Monthly Archives: September 2016

“Enjoy your youth / sounds like a threat / But I will anyway”

(Title courtesy of Regina Spektor)

Boy, do I feel the weight of time passing sometimes. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s fresher’s week. Or because I’m almost done with rereading The Savage Detectives and I just realized that the last time I read it was SEVEN YEARS AGO (?!), when I was living in Mexico. Re-reading it this time has sure made me feel old and melancholic. I’ll never forget how the first time I read it in, what, 2007? 2008?–what struck me most about it was its life, its vitality, its obsession with Paris and travel, cigarettes, and cups of black coffee. Reading it this time, what strikes me most about it is its incredible sense of melancholy and nostalgia–the pain of faded youth.

What else struck me about this book, during this re-read?

— > Its obsession with walking, with street names and neighborhoods. As though characters were using the city’s names and landmarks as a way to orient themselves in an unknowable world (most memorably by the architect father, following his release from the mental institution).

—> The way certain sections read as individual short stories. There’s the refugee who settles in Spain and makes a ton of money by predicting lottery numbers, or Belano’s bodybuilding female roomamate, who possibly provides the strongest moral compass of the book, with her emphasis on habit and hard work, or what she calls “life’s responsibilities, the things I believed in and clung to in order to keep breathing.(556) There’s Edith Oster’s story (the anorexic, unstable girl Belano falls in love with), and Daniel Grossman’s final encounter with his friend Norman and their bitter reminisces about their days as visceral realists (maybe the saddest part of the book for me), and Octavio Paz’s secretary. There’s the hypnotically whacko monologue by the seriously disturbed Austrian that Ulises meets in a jail cell in Israel, and there’s also the triple-whammy of Belano stories at the end: his duel, cave descent, and voyage to Africa (all of which add up to my favorite parts of the book). I can’t believe I never realized this before–that The Savage Detectives is basically linked short stories.

—> The role of inconclusiveness, desperation, and rising tension. I frequently felt like something AWFUL was going to happen, especially in the chapter with the hitchhiking British girl, picking grapes in France.

—> The perspective of the book (in terms of who is narrating) is deeply provocative. I can definitely understand and even sympathize with someone who would read this and just find all the young poets incredibly irritating. If you had them in a university classroom, yeah, you probably would want to punch them. And despite all their talk and obsession with poetry, none of them end up being successful in a traditional, published-author, hot-shot literary figure sense. And yet this is one of the themes that resonates most deeply with me. What does it mean to BE a writer, vs. to write? Are they “failures” if they never publish or become famous? How do you live with your life not turning out the way you wanted it to be? What is the definition of “success”?

—> What an unconventional book this is, really.  Boy, was Bolaño influenced by French surrealism (not that I know much about it, I just get a real vibe for Rimbaud-ish weirdness during this reread). Disappearances and absences to play a big role, most notably in Juan García Madero’s complete disappearance from the middle section. What happened to him? Where did he go? Such a key question for so many other Latin American artists and intellectuals, working in the 50’s through the 70’s.

—> I think the most inspiring sentence in this book for me this time around is this one, in the section narrated by Xóchitl García, who keeps trying to write despite all odds: “María and I looked at each other, not pretending anymore but serious, tired but ready to go on, and after a few seconds I got up and turned on the light.”  (396)

“Tired but ready to go on.” That feels like enough of a mantra for me, for now.

Other quotes:

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I try to do things right but everything turns out wrong, I should go back to Peru, this city is fucking killing me, I’m not the same person I used to be. (239)

I was suddenly overcome by the full horror of Paris, the full horror of the French language, the poetry scene, our state as unwanted guests, the sad, hopeless state of South Americans lost in Europe, lost in the world. (243)

Being alone makes us stronger. That’s the honest truth. (315)

You have to live your life, that’s all there is to it. A drunk I met the other day on my way out of the bar La Mala Senda told me so. Literature is crap. (316)

Don’t worry, the poet doesn’t die, he loses everything, but he doesn’t die. (360)

I would think about my next article, about the story I was planning to write… and the time would fly. (393)

I was still myself. Not the self I’d gotten used to, for better or for worse, but myself. (396)

Then, humbled and confused and in a burst of utter Mexican-ness, I knew that we were ruled by fate and that we would all drown in the storm, and I knew that only the cleverest, myself certainly not included, would stay afloat much longer. (406)

I set out to dissect what had become of my youth. And I concluded that everything had to change, even if I wasn’t sure just then how to go about it or what path to take. (407)

Don’t tempt fate, you lucky bastard, be happy with what you’ve got… We aren’t given much time on this earth. We have to pray and work. (415)

Belano, I said, the heart of the matter is knowing whether evil (or sin or crime or whatever you want to call it) is random or purposeful. If it’s purposeful, we can fight it, it’s hard to defeat, but we have a chance, like two boxers in the same weight class, more or less. If it’s random, on the other hand, we’re fucked, and we’ll just have to hope that God, if He exists, has mercy on us. And that’s what it all comes down to. (420)

We weren’t writing for publication but to understand ourselves better or just to see how far we could go. (435)

It has to do with life, with what we lose without knowing it, and what we can regain. So what can we regain? I said. What we’ve lost, said Norman, we can get it back intact. (481)

The search for a place to live and a place to work was the common fate of all mankind. (488)

She doesn’t see, she never sees, the fool, the idiot, the innocent, this woman who’s come too late, who’s interested in literature with no idea of the hells lurking beneath the tainted or pristine pages, who loves flowers and doesn’t realize there’s a monster in the bottom of the vase. (526)

I’m basically a fighter. I try to stay positive. Things don’t have to be bad or inevitable. (545)

I know the secret of life isn’t in books. But I also know that it’s good to read, that it can be instructive, or relaxing: we agree about that. (551)

Norwegian Wood (Murakami)

Unlike The Savage Detectives, I’d never read this book before, but also ended up completely loving it. Similarly to Detectives, I was intensely impacted by Norwegian Wood’s pervasive feeling of melancholy and nostalgia, and its depiction of being young. Coincidentally, two of Murakami’s main characters are also obsessive walkers of Tokyo, tying in with Detectives’ use of street names and neighborhoods as a contrast to its characters’ disorientation.

Oh, this book is so sad! It’s very different from the other Murakami books I’ve read (Sheep Chase, Kakfa, 1Q84, Wind-Up Bird, After the Quake, Colorless TI think that’s it), in the sense that it’s a very straightforward, realistic story. It begins simply enough, with our narrator-hero Toru Watanabe on a plane landing in Germany and hearing the faintest strains of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” playing on the speakers. And just like we’re transported back to his days in university in Tokyo, narrated in a decidedly detached, passive style. Toru is unimpressed by university and ends up finding his most formative experiences outside the classroom: “By the second week in September I reached the conclusion that a university education was meaningless. I decided to think of it as a period of training in techniques for dealing with boredom.” (62)

I was very impressed by the structure of this book. Like The Savage Detectives, it’s filled with stories that other characters tell the narrator, who is fundamentally a blank slate. Two characters, Midori (a main love interest) and Reiko (an older woman he meets) verge on being Manic Pixie Dream Girls (and probably would be in the hands of a lesser writer), but are thankfully given a rough rawness that serve to combat any potential Pixie-ness. A lot of this rawness is related to sex, which is another thing that surprised me about this book–I was definitely not expecting Murakami to be this graphic in parts!

I was also deeply affected by the novel’s themes of regret, death, and loss. There’s a scene involving a firefly in a jar that could potentially be corny, but ended up reading as tragically transcendent to me, almost Gatsby-esque (which is fittingly one of Toru’s favorite books). I liked the different examples that Toru witnesses of adulthood, like his friend who is obsessed with acquiring women and power, and an old man who passes away with very little to show for it (in regards to this latter character, Toru wonders, “what had he left behind? A nothing-much bookshop in a nothing-much neighborhood and two daughters, at least one of whom was more than a little strange. What kind of life was that?”) (261)

(The rest of this review contains SPOILERS so stop reading now if you’d rather not know details of the book’s plot, which is actually something I recommend–it was fun for me to read this book and be surprised!)

In terms of the themes of death and loss, both appear early on in the earliest chapters, when Toru’s 17-year-old best friend Kizuki inexplicably commits suicide. This drives Toru into the arms of Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko, who is (to put it simply) somewhat troubled (this theme of madness is another crazy link with Savage Detectives that I just noticed! I wonder why both authors focused so much on the idea of sanity when writing about youth… I guess because it’s a very intense time). Naoko eventually retreats to a rural sanctuary in the countryside for other people like her, who are finding life a bit too intense and difficult to deal with (I liked how the novel pointedly notes that it was only people with money who were able to go there). Toru regularly visits her and becomes friends with her roommate Reiko, an older woman who used to be a classical pianist before (as they say) things went wrong. As Reiko puts it, “Something inside me had vanished. Some jewel of energy or something had disappeared – evaporated – from my body… Here I was in my early twenties and the best part of my life was over.” (155)

But then Toru meets Midori, a fellow university student: vivacious, wild-mouth and vibrant, Midori is the type of character who says things like “The saddest thing in the world is wearing a damp bra. I’d walk around with tears pouring from my eyes.” (90) Intense and vibrant, the contrast between the two is pretty clear: Midori = life, Naoko = death.

And so the main decision for Toru is set up. And in the background to all this is Toru’s flat, tasteless, and solitary life in university, in which he describes getting up every morning as “winding up a spring.” I found these descriptions of his struggle to get through the day-to-day motions of “normal” living very affecting: “How many Sundays – how many hundreds of Sundays like this – lay ahead of me?” (262)

I also found how Murakami depicted the culture of the 60’s (in terms of its daily protests and obsession with revolution) very interesting, via the lens of Toru’s disillusioned perspective. Watching the everyday scenes of his university campus, Toru experiences severe dislocation: “The more I watched, the more confused I became. What the hell was this all about? I wondered. What could it possibly mean?” (218) KEY QUESTIONS FOR US ALL. “Hey, Kizuki,” Toru thinks at another point, mentally addressing his dead friend, “you’re not missing a damn thing. This world is a piece of shit. The arseholes are getting good marks and helping to create a society in their own disgusting image.” (62)

What doe Toru want from society? What does Toru want from life? What kind of person does he want to be? These are clearly the more important questions that propel the narrative in the book, rather than the question of whether he will choose This Girl or That Girl. Early on, he warns Naoko, “You’re letting yourself be scared by too many things. The dark, bad dreams, the power of the dead,” (193) and this perhaps is the best articulation of the danger he faces. Will he let himself be consumed by the darkness? How does he want to see the world? In another passage I found extremely moving, Naoko says to him (speaking of Kizuki): “We had to pay the world back what we owed it… The pain of growing up. We didn’t pay when we should have, so now the bills are due… We were like kids who grew up naked on a desert island. If we got hungry, we’d just pick a banana; if we got lonely, we’d go to sleep in each other’s arms. But that kind of thing doesn’t last forever. We grew up fast and had to enter society.” (169)

But does it always have to be like that? Is Toru going to adopt a similar view, in which “entering society” leads to a sacrifice of something you’ll never recuperate? Can you ever get back what you think you’ve lost? In contrast to Naoko’s somewhat glum view, there are also perspectives like Reiko’s, who perhaps more than anyone else in the novel tries her hardest to see the best in things: “So what if I had spent time in mental hospitals? My life hadn’t ended. Life was still full of wonderful things I hadn’t experienced.” (156-157) However, she also goes on to pointedly say, “I sure don’t wish I was younger again… Because it’s such a pain in the neck!” (178)

In the end, Toru has to learn to live with himself and his memories, and by the end of the book, when he’s able to say, “Every once in a while, I think about myself, ‘What the hell, I’ll do,'” (301) it feels like a tremendous victory–the biggest one possible, to be able to look at yourself and say, “I’ll do.”

I highly recommend this book, due to its poignant and painfully sad examination of what it means to grow up, particularly in terms of the consequences of deciding how you want to view the world.

Things like that happen all the time in this great big world of ours. It’s like taking a boat out on a beautiful lake on a beautiful day and thinking both the sky and the lake are beautiful. So stop eating yourself up. Things will go where they’re supposed to go if you just let them take their natural course. Despite your best efforts, people are going to be hurt when it’s time for them to be hurt. (355)

Sometimes I feel like the caretaker of a museum–a huge, empty museum where no one ever comes, and I’m watching over it for no one but myself. (364)

 

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September news

MOVING DAY (even if it was only upstairs in my current house) was a good excuse to finally take inventory of and organize my books, which previously had been double-stacked in the shelf, stacked precariously high in a skyscraper-fashion on the desk, stacked on the windowsill, and even sadly stacked on the floor due to lack of space.

MOVING DAY (even if it was only moving upstairs) was a good excuse to finally take inventory of and organize my books, which previously had been double-stacked on the shelf, stacked precariously high in skyscraper-fashion on the desk, stacked on the windowsill, and even sadly stacked on the floor due to lack of space.

image-21

The “after” photo! Brand new huge bookcase on the left means all of the books now have a home, plus extra space.

Prior to moving I spent a few days in Berlin and liked how this random stack of concrete blocks reminded me of the way my books had previously been stacked on my desk. Was this a bunch of construction materials or a work or art? Who knows...

Prior to moving I spent a few days on holiday in Berlin, where I liked how this random stack of concrete blocks reminded me of the way my books had previously been stacked on my desk. Was this a bunch of construction materials of a work or art? Who knows…

I also got to spend a few days in Berlin + Potsdam, which involved lots of cycling and currywurst.

Holidaying also meant lots of cycling and currywurst, both in Berlin and Potsdam.

It was nice to spot some familiar faces in the bookshops!

It was nice to spot some familiar faces in the bookshops!

I also loved this little phonebooth library. I really wanted to go inside but there was already somebody there…

And now it's nice to be back in Norwich, despite the stupefying humidity.

And now it’s nice to be back in Norwich, lolling around despite the stupefying humidity.

In other news:

  • I had a story read on BBC Radio Three, as the interval to a South American orchestra! This was a very niche (as a friend said) and very cool (if surreal) experience. The link is here for the next 18 days.
  • On October 11th I’ll be at the Cheltenham Literature Festival with two other authors (Kate Hamer and Sally Rooney), both of whom I’m very excited to meet. Attending the festival is also an exciting prospect as I’ve always found Gloucestershire to be one of the prettiest areas of England, even if I always got terribly carsick in the back of my parents’ car as we drove around visiting family friends who lived there, way back in the days of my childhood summers abroad. Oh, and Knausgaard will apparently be there too (!).

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