Category: Bolaño, Roberto

what’s outside the window?

Roberto Bolaño Trans. Natasha Wimmer
Picador 2008

Returning to SD after so long, because its lasting impression is of a world succumbing to an entropic darkness. Like Saramago, Bolaño was a writer and a left wing fellow traveler. Say what you will about anarchism, but a majority of the time they strive to make their writings accessible to all. I had bracketed this question: why do my own tastes in literature go to the difficult, experimental, and pyrotechnical styles over simple and direct prose? I was content to have my aesthetic and political interests run as two separate trains, hopefully in the same direction.

Yes, in the rise of Trumpland, even I am wondering about what to do with my art. I’m searching for an alternative to the predictably moronic response of the imploding democratic party and the neoliberal consensus that has been given its biggest rebuffs in a long while. I’ve never been keen on “activist art.” That’s a niche market for commissions. Writing doesn’t change the world; riots do. Bolaño’s novel provides a foothold to come at this issue with a little more dialectical thinking.

First, something from the Paris Review’s interview of William H. Gass:

If you start talking about speech acts, what you are doing is connecting the notion of writing with a concept of performance. I think contemporary fiction is divided between those who are still writing performatively and those who are not. Writing for voice, in which you imagine a performance in the auditory sense going on, is traditional and old-fashioned and dying. The new mode is not performative and not auditory. It’s destined for the printed page, and you are really supposed to read it the way they teach you to read in speed-reading. You are supposed to crisscross the page with your eye, getting references and gists; you are supposed to see it flowing on the page, and not sound it in the head. If you do sound it, it is so bad you can hardly proceed. It can’t all have been written by Dreiser, but it sounds like it. Gravity’s Rainbow was written for print, J.R. was written by the mouth for the ear. By the mouth for the ear: that’s the way I’d like to write. I can still admire the other—the way I admire surgeons, bronc busters, and tight ends. As writing, it is that foreign to me.

I won’t outright say DETECTIVES belongs in the second “printed page” category, but it’s not interested in doing the things Gass’s prose does. It lights matches, it doesn’t set fireworks. (And as much as I love Gass and believe he wrote some of the finest American literature of the last century, lighting fireworks all the time has its own flaws.)

In a big set piece a little early on in the big middle part of the novel, our section’s narrator Auxilio Lacouture recounts hiding out in a UNAM campus bathroom as the military massacres the students:

Then I took the toilet paper that I’d written on and threw it in the toilet and pulled the chain. The sound of the water startled me, and I thought I was lost. I thought: what a poetic act to destroy my my writings. I thought: I should have swallowed them instead, because now I’m lost. I thought: the vanity of writing, the vanity of destruction. I thought: because I wrote, I stood my ground. I thought: because I destroyed what I wrote they’re going to find me, beat me, rape me, kill me. I thought: the two acts are related, writing and destruction, hiding and being found. (204)

This thematically salient moment comes after many pages of language that is a little more figurative and lyrical — Lacouture’s a poet, the “mother of Mexican poetry.” She clings “like a limpet” to theater groups, and what have you.

We can locate her in that turning point Gass identifies between the performance and printed page prose styles. Bolaño’s kinda making fun of an idiom that is on its way out, but he’s also celebrating it for what it was. I’m less interested in that masculinist notion of the artist as conquerer, or the totally free agent. The more serious I get about writing, the more it feels more like a surrendering. To what? Not necessarily a metaphysical flow of creativity. Just to the material conditions of our time. Certain ways of writing are closed off for good. Classical forms can be used, but usually with a postmodern irony. The legacy of artistic history can weigh down like a nightmare, or it can be the wind in your own sails.

I’m pretty sure there are over fifty different speakers in this second part of DETECTIVES. It really is a tour de force for Bolaño to differentiate among the characters so successfully. Sure there are tics of verbiage and diction: there’s a snob who spits out latinate phrases, and there’s a painter on whom the mystique of the visceral realists is completely lost — for him Belano and Lima were just the gentlemen losers who sold him pot. At a deeper level, Bolaño seems to have thought about each person’s relationship to language. Barbara Patterson, the American gal who swears a lot, also doesn’t have the inner eye of a poet, she sees the “Arab” eyes of her Mexican boyfriend and goes right to kitschy cliches of camels and tents. Is Belano travelling the world with a tape recorder to take down these long yarns of speech?

And then, in the third part, we have Madero’s doodles. They’re riddles, where simple shapes have to be identified. A dot with a tight circle and wide circle with a little black wedge sticking out. It’s a buzzard wearing a cowboy hat. And so on.

They’re related to the one piece we get by Cesárea Tinajero, the object of their quest in the desert (while on the run from Lupe’s pimp). In that poem, called “Scion,” a square is on a flat horizon line, then the line becomes a sine wave, then a distressingly jagged line. The boys “read” it as a ship on the horizon, and behind the title is not only “Zion” but “navigation.” Riddle solutions lock things up, but the meaning of poetry is none the less probelmatized.

I was chilled by the final pages, which devolve into doodles. The riddle is “What’s outside the window.” A triangle sticks in from the left edge. The answer is a star. But that’s not what stars look like: that’s just the formalized convention, or conventionalized form, of a five point star I used to draw in kindergarten.

In the final riddle, the window’s border is a dotted line. Is it gone, with only an outline for where it should be, like in a cartoon? Is the window mutable, able to expand, like Derrida’s discourse, so that there is no “outside” of it?

The novel “gives up” on language in a way, but it’s also magesterial in its range of discourse. You could plunge through all the name-dropped authors and avant-garde movements it touches on, but you could also enjoy the shaggy detective story. There is a dialectical relationship between advanced modern art, arbitrary, artificial, and alienated, so hard-pressed to communicate itself, and a popular mass art produced by the culture industry that communicates too much to too many people. Neither kind is enough by itself; but together they generate sparks. It is mechanical reproduction that conditions us to what the aura of fine art is by showing us the David and the Mona Lisa repeatedly on postcards and TV commercials and so on. It is art that retreats from the world that can generate the utopian space, the conditions for a new world.

What’s outside the window?

asdf – couldnt think of a name

[CN: anti-gay slurs everywhere]

Roberto Bolaño Trans. Natasha Wimmer
Picador 2008

Bolaño the poet only stooped to writing prose fiction when he knew he was dying and needed to get money for his family. I flew through the first part of SD, certainly enjoying myself, but wishing I liked it more than I did. It’s fast. Every sentence scrupulously avoids predication or unnecessary details: it’s all action. There’s no lyrical diction or abstract thought, ie the kind of writing I enjoy most (and from what I’ve read of his poetry, it’s largely the same thing but with line breaks).

The first part, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico,” is a diary by Garcia Maderos over the last two months of 1975. Bolaño makes wise storytelling decisions: Garcia Maderos is young, seventeen, so his writing on his own sexual experiences and encyclopedic knowledge of classical Spanish poetic forms make a little more sense than they would with an older narrator. He’s also green, and so he can transmit to us the bohemian “visceral realist” community of writers and actors in a Mexico City still haunted by the student massacres of 1968, like how Patrick O’Brian uses Stephen Maturin to introduce us to a naval ship.

It’s a loose, rambling, discursive novel full of smaller stories, which gradually reveal the context of visceral realism, and more broadly a world of woefully undertranslated Latin American literature and still more broadly world literature from the Tang dynasty poets to the 12th century Troubadours.

But it’s not an encyclopedic novel — it’s a directory. Obscure names are just dropped, which works because the text is made out of speech. There are two pages in part two made entirely out of names, the “Directory of the Avant-Garde” from the magazine Actual No. 1. You could slow down and check every single name against Wikipedia, if you like, or take the names as givens of a story of a countercultural community where literature is life to the extent that Arturo Belano can’t get hard without it. (The women in Garcia Maderos’s life are an exception.)

But there’s another wrinkle: some of the names are fictitious, like Hans Reiter, of main concern in 2666. And many of the characters are fictional versions of real historical people.

So there’s multiple layers of mythologizing: Bolaño mythologizing his youth in Mexico City (he’s cast as Arturo Belano and Mario Santiago is Ulises Lima, my favorite character I think), then Garcia Maderos mythologizing in his diary, since he too wants to shape how this scene will be remembered in a way that suits him — it’d take a very credulous reader to accept that many of the scenes went down exactly how he recounts them, or if so many events happened in one day. And in the second part, made of scraps of oral history from a huge cast of individuals, the same questions of myth apply, with many cast members trying to correct the record.

An example of the name dropping is in the diary entry for November 22 with the young gay poet Ernesto San Epifanio, who

had said that all literature could be classified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Novels, in general, were heterosexual, whereas poetry was completely homosexual; I guess short stories were bisexual, although he didn’t say so.

Within the vast ocean of poetry he identified various currents: faggots, queers, sissies, freak, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes. But the two major currents were faggots and queers. Walt Whitman, for example, was a faggot poet. Pablo Neruda, a queer. William Blake was definitely a faggot. Octavio Paz was a queer. Borges was a philene, or in other words he might be a faggot one minute and simply asexual the next. Ruben Dario was a freak, in fact, the queen freak, the prototypical freak.

“In our language, of course,” he clarified. “In the wider world the reining freak is still Verlaine the Generous.”

Freaks, according to San Epifanio, were closer to madhouse flamboyances and naked hallucination, while faggots and queers wandered in stagger-step from ethics to aesthetics and back again. Cernuda, dear Cernuda, was a nymph, and at moments of great bitterness, a faggot, whereas Guillen, Aleixandre, and Alberti could be considered a sissy, a butch, and a queer, respectively. As a general rule, poets like Carlos Pellicer were butches, while poets like Tablada, Novo, and Renato Leduc were sissies. In fact, there was a dearth of faggots in Mexican poetry, although some optimists might point to Lopez Velarde or Efrain Huerta. There were lots of queers, on the other hand, from the mauler (although for a second I heard mobster) Diaz Miron to the illustrious Homero Aridjis. It was necessary to go all the way back to Amado Nervo (whistles) to find a real poet, a faggot poet, that is, and not a philene like the resurrected and now renowned Manuel Jose Othon from San Luis Potosi, a bore if ever there was one. And speaking of bores: Manuel Acuna was a fairy and Jose Joaquin Pesado was a Grecian wood nymph, both longtime pimps of a certain kind of Mexican lyrical verse.

“And Efren Rebolledo?” I asked.

“An extremely minor queer. His only virtue is that he was the first, if not the only, Mexican poet to publish a book in Tokyo: Japanese Poems, 1909. He was a diplomat, of course.” (80-1)

And so on for much longer, even getting into the Russians. Is it a substantial theory or just his way to riff? It speaks to the lit scene, where these folks seem to have read everything.

I guess Bolaño knew this book would get translated — it’s an international book in its way — and created a monument to world literature (it’s already made me interested in Heimito von Doderer). It’s depressing that at the same time that so much interesting literature goes untranslated, that a neoliberal market has opened where writers have to dumb down their work in order to get it translated in order to actually make sales.

Maybe I should just learn Spanish.