Category Archives: Bolaño

“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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Optimistic poems :)

Letter to Kizer from Seattle

(Richardo Hugo)

Dear Condor: Much thanks for that telephonic support
from North Carolina when I suddenly went ape
in the Iowa tulips. Lord, but I’m ashamed.
I was afraid, it seemed, according to the doctor
of impending success, winning some poetry prizes
or getting a wet kiss. The more popular I got,
the softer the soft cry in my head: Don’t believe them.
You were never good. Then I broke and proved it.
Ten successive days I alienated women
I liked best. I told a coed why her poems were bad
(they weren’t) and didn’t understand a word I said.
Really warped. The phrase “I’ll be all right”
came out too many unsolicited times. I’m o.k. now.
I’m back at the primal source of poems: wind, sea
and rain, the market and the salmon. Speaking
of the market, they’re having a vital election here.
Save the market? Tear it down? The forces of evil
maintain they’re trying to save it too, obscuring,
of course, the issue. The forces of righteousness,
me and my friends, are praying for a storm, one
of those grim dark rolling southwest downpours
that will leave the electorate sane. I’m the last poet
to teach the Roethke chair under Heilman.
He’s retiring after 23 years. Most of the old gang
is gone. Sol Katz is aging. Who isn’t? It’s close now
to the end of summer and would you believe it
I’ve ignored the Blue Moon. I did go to White Center,
you know, my home town, and the people there,
many are the same, but also aging, balking, remarkably
polite and calm. A man whose name escapes me
said he thinks he had known me, the boy who went alone
to Longfellow Creek and who laughed and cried
for no reason. The city is huge, maybe three quarters
of a million and lots of crime. They are indicting
the former chief of police. Sorry to be so rambling.
I eat lunch with J. Hillis Miller, brilliant and nice
as they come, in the faculty club, overlooking the lake,
much of it now filled in. And I tour old haunts,
been twice to Kapowsin. One trout. One perch. One poem.
Take care, oh wisest of condors. Love. Dick. Thanks again.

My Literary Career


Rejections from Anagrama, Grijalbo, Planeta, certainly also
                  from Alfaguara,
Mondadori. A no from Muchnik, Seix Barral, Destino… All
                  the publishers… All the readers
All the sales managers…
Under the bridge, while it rains, a golden opportunity
to take a look at myself:
like a snake in the North Pole, but writing.
Writing poetry in the land of idiots.
Writing with my son on my knee.
Writing until night falls
with the thunder of a thousand demons.
The demons who will carry me to hell,
but writing.

October 1990

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Bolaño Still the Best

I just have to share these Bolaño anecdotes from Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations. I found the book itself rather gossipy and minor, with way too much celebrity worshipping, but these stories (along with Ricardo Piglia’s comments) made it worth the read for me. The anecdotes shared here are all narrated by Rodrigo Fresán, an Argentinean author who has been on my to-read list for a while now. Here’s Fresán on the first time he met Bolaño in person:

We [Rodrigo and his wife] had come to live in Barcelona, and we had to do the paperwork for our residence visa. But he [Bolaño] said that I had to come to his house on Saturday. I worried about the train, but he said it was very easy and then started to give me a series of extremely complicated instructions. They were contradictory instructions whose sole purpose was to get me lost, stations where you had to change, and when I finally got to Blanes I found that there was a much easier way to get there from Barcelona. Also, to tempt me, he said that he was going to make a paella; the best one I’d ever had in my life, I couldn’t miss it… I called him from the station and said: “Look, Roberto, this isn’t working.” It was two thirty in the afternoon and I said that maybe we should leave it for another day, but he answered: “It’s very important that you come, you have to.” I said I was sorry about the paella, but he said, “It is essential that you come to visit me today; it’s much more important than you think…” So I started to get a little worried, but then he said: “If you don’t go through to Blanes you’ll never get home, you’ll fall into a hole in the space-time continuum and spend the rest of eterntiy going round and round on the train like in The Invention of Morel. “Screw it,” I thought, “this guy’s either a psychopath or a serial killer.” But he still managed to persuade me. So I eventually got to his house and ate his paella, which, I have to say, was one of the worst I’ve ever had in my life. I remember Carolina [Bolaño’s wife] being so ashamed of the paella that Roberto had made and him right in my face saying: “Tell me that’s not the best paella you’ve ever had in your life!” (pg. 149)

Fresán on Bolaño’s idea for an anthology:

He had an idea for an anthology of Latin American writers who were going to be organized like an army. He said that they would all be there but divided into sections: the marines, tactical troops, black ops… He used to say that the area he had planned out best was the Red Cross, where he was going to send all the authors he wasn’t interested in. They would perform essential medical services, but he didn’t want them fighting by his side. (150)

And then there’s this story, which is retold in a Believer article:

I remember that afternoon: we left Kentucky Fried Chicken and Bolaño went down the stairs to the platform of his commuter train and I went back home and half an hour later Bolaño rang my doorbell, again. He was soaked by the storm and wild-eyed and shaking as if barely withstanding a private earthquake. “I’ve killed a man,” he announced in a deathly voice; and he came into my apartment, headed for the living room and asked me to make him a cup of tea. Then he told me that as he was waiting on the platform, a couple of skinheads had come up to him and tried to rob him, that there was a scuffle, that he managed to get a knife away from one of them and stab the other one near the heart, that then he ran away down corridors and streets, and that he didn’t know what to do next. “What should I do? Should I turn myself in?” I said he shouldn’t. Bolaño looked at me with infinite sadness and said that he couldn’t keep writing with a death on his conscience, that he wouldn’t be able to look his son in the eyes anymore, something like that. Moved, I said that I understood and I’d go with him to the police station; to which he responded, indignant: “What? You’d turn me in just like that? Without mercy? An Argentinian writer betraying a Chilean writer? Shame on you!” Then Bolaño must have seen my desperation: because he gave one of those little cracked laughs of his and, fascinated, said over and over again “But you know I couldn’t kill a mosquito…How could you believe a story like that?

This comment made me EXTREMELY happy:

Roberto liked Philip K. Dick a lot and had a very philipkdickian suspicion that he had died during the first liver attack, and that everything that had happened to him in the subsequent ten years was the life that he hadn’t been able to experience in reality. I said to him that it was a little unpleasant of him to say things like that, because they meant that I was just a character of his, that we’re all just fantasies. He replied: “Well, Rodrigo, it’s better than being one of Isabel Allende’s characters. There are worse fates…” (153-154)

Last one:

The supposedly unwritten ending of 2666 apparently had something to do with posterity and an Arturo Belano converted into a kind of superbeing, transmitting the entirety of 2666 a la Kubrick, like a kind of floating fetus in a space station. One thing I do remember happened in a bar on the corner of the street where he lived… he started to think about the future and fantasized about the idea of living in a time when he could transcend his own body and be attached to a metallic structure… “My body is screwed,” he said. And he also said how happy he would be inside a Terminator-style shell, writing from within a casing that made him immortal. (pg. 154)


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Photo on 2-15-14 at 4.07 PM #3

Oh MAN, this BOOK!!! It’s totally swallowed my February! Why am I even surprised?

I’m going to try to pick up with my randoms thoughts and scattered observations on where I left off, so focusing on Parts 3 through 5.

Part 3 – The Part About Fate

– So this is the part that follows the titular Fate, the African American journalist who travels to Santa Teresa initially to cover a boxing match but gets “caught up” (to say the least) in some local business that feels more than slightly ominous. Bolaño’s not wasting any time with us, opening the section with Where did it all begin? The nightmare. (231) Talk about a key question for the book as a whole… And how about a name like “Fate” for a journalist? I can’t tell if that’s the most Symbolically Loaded Thing in this book, or if the artist dying by falling into an abyss in Part 1 takes the cake. What does it mean that the journalist (so a figure of investigation and enquiry, another form of storyteller) has a name that refers to the predeterminations of events? To the fixed quality of the universe? To the idea that there’s order within chaos, to those Greek chicks who sat around weaving?

– There’s a strong motif of undetectable smells running throughout this section, like when Oscar catches a whiff of  something icky in his mother’s apartment following her death, (236) or when he’s searching for signs of vomit in his hotel room but can’t find any (304), or his constant unexplainable nausea (I think there’s something wrong with my stomach). (269) Like there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, but we can’t find the source, can’t figure out what it is. It reminds me of the times that I have unwashed tupperware containers with sludgy lunch leftovers hidden somewhere within the depths of my room and I have to tear everything apart going crazy trying to find them. It adds to the sense of menace hanging over the book–there’s something bad in the background that we can’t see full-on, but we know it’s there, via tiny hints and faint whiffs.

– We also get another example of an Artist/Writer figure in this section to contrast with Archimboldi and the hand-chopper in Part 1. I’m referring, of course, to the character of Seaman, a former Black Panther party member who now delivers sermons from the pulpit that revolve heavily around his career as a cookbook writer (As you all know, said Seaman, pork chops saved my life). (250) I read a review somewhere online that compared this part to the sermon in Moby Dick, and although my “Moby Dick” memory is murky I must say that it sounds like a damn good theory (I mean his name is SEAMAN, of all things!!).

Apart from talking about his cookbook and giving us a yummy-sounding recipe for duck a l’orange, Seaman also says some things I found interesting about reading and writing. In a way, his approach to reading & writing is a strong contrast to the more academic/criticism-styled focus we saw in Parts 1 & 2 with the academics. “I went through books like they were barbecue,” Seaman says, describing the way he took up reading in jail. “This is my real contribution tonight. Reading is never a waste of time… I knew I was doing something useful. That was all that counted… Something useful no matter how you look at it. Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas.” (255-256) It’s a decidedly different approach to reading than the one we get in Part 1, in which we’re told that for one of the critics, reading was directly linked to pleasure, not to knowledge or enigmas or constructions or verbal labyrinths.” (9) I think the fact that Bolaño considers so many different approaches to reading or storytelling in this book indicates that it’s an important theme to him. Are these different approaches to reading meant to symbolize different approaches to gaining knowledge? The different ways in which we try to learn things and gain understanding, stop being so blind about the world? Do we want to know things for pleasure or utility?

– On that note about being blind,  seeing is another BIG THEME in this book. Near the end of the section a female character says, We’re still alive because we haven’t seen anything and we don’t know anything. So seeing here is connected with knowledge in a very direct relationship–if it’s not represented/witnessed, it didn’t happen/doesn’t exist.  To support this assumption, check out this heavy quote from page 266 (spoken by a prophet-like elderly white-haired Mexican man in a diner, in a conversation that Fate eavesdrops on after he first crosses the border):

In the nineteenth century… society tended to filter death through the fabric of words. Reading news stories from back then you might get the idea that there was hardly any crime, or that a single murder could throw a whole country into tumult. We didn’t want death in the home, or in our dreams and fantasies, and yet it was a fact that terrible crimes were committed… Of course, most of the serial killers were never caught. take the most famous case of the day. No one knew who Jack the Ripper was. Everything was passed through the filter of words, everything trimmed to fit our fear.What does a child do when he’s afraid? He closes his eyes. What does a child do when he’s about to be raped and murdered? He closes his eyes. And he screams, too, but first he closes his eyes. Words served that purpose. And the funny thing is, the archetypes of human madness and cruelty weren’t invented by the men of our day but by our forebears.  The Greeks you might say invented evil, the Greeks saw the evil in us all, but testimonies or proofs of this evil no longer move us. They strike us as futile, senseless. It was the Greeks who showed us the range of possibilities and yet now they mean nothing to us. Of course everything changes, but it’s not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes. (266)

So words don’t necessarily lead to clarity.Words = closed eyes. And then that reference to history, to the Greeks–he seems to be saying that there’s been a CHANGE, a SHIFT, in the way we see things–in the way we see proofs and testimonies of evil. Uff, que fuerte. The white-haired prophet dinner guy also comments (while referring to historical atrocities and evil) that “What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible. That said, words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance,not of revelation. Maybe they revealed something all the same. I couldn’t tell you.” (267) So if writing is connected with truth-telling, testimony, verifying an experience, then if it can be written, it happened; if it can’t be written/described, it’s impossible. All this reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s essays and theories about modernity, about how the loss of tradition due to modernity leads to the loss of being able to articulate the meaning of our experiences (that is like my Freshman Year 101 Understanding of Benjamin that probably makes any knowledgeable PhD literature student raise their eyebrows and flare their nostrils like an all-knowing stallion).

These theme of words and storytelling and verification is especially interesting when you consider the fact that Fate is a JOURNALIST there to INVESTIGATE. But the story he has been sent to tell is something oh so very minor and trivial–a boxing match! And in his defense, when he tries proposing covering the story of the murders to his editor (the fight is just a little story, Fate says. What I’m proposing is so much more. A sketch of the industrial landscape in the third world, a piece of reportage about the current situation in Mexico, a panorama of the border, a serious crime story, for fuck’s sake)….. his editor pretty much shoots him down (Reportage? Is that French, n*****? Since when do you speak French?). (294-295)

It’s also interesting that when we first hear about the killings in Fate’s section, it happens while he’s asleep and watching TV. So we, the readers, get to hear and witness the first mention of the main story directly, but he, the reporter, doesn’t. He’s a reporter who doesn’t/can’t report, who doesn’t see or witness. I wish I was a goddamn reporter, someone says to Fate at one point. You people don’t miss a thing. (318) But that’s where the parodic element of the story comes in–the reporter IS missing the main thing, the central story of the women’s murders. Even the reporters in Mexico see the story of the  killings as something that keeps melting away, getting ignored:  The story grows like a snowball until the sun comes out and the whole damn ball melts and everybody forgets about it and goes back to work. (285-286) Interesting that we get a mention of the sun here–that classic metaphor for light, illumination, truth, knowledge. Man oh man.

No one pays attention to these killings, Fate thinks by the section’s end, but the secret of the world is hidden in them. (348)

Part 4- The Part About the Crimes

Ugh. Here we go.

“The girl’s body turned up in a vacant lot in Colonia Las Flores. She was dressed in a white long-sleeved T-shirt and a yellow knee-length skirt, a size too big. Some children playing in the lot found her and told their parents… The lot was bordered by Calle Peláez and Calle Hermanos Chacón and it ended in a ditch behind which rose the walls of an abandoned dairy in ruins. There was no one around, which at first made the policemen think it was a joke.” (353)

And so it begins. I talked a bit about the experience of reading Part 4 back when I first read 2666, five years ago (!). But it still gets me, man. This was still a slog to get through. As it’s intended to be.

“According to the autopsy, Esperanza Gómez Saldaña had been strangled to death. There was bruising on her chin and around her left eye. Severe bruising on her legs and rib cage. She had been vaginally and anally raped, probably more than once, since both orifices exhibited tears and abrasions, from which she had bled profusely.” (354)

This time around I noticed how certain phrases tend to accumulate. She didn’t have any identification on her. No one claimed the body. The case was soon closed. Some victims begin to show a trademark, such as bites and tears on the vulva and thighs, as if gnawed at by a street dog. (461) There are two forensic statements that gain a particularly hypnotic quality from the number of times they’re repeated: “One of her breasts was almost completely severed and the other was missing the nipple, which had been bitten off.” (464) “The cause of death was strangulation, with fracture of the hypoid bone.” 

This constant cataloging (109 victims in total) creates a curious effect. It’s relentless. Numbing. Factual. Mundane. Tedious. Never-ending. Boring, even. Talk about Hannah Arendt’s infamous “the banality of evil.” It is a disarming and even upsetting experience to feel bored while reading descriptions of murdered young women (at least it was for me–there was something incongruous about it… God, reading about yet another corpse based on a real-life murder, someone who was an actual living breathing human being is SOOOO tedious!).

What are the implications that arise from Bolaño using this technique–from making us bored? This numbing, repetitive, mundane language? The cold camera-like gaze that makes me feel like I’m in a frigid laboratory?

I wonder if these sections are Bolaño’s attempts to represent without style–to narrate like a camera. The bodies are reduced to things, objects listed in an endless litany that never results in any kind of catharsis. Even the details that are specifically highlighted (as though they possess some kind of great meaning or importance for the case) never lead anywhere. It all accumulates into an ongoing list, a giant wall of white noise in which it becomes impossible to tell what is important and what isn’t.

Part 5- The Part About Archimboldi

This is probably the second-most intense section to read. I’m running out of gas here so I don’t know how much I have to say about it, but I’ll try. Probably what stood out most for me was the section narrated by the coldest stone-hearted bureaucrat since By Night in Chile, in which he describes the way he “deals” with hundreds of Greek Jews that mistakenly get sent to his town instead of Auschwitz. “Leave it alone,” he says. “Cover it up. Go dig somewhere else. Remember the idea isn’t to find things, it’s not to find them.” (764) This idea of concealment comes up again when another character says (speaking to Archimboldi, after selling him a typewriter), “Jesus is the masterpiece. The thieves are minor works. Why are they there? Not to frame the crucifixion, as some innocent souls believe, but to hide it.” (790) Is this a goal of the novel as a whole? (Wow, I initially wrote “hole” as a typo–guess the ABYSS is really GETTING TO ME.) To hide the crucifixion, the key event, in a wall of white noise made out of forensic language, duck a l’orange recipes and bibliographies of German writers?

Overall, it’s a clever move on Bolaño’s part, to juxtapose the horror of Juarez (oops, I mean Santa Teresa) with the horror of WWII. It’s like he’s making an overall statement about the nature of evil itself–something historical and ongoing, even if the particulars and specifics change.

God, this book. I seriously think the only other book that is maybe this intense is Moby Dick. Well, good thing I’m writing my dissertation on it and I get to spend loads more time reflecting on it…

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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 Milleryou 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.

"Poet & Vagabond"

“Poet & Vagabond”

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)

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Strange Short Stories

Free Love (Ali Smith)

Ali Smith’s first collection of short stories, like most of her work, is a delight and pleasure to read. Compared to her later works, a lot of these stories are fairly straightforward (for her, which is not saying much), but still quite experimental.

What most fascinated me about these stories were the abrupt, unresolved, interrupted endings and the characters’ movements through space and time. There’s a LOT of rule-breaking going on here in terms of what people say (at least in graduate school) about what a short story should be or do. But I guess that’s why you need to learn the basic building blocks of what a short story is—once you know what the rules are, you can BREAK THEM. A lot of the time in these stories, you have no idea what’s going to happen next. In “College,” a girl starts out watching a group of people put up a memorial bench on the college campus attended by her deceased sister, and ends with her catching a random lift in a gas station, heading to Bristol and playing a shoot-em-up game in an arcade. In “The unthinkable happens to people every day,” a man hangs up a phone inside a booth, smashes a bunch of TVs in a store, drives to Scotland until his car runs out of gas and makes friends with a little girl who takes him onto the roof of his house to throw stones in the lake (wow, are these stories fun to summarize). In “Scary” (probably one of the strongest and strangest pieces in the collection), we begin with a yuppie couple’s discussion of homeless people, follow them to a dinner party where the hosts are obsessed with River Phoenix, and end with the female narrator seeing a fox outside her window and then abruptly leaving the house and returning to the train station. My personal favorite in the collection was “To the cinema,” a story about, yes, going to the cinema, and also about the joys of movie going, and how stories change depending on who’s telling it.

In each of these stories, we are denied explanations of characters’ motivations and thought processes; they are not even hinted at; instead we have these giant blank spaces, these unexplained gaps. By leaving these blank spaces in the stories for readers to fill in themselves, Smith shows an incredible amount of trust in us, which is something I really respect and love about her work (it also means that there are a lot of people who would read these stories and just be like, what was the point of THAT, but hey, you need to write the kind of stories that you yourself would want to read, right?). While reading, you are constantly disoriented with no idea what to expect, but everything that happens feels completely appropriate and natural, as opposed to random.

The best thing I can say about this book is that it made me want to set fire to banks and start a revolution. Her writing often makes me feel like that. It’s a good thing.

The Secret of Evil (Bolaño)

The secret of evil is that it’s a secret. Ha! Ha! Ha! Unfortunately I didn’t come up with that myself; I read it in an interview with the translator.

This book is a collection of the files that Bolaño was working on at the time of his death, apparently for a new short story collection. What a man!! How many projects was he working on? A lesson to us all. The editors’ choice for the titular story, “The Secret of Evil,” has a good opening sentence that serves as an apt summary for the other pieces in the collection: “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.” (11)

It’s fairly obvious to any discerning readers which of these pieces are incomplete fragments, though there are quite a few that stand quite well on their own and are as strong as anything else in the Bolaño canon. “Muscles” is the longest story, about a sister and her body building brother who brings home some creepy new Latin American friends (the conflict between Spaniards and Latin Americans is a motif in a lot of these pieces). I don’t know if “Muscles” is finished, but it felt complete to me, even though it ended on an abrupt, interrupted note, as even Bolaño’s polished pieces arguably tend to do. There are other pieces that definitely end on a “what was THAT all about” vibe, like “The Tour” (an anecdote about a journalist’s attempt to interview a singer who disappeared in the 60’s, though I guess the piece is more about the history of the band itself than the journalist), or “Daniela,” which is three pages about the titular character losing her virginity (apparently she is a character from both 2666 and Nazi Literature of the Americas, according to the book jacket).

The first story, “Colonia Lindavista,” feels quite complete, and is about a Chilean family moving to Mexico, and the narrator’s fascination with their next-door neighbors. It almost seems autobiographical—it’s interesting to think about how this could have been a direction pursued by Bolaño post-2666, to write stories that blur the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, a la Sebald. The next story is the title one: a journalist is awakened by a 4am phone call, and an urgent voice demands that they meet to exchange information. I would assume the information in question is “the secret of evil,” but typical Bolaño, the story ends right as they both meet, before either character gets to open his mouth. I guess the implication is that the secret of evil in unknowable, and if it is known to some, the rest of us don’t have the pleasure of hearing it. Gah, sounds accurate enough. Another story that deserves a shout out comes near the end, “The Troublemaker,” about protests against the Iraq war (it’s fascinating to think of what Bolaño would have made of the current state of the world—God, it’s been 10 years since he died!!! Isn’t that wild? God, he didn’t even get to WITNESS the worst effects of the Mexican Drug War, even though he basically predicted them. Maybe that’s for the best—lordy lord).

There are also a few stories about Belano and Lima, that rascally pair from The Savage Detectives, a book I grow more and more fond of in my old age (LOL). The stories that appear here about them made me realize more than ever how that book is about nostalgia, death and the inevitable passage of time more than the riotous revels of youth.

In both this collection and Woes of the True Policeman Bolaño displays an interesting fascination with dicks, sodomy and homosexuality. What was going on with that, huh? I suspect he’s making a commentary on masculinity. I wonder if writing that infamous chapter in 2666 had some kind of effect on him—NO, I’m not saying it made him gay, that is beyond stupid. But I wonder if spending that much time dwelling on what males did to females gave him a more cynical, bitter idea about masculinity, about what men are capable of (is this the secret of evil?). It’s certainly a theme that I noticed here.

What are the other themes or tropes in this book? Violence, chaos, the apocalypse, the end of the world, desperate attempts to take care of children, females being nervous around males, the feeling that something awful any second is about to happen. Probably the strangest story is “The Colonel’s Son,” which is about a character watching an extremely violent zombie movie that he claims is “my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet. It scared me so fucking shitless I tell you I just about fell off my chair.” (19) The story is basically a summary of the movie and the pandemonium that ensues from a zombie-filled world: is this an allegory for Mexico? Latin America? Life in general?

Another fun Bolaño tendency that pops up again here is his love for using literary figures (both real and imaginary) as characters: VS Naipul is the main character in “Scholars of Sodom,” while Julia Kristeva appears in a group of other French intellectuals and writers in “Labyrinth” (in this story, as in others, you are never sure who are the real authors and who are the fictional ones. This is quite a merry game often played by Bolaño, and I would argue that this tendency to blur fake author with real authors is when his membership of the Borges #1 Fan Club becomes most obvious).

I liked this book a lot and felt it was overall quite strong, despite the incomplete pieces. It felt more coherent and like it had more of a vision than Woes of the True Policeman, but maybe that’s just because I’ve been biased and more predisposed to thematically linked short story collections lately.

Quotes from this book that are gems:

[It was] as if you were watching Jurassic Park, say, except the dinosaurs never showed, no, I mean as if it was Jurassic Park and no one even mentioned the fucking reptiles, but their presence was inescapable and unbearably oppressive. (from “The Colonel’s Son,” pg. 20).

Listen: I don’t have anything against autobiographies, so long as the writer has a penis that’s twelve inches long when erect. “The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom,” pg. 72 (I think this quote is going to become my new official philosophy towards #humblebrags, LOL–this terrific essay also appears in Beyond Parentheses and really made me want to reread Roberto Arlt—if there’s another thing I love about Bolaño, it’s the way he makes me want to  read other authors)

Literature brushes past these literary creatures and kisses then on the lips, but they don’t even notice. “Labyrinths,” pg. 63

Artful (Ali Smith)

What a book! What an author! What is this book, Artful, and how to describe it? Is it a novel spliced with lectures? Is it a series of lectures interrupted by stories? My professors would say that this book is playing with form, in a manner similar Teju Cole and WG Sebald (whom I really need to read more of): blurring non-fiction with fiction, a factual academic narrator with a playful anarchic one.

I don’t know if I’d recommend this book to someone who’d never read Ali Smith before (I wonder if their reaction would just be, WTF is this?), but as a fan since 2006, I absolutely loved this book. I’m going to insert a little #humblebrag myself here (WHY NOT, HOW OFTEN DO I #HUMBLEBRAG) and say oh, no big deal, but my copy of Artful happens to be autographed and personally addressed to me by Ms. Smith herself. Yes! Along with David Lodge I now own TWO books autographed by my favorite authors! England, you have been good to me, and what’s even better is that it’s nowhere near over yet.

The book is a collection of four lectures/stories, entitled “On Time,” “On Form,” “On Edge,” and “On Offer and Reflection.” They were all really good but the last two really packed an emotional whammy for me; I was in tears by the last two pages. (The part in “On Edge,” where she talks about Orpheus’ trip to the underworld had the same result.) Smith’s writing often has that effect on me; I often feel emotionally wrenched while reading, like my heart is being wrung out like one of the nasty dirty dishrags in my kitchen. I think this effect has a lot to do with her use of ‘you,’ the way in which one narrator directly addresses another character who remains for the most part offscreen (except for the parts when she comes back from the dead, but we’ll get to that in a minute). I love this style of narrating; it feels very personal (as though you are writing a letter to another person) and the ‘you’ definitely helps to draw you in and feel implicated in the story.

Another clever technique worth commenting on in this collection is the way she has two narrators, but you are never confused about who is narrating or when. One narrator takes care of the fiction side of the story, as she relates her experiences about being (literally) haunted by her former lover; the other narrator is the lecturer (the lectures appear as notes on her desk that are read by narrator #1, so in a way there is really only one narrator in the story: when we read the lectures, we are reading along with her).

I also thought it was really clever the way Smith uusesed Oliver Twist in this book. Even though there are quotes, citations and discussions of sources from all over the place (Antigone, Orpheus, Philip Larkin, Greek films from the 1950’s, Beyoncé’s lyrics to “Halo,” a photograph of four sleeping female avant garde artists from the 60’s, a modern poem about googling—I could go on and on), Oliver Twist is used as an important source in each of the four lectures, and thus serves as a sort of bridge. It also provides the source for the story’s title (Artful–> Artful Dodger. The book never makes this explicitly clear; I figured it out all by myself, HAHA!). I haven’t read Dickens since high school, but I’m now wondering if OT is worth flipping through at some point (IDK about reading the whole thing, probably not this year!).

God, I loved this book. I’d never read anything like it before. It definitely changed the way I think about academic criticism: it definitely CAN be fun and avant-garde, and God knows I got a helluva lot more out of this than some smarty-pants article on JSTOR. What a model to follow. I also loved its tender treatment of grief and mourning; it made me cry in the same way that Cheryl Strayed advice column to a grieving father always inevitably makes me weep cathartically. I love the way the book ends with the narrator signing up for Greek lessons, finishing Oliver Twist, and looking forward to the spring. It’s simple, but hopeful, which is maybe the only way any of us can move forward out of darkness.

Ultimately, I love Ali Smith’s writing because it expresses a profound joy and optimism about being alive, despite all the shitty evil things about technology and capitalism and modernity. I also love her writing because her works are filled with characters who love books, read books, fondle books, use books, and I am unabashedly biased and predisposed to works of fiction that discuss fiction (helloooo Bolaño fandom).

In summary and conclusion, these books are all great. That is all. YAY READING!

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Woes of the True Policeman

Another year, another Bolaño book. What would this blog be without one?

Woes of the True Policeman is supposedly Bolaño’s last unfinished novel, “unfinished” being the key word. Reading this book felt very similar to reading The Pale King: it was hard for me to push the feeling of “oh-what-might-have-been” out of my head. The prose is great, as always, despite odd moments in the text in which information is repeated twice, such as a character’s age (reminding me of similar discrepancies in The Pale King, like when more than one character has a Doberman hand puppet).

Reading this book gave me the feeling that Bolaño was writing to figure out where he was going, as opposed to charging forward, guns a blazing, destination clearly in mind. As a reader I felt more like I was meandering along with him, as opposed to clinging desperately on for dear life. This approach makes sense if you take into account that he’d been working on the book on and off since the 1980’s, as opposed to locking it away in a drawer for years a la Third Reich.

What to make of this book? I definitely wouldn’t give this to a Bolaño novice. It works best if you think of it as a collection of b-sides and outtakes to 2666 (a book that I really need to re-read this year). And hey, there’s nothing wrong with b-sides and outtakes; look at Tori Amos, she’s produced some of the best songs of her career that way (“Honey,” I’m looking at you!). That being said, there is definitely a disjointed, jagged feel to this book. Again, what should we make of the opening passage, a long monologue listing which poets and novelists were faggots vs. queers, sissies vs. fairites? What to make of the section that is basically just summaries of Archimboldi’s novels? (Archimboldi is the mysterious German writer at the center of many characters’ searches in 2666). We examine a Rimbaud poem about being raped by soldiers; we read letter after letter from the main character’s lover; we hear a lot of historical anecdotes about Mexico in the 19th century. Different narrative threads and characters come temptingly close to being linked, only to be dropped in mid-air or disappear for the rest of the book. For the record, my favorite undeveloped random moment was the policeman obsessed with vampire movies.

Because this is Bolaño, there are still killer moments that make this book more than worthwhile. There is one anecdote, for example, that serves as a basic overview for Bolaño’s work. The anecdote tells of the plight of a Spanish soldier from Sevilla who (to cut a long story short) ends up as a prisoner of Russian soliders who mistake him for an SS officer. The Russians begin torturing him with a pair of pliers (Russian soldiers + pliers + tongue = never a fun situation). Then something happens:

The pain made tears spring to his eyes and he said, or rather shouted, the word coño, cunt. With the pliers in his mouth the exclamation was transformed, coming out as the word kunst. The Russian who spoke German stared at him in surprise. The Sevillan shouted Kunst, Kunst, and wept in pain. The word Kunst, in German, means art, and that was how the bilingual soldier heard it and said that the son of bitch was an artist or something. The soldiers who were torturing the Sevillan removed the pliers along with a little piece of tongue and waited, momentarily hypnotized by the discovery. Art. The thing that soothes wild beasts. (62)
To me, this passage is Bolaño in a nutshell. Art emerges from the body under torture, in the form of a profanity. In Bolaño’s world, Art is one big coño. They are one and the same, indistinguishable.
This was my other favorite passage:
They learned that a book was a labyrinth and a desert. That there was nothing more important than ceaseless reading and traveling, perhaps one and the same thing. That when books were read, writers were released from the souls of stones, which is where they went to live after they died, and they moved into the souls of readers as if into a soft prison cell, a cell that later swelled or burst. That all writing systems are frauds. That true poetry resides between the abyss and misfortune. That the main lesson of literature was courage, a rare courage like a stone well in the middle of a lake district, like a whirlwind and a mirror. That reading wasn’t more comfortable than writing. That by reading one learned to question and remember. That memory was love. (102)
Last one:
At least, thought Amalfitano, I’ve read thousands of books. At least I’ve become acquainted with the Poets and read the Novels. (The Poets, in Amalfitano’s view, were those beings who flashed like lightning bolts, and the Novels were the stories that sprang from Don Quixote). At least I’ve read. At least I can still read, he said to himself, at once dubious and hopeful. (86)
“Dubious and hopeful.” Another “Bolaño-in-a-nutshell” moment.
I also need to mention that the book is dedicated to the memory of Philip K. Dick, which obviously made me very happy, and also felt very appropriate given the book’s apocalyptic feel.

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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


Happy birthday to me!

Today was pretty much the best day I could have asked for.

I woke up late and ate breakfast at the Waffle Window with my family.

Then we went blackberry picking at Sauvie’s Island. I was dumb and wore a skirt and sandals, and have the bloody scratches up and down my feet and legs to show for it, but it was still totally worth it. We filled containers and containers of tupperware with them, and left more than enough behind for the birds and the mice (on the highest and lowest branches, as per Ma’s advice in Little House on the Prairie). I ate so many I got a horrible stomach ache and had to ask the beloved fam to reschedule the originally planned dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant for another day.

Later, at the Dollar Tree (where I was buying my oh so necessary supply of Tums and hand sanitizer, absolute essentials when a) prone to severe carsickness and/or blackberry greed, and b) working with large groups of grubby small children), the cashier lady asked me how I was doing. I said it was my birthday; she asked if I’d done anything special. “Blackberry picking at Sauvie’s Island!”

“Really?” she said, her forehead crinkling slightly. “That’s not special!”

“It is to me!” I replied cheerfully. I’ve never done it before, unlike ye native Oregonians…

Then I came home, ate a salad made out of greens and tomatoes from the flourishing and happy garden (thanks to my dad’s care, not mine!) and watched the recent BBC/PBS production of Hamlet. I really enjoyed the interpretation of Hamlet by David Tennant, an actor I’d never heard of but has apparently played both Dr. Who and Bartley Crouchy Junior in Harry Potter 4. I love Hamlet. I love how the most defining work of art made by a human being is about one man’s inability to act, about how we “lose the name of action,” and how his main attempt to do so (i.e. take action) is through the staging of a play.

Other things that have made my day, and my week in general:

– Joe Calderone’s recent performance, so liberating in its Amy Winehouse-Bruce Springsteen-ness. I love his Patti Smith-Rimbaud-Bob Dylan-Elvis vibe too.

– This poem, “Resurrection,” by Bolaño from The Romantic Dogs:

Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver in a lake.
Poetry, braver than anyone,
slips in and sinks
like lead
through a lake infinite as Loch Ness
or tragic and turbid as Lake Balaton.
Consider it from below:
a diver
covered in feathers
of will.
Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver who’s dead
in the eyes of God.

“Borges and I” by guess who, on page 324 of his Collected Stories:

It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to… I live, I allow myself to live, so that Borges can spin out his literature, and that literature is my justification. I willingly admit that he has written a number of sound pages, but those pages will not save me, perhaps because the good in them no longer belongs to any individual, not even to that other man, but rather to language itself, or to tradition… I shall endure in Borges, not in myself (if, indeed, I am anybody at all), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others’, or in the tedious strumming of a guitar.

– A 1999 interview with David Foster Wallace:

I was cripplingly shy at Amherst. I wasn’t in a fraternity and didn’t go to parties and didn’t have much to do with the life of the College. I had a few very close friends and that was it. I studied all the time. I mean literally all the time. I was one of those people they had to flicker the lights of Frost Library to get out of there on Friday nights who’d be out there right after brunch on Sunday waiting on the steps for them to open the doors.

            There were happy reasons for all this studying, and sad reasons. It was at Amherst, with its high expectations and brilliant profs and banzai workload, that I loved to read and write and think. In many ways I came alive there. But I was always terrified. Amherst terrified me—the beauty of it, the tradition, the elitism, the expense. But it was less Amherst than me: I was a late bloomer and still deeply in adolescence when I entered college. I had an adolescent’s radical self-absorption, and my particular self-absorption manifested as terror and inadequacy. This is the sad part. The same obsessive studying that helped me come alive also kept me dead: it was a way to hide from people, to try to earn—through ‘achievement’ or whatever—permission to be at Amherst that I was too self-centered to realize I’d already received when they accepted me.

            So ‘the things about Amherst that, in hindsight, disappoint [me]’ are things not about Amherst but about who I was when I was there… It took years after I’d graduated from Amherst to realize that people were actually far more complicated and interesting than books, that almost everyone else suffered the same secret fears and inadequacies as I, and that feeling alone and inferior was actually the great valent bond between us all. I wish I’d been smart enough to understand that when I was an adolescent.

(I also really love the part in this interview where he talks about Lord of the Rings and the Velveteen Rabbit.)

I’m citing all these disparate links not to make this entry seem like something that should be on godforsaken tumblr, but rather more to reflect how sponge-like I’ve been feeling lately (my horoscope for this week seems to say the same, right on the mark as usual Rob Brezny!!). I’ve been reading a lot of quotes and advice by authors on the whole writing thing, blog entries and reviews of contemporary and Latin American literature, and have maxed out the number of books I’m allowed to place on Hold at the library. I feel like I’ve been one great big wet squishy yellow sponge for the past month or so, absorbing words, ideas, experiences, emotions. I feel like it’s going to be time soon when I’m gonna be wrung out, and let wet dribbly water ooze out everywhere and blur this computer screen, kill the keyboard, stain the notebook and smear the words.

Tomorrow is 26 + 1. Here we go.

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Filed under Bolaño, David Foster Wallace, Dear Diary, quotes

These poems feel like me

Excerpt from “Preface to Leaves of Grass” (Walt Whitman)

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with the powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, reexamine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…

The Orange (Wendy Cope)

At lunchtime I bought a huge orange –
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave – 
They got quarters and I had a half.

And that orange, it made me so happy.
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.

The rest of this day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.

Some More Light Verse (Wendy Cope)

You have to try. You see a shrink.
You learn a lot. You read. You think.

You struggle to improve your looks.
You meet some men. You write some books.
You eat good food. You give up junk.
You do not smoke. You don’t get drunk.
You take up yoga, walk, and swim.
And nothing works. The outlook’s grim.
You don’t know what to do. You cry.
You’re running out of things to try.

You blow your nose. You see the shrink.
You walk. You give up food and drink.
You fall in love. You make a plan.
You struggle to improve your man.
And nothing works. The outlook’s grim.
You go to yoga, cry, and swim.
You eat and drink. You give up looks.
You struggle to improve your books.
You cannot see the point. You sigh.
You do not smoke. You have to try.

The Romantic Dogs (Bolaño) – for the original Spanish go here

Back then, I’d reached the age of twenty
and I was crazy.
I’d lost a country
but won a dream.
As long as I had that dream
nothing else mattered.
Not working, not praying
not studying in the morning light
alongside the romantic dogs.
And the dream lived on in the void of my spirit.
A wooden bedroom,
cloaked in half-light,
deep in the lungs of the tropics.
And sometimes I’d retreat inside myself
and visit the dream: a statue eternalized 
in liquid thoughts,
a white worm writhing
in love.
A runaway love.
A dream within another dream.
And the nightmare telling me: you will grow up.
You’ll leave behind the images of pain and of the labyrinth
and you’ll forget.
But back then, growing up would have been a crime.
I’m here, I said, with the romantic dogs
and here I’m going to stay.

Godzilla in Mexico (Bolaño)

Listen carefully, my son: bombs were falling
over Mexico City
but no one even noticed.
The air carried poison through
the streets and open windows.
You’d just finished eating and were watching
cartoons on TV.
I was reading in the bedroom next door
when I realized we were going to die.
Despite the dizziness and nausea I dragged myself
to the kitchen and found you on the floor.
We hugged. You asked what was happening
and I didn’t tell you we were on death’s program
but instead that we were going on a journey,
one more, together, and that you shouldn’t be afraid.
When it left, death didn’t even
close our eyes.
What are we? you asked a week or year later,
ants, bees, wrong numbers
in the big rotten soup of chance?
We’re human beings, my son, almost birds,
public heroes and secrets.

Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell (Marty McConnell) – her “Survival Poem #17” is also incredible.

leaving is not enough; you must
stay gone. train your heart 
like a dog. change the locks
even on the house he’s never
visited. you lucky, lucky girl. 
you have an apartment 
just your size. a bathtub
full of tea. a heart the size 
of Arizona, but not nearly
so arid. don’t wish away 
your cracked past, your 
crooked toes, your problems
are papier mache puppets
you made or bought because the vendor
at the market was so compelling you just
had to have them. you had to have him.
and you did. and now you pull down 
the bridge between your houses,
you make him call before 
he visits, you take a lover
for granted, you take 
a lover who looks at you
like maybe you are magic. make
the first bottle you consume
in this place a relic. place it 
on whatever altar you fashion
with a knife and five cranberries.
don’t lose too much weight.
stupid girls are always trying 
to disappear as revenge. and you 
are not stupid. you loved a man
with more hands than a parade 
of beggars, and here you stand. heart
like a four-poster bed. heart like a canvas. 
heart leaking something so strong 
they can smell it in the street.

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Filed under Bolaño, poetry