One of my sister’s favorite expressions in high school was “Well, there’s always the next Tori Amos/Bruce Springsteen album.” My mother says something similar every now and again: “Well, as long as you have books, you’ll never be lonely or bored.” To me, what makes these two expressions similar are the sentiments behind them: there’s always something to look forward to. Tori Amos has a new album out in May. I have a plane ticket to go hiking in Spain for two weeks in April and a marathon to run in Edinburgh in May (I’m already two sessions behind in my goofy Excel spreadsheet training schedule, LOLZ, whatever, just tellin’ myself that I’m so badass it doesn’t even matter!). I’m going to London this weekend to see Jude Law in Henry V (thus making up for not seeing him in Hamlet in 2009, something I will always regret). I signed up to get email notifications from the Royal Shakespeare Company in case tickets for the stage versions of “Wolf Hall” and “Bringing Up the Bodies” ever become available. “Wolf of Wall Street” was just released in theaters, my current bedside reading is a fantasy novel sequel (Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear), Game of Thrones Season 4 premieres April 6th, etc, etc, etc. Oh, my classes this semester don’t seem too bad either.
So if you really put your mind to it, there are a lot of things to look forward to. To be grateful for. And one of the things I’ll always be grateful for is Bolaño– my old buddy, old pal, loyal steadfast companion. I’m rereading 2666 right now, slowly but surely, wearin’ my metaphorical boxing gloves (BRING IT ON!!!!) and taking copious notes on every page–the last time I read it (five years ago!!) was my friend Claire’s hardcover copy, so I didn’t even dare fold over the pages. Not this time. We are marking this shit up like illegal graffiti artists.
Rereading Bolaño has made me realize (or maybe remember?) three important things: number one, he is the kind of writer who will always make you want to write yourself (if that’s your thang). Number two, whenever I read Bolaño, I am never lonely or bored. My feelings when I read him remind me of what Orwell said about reading Henry Miller—you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood.“He knows all about me,” you feel; “he wrote this specially for me,” speaking directly to you in a raspy cigarette-infused Chilean accent with occasional Mexican slang. Number three: if you are any way a book lover yourself, there’s no way you can’t be sympathetic to Bolaño’s worldview, in which poets are as glorious as ancient Roman gladiators. He’s on your side, Bolaño is–you are on the same gawky bespectacled team.
I’ve thought about a lot of things while rereading 2666 (I’m currently about to start Book 3, the Part about Fate). Here are a few scatterings:
– Bolaño’s novels are always so intensely dependent on world-building via literature. We get the names of authors that we never know are real or imaginary, publication dates, extensive italicized bibliographies, names, dates, numbers. No wonder people keep saying that The Savage Detectives and 2666 (and maybe even Nazi Literature of the Americas) are the novels that Borges could/would have written.
– 2666 discusses many different kinds of reading: reading for pleasure, reading for knowledge, for enigmas, labyrinths. Is the point of reading that it can be the souvenir of a pleasantly-spent evening, a sigh of satisfaction, a lovely escape? Is the “book culture” of academics (the supposedly most devoted of readers) an elitist snobbish profession filled with self-professed cannibals, delivering lectures like massacres? Is it more important to read, to try to gain knowledge and understanding in the face of horror and doubt, or is it more important to take action (the way the police detectives and journalists do in Book 4), even when your actions might be pathetically futile and useless?
– There’s lots of windows. And dream sequences. And references to lights, and mirrors, and doubles. Oh, abysses too.
– The impossibility of ever really knowing not just anything but anybody, from the people in your close circle of loved ones and friends to the targets of your obsessions.
– Everything is either a joke or a misunderstanding.
– During one apocalyptic dream sequence (and there’s quite a few of them) we get the following description about an ancient statue rising out of the ocean: “it was horrific and at the same time very beautiful.” (79) What better way to describe Bolaño’s writing?
– We also meet an artist who cuts off his own hand for his artwork, then dies by literally falling into an abyss. Yes, literally. It happens when he’s shut up in a mental institution, I should add. I honestly don’t know how Bolaño could have made a stronger point about what he sees is the Fate of the Artist.
– When the academics first arrive to Mexico in Book 1, one of them stays in a bathroom where a giant chunk is missing from the toilet seat, as though someone had taken a huge bite out of it. “How the hell did no one notice this?” he wonders. In the margins of the book I scrawled, KEY QUESTION OF NOVEL.
– Culture vs. barbarity is another big theme. Are the academics really that much more refined than the uncaught murderers in Santa Teresa?
– There’s also a lot of attention paid to literature vs. reality, to different modes of storytelling, of representing and ordering reality. Does the order of a story conceal “a verbal disorder that would shake us to the core if we were to experience it”? (174) Is it okay to turn “a brutal story of injustice and abuse, an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story” in which chaos is turned to order? What if chaos and disorder is the genuine truth of things? Is it okay for literature to lie like this?
– Oh, that image of the book hanging on the clothesline, fighting off the elements of the desert, as the university professor nervously watches, seeing how long it will last. Could there be a better image of Literature vs. Reality? “When they got home it was dark but the shadow of Dieste’s book hanging from the clothesline was clearer, steadier, more reasonable, thought Amalfitano, than anything they’d seen on the outskirts of Santa Teresa or in the city itself, images with no handhold, images freighted with all the orphanhood in the world, fragments, fragments.” (206)
– Those similes! The sky purple “like the skin of an Indian woman beaten to death.” (210) A raised hand like a tattered flag, the fingers like the flags of the unvanquished. (179) There’s also a lot of references to ancient history–Barcelona is like a medieval city, a professor checks on his back garden like a feudal lord surveying his lands.
– Another straightforward commentary on the goals and intentions of 2666 itself: “Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown… they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” (277)
Great, imperfect, torrential…. I can’t wait to reread the rest of it. Something to look forward to.
I used to read everything, Professor, I read all the time. Now all I read is poetry. Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, that isn’t part of the game. I don’t know if you follow me, Professor. Only poetry—and let me be clear, only some of it—is good for you, only poetry isn’t shit. (226)