantytown carry the items they collect from the trash. He does this every day, for no pay.
It’s not too often that these social classes mix, so Maxi sparks the curiosity of Inspector Ignacio Cabezas, the policeman who is investigating the drug traffic to and from the shantytown. Inspector Cabezas is also investigating — or at least using to his own ends — the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl, the daughter of someone else who just happens to be named Ignacio Cabezas.
The first few chapters of the book go this way, and it seems that, though Maxi is unique, the story will be relatively straightforward and connected. That quickly changes. To get at Maxi, Inspector Cabezas approaches Maxi’s little sister, Vanessa. This scares Vanessa so badly that she tries to talk to the neighbor’s maid, who happens to come from the shantytown and whose boyfriend has disappeared. To reach the maid, Vanessa calls her estranged best friend, Jessica. Each and every one of these characters has their own story that begins when they greatly misinterpret someone else’s actions, and then their story takes off in some new direction. Aira calls it the “turmoil of speculation.” The more we follow their story, the further we get from any kind of solution or resolution: “Nobody can grasp the whole, mainly because in reality there is no whole to be grasped.” There’s something noirish there, and that’s just where this book is going to go.
But, much like the tangle of lights strung up in the shantytown, there are patterns and deliberation that come together in a fury. We come to learn that the best drug on the market is called proxidine; its effect “was to increase the proximity of things, applied above all to the elements of a problem: by bringing them into sudden contiguity, it brought them closer to the solution.” Yes, it’s like we are on a drug trip: the things that once made sense become strange and the strange things begin to make sense.
And, yes, this is a game for Aira. It’s well known by now that he writes his books one page per day, apparently with no revisions, and that each day’s project is to write himself out of the puzzle he created the day before while creating a puzzle for the next day. But Aira is the best puzzle-maker and puzzle-solver out there, and Shantytown is a puzzle I’d put up there with his best.
I know that there is some criticism toward publishing anything we can find written by Roberto Bolaño. The most recent, The Secret of Evil (El secreto del mal, 2007; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, with Natasha Wimmer, 2012) is actually composed of some stories and sketches (many obviously incomplete) found on Bolaño’s computer after he died in 2003. Whatever criticism levelled by others, I’m one who gratefully receives. His is such a unique voice, and even the short sketches here exhibit his vim and clarity as he leads his characters to the abyss. It’s particularly refreshing to get a few stories in here with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. And, to be honest, who cares if these stories conclude? It’s not as if even in his published works Bolaño gave us any real sense of resolution, so what we get here is Bolañoesque. Hey, many of these inconclusive pieces may actually have been finished for all we know. After all, the title story begins like this:
This story is very simple, although it could have been very complicated. Also, it’s incomplete, because stories like this don’t have an ending.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
The Secret of Evil contains nineteen potentially incomplete pieces (some are obviously incomplete) that, so says the preface, Bolaño was working on in his last months. It’s a little treasure, filled with openings and meanderings I wish others could write now that Bolaño is gone. A sign of the appetite for more Bolaño, many of the pieces have been seen recently elsewhere. Three — “Vagaries of the Literature of Doom,” “Beach,” and “Sevilla Kills Me” – were published in Between Parentheses (my review here), one — “Labyrinths” – in The New Yorker (my thoughts here), one — “Scholars of Sodom” — in The New York Review of Books (full text here), and one — “I Can’t Read” — in Harper’s (full text here). And Granta (which also published “Beach”; the abstract here) went so far as to make a graphic HTML experience for the incredibly violent “The Colonel’s Son” (click here), which they published last year in their horror issue (my review here).
Let me briefly give a sense of a few of the pieces. First, “The Colonel’s Son,” which I hadn’t read when I posted on Granta‘s horror issue, is a very disturbing and apparently complete piece of horror fiction. While much of Bolaño’s fiction can be called horrific, I mean that this one has zombies — well, kind of. The piece begins, “You’re not going to believe this, but last night, at about four a.m., I saw a movie on TV that could have been my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet.” The movie our narrator watched that so resembled his life is a violent B-grade zombie movie. The remainder of the piece describes the movie in detail, examining the motives while maintaining the narrator’s voice. It does indeed sound like a fairly typical zombie movie, but given the story’s first sentence, and given that this is Bolaño, we know there’s a bit more here. For example, the HTML movie has as its disclaimer: “The following HTML5 movie contains the sort of images that you see every day in the news, and thus might not be suitable for children.”
A particularly chilling but realistic piece is “The Room Next Door,” which begins, “I was once, if I remember rightly, present at a gathering of madmen.” Another, “Scholars of Sodom,” contains two parts. The first is an incomplete start to story about V.S. Naipaul. Part II is a look back at that story:
Many years ago, before V.S. Naipaul – a writer whom I hold in high regard, by the way — won the Nobel Prize, I tried to write a story about him, with the title “Scholars of Sodom.”
This Part II proceeds to tell what the story might have been meant to tell, and, in a brilliant way, brings up for criticism Naipaul’s strange essay accusing Argentina as being a country full of sodomites.
As this short book proceeds, the pieces seem to get shorter and more evidently incomplete. But these also contain some real gems, such as “Death of Ulises,” which, if you’ve been following Bolaño, you know is about Ulises Lima and Bolaño’s alter-ego Arturo Belano. It begins, “Belano, our dear Arturo Belano, returns to Mexico City.”
And one of my favorite pieces may be the shortest and most incomplete of all. It’s “The Days of Chaos,” the book’s last entry. It begins, “Just when Arturo Belano thought that all his adventures were over and done with [. . .].” We find out that Belano’s handsome young son Gerónimo ”had disappeared in Berlin during the Days of Chaos.” The story contains seven short paragraphs; three of those are simply “This was in the year 2005.” Obviously, Bolaño didn’t live to see 2005, but this is a sort of cast out into the future, and it ends up by taking us to the past, almost making a journey with Bolaño return full circle:
This was in the year 2005.
Gerónimo Belano was fifteen. Arturo Belano was over fifty, and sometimes he could barely believe that he was still alive. Arturo had set off on his first long trip at the age of fifteen too. His parents had decided to leave Chile and start a new life in Mexico.
And that’s the end. To me it’s as if I’ve just finished Finnegans Wake, and I’ve just been escorted back to the very beginning. How’s that for the poetics of inconclusiveness?
Bolaño’s body of work is too complicated to be contained in one or two complete, published works. Each piece, even these small ones, are part of a larger puzzle that is well worth the time considering, even if we’ll never get to the end.
I love it when we get something by César Aira newly translated into English. There simply is no way to predict what it is going to be about (often even when you’re three-quarters of the way through the book), but you’re guaranteed a strange ride through beautifully strangeness. My first venture with Aira was with a landscape painter through Argentina in the 19th century. I’ve been with him in a the skeleton of a haunted condominium that is being constructed, on a trek to clone Carlos Fuentes, to a sunlit ice cream parlor where the strawberry ice cream contains arsenic, on a windy trip to Patagonia. In Varamo (2002; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews), Aira takes us to Colón, Panama, in 1923, where we go through a rather eventful night with a lowly government clerk named Varamo.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
I think it’s worth relating an anecdote here. I began reading this book one night just before going to sleep. I was very tired and soon I was reading the same sentence over and over though my mind seemed to keep the story going forward. Eventually I woke myself up enough to put the book down. The next morning I couldn’t help but chuckle about where my mind had drifted the night before: some taxidermist executing his plan to pose a fish playing a piano, only quite a ways into the project realizing that fish anatomy doesn’t suit playing a piano. What a bizarre dream, I thought. Of course, the development felt just like a dream; here I had some strange idea that went on for a while before I realized that anatomical flaw and finally moved on. But at breakfast the next morning, a thought: this is Aira. I might not have been dreaming.
You already know, of course, that I wasn’t dreaming. Such is the joy (a part of the joy, that is) of the work of Aira.
So what is this book?
It begins at the end of a workday when Varamo stops to pick up his salary from the government.
In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following day, ten or twelve hours later, he completed the composition of a long poem, from the initial decision to write it up to the final period, after which there were no further additions or corrections.
The poem, The Song of the Virgin Child, is declared a masterpiece of modern Central American poetry. It’s the only thing fifty-year-old Varamo had ever written, and he never wrote again. There was just something about that night after picking up his paycheck: “The action contained the inspiration, and vice versa, each nourishing and consuming the other, so that nothing was left over.”
The book Varamo is, from one perspective, a venture through that night seeking what created the poem. Though, playfully, the way we find out what happened is by deducing, “in the most rigorous sense of that word,” from the poem. Aira is playing here, once again, with the creative act in the writing process.
Picking up his salary ushers in a frenzied night of creativity. There is a reason, and it’s one of the fun parts of the book. When Varamo picks up his money, he immediately realizes that it is counterfeit. He cannot, therefore, go out and use the money. On the other hand, he cannot charge the government with giving him counterfeit money. It’s not long after this that we enter a new episode (the one I thought I was dreaming) when we see Varamo engaged in his taxidermy. And the night goes on.
As with his other works (particularly How I Became a Nun and The Seamstress and the Wind), the story plays out in a series of episodes, and the thread holding them together is sometimes rather flimsy, even if that doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter that we get seemingly important (or completely insignificant) facts rather late in the book. For example, we get this at about the half-way point, causing us to rethink our mental image of Varamo:
His mother was Chinese; he was Chinese; therefore he had to be her son; there could be no doubt about it. The conclusion was irresistible in Panama, for overwhelming demographic reasons.
Varamo is a strange book, and I do think it better for readers new to Aira to start with An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter or Ghosts (two that I think have a lot more substance to them than the rest, which are brilliant mediations on form and style, with excellent episodes, but which, for me, are not as fulfilling). One has to just let Aira go and trust that in the end it will be quite an experience, even if it’s hard to make sense of.
I also think it pays to know a bit about Aira’s creative process, which is a frequent theme in his books. For example, I think some may be disappointed that Varamo’s poem itself is hardly discussed in the book, though it is the whole reason we care about Varamo’s life at all (Aira is always brings something up and then drops it). We don’t read a line of The Song of the Virgin Child. Because we never really discuss the poem itself, it feels like a mere plot device, which can be frustrating. That said, the poem also the device that allows Aira to discuss some of his ideas about the creative act in the writing process, and, in particular, how to achieve “immediacy,” which, as Varamo is told, “is the key to good style.” (Immediacy is one thing Aira always achieves in his books.) Varamo is a great look at the mixture of form and substance and the life that creates each.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). César Aira’s “The Musical Brain” (tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews) was originally published in the December 5, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
This is fantastic! I never believed that Aira, one of my favorite authors, would have a short story published in The New Yorker — and certainly The New Yorker is that much better for it. Hopefully it will bring him many more readers from the United States.
I’m very interested in what people think of this story. For me, it very much resembled some of his longer works: it begins in one place, setting up our expectations, and then proceeds to take strange detour after strange detour, finally concluding in a single bizarre episode that is completely unexpected, despite any clues we might have. Indeed, I felt ”The Musical Brain” matches and sometimes exceeds the crazed meanderings in some of Aira’s books. Because of this, it’s a fairly good introduction to Aira’s stranger works, like the hilarious The Literary Conference (my review here) and (the to me slightly less enjoyable) The Seamstress in the Wind (my review here). For those who are perhaps attracted to Aira’s prose but don’t find the strangeness appealing, I still heartily recommend reading Ghosts (my review here) or An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (my review here); while strange, these two are not quite as strange and are a bit more serious. As a sneak peak, the next title New Directions is publishing is Varamo, which I’ll review closer to its publication date early next year; to me Varamo was a bit of a balance between the bizarre and the serious.
“The Musical Brain” — where to begin? As in some of his other books, the narrator here is Aira himself as he looks back on a strange sequnce of events from his youth in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, in the 1950s (no, this similarity in no way makes this story predictable). Early on, we understand that Aira has a faulty memory. He looks back and remembers a time when his parents broke routine by taking him and his little sister to a dining event. They never ate out, for reasons Aira explains, but on this one particular night – and he’ll come up with a few possible reasons for breaking routine – he finds his memory taking him to an evening out, everyone dressed up. In a corner of the room he remembers seeing the librarian, and his high school headmistress, Sarita Subercaseaux rumaging through a bunch of boxes of books. Ah, he thinks, probably his family went out to this particular special dinner to help establish the public library. However, as reasonable as this sounds, apparently this cannot be exactly true:
During my last visit to Pringles, hoping to confirm my memories I asked my mother if Sarita Subercaseaux was still alive. She burst out laughing.
“She died years and years ago!” Mom said. “She died before you were born. She was already old when I was a girl.”
“That’s impossible!” I exclaimed. “I remember her very clearly. In the library, at school . . .”
“Yes, she worked at the library and the high school, but before I was married. You must be getting mixed up, remembering things I told you.”
That’s strange, yes, but not the kind of strangeness I referred to above. Because, at this point, we leave the issue that would seem to take center stage in a piece about the mystery of childhood and memories (I quite like these kinds of books; see William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (my reviews here, here, and here, respectively)). Instead of following on this line directly, the family gets up from the dinner, and Aira takes us to a room by the theater where the mysterious Musical Brain is on display (I’ll let you find out what this is when you read it, though you’re probably imagining it correctly). And, before we get settled, the family is driving somewhere else; Aira took his seat in the back of the vehicle, his favorite place to sit, and while explaining why he so much liked the back seat also briefly describes his literary technique:
There was also a more arcane reason that I liked to travel in the back: since I couldn’t hear what they were saying in front, it meant I didn’t know where we were going, and so the itinerary would take on an unpredictable air of adventure.
Of course, this is exactly what we readers are feeling by this point: Where on earth is he taking us. Hopefully, we are enjoying the ride and are not too concerned with the ultimate destination. There is another reason for these detours, though, both for the family and for Aira the writer:
[I]nstead of going a few hundred yards in a straight line we’d often end up driving five miles, following a tortuous, labyrinthine route. For my mother, who had never left Pringles, it was a way of expanding the town from within.
“The Musical Brain” expands the town from within beautifullly. It’s not that this is a small town portrait (because surely this stuff did not happen in Coronel Pringles or anywhere else), it’s that in a such a short space Aira reproduces the expansiveness of life as it is lived, complete with false starts, lingering questions, inconsistencies, and expanded by the intrusion of something completely unexpected (like a love triangle among dwarves threatening the town — maybe fear of a dwarf with a gun is why they were at that unexplained public dinner), something that makes no sense (well, you’ll get this in the story).
There’s a great Book Bench interview with translator Chris Andrews, who translated this story and several other books by Aira (click here). Here is a good take-away line:
But as anyone who has read [Aira] knows, the “correctness” is only syntactic: his sentences are well formed, as the linguists say, but his stories and his books are, well . . . deformed, swerving wildly, jumping from one kind of fiction to another, as in “The Musical Brain”.
I do recommend reading and rereading this story. Also, if you’re interested, a few years ago I interviewed Chris Andrews for this blog (click here), and it’s still one of my favorite posts.
For those of you who have been interested in but wary of Roberto Bolaño, you might find a friendly meeting place (more friendly than, say, 2666, which was my meeting place) in Monsieur Pain (1999; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2010). This is one of Bolaño’s earliest works — that’s not to say “easy” works, but I think it is more accessible than anything else of his I’ve read. It was published as Monsieur Pain only in 1999, but it was written in 1981 or 1982 and titled The Elephant Path, an apt title that connotes both trailblazing and following, though I can’t say that is why the title was used. Under this title it won a few awards in Spain; under another, it won some more. Though it’s an early work, and one in which we can see seeds of what would sprout in his later books, I would hesitate to call this an apprentice novel. To me, that means the novel is useful primarily to the author, helping him or her develop something else that is of benefit to readers. That is not the case here, though, because in Monsieur Pain we see an already mature author. More than an apprentice novel, then, it is a fully developed point of departure. Rather than follow the elephant track created by other writers, which he shows he can do in this book, he shows he is also going to create his own elephant track through the bushes. In his later books he starts knocking down the trees.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Of the works I’ve read, this is Bolaño’s most traditional prose piece. He sets up what appears to be a fairly conventional story set in Paris in 1938. In fact, the setup (and Chris Andrews’ excellent translation) seems to come from this period in literature. It adheres to formal constructs while showing an awareness of what’s going on underneath the text. Here are the first lines in the novel; they reminded me, to my pleasure, of modern European literature:
On Wednesday the sixth of April, at dusk, as I was preparing to leave my lodgings, I received a telegram from my young friend Madame Reynaud, requesting, with a certain urgency, my presence that evening at the Café Bordeaux, on Rue de Rivoli, relatively close to where I live, which meant that if I hurried, I could still arrive punctually at the specified time.
The narrator is Monsieur Pierre Pain, a veteran of the first world war, in which, he says he might have been a deserter had he not nearly died when his lungs were burned out by gas. He doesn’t have much direction in his life, but since his convalescence he has stumbled into a profession of sorts.
From then on, supported by a modest invalid’s pension, and perhaps as a reaction agains the society that had imperturbably sent me forth to die, I gave up everything that could be considered beneficial to a young man’s career, and took up the occult sciences, which is to say that I let myself sink into poverty, in a manner that was deliberate, rigorous and not altogether devoid of elegance. At some point during that phase in my life I read An Abridged History of Animal Magnestism, by Franz Mesmer, and, within a matter of weeks, became a mesmerist.
At the beginning of the book, as is seen in the first quote above, Pain receives a telegram from the young widow of one of his ex-patients. Pain rushes out of his apartment to meet her, but on his way out he is surprised to run into two men who are speaking Spanish. When they see him, they go quiet and stop going up the stairs. They also don’t move aside to let him by easily. They seem confused by his presence or by his leaving, and do not hide the fact, even as he is walking out the door, that they are watching him. The narrative then interrupts a bit, and we go back to the short week when Pain was treating the widows husband, truly trying to save this admirable man’s life even though he knew it was too late. This interruption is one of the novel’s highlights, in my opinion — he, of course, falls in love with the widow, but he can never tell her. He and the widow have met several times in the intervening months, but this telegram is unprecedented. When he meets her, she requests his assistance:
“Pierre,” she repeated, stressing each word, “you must see my friend’s husband, professionally, it’s urgent.”
I think I ordered a glass of mint cordial before asking what illness Monsieur . . .
“Vallejo,” said Madame Reynaud, adding, with equal concision, “Hiccups.”
Throughout the remainder of the novel, Pain tries to meet with this man dying of hiccups. The first time, he is thwarted by doctors who scoff at him and his strange trade, though they can find nothing wrong with Vallejo. But even after Pain has left, thinking his assistance will not be needed, the two men speaking Spanish show up and ask him not to treat the dying man. They offer him quite a large bribe to just go away.
I can already tell that if I try to recount even just a little bit more of the novel I’m going to describe something the novel is not. Yes, Pain continues to attempt to meet and treat Vallejo, but that is not really what the story is about. Pain is an interesting character in Bolaño’s universe because, though like others he is seeking an elusive target through strange mazes, he does not have the ability to ascribe meaning to his search — he’s no poet, in other words. He tends to reflect the following description of mesmerism well:
For me, mesmerism is like a medieval painting. Beautiful and useless. Timeless. Trapped.
Still, he is an interesting character to watch as he becomes increasingly paranoid, and perhaps delusional (we’re not really sure if the horrors he believes are coming are really on their way). The book becomes surreal and dreamlike at times, and we’re sailing smoothly on Bolaño’s flowing prose. Interestingly, I wouldn’t classify the other Bolaño books I’ve read as surreal. Here, the disorientation he conveys is more akin to Kafka’s type of absurdity; his later works tend to show a disorientation brought on by an empty shock caused by violence or loss. Perhaps, because of its surrealism, it also feels more conventional. But even while this seems more like a conventional novel, within it are the fascinating rifts, subtly placed, the anti-climactic dead ends that leave his character (and his reader) wondering what the buildup was for, that show what Bolaño will be capable of when he throws convention out. If you cannot tell, I am becoming more and more a Roberto Bolaño fan.
It’s been a few months since I read anything by Bolaño, but every time I finish a book my first urge is to pick up another of his. The only reason I don’t is for the sake of variety and to make sure I can have some Bolaño left for the future. This month Monsieur Pain comes out, and in the Spring Antwerp comes out, both from New Directions here in the U.S. And I still have a few of his already published books to read, so I thought it was safe to pull out Distant Star (Estrella distante, 1996; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2004).
You probably don’t remember, but when I reviewed Nazi Literature in the Americas I said in my last paragraph that “his conclusion is its own reward,” meaning that the conclusion was so outstanding that reading the book was worth the conclusion alone. Well, here’s the introductory paragraph in Distant Star:
In the final chapter of my novel Nazi Literature in the AmericasI recounted, in less that twenty pages and perhaps too schematically, the story of Lieutenant Ramírez Hoffman of the Chilean Air Force, which I heard from a fellow Chilean, Arturo B., a veteran of Latin America’s doomed revolutions, who tried to get himself killed in Africa. He was not satisfied with my version. It was meant to counterbalance the preceding excursions into the literary grotesque, or perhaps to come as an anticlimax, and Arturo would have preferred a longer story that, rather than mirror or explode others, would be, in itself, a mirror and an explosion. So we took that final chapter and shut ourselves up for a month and a half in my house in Blanes, where, guided by his dreams and nightmares, we composed the present novel. My role was limited to preparing refreshments, consulting a few books, and discussing the reuse of numerous paragraph with Arturo and the increasingly animated ghost of Pierre Ménard.
Besides being an exhilerating paragraph in its own right, the paragraph explains that Distant Star is basically a stand-alone expansion to that final brilliant (anti-climactic??) chapter in Nazi Literature in the Americas. That’s both true and misleading, which I think was Bolaño’s intent. Distant Star is not a rewrite of that last chapter; rather, it is an expansion on the ideas, on the horror, we witnessed in that last chapter. It is also another perspective to the horror of the Pinochet regime and the failed revolution shown to us in what is still my favorite Bolaño: By Night in Chile. So, where The Skating Rink was a diversion from all of this, Distant Star took me back to familiar ground. That’s not to suggest that there are no similarities to The Skating Rink; in some ways, this is a literary detective novel too. I really can’t wait to read all of Bolaño so I can get a better picture of how his work ties itself together.
Here is how the book begins; we meet the demon himself, Carlos Wieder:
I saw Carlos Wieder for the first time in 1971, or perhaps in 1972, when Salvador Allende was President of Chile.
At that stage Wieder was calling himself Alberto Ruiz-Tagle and occasionally attended Juan Stein’s poetry workshop in Concepción, the so-called capital of the South. I can’t say I knew him well. I saw him once or twice a week at the workshop. He wasn’t particularly talkative. I was. Most of us there talked a lot, not just about poetry, but politics, travel (little did we know what our travels would be like), painting, architecture, photography, revolution and the armed struggle that would usher in a new life and a new era, so we thought, but which, for most of us, was like a dream, or rather the key that would open the door into a world of dreams, the only dreams worth living for. And even though we were vaguely aware that dreams often turn into nightmares, we didn’t let that bother us.
At this time the narrator is a young eighteen-year-old, and Wieder is probably twenty-three, or close to that. Augusto Pinochet is looming on the horizon, but this group of young poets continues in its youthful pursuit of the ideal, never knowing that in their midst is a monster. When Pinochet takes power, and Chile is a very dangerous place for these young idealists. ”In the current socio-political climate, he said to himself, committing suicide is absurd and redundant. Better to become an undercover poet.”
Wieder disappears, but in the clues the narrator realizes that Wieder has become something truly terrible and has even murdered some of their friends. Another of their friends, Fat Marta, is so afraid of disappearing herself that she becomes manic, almost insane:
The main thing was to keep active (any kind of activity would do, like moving a flower pot five times in half an hour, to stop herself going mad) and to look on the bright side, tackling problems one by one, instead of all at the same time, the way she used to do before.
They don’t know where Wieder is (at this point, they really don’t know who he is), but bits keep linking together until we find that he is probably the man responsible for writing poetry in the air. Indeed, this pilot becomes famous for his new art. “[H]e was called upon to undertake something grand in the capital, something spectacular to show the world that the new regime and avant-garde art were not at odds, quite the contrary.” The art show is Bolaño at his horrific best.
In Distant Starwe also see Bolaño at his darkly comic best. Here is a story from within this story:
Once upon a time in Chile there was a poor little boy . . . I think the boy was called Lorenzo, I’m not sure, and I’ve forgotten his surname, but some readers may remember it, and he liked to play, and climb trees and high-tension pylons. One day he climbed up a pylon and got such a shock that he lost both his arms. They had to amputate them just below the shoulders. So Lorenzo grew up in Chile without arms, an unfortunate situation for any child, but he also grew up in Pinochet’s Chile, which turned unfortunate situations into desperate ones, on top of which he soon discovered that he was homosexual, which made his already desperate situation inconceivable and indescribable.
Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that Lorenzo became an artist. (What else could he do?) But it’s hard to be an artist in the third world if you are poor, have no arms and are gay to boot.
Distant Star is, to me, not as good as By Night in Chile, but it is a brilliant work, another look at Pinochet’s Chile. Bolaño’s writing, translated fluently by Chris Andrews, is wonderfully paced, always running right off the page. I feel I am now ready to read The Savage Detectives; after all, here we have a strange detective story of poets seeking poets, and I can hardly wait. Before we move on, though, it is no spoiler to allow everyone to savor the last lines in this novel:
We stood there for a while on the edge of the pavement waiting for a taxi, not knowing what to say. Nothing like this has ever happened to me, I confessed. That’s not true, said Romero very gently. Worse things have happened to us, thing about it. You could be right, I admitted, but this really has been a dreadful business. Dreadful, repeated Romero, as if he were savouring the word. Then he laughed quietly, grinning like a rabbit, and said, Well, what else could it have been? I wasn’t in a laughing mood, but I laughed all the same.
After experiencing a wonderful connection with Bolaño in By Night in Chile I was excited to receive a copy of his next book to be translated into English: The Skating Rink (La Pista de Hielo, 1993; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2009). And now that I’ve finished that, though it wasn’t as impressive as others, I can’t wait to read more. Perhaps I’m turning into — or simply uncovering the fact that I am — a visceral realist. Whatever the case, I’m definitely enjoying what happens to me when I read Bolaño. First, I welcome the disorientation as I try to figure out just what is going on, who is speaking, and what is important in the details. Then, as all of that becomes clear — well, not necessarily clear, but the pages do turn — I enjoy the satisfying feeling of putting pieces together. And then, and this is strangely the best part, I enjoy the nameless feeling I experience when I realize that all of the pieces fit together to form yet another puzzle; or rather, that the pieces I put together don’t quite get to a solution but fit together in countless other ways, and I’m not sure any of those ways of piecing together will get me to a clear and final resolution either.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Scott Esposito, in a fantastic review of this book, said it reads like “a stripped-down version of The Savage Detectives.” I have not read The Savage Detectives yet, and I’m thinking that The Skating Rink might be a good gateway to that much larger, much more complex work. For those who’ve read and loved The Savage Detectives, this book might be a disappointing step backwards — of course that makes sense because it was written before The Savage Detectives. However, for those who’ve determined to be a Bolaño nut, this early work shows the seeds of what was to come. All of this comparison to The Savage Detectives might muddle the independent merits of The Skating Rink. It’s a great, complex story in its own right.
In this book, three narrators (not dozens as in The Savage Detectives) recount the events of a summer season in Z, a resort town close to Barcelona. Remo Morán is a Chilean businessman, successful and rich. He has an affair with the beautiful ice skating star Nuria Martí. Gaspar Heredia is a roaming poet whom Morán knew when they were both young (The novel’s fist lines: “The first time I saw him, it was in the Calle Bucareli, in Mexico City, that is, back in the vague shifty territory of our adolescence, the province of hardened poets, on a night of heavy fog, which slowed traffic and prompted conversations about that odd phenomenon, so rare in Mexico City at night, at least as far as I can remember.”). Heredia’s wanderings and needs have brought him to Morán who, despite Heredia’s illegal status, offers him a job as a watchman at a campground. The third narrator is Enric Rosquelles, a corrupt municipal bureaucrat in charge of the Social Services Department. He’s fat and whiny and in love with Nuria. In the abandoned Palacio Benvingut, he constructs for Nuria the skating rink of the title, from public funds (“Or, no, they did care about the money, of course they did, but not enough to work overtime trying to find out where it had gone.”).
From page one we know something bad has happened, a murder most likely, though none of the narrators addresses it straight-on until two-thirds of the way through the book. Or rather they are addressing it straight-on; we just don’t have enough of the important details to put it all together and know what they’re talking about (it almost certainly requires a second reading, which in my case was even more pleasureful than the first). Nevertheless, the murder is, in the words of Morán, the reason they are telling this story. As a reader with certain expectations, I thought the book would introduce a cast of characters, any of whom could be the murderer or the victim (we don’t know who’s killed until that two-thirds point) and then the clues would start to come together until — ta-da — the murderer is found, his or her motives are cleared up, and the narrators drift away, glad that their confession has lightened the burden of that summer. Or, and perhaps even better, the narrators never get that sense of closure they hoped for, and that, in itself, is a form of closure for the book. But who’s concerned about closure here? Not only that — who’s concerned about the truth? Especially when it’s primarily made up of dry facts, like who killed whom (both of those questions are cleared up with little fanfare).
The men are telling this story independent of one another, so often the accounts differ in tone and even in facts. They add up only to a certain degree, and the rest remains inexplicable. But that’s part of the puzzle — and the puzzle is the point. The men are telling this story to figure out how that summer affected them, and they can grasp it no better than the reader can. One might suspect a book like this would be highly frustrating. Indeed, I was frustrated at the end of 2666 for some of these reasons (though there it felt as if even the puzzle were missing). However, The Skating Rink is a complete book. The puzzle and its pieces are there.
A central part of the puzzle is a character named Caridad, a vagabond who wanders around Z with an old opera singer and carries a kitchen knife around under her shirt. Heredia is infatuated with Caridad and “got into the habit of walking around town in the vague hope of running into Caridad.” One night he follows her to the place where she has been camping out – the Palacio Benvingut. While wandering around the maze of passages, Heredia finds the cold wind that directs him to the skating rink. Nuria is there skating and Rosquellessits on the side watching. It’s a haunting passage, and important, though on a first reading one might not understand the depth of emotion — it’s almost terror — Heredia felt at the time.
Each of the three narrators eventually finds his way to the skating rink. One comments on the walk through the palace where “the passage formed concentric circles around the skating rink.” This leads to one of the principal passages in the book — a passage that describes the setting, the themes, and the book’s structure all in one go:
From that vantage point I had a panoramic view of what looked like a labyrinth with a frozen center . . .
For those interested in venturing into the world of Bolaño for the first time, this might be the best place to start. It’s short and fairly direct in its abstractions, and it just might open the door to Bolaño. For those who’ve been reading Bolaño, this book is another piece in the larger puzzle and design and, therefore, indispensable.
I’m getting on better with Roberto Bolaño now than I was before. By that I mean that I am converted. After finding 2666 a brilliantly written mess and Nazi Literature in the Americas a horrific human mess (again, brilliantly written), I wanted to go back and read the first of his books translated into English: By Night in Chile (Nocturno de Chile, 2000; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2003). What I found here was a clearer vision of the savage politics of the last century, particularly of Latin America. Bolaño has a way of presenting the politics in an almost farcical way . . . for a while – and then it becomes a horrific climax (sadly missing in 2666; but there the horror was throughout in clinical understatement).
In a way, By Night in Chile is the first conventional novel I’ve read by Bolaño. It has a beginning and an end and narrative cohesion. Still it is not that conventional. On a first look, stylistically it reminded me of Imre Kertész’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child – both are powerfully stated first person narratives laid out in a virtually unbroken style. By Night in Chile is a 130 page single paragraph (Kaddish is around the same length but was mostly one long sentence — but it did have a few paragraph breaks!). This might be offputting, or at least intimidating, to some people. It is both to me because somehow you have to navigate through all that text. What I’ve found time and again, however, is that the authors who attempt this style are usually very good at utilizing it for purpose, and somehow they pull it off without making it a cumbersome mass.
Here, the style is definitely not cumbersome. It produces a narrative pace that gives the reader little time to breath, let alone think, an effective device in this context where the speaker doesn’t want you to have time to consider his words to see what he is and is not saying. Our narrator is Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a priest who has served the church, even entering the ranks of Opus Dei, and who has served the Chilean government. Sometimes he has served one through the other. He’s pulled himself up on his death bed, “propped up on one elbow” and lifting his “noble, trembling head,” to offer a final confession.
I am dying now, but I still have many things to say. I used to be at peace with myself. Quiet and at peace. But it all blew up unexpectedly. That wizened youth is to blame. I was at peace. I am no longer at peace.
The confessional tone, however, is misleading because ultimately he admits to no wrong, and we know he’ll be ellusive from the start. In the middle of the first page we see that we are dealing with someone who is weighed down by something he is unwilling to name and therefore unwilling to accept.
One has to be responsible, as I have always said. One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences. I am responsible in every way. My silences are immaculate.
Father Urrutia Lacroix then narrates his youth, and we know that he recognizes he was a more innocent person then, indeed he constantly feels chastized by his memories of his youth. But even at this point of his narrative he avoids responsibility for what was to follow:
And a year later, at the age of fourteen, I entered the seminary, and when I came out again, much later on, my mother kissed my hand and called me Father or I thought I heard her say Father, and when, in my astonishment, I protested, saying Don’t call me Father, mother, I am your son, or maybe I didn’t say Your son but The son, she began to cry or weep and then I thought, or maybe the thought has only occurred to me now, that life is a succession of misunderstandings, leading us on to the final truth, the only truth.
While attending seminary and after, our narrator wanted to be a literary critic. He had enough talen to become attractive (mentally and physically) to the prominent critic Farewell. Through Farewell he meets the other prominent figures of the arts and politics of his youth, including Pablo Nerruda. There is something compelling in these people, and it affects how he feels about his responsibilities flowing from his station in the church.
And I heard one of the women saying Father, won’t you try some of this or that. And someone was talking to me about a sick child, but with such poor diction I couldn’t tell if the child was sick or dead already. What did they need me for? If the child was dying, they should have called a doctor. If the child had already been dead for some time, they should have been saying novenas.
This back story eventually leads our narrator to a special assignment to help preserve the European cathedrals, which are being soiled by pigeon droppings. When he arrives in Europe, Father Urrutia Lacroix is surprised but unaffected by the manner the custodians of the cathedrals have chosen to fix the problem: they have become falconers, and they send their hawks up to violently purge the area of the pigeons (the irony of the church’s killing doves is not lost in the text).
This episode leads directly to the next episode both literally and figuratively. In a way, Father Urrutia Lacroix’s assignment can be seen as a primer for more important political work that is no less violent and disturbing. It ultimately leads him to Maria Canales, whom he now says was merely an acquaintance, no one he knew well, no one who knew him well. (Maria Canales is a stand-in for Mariana Callejas.) This is the horrific climax. This is the complicity our narrator seeks to strip from himself. However, though we never know just how complicit our narrator was, whether he had an active role in the horrors is a side note for Bolaño. Much more important to him here (and in Nazi Literature in the Americas) is his and others’ passive role in the horrors, particularly those who can hide under aesthetics. Our narrator sums it up nicely in one line:
That’s how literature is made in Chile.
Like many, I have come to admire and appreciate the work of Australian Chris Andrews, whose translations have been key in bringing to English readers the works of Roberto Bolaño and César Aira. His exceptional renderings are so strong in style and voice that they never feel like works in translation. Andrews has translated five books by Roberto Bolaño: By Night in Chile (2003), Distant Star (2004), Last Evening on Earth (2007), Amulet (2008), and Nazi Literature in the Americas (2009). From César Aira, he has brought us three: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2006), How I Became a Nun (2007), and Ghosts (2009).
The work continues! From Bolaño, in August, we will see Andrew’s translation of The Skating Rink; in 2010, of Monsieur Pain (January), Assassin Whores (June), and The Insufferable Gaucho (August); and in 2011, of The Secret of Evil (November). All will be published by New Directions (New Directions will also be publishing, in the same general time period, two other Bolaño books — Antwerp (April 2010) and Between Parentheses (June 2011) — translated by Natasha Wimmer, who did exceptional work on Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666). Besides a translation of Aira’s Varamo (forthcoming), I’m hoping that in the mix there are some more transations of Aira’s books.
I’m pleased that Mr. Andrews has taken the time to respond to some questions about his work as a translator, and in particular as a translator of Bolaño and Aira. (All typos in the interview are mine — not because I wrote it myself but because I typed it up myself.)
Q: Mr. Andrews, I’d like to begin by asking about your pathway to your current work translating Roberto Bolaño and César Aira. How long have you been translating, and why from Spanish?
I studied literature, French and Spanish, at university and started translating in the mid-1990s with travel narratives (including Ana Briongos’ memoir Black on Black about living and travelling in Iran) and some short stories (including Cortázar’s uncollected, early story “The Season of the Hand”). I wanted to translate longer works of fiction, but it’s hard to get a contract; there’s simply not much work for translators of fiction into English. With Bolaño, I had a lucky break: I was approaching publishers in England, expressing interest in translating work, and it happened that I visited Christopher Maclehose at The Harvill Press in London shortly after he had acquired the rights to By Night in Chile. That was in 2001. He asked me what I had been reading and I spoke enthusiastically about Bolaño (I had just read The Wild Detectives). Harvill already had a translator lined up for By Night in Chile, but when that fell through, they needed a replacement, so they asked me for a sample, then commissioned me to translate the book. Barbara Epler at New Directions published By Night in Chile in the United States, and I’ve been working directly with her since Last Evenings on Earth (which was originally commissioned by Harvill but published first by New Directions in the United States).
What happened with Aira was also serendipitous. New Directions were considering some of his books, and Barbara was asking for opinions. I had been “converted” by An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (I remember clearly reading it on a tram on a sunny winter’s day in Melbourne and suddenly feeling that I “got it”, after an initial phase of bewilderment, or more precisely realizing that if I stopped trying to “get it” as historically responsible fiction, it would open up as a strange and beautiful blend of phantasmagoria, essay, and narrative poem. After that, I was hooked and embarked on the treasure hunt that Aira has set up for his readers by publishing his books all over the place, with all sorts of outfits). So when the chance to translate An Episode and How I Became a Nun came up, I was very keen.
Q: What attracted you to the work of translating in the first place?
Translating is a very practical, hands-on way of working with literature: taking the sentences apart, puzzling over the bits, and reassembling them; poring over dictionaries and other reference works. I like trying to think about literature in critical and theoretical ways too, but there’s pleasure in losing the distance that theory requires and losing yourself in the details.
Q: I have found Bolaño and Aira to be two incredibly different authors, yet authors whose style is part of the product. In other words, their subject tends to determine the very form they write in. How do you approach such diverse and complex translating projects?
I think you’re quite right: they are very different, but in both cases style, in the broadest sense, encompassing the organization of a life-work and a working life, is central. Part of Aira’s style in that broad sense is to keep changing his style at the level of the chapter or paragraph, or rather to keep jumping from genre to genre to genre (Patri’s dream in Ghosts is a clear example of that: it is made up of free-wheeling anthropological reflections, which contrast strongly with the fairly straightforward narration in which the dream is set). So there are sharp differences within the books as well as between them, which are disorienting for the translator, as for the reader. When the translator reaches those discontinuities, he or she just has to hang on tight.
Q: Do you find yourself suffering from translator’s block?
Yes, but it lasts for hours, not days, weeks, or months, and I think it’s quite different from writer’s block. The problems to be solved are complex, but largely pre-set by the original, whereas a writer has to keep coming up with problems as well as solving them.
Q: Having translated a handful of works by each author, have certain things become automatic or at least easy?
No. That hasn’t happened yet!
Q: Now that we’ve talked about some of the challenges of translating, what are the pleasures?
César Aira has said that for him becoming a writer gave him an excuse to go on reading in the luxurious, irresponsible way that children do. Translating is a good excuse for reading too, and rereading. So I’d say that one of the main pleasures of translating is prolonged immersion in interesting fictions. Handling literary language is a great source of pleasure too.
Q: What are you working on now? And, if it doesn’t breach any pact of secrecy, what is coming up?
Right at the moment I’m finishing off Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain, before getting on to some more Bolaño stories. César Aira’s Varamo is coming up after that.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors writing in Spanish who have not been translated into English?
I’ll mention two, who are very different from each other.
Dalia Rosetti, from Argentina. Recently I read her book Me encantaría que me guestes de mí (clumsy translation: I’d love it if you fancied me). It’s a lesbian surfing romance that jumps into the future. The labels make it sound like a genre mish-mash, and I guess that’s what it is, but what fascinated me was the falsely naive vitality of the narrative voice, which is cunningly sustained.
Juan Villoro, from Mexico. His El Testigo (The Witness), about a self-exiled Mexican intellectual returning home after the elections that ended the PRI’s long reign in 2001, is dense, epigrammatic, and built like a palace. It’s the most ambitious of Villoro’s books to date, but there are many more, in an impressive range of kinds: stories, essays, travel writing, children’s books.
Q: Do you have a say in what works you will translate? If so, how do you select your next process?
Generally publishers do the commissioning and translators take the job or don’t. Publishers often listen to the opinions of translators, or ask them for reader’s reports, but they usually gather a fair few opinions and then they just have to “go on their nerve” as Frank O’Hara said of poets. When a book is proposed, two main factors influence my decision: (a) Am I in tune with the book? and (b) Can I do it in the publisher’s time frame, given my other commitments?
Q: Finally, what are three books you recommend we all read?
These aren’t recommendations for everyone, just some things I like and that might appeal to some readers of The Mookse and the Gripes: Anything the Landlord Touches, poems by Emma Lew, from Melbourne (Giramondo Press); A God’s Breakfast, poems by Frank Kuppner, from Glasgow (Carcanet); The Power of Flies, a novel by Lydie Salvayre, from France, translated by Jane Kuntz (Dalkey Archive Press).
I’m rocketing through César Aira’s books available in English (others reviewed here and here). Which is not hard since they are incredibly short, and there are only three readily available (The Hare, published in the U.S. in 1997 is cheapest used on Amazon at a mere $363, so I don’t count it). It also helps that their plots are wild, taking turns at corners the reader can’t see coming. How I Became a Nun (Cómo me hice monja, 1989; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2007) is no exception. In fact, of the three I’ve read, it is the wildest yet.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
How I Became a Nun is different from the other two in that it starts with the sense of immediacy the others built up to. The opening thirty pages are intense and worth reading in and of themselves. In them we meet our narrator, a young boy (or girl, if you rely on her account) named César Aira, who has just moved from a small interior town to a larger town. To his father’s delight, ice cream is available in the larger time, and, remembering his own excellent experiences with ice cream, the father is taking the young son for his first taste. Shockingly, touching his first spoonful to his mouth, César hates it, can’t even manage to swallow it so awful is the taste. The unbelieving father becomes indignant and finally outraged. How can anyone not like strawberry ice cream? This incident becomes somehow very important to the narrator’s development:
My story, the story of “how I became a nun,” began very early in my life: I had just turned six. The beginning is marked by a vivid memory, which I can reconstruct down to the last detail. Before, there is nothing, and after, everything is an extension of the same vivid memory, continuous and unbroken, including the intervals of sleep, up to the point where I took the veil.
Once this excellently rendered episode is over, the narrator takes us into a chilling fever dream, complete with doppelgänger parents, wherein the narrator is able to step out of the story for a moment in order to see from the outside her story moving onward (all of the ellipses in the following quote are Aira’s own):
Over all these stories hovered another, more conventional in a way, but more fantastic too. Separate from the series, it functioned like a “background,” always there. It was a kind of static story . . . a chilling episode, with a wealth of horrific details . . . It filled me with dread, making the four-part delirium seem like light entertainment by comparison . . . Except that it wasn’t just one more element, a bolt of lightning in a stormy sky . . . it was everything that was happening to me . . . everything that would happen to me in an eternity that had not yet begun and would never end . . . I was the girl in an illustrated book of fairy tales; I had become a myth . . . I was seeing it from inside . . .
This section is so different in form from the first section that I began to wonder just what kind of story I was entering. Then the next section came along, and it was very different from the first two. Again, that is part of the creative process that is on display in the form of the novella. And again, Aira ties this process into the substance of the themes underlying the strange narrative: creation of a personal narrative, identity, mimicry, parental figures’ role in all of the above.
The drama was triggered for me by the realization that the mute scene I was witnessing, the teacher’s and pupil’s abstract mimicry, affected me vitally. It was my story, not someone else’s. The drama had begun as soon as I had set foot in the school, and it was unfolding before me, entire and timeless. I was and was not involved in it; I was present, but not a participant, or participating only by my refusal, like a gap in the performance, but that gap was me.
Like the other two novellas, this one is packed with pleasure and intellect. My only problem was that each section is so separate and distinct from the one preceding it that it felt episodic and, therefore, lacked of the powerful forward thrust in the other two. But . . . as annoyed as I was that every ten pages or so I was thrown out of the narrative and dropped into a strange new place, once I settled down and thought about the form (form is so important to Aira, which I find ironic since his works seem so formless and ad hoc), things started to make sense. These gaps in the narrative are fundamental to the strangeness of Aira’s themes. That they are not discussed (or even, apparently, recognized) by the narrator is just as strange as the fact that he never seems cognizant of the little gender discrepancy so often apparent to the reader but never remarked upon in any way by any of the characters.
Aira gives me the impression that for him writing is a discovery process, and he doesn’t mind making the reader come along the way. As polished as his novels are, they come off feeling like the spiritual cousin to an old fashioned essay—the intial “trying” brings about a complete result where both author and reader are fulfilled.