The Insufferable Gaucho

I love Roberto Bolaño so, so, so, so much. I don’t know how much longer his publishing company can maintain this 2pac-like post-death output (is a Bolaño hologram in our future?), but once it comes to its inevitable end, I will be a very sad girl indeed.

It doesn’t yet feel to me like his literary output has reached a point where it’s just cashing in on his legacy. For now, every new Bolaño book still feel like a luxurious treat to me, one I have to savour and devour as slowly as possible. While reading his latest, The Insufferable Gaucho, my heart pounds. I feel anxious and jittery. I feel like Patti Smith’s description of what she feels like when she writes: “I go crazy, I move like a monkey, I’ve wet myself.” I can only read one short story at a time and then I need to take a break: clean my room, put away the laundry, prepare and eat a black bean salad, letting his ideas and words and themes fully sink it before I can move onto the next piece. I only have two short stories to go in this book before I’m finished and I’m already sad at the thought of it coming to an end.

To me, Bolaño is an ARTIST in every sense of the word, like Patti Smith or Rimbaud or Bob Dylan. Someone who lives and breaths and dies by their art. Check out these excerpts from his long poem “A Stroll Through Literature”: this is a man who loved books, who really knew his shit.  That being said, Bolaño’s feelings towards literature’s ultimate place in human society still seem ambiguous to me (and this ambiguity is mainly what makes him so interesting). I still don’t know if Bolaño is saying that books and fiction and poetry and literature are a salvation of sorts to all the Pain and Suffering and Darkness and Death and Abyss that is life (especially Life in Latin America). I don’t know if he’s saying that the structure of fiction, as in a detective story, can act as a salve or beacon for real-life disorder. I don’t know, I don’t know. Bolaño provides a lot of ideas but not a lot of answers, an uncertainty which again feels more realistic to me than some kind of false, illusionary sense of comfort or order.

The stories in this book are delicious. The first one, “Jim,” is like a three page prose poem, about the titular North American friend of the narrator’s. I think this is one of the few pieces in which Bolaño has explicitly written about a gringo. I like the description of Jim’s stoop “as if he were still weighed down by his pack” the best. (4) Like a lot of Bolaño, the main theme of this story deals with staring and looking at death and darkness straight in the face, represented here in the form of a fire dancer in the Mexico City streets. To his credit, Jim doesn’t turn away (I like how his vaguely hinted-at Vietnam veteran past provides a lot of insight into his character); instead it’s the narrator who drags them both off, since “I was eighteen or nineteen at the time and believed I was immortal.” (4) If I could type this whole piece up and post it here for people to read without fear of copyright infringement, I would.

The next story is the title one, “The Insufferable Gaucho.” I’m assuming the titular gaucho is the main character, a Buenos Aires-residing judge who moves out to his abandoned, collapsing family ranch on the pampas during the 1999-2002 economic crisis (not gonna lie, had to check Wikipedia for the dates). The judge honestly didn’t seem that insufferable to me and I don’t think he is to Bolaño either; he’s handled pretty tenderly and affectionately throughout. I feel like this story would be a good addition to a college curriculum about Argentinean short fiction (all the references to the Borges short story “El sur” throughout this piece provide great fodder for discussion). I don’t know if Bolaño ever went to Argentina, but in a way it doesn’t matter, because to me it feels less like Bolaño’s main subject isn’t the REAL Argentina but rather its literary history, and how Argentineans deal with that in the face of their mundane lives. I guess in a way this is what makes the judge an insufferable gaucho, because he too is obsessed with “seeming” like the classic historical conception of a gaucho, when in reality all the gauchos that surround him are pretty sad and pathetic.

The absolute best thing about this story (among many very excellent things) are the bloodthirsty rabbits. Yes, that’s right. I present to you the paragraphs in which they are introduced, as the judge looks out through the train window on his way to the ranch:

Out on the dry plain he saw a rabbit that seemed to be racing the train. There were five other rabbits running behind it. The rabbits in pursuit seemed to be running in tandem, like the cyclists in the Tour de France. Rabbits, he thought, how wonderful! … When he rested his forehead against the window again, he saw that the rabbits in pursuit had caught up with the lone racing rabbit, and were attacking it ferociously, tearing at its body with their claws and teeth, those long rodent’s teeth. (16)

 Talk about a bienvenidos to the pampas! There is no clearer way to say “you’re not in Buenos Aires anymore homeboy.” I also liked the part where a rabbit jumps up and bites the publisher on the neck.

The third story in the collection is “Police Rat,” which is a traditional detective story crossed with Kafka and Cesar Aira. Much to my delight, the main character wasn’t a policeman who solved crimes related to rats (which is what the book jacket description made me think), but rather a RAT solving rat crimes, down in the sewers. How delightful!

I think this story is absolute genius. First of all, I love its connection to the Kafka short story, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” If you haven’t read this story yet I highly recommend it. It was written near the end of Kafka’s life (I think it might have even been the last piece who wrote) and is a good summary of Kafka’s thoughts about the role of the artist in society and his feelings in regards to his own fiction. I like how Bolaño doesn’t beat around the bush and makes the main character of “Police Rat,” Pepe the Cop, directly related to Josephine (she was his aunt). I like how Bolaño links these two stories right off the bat because it’s a very effective way of bringing in a theme that’s often apparent in Bolaño’s own works, that of the artist in society (especially in a really fucked up society filled with violence and insanity). I especially liked this passage:

Every now and then a rat who paints, for example, will appear in our midst, or a rat who writes poems and takes it into his head to recite them. As a general rule, we don’t make fun of those individuals. On the contrary, we pity them, because we know they’re condemned to solitude. Why? Well, because creating works of art and contemplating them are activities in which our people as a rule are unable to take part, and the exceptions are very few, so if, for example, a poet or even just a reciter or poetry comes along, it’s most unlikely that another poet or reciter will be born in the same generation, which means that the poet may never encounter the only individual capable of appreciating his efforts. (48)

The other theme I liked a lot in this story was that of the role of violence and how it leads to the ultimate decay of civilization. In this sense, “Police Rat” reminded me more of “2666” than anything else by Bolaño that I’ve ever read (I really need to reread that book one of these days). The scenes in which Pepe is uncovering rat corpses killed by a rat serial killer reminded me of all those descriptions of dead mutilated raped female bodies in “2666.” Just look at this, Bolaño seems to be saying, just look at what we are capable of doing. What does that imply about us as a species, about our civilization in general? How can a couple of good short stories, novels or poems possibly hold a candle in face of dead tortured babies, decapitated corpses or wells full of corpses? In “Police Rat,” the rat characters make a big deal about how inconceivable and unacceptable it is that a rat will kill another rat: “We must remember that he was insane, that we are in the presence of the monstrous—rats do not kill rats.” (71) It seems to me that Bolaño is saying that this is the absolute worst, most depraved thing about human society: that the monstrous and insane can become mundane, commonplace even. Boring, inevitable, a daily byline. By the story’s end, Pepe seems to have accepted that the fact that rats can kill other rats as an inevitable sign of their society’s end (to me Bolaño is showing a very strong Cormac McCarthy vibe here):

That night I dreamed that an unknown virus had infected our people. Rats are capable of killing rats. The sentence echoed in my cranial cavity until I woke. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I knew it was only a question of time. Our capacity to adapt to the environment, our hard-working nature, our long collective march toward a happiness that, deep down, we knew to be illusory, but which had served as a pretext, a setting, a backdrop for our daily acts of heroism, all these were condemned to disappear, which meant that we, as a people, were condemned to disappear as well.

It’s already too late, I thought, for everything. I also thought: When did it become too late? Was it in the time of my aunt Josephine? Or a hundred years before that? Or a thousand, three thousand years before? Weren’t we damned right from the origin of our species? (72)

I definitely feel like these passages are Bolaño at his darkest (did he, like Kafka, write this rat story near the end of his life, when he was ravaged by illness and disease?). Nevertheless, to his credit Pepe continues working as a detective (there was nothing else I could do) (71) and goes to what is likely his death carrying out his police rat duties to the very end. I don’t know if Bolaño is implying that this is one way to approach death, by doing your job to the best of your ability up to the very last possible moment. I don’t know if that’s the only way or best way to approach death. But he seems to be saying that it’s one way, and maybe, for him, that was consolation enough.

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Filed under Bolaño, books, review

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