Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Roberto Bolaño’s “Mexican Manifesto” (tr. from the Spanish by Laura Healy) was originally published in the April 22, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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Reading “new” fiction by Roberto Bolaño is problematic. From what I know (which isn’t much), now that we’ve received his published material, we are tapping into his computer files (I understand some people find this insufferable, but, hey, I’m on board, especially since Bolaño’s work all comes together to form something larger, if not something more comprehensible). Bolaño’s published work is fraught with holes, red herrings, dead ends, to say nothing of the pieces that are deliberately pointless, or, rather, the point is pointlessness, the meaning is meaninglessness. How much harder it is, then, reading these pieces that may have been written on a whim and never looked at again, to know where to begin an attempt to unpack it, to know, even, whether it’s worth the effort?
I’ve now read this story twice. I always love entering into Bolaño’s narrative nightmares. This is familiar Bolaño territory, though this fresh in my mind, I don’t think he navigates it quite as well as he does elsewhere. Still, it being familiar Bolaño territory, I imagine many of us Bolaño fans will enjoy being with him again as he takes us through his mazes. But I’ll be very curious about the reactions from people who do not read Bolaño.
The basic premise of the story is this: our unnamed narrator and his girlfriend, Laura, embark on a quest to visit every public bath in Mexico City. They don’t succeed, but they do manage to find the heart of something deep and dark, a journey into the city and into their own minds:
[A]s we advanced the abyss opened up around us, the great black scenography of public baths. Just as the hidden face of other cities is in theatres, parks, docks, beaches, labyrinths, churches, brothels, bars, cheap cinemas, old buildings, even supermarkets, the hidden face of Mexico City could be found in the enormous web of public baths, legal, semilegal, and clandestine.
Indeed, the way Bolaño describes them, these public baths encapsulate all of the “hidden faces” of other cities.
The first one they patronize remains ever after their favorite, and they return often. Montezuma’s Gym is a maze of private and public rooms separated by steamy glass screens that distort and mask everyone. The private saunas are two rooms, and in the first is “an old divan reminiscent of psychoanalysis and bordellos.” This ethereal world, where steam can cause euphoria, sleep, or suffocation, is used to explore humanity’s physical and mental uncertainty (it was in these places that they “mined the certainty of our love”). The baths’ ethereal feel, in which human motive and perception matches the heat and choking steam, is all very Bolañoesque, and we can uncomfortably bask in it.
The contradicting feelings are heightened when they visit in the evening hours, which is their most common schedule:
The baths at that hour seemed to enjoy, or suffer from, a permanent shadow. That is, a trick shadow, a dome or a palm tree, the closest thing to a marsupial’s pouch; at first you’re grateful for it, but it ends up weighing more than a tombstone.
Underneath it all, unseen below the tiles, are the “hot pipes and boilers that stoked the business from some secret place in the building.”
Our narrator, particularly at first, finds that his paranoia is heightened as well. Though they most often occupy the private rooms, this does not stop people from knocking, either to visit because, in some way or other, they’ve become “friends” though solidarity in this underworld, or, more commonly, to sell goods or “performances.”
During one visit, Laura accepts a performance from a proprietor of two young boys. The narrator notices how skinny they are, how skinny he is, how skinny all of them are. As it gets hotter — “unbearably hot,” though they do nothing about the heat — and they all begin sweating, he thinks they are all melting. The boys’ proprietor and, even, one of the boys falls asleep in the room where the air is getting thicker and thicker with steam, until the narrator simply cannot see anything.
I stood and took two steps along the wall. I heard Laura calling me. A Laura with her mouth full. What do you want? I said. I’m suffocating. I went back, less carefully than before, and bent down, feeling my way around the place where I figured they must be. I touched only hot tiles. I thought I was dreaming or going crazy. I bit my hand so I wouldn’t scream. Laura? I moaned.
He finally succeeds in turning off the steam and he and Laura are able to exit. Despite this existential crisis, a panic so acute it is not understood so much as felt, they continue to use baths and even run into this trio again, though “things were never the same.”
And what of all the confusion and paranoia? What does this mean?
I don’t know yet. As with the characters, it is easier to feel this than to understand it, which is one reason I love Bolaño’s work so much (and why I’m such a big fan of Krasznahorkai’s work). Attempting to ”understand” is further complicated by two additional elements to the story, which the story begins and ends with, but which are absent in the remainder of the story: 1) a mural of Montezuma himself, who stays suspended over a pool, watching, while meanwhile his courtiers try “with all their might to ignore whatever it is the emperor sees”; and 2) a brief look at the workers. An eighteen-year-old orphan boy works at Montezuma’s Gym, and our narrator ends the piece by thinking of him and the other workers:
The color of the pool’s rocks, doubtless the saddest color I saw in the course of our expeditions, comparable only to the color of some faces, workers in the hallways, whom I no longer remember, but who were certainly there.
What is it the mural and these workers witness? What makes them so foreboding and sad? The narrator and Laura wander around the city in a haze, building their love on foundations connected to boiler rooms — I don’t know all that this is saying, but it isn’t limited to the narrator and Laura, and it is indeed foreboding and sad.
I am one of those readers new to Roberto Bolaño, Trevor, and I much appreciated your introduction. I was glad to see you use the word nightmare, as the dreamlike story read like a nightmare to me. In addition, I enjoyed your idea that Bolaño’s work is “fraught with holes, red herrings, dead ends, to say nothing of the pieces that are deliberately pointless, or rather, the point is pointlessness, the meaning is meaninglessness.”
I take your warning — that maybe one ought to stay fluid in one’s reaction to him. So I will just talk about the things I thought about while I was reading.
First of all, he titles this story about sexual (mis)adventure “Mexican Manifesto.” Manifesto, however, has very little to do with sex and everything to do with political declaration. I feel on my toes from the beginning that something regarding the human condition is being talked about. It’s impossible not to associate the word manifesto with Marx, the “Communist Manifesto” and Trotsky, who was exiled to Mexico. So I read on, bearing in mind that whatever I read would probably have a political subtext.
But before continuing, I must reveal that I have slightly more interest than the ordinary American in Chile and Pinochet’s overthrow of Allende in 1973. My son-in-law was born in Chile in 1973, and his parents came to the United States shortly after, the coup having turned their world upside down. For that reason, I have slightly more patience with Bolaño’s opaque style than I would otherwise. Life in times such as the Pinochet era is likely to make people speak obliquely. So while I am frustrated to read a story that seems to be talking about sex but has a political title, I am more than willing to give Bolaño some space.
Next, I notice that the woman in this story is named Laura. It’s hard not to make the leap to Petrarch’s Laura, given that Laura is given headliner status, her name being the first word in the story and the speaker’s name never being revealed. But this Laura is Petrarch’s Laura’s polar opposite: risk taking where the other is sheltered, sexually daring where the other is “pure.” But someone with more background in Petrarch than I might be able to make more of this.
At any rate, Bolaño’s Laura appears to be the speaker’s guide to a kind of underworld, but unlike Dante’s Virgil, she is not a dispassionate soul. Her purpose appears to be to deepen her own erotic experience of the affair she is having with the speaker. We have no sense of her having any other understanding of him, although he speaks of her with a kind of combined awe and despair.
Right away, another name crops up in the story: that of Aztec emperor Montezuma. Montezuma’s Gym is the name of the first bath house the couple visits, and a mural of Montezuma graces the foyer. Montezuma “looks fixedly out of the mural, as if searching for the improbable spectator, with dark, wide-open eyes in which I often thought I glimpsed terror.” I think, when searching for what manifesto might mean, Montezuma’s appearance is important, Montezuma being the indigenous emperor conquered by Cortes. So we are in the territory not only of conquered peoples (or twice-conquered peoples), but also the territory of terror.
Although the speaker refers to their odyssey through the bath houses of Mexico City as “pleasure and play,” to the ordinary reader their escapades sound like those of people who have no idea what either love or sex actually is. In fact, looking back, remembering these bath house adventures, the speaker conveys a feeling that is anything but playful. The words that dot his language are morose in the extreme: terror, orphan, fight, abyss, black, limbo, shadow, tombstone, dangerous, funeral, the unpardonably lost, last shred of hope, impossible country, tired, darker, misery, suffocating, blank image, bottomless [eyes], saddest.
Of course, a list of single words taken out of context cannot convey much, but there is no similar list of words one can collect from the story to bear up the speaker’s idea that he was immersed in “pleasure and play.”
When we hear that both whiskey and marijuana, taken together, were part of the bath house visits, one gets the sense not of pleasure but of anesthetic. One wonders how unsatisfying the couple’s relationship is if they need the danger, strange company, “performances,” and anesthetizing to achieve their satisfaction.
We find out that women “were an absolute minority” in the bath houses and that “it wasn’t uncommon to hear extravagant stories of attacks and harassment, even though, truth is, those tales weren’t very credible.” We are further and further from Petrarch’s Laura, as well as further and further from any politically ideal existence, as well as further and further from the truth, given that the purpose of the bath houses is probably not primarily to provide pleasure to women.
Finally, when we meet the old man and the boys who provide the performances, it is not difficult to make the leap to the political — slavery, in particular. That the speaker has difficulty being straightforward about what these “performances” are or how the “performers” are paid is another indication of things being torqued. The speaker has difficulty seeing what is going on; the steam that obscures his vision is mostly a representation of his lack of understanding of himself or others.
The fact that the boys are so somnolent seems a tip-off, not to mention that the old man is asleep as well, and finally, the speaker himself seems half-conscious, watching Laura and one of the boys disappear into the steam.
The fact that the speaker says the language of the boys “had a touch of the funeral and of holes” is profoundly sad and profoundly confusing. His own language then collapses completely when he tries to clarify his strange thought that the boys’ language had a touch of the “Air Hole.” He offers this fragment in an explanation which is not a rational explanation: “One of the deformed faces of the Immaculate Grave.” The thought is not grammatical, nor is it clear, except that we understand that the whole scene and its meaning is horrific. In fact, he says at one point, “I felt like we were in a Nazi shower.” Laura says, “Don’t worry, everything’s fine.” But the speaker thinks, later, “I’m suffocating [. . .].I thought I was dreaming or going crazy.”
So what does it all mean? I get the feeling (as Trevor has suggested is the way to go with Bolaño) that a society is being pictured where everyone is anesthetized, where anyone who can truly see is terrified, where power is so overwhelming that people have no sense of reality, that people live in slavery and that all relationships have been distorted, and that the only way to survive is to be half dead.
So that brings us back to the problem of manifesto. The odd thing is that while Bolaño was from Chile, he places this story in Mexico, as if, like many of us, he only truly understands his country of origin when he can look back on it from afar. If your country had suffered a series of governmental failures, to the point that innocent people are murdered, tortured, imprisoned and sent into exile, to the point where you yourself no longer can live there, perhaps this portrait of life in “Mexican Manifesto” might have the sound of something true. Bolaño is suggesting that he knows a place where suffering abounds, and yet where the rulers say it is pleasure and play.
I am new to Bolaño. I recommend this strange, unsettling story, just because it is unsettling. There is a coherence to the feeling it gives you: something is gravely not right here, something really important is not right here. Some of what is not right has to do with misplaced power and with slavery, with the idea of sexual slavery being a trope to represent a wider reality and the idea of being half dead is best represented by drugged somnolence.
I hope the New Yorker has the opportunity to publish some more Bolaño, but I also wish that someone like Adam Gopnick or Louis Menand would do a long essay about Bolaño as well.
I look forward to any clarifications or suggestions any of you out there have as well.
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.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Roberto Bolaño’s “Labyrinth” was originally published in the January 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
I’m a big fan of Roberto Bolaño, though it didn’t come easy. My first encounter with the now legendary writer was in the earliest days of winter in 2008 when 2666 was published (my negative review here). It was powerful, but in the end I decided I didn’t like it. I shake my head at my not-much-younger self and now consider 2666 a true masterpiece. Naturally, any time something else is published by the prolific author, even if it’s just part of his computer files as is the case here, I’m on board. Sometimes I read one of these posthumous pieces and think, well, I’m glad we have that as it’s indeed Bolaño, even if it’s not very good Bolaño. That’s not the case here. I found “Labyrinth” to be an exceedingly powerful short piece that begins when Bolaño looks at a picture.
There are eight people in the photo:
They’re seated. They’re looking at the camera. They are, from left to right: J. Henric, J.-J. Goux, Ph. Sollers, J. Kristeva, M.-Th. Réveillé, P. Guyotat, C. Devade and M. Devade.
There’s no photo credit.
That’s how the piece begins. Not a particularly engaging opening perhaps, but where Bolaño is about to go who needs a good opening.
Incidentally, the photo is real. You can see it by clicking on the link to The New Yorker website above. It must have been taken in the 1970s (a good time for Bolaño fiction). Bolaño proceeds to pick the photo apart, describing each individual, what they do (the only one I’d heard of was Julia Kristeva), what they are wearing, etc. This is not as dry as you might thinkg, but the story really picks up when Bolaño leaves the photo behind:
Let’s imagine J.-J. Goux, for examle, who is looking out at us through his thick submarine spectacles.
His space in the photo is momentarily vacant and we see him walking along Rue de l’École de Médecine, with books under his arm, of course, two books, till he comes out onto the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
The piece goes back and forth from the photo to some imagined present for the individuals pictures (all real people — most relatively famous). And then there are two ghosts: “Let’s call these two beyond the frame X and Z.” Strangely, when Bolaño strays from the photo, we don’t feel he takes it too far; in other words, one feels Bolaño is being faithful to the image, even as the people suffer in their imagined lives. As usual, Bolaño sums it up best:
Literature brushes past these literary creatures and kisses them on the lips, but they don’t even notice.
I’m a little late in bringing up the latest Roberto Bolaño book, Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998 – 2003 (Entre parentesis, 2004; tr. by Natasha Wimmer, 2011). It came out earlier this year, and beyond the first week after its release I haven’t really heard much about it. I’m behind in getting to it for a couple of reasons: (1) I have had less time to write reviews, so I have a pile of books I’ve read and want to review but just can’t, (2) while this book has been a joy to dip into, it’s not exactly the easiest book to “review”; enjoying it, even understanding much of it, may depend a great deal on how one feels about Bolaño and his work. However, so much has Bolaño’s work grown in my estimation since I first read and reviewed 2666 (my review here) that I had to get some thoughts down here and bring Between Parentheses up again, especially if people missed in when it first came out.
Between Parentheses is a large catch-all. It purports to collect “most of the newspaper columns and articles Roberto Bolaño published between 1998 and 2003.” There’s no quality control, then, and that has upset some people. Of course, there are those (and I’m one of them) who wouldn’t have it any other way. Bolaño, even when writing off-the-cuff about things he may know little about, is at his worst still full of infectious energy. Further, most of the pieces here are very short and can be quickly skimmed or skipped altogether if necessary.
The date span, 1998 – 2003, is the approximate span of time when Bolaño was a living literary superstar. He’d published books and won some minor awards before 1998, but that was the year The Savage Detectives was first published. Between then and 2003, when he died at fifty, what he thought mattered, and he was basically given free rein to write for various publications on various topics. And here they are.
The book isn’t arranged by chronology but rather loosely by theme in six parts: 1. Three Insufferable Speeches, 2. Fragments of a Return to the Native Land, 3. Between Parentheses (Bolaño’s column in Chile’s Las Últimas Noticias), 4. Scenes, 5. The Brave Librarian, and 6. The Private Life of a Novelist. Within are speeches, interviews, long essays, brief thought bubbles, sketches for books, book reviews, etc. All the stuff we’d expect the author to have been involved in within the literary world that could be written down.
I have two favorite parts. First, the book reviews and author portraits Bolaño wrote for his column. He writes about writers as diverse as Jonathan Swift, Turgenev, Philip K. Dick, and Thomas Harris. Some of my favorites were short but insightful pieces about a few of my favorites: César Aira (“an exceptionally perceptive chronicler of mothers (a verbal mystery) and fathers (a geometric certainty)”; you can read my reviews of Aira books here), and Horacio Castellanos Moya (“[His book El asco's] acid humor, like a Buster Keaton movie or a time bomb, threatens the hormonal stability of the idiots who, upon reading it, feel an irresistible urge to string the author up in the town square. Truly, I know of no greater honor for a real writer”; you can read my reviews of Castellanos Moya books here). The number of authors brought up in these pages, under praise or high criticism, is large. I don’t know it, but it’s enough to keep one reading through life.
My other favorite parts are the little tidbits that give insight into Bolaño’s strange and unique work. If you haven’t read Bolaño, some of this may not make much sense, but in a piece on exile Bolaño discusses “the photographic negative of an epiphany, which is also the story of our lives in Latin America.” I cannot think of a better way to describe his work and the sensation upon finishing — “the photographic negative of an epiphany.”
Bolaño also discusses his experiences in the early 1970s when as a twenty year old he was in Chile during Pinochet’s coup. Afterwards, Bolaño was arrested and spent eight days in captivity in a schoolhouse (an event recounted a few times in his fiction). He succinctly relates how those days after the coup felt: “full days, crammed with energy, crammed with eroticism, days and nights in which anything could happen.” If finishing a Bolaño book feels like looking at the photographic negative of an epiphany, reading one feels like how he describes this time in his life: “The experience of love, black humor, friendship, prison, and the threat of death were condensed into no more than five interminable months that I lived in a state of amazement and urgency.” That condensing: that’s his literary work.
Bolaño’s work is powerful, and it can be powerfully confusing and off-putting. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that, while I can admire (greatly) individual pieces in his oeuvre, Bolaño’s project was greater than any single work, and each work built up toward his lofty ideas. Between Parentheses is a great companion piece, essential, I think, to anyone who really wants to dig in. It’s not that it adds up to greater comprehension (though I think it can); it’s that it continues to rearrange the puzzle pieces in interesting ways.
Most of Bolaño’s New Directions book covers are similar in style. I’ve liked them. However, because Antwerp (Amberes, 2002; tr. from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, 2010) looked so different, I’ve been more excited to read it. It arrived in a coverless hardback, small-sized and well designed, simple and bold. It suggests weight.
Still, despite the cover, I wasn’t sure the content would hold up. I always have doubts when I approach Bolaño, like I’ll realize what many suspect: that there’s nothing there. Perhaps this feeling is some vestige from my initial experience with the Chilean when I read 2666. I loved the book while reading it, but I was so frustrated at the end. Now I think my feelings would be different. I’ve come to realize that much of reading Bolaño is the experience of reading itself, the search for meaning, the disturbing images, the powerful prose. Antwerp exceeded my expectations.
The book is divided into 56 fragments, each a paragraph that spans a page or two. They begin with a statement many might attribute to Bolaño’s work itself:
Once photographed, life here is ended. It is almost symbolic of Hollywood. Tara has no rooms inside. It was just a facade.
These fragments, at first, drift from one subject to another with no apparent link, though if you’ve read Bolaño the characters might sound familiar: there’s the corrupt and brutal policeman, the prostitute, the poet. Part of the enjoyment in reading Antwerp is allowing these lives to just happen in front of you, to just accept that you will not understand everything for a while, but that the experience itself is worth its time. And what does that initial fragment say about the fragments that follow?
I’d like to quote in full one of the first passages that really grabbed my attention:
11. AMONG THE HORSES
I dreamed of a woman with no mouth, says the man in bed. I couldn’t help smiling. The piston forces the images up again. Look, he tells her, I know another story that’s just as sad. He’s a writer who lives on the edge of town. He makes a living working a riding school. He’s never asked for much, all he needs is a room and time to read. But one day he meets a girl who lives in another city and he falls in love. They decide to get married. The girl will come to live with him. The first problem arises: finding a place big enough for the two of them. The second problem is where to get the money to pay for it. Then one thing leads to another: a job with a steady income (at the stables he works on commission, plus room, board, and a small monthly stipend), getting his papers in order, registering with social security, etc. But for now, he needs money to get to the city where his fianceé lives. A friend suggests the possibility of writing articles for a magazine. He calculates that the first four would pay for the bus trip there and back and maybe a few days at a cheap hotel. He writes his girlfriend to tell her he’s coming. But he can’t finish a single article. He spends the evenings sitting outdoors at the bar of the riding school where he works, trying to write, but he can’t. Nothing comes out, as they say in common parlance. The man realizes that he’s finished. All he writes are short crime stories. The trip recedes from his future, is lost, and he remains listless, inert, going automatically about his work among the horses.
I know the basic concept here — a man who cannot escape his circumstances — is not original. But in Bolaño’s universe, this writer of crime stories comes up again and again, both antic and listless at the same time. This passage also begins to tie the book together — er, at least, tie it together a bit more. The riding school comes up several times and we start to see how the various characters fill the space around it. We find out who is dreaming of women with no mouths and whom he’s talking to here. We get a sense of the community: ”Nothing shocking, really, people upset because they were out of work, etc. These are the sad stories I have to tell you.”
While the characterization was fine, I found that I valued other aspects of the book. I liked the fragmented quality. I liked that it was at least somewhat self-conscious: “Our stories are sad, sergeant, there’s no point trying to understand them.” Again, I really didn’t fret this time when I couldn’t put the pieces together. Perhaps it is because the book is set up in fragments that made me care less about structure. It reminded me strongly of a poem, lonely and longing and hopeless, which the following passage reinforces:
36. PEOPLE WALKING AWAY
Nothing lasts, the purely loving gestures of children tumble into the void. I wrote: “a group of waiters returning to work” and “windswept sand” and “the dirty windowpanes of September.”
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.
Over the Christmas holiday last year I read Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. I wrote a review that balances on the negative side because it just didn’t come together for me—at all. The over-the-top praise surely didn’t help me going in to the book. That said, taking 2666 by its pieces, I loved it. The writing was so compelling and interesting, as were the individual stories. I figured that I’d probably get along better with Bolaño’s works of less than 900 pages that he actually finished before he died. My first attempt: Nazi Literature in the Americas (Literatura nazi en América, 1996; tr. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, 2008).
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Strangely enough, this one was even more in pieces even than 2666, but it tied together better and felt more cohesive. What we have here is a series of short (usually only a few pages, sometimes as short as a paragraph) biographical sketches of a few dozen writers from Latin and North America. Some tie together because they are from the same family or from the same movement, but all tie together because of their extremely far Right political views in which they see the hope for the human race (at least, the human race as they’d like to define it):
Shortly before his death, in a letter to a friend in Buenos Aires, he foresaw a radiant epoch for the human race, the triumphant dawn of a new golden age, and he wondered whether the Argentinian people would rise to the occasion.
Of course, it’s no secret, if you read the title, that their views are terrifying. And Bolaño has a great ability to present their wishes in detailed lists where the writing, in its disinterested rhetoric, is very compelling (not the thoughts: I said ”the writing”).
As a young man, Salvático advocated, among other things, the re-establishment of the Inquisition; corporal punishment in public; a permanent war against the Chileans, the Paraguayans, or the Bolivians as a kind of gymnastics for the nation; polygamy; the extermination of the Indians to prevent further contamination of the Argentinean race; curtailing the rights of any citizen with Jewish blood; a massive influx of migrants from the Scandinavian countries in order to effect a progressive lightening of the national skin color, darkened by years of promiscuity with the indigenous population; life-long writer’s grants; the abolition of tax on artists’ incomes; the creation of the largest air force in South America; the colonization of Antarctica; and the building of new cities in Patagonia.
He was a soccer player and a Futurist.
I love that little “He was a soccer player and a Futurist” thrown in the next paragraph, as if what we read above were just facts of biography and nothing more. In fact, Bolaño is incredibly adept at making these writers seem real. Though none in this book is real, all are realistically situated among real writers and real literary and political movements. One moment that stood out to me was an ill-fated encounter one of the characters had with the poet Allen Ginsberg. The episode was made more real in light of a recent article I read about a similar encounter between the poet and the younger poet Matthew Dickman (Dickman’s encounter was completely different than the one in this book; it ended in a kiss, not a beating).
The pseudo-reality becomes important when you realize just why (well, at least one reason why) Bolaño wrote this book. When I started it, I couldn’t get my head around this man’s depth of imagination. Here he has created a series of realistic figures, complete with the titles of the novels they wrote, dissertations about them, movements they joined, all told in greater detail and with more flare than many good biographies. He does an excellent job seeming to sound like a disinterested, though fluent, purveyor of information while keeping in the editorial jabs, one of the best things about such magazines as The New Yorker and The Economist. Here’s a good example of a place where I was laughing out loud while admiring Bolaño’s scope:
That was not to be Pérez Masón’s last visit to the jails of socialist Cuba. In 1965 he published Poor Man’s Soup, which related—in an irreproachable style, worthy of Sholokov—the hardships of a large family living in Havana in 1950. The novel comprised of fourteen chapters. The first began: “Lucia was a black woman from . . .”; the second: “Only after serving her father . . .”; the third: “Nothing had come easily for Juan . . .”; the fourth: “Gradually, tenderly, she drew him towards her . . .” The censor quickly smelled a rat. The first letters of each chapter made up the acrostic LONG LIVE HITLER. A major scandal broke out. Pérez Masón defended himself haughtily: it was a simple coincidence. The censors set to work in earnest, and made a fresh discovery: the first letters of each chapter’s second paragraph made up another acrostic—THIS PLACE SUCKS. And those of the third paragraph spelled: USA WHERE ARE YOU. And the fourth paragraph: KISS MY CUBAN ASS. And so, since each chapter, without exception, contained twenty-five paragraphs, the censors and the general public soon discovered twenty-five acrostics. I screwed up, Pérez Masón would say later: They were too obvious, but if I’d made it much harder, no one would have realized.
I was being short-sighted, though, in just admiring Bolaño’s scope. What he has to say about literature and rhetoric is quite profound. There are several places where he highlights the works of an author and I thought That sounds interesting.
A number of the poems are noteworthy:
—”A Dialogue with Hermann Goering in Hell,” in which the poet, astride the black motorcycle of his early sonnets, arrives at an abandoned airfield, in a place known as Hell, near Maracaibo on the Venezuelan coast, and meets the shade of Reichsmarschall, with whom he discusses various subjects: aviation, vertigo, destiny, uninhabited houses, courage, justice and death.
—”Concentration Camp,” by contrast, is the humorous and at times touching story of Zwickau’s life as a child, between the ages of five and ten, in a middle-class neighborhood of Caracas.
And after thinking hmmm, interesting, I had to stop and cringe. Ahh, the seductive power of literature and rhetoric. Sometimes something so reprehensible is made interesting and noteworthy, perhaps even praiseworthy, because of the skillful use of language holding it up, even if the ideas it espouses are ugly. I found this book a nice review of several tragedies of the 20th century. Rhetoric will undoubtedly continue to be the cause of tragedies to come (but hopefully also of good things). Of course, it is ironic coming from a master rhetorician who seductively pulls us into these accounts with great sentence fluency, comedy, and poetry. And they are interesting, and compelling, and horrific (indeed, the book is complete with an EPILOGUE FOR MONSTERS).
On a final note: Somehow, after 175 pages of brief biographical sketches, all from a scholarly third person, Bolaño throws in a mighty conclusion. It’s worth reading for many reasons, but to feel his conclusion is its own reward. So, see if you can guess how I feel about Bolaño now.