Recounting: Antagony Book I – Luis Goytisolo (translated by Brendan Riley)

Recounting

The Catalan “Ulysses”?

In recent months I have come across a plethora of references to James Joyce’s novel, with comparisons to numerous world literature works, must be the circles I mix in on social media! As frequent visitors here would know, I have recently reviewed part of Oğuz Atay’s “Tutunamayanlar” (“The Disconnecte d”), referred to as the Turkish “Ulysses” and today I look at Luis Goytisolo’s “Antagony”, more precisely “Recounting: Book 1”.

Here’s a few snippets of other reviewer’s thoughts, one taken from the publisher’s foreign rights page, the other from a site I visit often to explore world literature.

In whatever way, like Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s In search of lost time, like many others—or few others—you shouldn’t die without having read it (Antonio Martínez Asensio, blog Tiempo de silencio, Antena3.com)

In Spain, it is considered as one of the great works of 20th century literature, compared both to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; Remembrance of Things Past). The comparison are certainly valid. Like the Joyce it is a Bildungsroman while, like the Proust, it is a long exploration of the artistic development of a young man. From the site “The Modern Novel” (although a great review it should come with a spoiler warning)

And then we have Mario Vargas Llosa (thanks to The Untranslated for this snippet ):

Besides being an ambitious and complex book, difficult to read due to the protoplasmic configuration of the narrative matter, it is also an experiment intended to renew the content and the form of the traditional novel, following the example of those paradigms which revolutionalised the genre of the novel or at least tried to do so — above all Proust and Joyce, but, also James, Broch and Pavese –, without renouncing a certain moral and civic commitment to historical reality which, although very diluted, is always present, sometimes on the front stage, sometimes as the novel’s backdrop.

Structurally this book does have a Proustian bent, following the life of Raúl Ferrer Gamide, a middle class Catalan, from childhood through army service, law studies, romantic interludes but more importantly his desire to be a writer. All against the political backdrop of Barcelona. I won’t be putting any spoilers in my thoughts here, rest assured if you decide to tackle this massive book I’ll allow you to discover the narrative yourself.

However, it is not the plot that is the main attraction here, it is the novel’s structure, grand sweeping exploration of Catalan society after the Spanish Civil War and the political luminosity that drags you along, through 648 pages.

A difficult book to read, we have ten page paragraphs, generally consisting of a single sentence, dialogue that forms part of the main text, so it is a challenge to understand who is speaking, a cast of hundreds, all with nicknames, some with code names and then broad philosophical debates, including political manifestos.

For example there are three page explanations as to why a door was locked at 3pm precisely, another three pages observing the eating of a ham sandwich, but it is the microscopic examination of Barcelona and the middle class that brings the richness to this novel.

A wonderful example of the craft is the beginning of Chapter IV, where the paragraph opens with “Coming down to Las Ramblas…”, an area of Barcelona, and ends with “their fitful procession heading up Las Ramblas.” In between there are descriptions of all the alleys, the crowds, the flowers, “confusing alleys and side streets with their little dives which stank of hashish, alleys where, as it grew dark, the shining lights isolated the ground floor businesses, the red doorways, the worn, narrow pavement, the filthy paving stones, high-heeled shoes, bulging hips, necklines, long manes of hair, painted eyes, a succession of bars, of turf marked off and intensified by cigarette smoke.”

Each of the players circle in and out of focus, and as we move through Raúl’s maturation from childhood to schooling, to army service, to his involvement with the socialist/communist party, his distribution of clandestine pamphlets, his legal work and dreams of being a writer, we learn more and more about Catalan society.

Classic references to things such as the “caganer”, the defecating figurine in Catalan nativity scenes, blend with discussions on Catalan poetry, literature, its demise and subsequent rise, and further discussions on Spanish speaking Catalonians, this is a detailed expose of cultural life.

In one section we have many pages describing the Sagrada Familia, Raúl simply walking in there to hide from the police, when suddenly the text lapses into descriptive explanations of the iconic Church:

And to the right, the Portico of Faith, enraptured altarpiece centred on the presentation of Jesus in the temple, with an outline of images now solemn and impassive, now violent, like the one of John the Baptist preaching in the desert, foretelling the coming of the Messiah, all that upon an embroidered background of wretchedness and suffering, of an interwoven framework of thorns and flowers, buds, corollas, thalamus, sepals, petals. Stigmata, honeybees drawn to pollen, and superimposed on the bramble-crag crenellations, the lantern, a three-peaked oil lamp, eternal triangle, base of Immaculate Conception, dogmatic effigy rising in ecstasy, like an ejaculatory prayer from within a large cascade of sprigs and grape clusters, all those details one can spot carefully from any one of the points of the belfry towers, as you climb the airy spiral staircases, from the doorways, from the enclosed balconies sinuously integrated on the projections of architraves and cornices of the frontispiece, balconies with bulbous wrought iron railings, small contoured galleries, catwalks, small steps, intestinal cavities, twisted corridors of irregular relief, passages conjoined in a coming and going from the belfries to the façade, four intercommunicating bell towers, harmonically erect. Which, if near their bases appear rather strangely compounded with the parameters of the porticoes, as the separate, each acquiring its own shape, they becomes curving parabolic cones, the two outer pairs equal in height, the two center towers taller.

The more you read of this complex work, the more you realise it is an homage to Barcelona.

Richly packed with snippets of historical data, with references to cultural icons and other books, there are also brilliantly referenced cultural scraps, for example when one character’s father suspiciously dies and the subsequent legal action over his business interests hots up, there is a reference to Goya’s “Trágala, perro”, “depicting some raving monks with a giant syringe about to forcibly administer an enema to a trembling man in the presence of his veiled wife.”

 

425px-Museo_del_Prado_-_Goya_-_Caprichos_-_No._58_-_Tragala_perro

 

Suddenly an obscure etching has made itself into my sphere, and now my consciousness.

We also have a number of references to Marcel Proust, one of my favourite sections talking about a literary endeavour:

…we have a good example of that in Manolo Maragas, with his remembrances and reflections, with the magnified profiles of his memory, when he talks about Alicia and Sunche, when he talks about Magdalena’s grandmother as if she were the Duchess of Guermantes and as if Grandpa Augusto were the duke, and Doña America were Madame Verduin, and that crazy Tito Coll a sort of Charlus, while he, Manolo Moragas, the narrative I, an apathetic Marcel, too sceptical to take the trouble to write anything, the only reason for him not already having withdrawn into his cork-lined cell, becomes a chronicler of Barcelonan society, the literary transcription of whose avatars, for any reader not directly implicated in that world, would awaken the same interest, probably, as the prose of one of those stylists in the Sunday edition of a provincial newspaper who’ve achieved a certain notoriety by the agreeable character of the collaborations, stylists who philosophize like a sheep chewing its cud before the ruins of the Parthenon, not in service of the validity of the ideas developed, but rather, to please his readers’ palates, of the originality of the focus and the graceful exposition, as well as this stylist’s prose, the interest of the specific problems of that world, of the characters capable of inhabiting it, grazing and watering among the ruins of the culture, with the grace and subtlety and elegance of a bull’s head that, like Narcissus, gazes at itself in a puddle.

In a few lines, the depth of characters take on a new meaning, readers of Proust suddenly having another layer to the already complex players. But we are not restricted to Proust, the is a whole section questioning scholars and them not giving enough time to Dante’s Canto 34 in Inferno. Through drunken debates, scholarly discussions, a whole playing field of the author’s views can be spread on this massive canvas.

I must admit, there were many political sections where I tired of the proletariat debate, the roles of the bourgeois, the eternal struggle of the worker, however these political rants were more than adequately balanced with crystal clear observations of daily life, of the existentialist struggle. A Menippean satire? Possibly. A Catalan “Ulysses”, less likely, for a start it isn’t a single day…

A massively complex but thoroughly engaging work, unfortunately we have to wait until August 2018 for Book II to be released in English, and by that time it may mean a re-reading of “Recounting” is required, a novel that would reveal so much more upon every re-read, and so little time!!!

I am hoping to get to a few other world literature “Ulysses” over the coming months, I may tire of that journey but a few books I do have set aside are:

“Leg Over Leg” by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (all four volumes)

“Three Trapped Tigers” by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

“Adam Buenosayres: A Critical Edition” by Leopoldo Marechal

“All About H. Hatterr” by G.V. Desani

“Berlin Alexanderplatz” by Alfred Döblin

And of course I need to post my thoughts on the remaining section of Oğuz Atay’s “The Disconnecte d”

I am sure there are many many more books that fall into the “Ulysses” category, hopefully I get to discover their riches over the coming years.

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August – Romina Paula (translated by Jennifer Croft)

August

Since 2014 I have actively participated in “Women In Translation Month” an event set up and pursued in earnest by Meytal Radzinski at http://biblibio.blogspot.co.uk – since 2014 I have seen a massive increase in interest in the month, an understanding of the limited amount of translated fiction by female writers but interestingly enough there hasn’t been a shift in the number of books being published, it still hovers around the poor 30% of all translated fiction.

Given August is “Women In Translation Month” I thought it was a good idea to read and review two translated books titled “August” written by women.

First up today is Romina Paula’s book, from Argentina, originally titled “Agusto”, translated by Jennifer Croft and published by Feminist Press.

This is a first person narrative primarily addressed to a dead girl, our narrator in her early twenties leaving Buenos Aires and returning to rural Patagonia, to meet the family of her childhood friend and plan the scattering of her ashes, her friend having committed suicide a number of years beforehand.

The opening is haunting and deeply personal as our neurotic protagonist, Emilia, questions her return, explores her relationships and reflects on the events that have led to this “homecoming”;

Before leaving town the bus makes a stop in Liniers. The seat I chose isn’t bad, all things considered. It has a number of pros: it’s upstairs, more or less in the middle. There’s no one next to me. The only little con, which I do detect immediately, is that right exactly where my part of the window is there’s a divider – I mean, the window, the glass, is bisected smack-dab where my face is. This is bad because the view will not be optimal, although I still think I did okay, in terms of safety it’s a good thing because it’s a divider that could absorb a blow, you know, if it ever came to that. It’s a divider that isn’t glass at least. So I reconcile myself to that metal/rubber strip standing between me and the landscape.

Romina Paula uses the dairy like style to explore the inner machinations of our protagonist’s fears, and her “coming of age” as she both physically and mentally lets go of Buenos Aires and all that the city contains. Whilst the art of writing itself is also explored the presented book is more aligned to the narcissism of our narrator as she begins to question her relationship with her current boyfriend (who has remained in Buenos Aires) and her past relationships in Patagonia.

During my teenage years Buenos Aires symbolized both everything I wanted most and everything I detested. On the one hand I pictured it as ugly, jammed full of people all in a rush all the time. A clusterfuck of cars and taxis and buses and noises and people, and people, and people. In fact that wasn’t altogether unfounded: we had gone on a trip there, just once, with Dad, to do some paperwork, some paperwork he had to go and do in Buenos Aires, and we stayed at our aunt’s place, his sister’s, who was living there. Here. No, now it’s there. And the memory I have of that trip, I don’t know, I must have been about five years old, is of crossing Libertador in Retiro (now I know where it is, in my memory it was just a big avenue), and trying to get to the other side around everybody’s legs, through all those legs, hundreds coming towards us, ready to trample me, like a stampede; it was get across of die trying, and at the same time not lose Dad’s hand, not let yourself get tricked by some other hand and end up who knew where. That crossing generated an extreme mixture of terror and adrenaline in me; the terror, the adrenaline, sufficient for me to insist to my father that we go again, more than once, cross that forest of legs in motion, all furious, all enormous, all going in the opposite direction. You might say that image illustrated quite well the configuration of Buenos Aires, in my head: that excitement, that fear of losing, of being lost, of dying, literally trampled/crushed, and, nonetheless, the challenge, the challenge of avoiding it, of surviving all those knees wrapped up in suits, in stockings, of beating those heels. Those soles, those purses and briefcases, and making it – unscathed and holding on to someone’s hand – to the other side. Not that I think about it, my perception of Buenos Aires hasn’t changed all that much, it’s just that in this version my knees are at the same level as the rest of them, and my head is much higher, and some part, some little part, of the city, meanwhile, now belongs to me, as little as it is.

As Emilia goes through various stages of grief, excessive sleeping an example, she also presents, in her “journal” the plight of a mouse which has invade her home in the city as well as details of various horrific mass murderers, as a reader you begin to question her attitude to death, her genuine concern for her childhood friend’s demise, this juxtaposition forcing you to shift your views. We learn of her mother’s leaving, abandonment, when she was young, the childhood imaginings of where she had disappeared to, kidnapped, trapped behind the Iron Curtain?

And as the story progresses further, the novel becomes a “road movie” of sorts (there are a number of references to movies throughout, “Reality Bites” an example), when Emilia finds a novel way of getting back to Buenos Aires without using the bus.

The internal, rather than the external, journey of our protagonist becomes the main focus as she slowly unravels.

It would seem to be more mixed up than that: it would appear that no one knows exactly who loves whom, if indeed anybody loves anyone, if indeed anyone understands, knows, or has a clear idea of what it is to love, or of what love is. Which is horrific…

As Emilia begins her journey home even the format, presentation, of the tale changes, dialogue begins to contain quotation marks and follows the expected rules, the internalisation begins to broaden and contains existentialist discussions, our narrator is starting to conform.

Although entertaining, and starting with a great premise that leads the reader right into the life of Emilia, I did find this book to be a somewhat shallow work, a hollow piece, where the internal voice of the narrator became too obsessive and overbearing. Similar, only slightly, to the Chilean “Camanchaca” by Diego Zúñiga (translated in Megan McDowell) a coming of age story, linked to a road trip, a work I reviewed back in April, or a teenage immature version of Clarice Lispector’s “Near to the Wild Heart”, without the ingenuity,  grace, method or the style. Whilst “August” throws out a range of existentialist ideas, it fails to deliver any real punch on any of them, however that may be the point!!!

Antígona González – Sara Uribe (translated by John Pluecker) – 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry

AntigonaGonzalez

Today more from Mexico, moving from Valeria Luiselli’s latest book “Tell Me How It Ends” back to the 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry longlist. Sara Uribe’s “Antígona González” uses the daughter/sister of Oedipus and the tale where she attempts to secure a respectable burial for her brother Polynices who was killed in battle, and transposes the search for a corpse to the present Mexican landscape where numerous people go missing.

My name is Antígona González and I am searching/among the dead for the corpse of my brother. (p7)

A work that is a grieving book, for a missing brother, for nameless bodies, for an uncaring society that allows disappearances to become the norm.

I came to San Fernando to search for my brother.
I came to San Fernando to search for my father.
I came to San Fernando to search for my husband.
I came to San Fernando to search for my son.
I came with the others for the bodies of our people. (p103)

Our poet’s missing brother is Tadeo and Sara Uribe uses a raft of inputs to explore disappearance, “the verb to disappear”, this is a heart wrenching work gives voice, and life, to the nameless, the anonymous;

 In my dream, I’m certain one of those suitcases is
Tadeo’s. Mamá gave him that name because he was
the one who struggled most at birth. She promised
ninety novenas to Saint Jude if he would save her son.
She prayed those novenas and baptized him in his
honor so that the hope of the hopeless would always
shine on him. So that the smallest of her children
would never forget that from his very birth he had
overcome adversity. (p43)

Through extensive use of space, some pages with central text, others from the top, others from the bottom of the page, the English translation appears alongside the Spanish text. The all-encompassing vastness of the Mexican desert, the missing persons and a fruitless search is relayed through the visual open presentation;

So I head out to my job on an empty stomach and as
I drive I thank of all the gaps, all the absences no one
notices and yet are there. (p81)

The stress, tension of not knowing comes through in the tight language, it is easy to imagine the poet ranting these lines at you, yelling her frustration at you. The book contains fourteen pages of references and notes, a detailed explanation of the resources used to create this multi-layered work, quotes from blogs, italicised text an interloper’s voice, facts including testimonies from victims and family members as compiled by journalists and quotes from other writers, including a sequence of questions by Harold Pinter from the poem “Death”, such as “WHO WAS THE DEAD BODY?” with answers coming from various other sources, the book resembles a performance art piece rather than simply a poetry collection.

All of us here will gradually disappear if no one searches
for us, if no one names us.

All of us here will gradually disappear if we just look
helplessly at each other, watching how we disappear one
by one. (p 165)

A book that explores the impacts of people disappearing, the grief that remains behind, the questioning, “the interpretation of Antigone is radically altered in Latin America – Polynices is identified with the marginalized and disappeared” (p23)

Also including seventeen pages of translator notes;

There is a startling specificity to this Antígona. We are in Tamaulipas, a state along the Gulf coast in Mexico and bordering the Río Bravo/Rio Grande in South Texas. It is a time of brutal violence that strains the very definition of the word “war,” as it evades any previous understanding of what “war” might be. A specific moment and a specific horror.

Antígona González is not Sophocles’ Antigone, though Uribe’s book is inexorably tied to the long trajectory of Sophocles’ tragedy. In his version, Antigone could not bear the dictate of Creon to leave her brother’s dead body exposed and unburied on a dusty plain. In Uribe’s version, Antígona González is bereft of a body to mourn, a body to bury. (p191)

Including a rationalisation process where the poet wonders what to do with Tadeo’s killers, the various stages of grieving are walked through as you become further and further frustrated at the lack of knowledge, the unknown and the endless missing persons, this is a very complex and moving book. Yet another worthwhile inclusion on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award longlists.

Camanchaca – Diego Zúñiga (translated by Megan McDowell)

Canamchaca

An even shorter review today, for an even shorter book…

Today I take a short break from the 2017 Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury duties and visit a recent release from Chile. Yesterday I reviewed the 2017 MBIP longlisted novel “Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin, a novel translated by Megan McDowell so let’s keep the translator theme going by looking at a book released by Coffee House Press in the USA, “Camanchaca” by Diego Zúñiga, also translated by Megan McDowell.

Another short novel Zúñiga’s work is a coming-of-age story undertaken by a young boy, traversing the country with his father;

My father’s first car was a 1971 Ford Fairlane, which my grandfather gave him with he turned fifteen.
His second was a 1985 Honda Accord, lead gray.
His third was a 1990 BMW 850i, navy blue, which he killed my Uncle Neno with.
His fourth is a Ford Ranger, smoke colored, which we are driving across the Atacama Desert. (p1)

So opens this book, a work where you learn so much from being presented with so little. From this opening quote (which is the whole opening page) we can see our narrator’s father moving into money somehow, killing his own brother (or brother-in-law) and now onto a road trip, are they escaping something?

Written in sparse open prose, the pages are filled with blank spaces, there are pauses and silences, the detached tone, invoking isolation, you are stranded with our narrator in the desert.

She told the story. In complete detail. Full of silences. (p12)

Our narrator, recalls stories from his mother, as he listens begrudgingly to worn out clichés from his father, who is attempting some connection. The protagonist interrupting any attempt at conversation by putting on his headphones, more silence on the page…

Slowly, through the stories told by his mother, “like someone putting together and taking apart a worn-out puzzle”, we begin to see some clarity, the puzzle is taking shape.

But something happened that day. It was an image that would repeat itself for years. Me dancing, no partner, in the middle of a group. (p89)

An isolated youth, the unique voice of confusion and separation from his parents, and grandparents, a young man attempting to find his own place in the world, is told in a wonderfully sparse and gnarled manner. Through “the desert fog, the camanchaca”. We piece together our narrator’s coming of age. Although sparse there are unplumbed depths here, just see the opening page quote…

Another wonderful work from South America, a region I am drawn closer and closer to as I travel the world of literature, obscure, playing with form and content, this style of novel is one that appeals very much to my tastes. Not at all formulaic, you simply do not know what the next page will bring. Like “Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin, this is a book you can read in a single sitting, which I did, and as soon as you have finished, you feel like turning back to the first page and starting all over again, to understand the depths a little more, explore the silences and empty spaces just a little further.

Another wonderful revelation translated by Megan McDowell, a translator whose work I have thoroughly enjoyed with all five books of hers I have read, I know that I will be looking for her name on the cover of other releases, they’ll be added to my reading lists…

Tomorrow I plan to be back with the shortlists from the 2017 Best Translated Book Award (maybe Zúñiga and McDowell will be there in 2018?) and then back to the Man Booker International Prize longlist with a review of “Judas” by Amos Oz.

Fever Dream – Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize

FeverDream

Today a short review for a short book.

By far the shortest book on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist is “Fever Dream” from Argentine Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell). But what this work may lack in length is more than made up for in tension, heightened blood pressure and breathlessness.

A book that can be read in one sitting, you find yourself pitched immediately into a conversation between Amanda and David. Amanda is the mother of a young daughter Nina, and in hospital apparently shortly to die, David is the mysterious son of a recent acquaintance Carla, he himself being poisoned in the not too distant past, the only “cure”? Having his body’s spirit removed;

There isn’t room in a body for two spirits, and there’s no body without a spirit. The transmigration would take David’s spirit to a healthy body, but it would also bring an unknown spirit back to the sick body. Something of each of them would be left in the other. He wouldn’t be the same anymore, and I would have to be willing to accept his new being. (pg 29-30)

This bedside conversation consists of David eliciting information from Amanda, where she tells of meeting David’s mother whilst staying in a country holiday home, in a region where soy bean production and horse breeding is prominent. David appears as the inquisitor, with short sharp questions, with Amanda giving details, sometimes too many details for David’s liking….”that doesn’t matter”…

A story where conversations happen within the conversation, where the underlying theme of keeping our children close is relayed through a theory of “rescue distance”, an invisible taut rope between mother and child;

My mother always said something bad would happen. My mother was sure that sooner or later something bad would happen, and now I can see it with total clarity, I can feel it coming toward us like a tangible fate, irreversible. Now there’s almost no rescue distance, the rope is so short that I can barely move in the room, I can barely walk away from Nina to go to the closet and grab the last of our things. (p75-76)

A story told in short clipped sentences, conversational in tone rather than written, the title alluding to a fever, a dream, and the danger is always on the periphery, each page with a shimmering dream like danger, you know something horrific is coming…

And I’m starting to think you’re not going to understand, that going forward with this story doesn’t make any sense. (p 140)

A disturbing tale that drags on your tension throughout, this work is completely different to any other book on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist, unique in style, presentation, genre and subplot.

With an underlying environmental message, where we are putting our own children at risk at the expense of progress, the hallucinatory story is difficult to present without giving away too many details of the tension.

A novella from South America, where I have spent quite some time in my literary journeys in the last twelve months, I would rate this amongst my favourites from the region. Translated by Megan McDowell, who has also translated two Alejandro Zambra books (“Multiple Choice” and “My Documents”) as well as Lina Meruane’s “Seeing Red”, these three titles I have reviewed here within the last year.  She also translated Camanchaca by Diego Zúñiga, which I have read and will review on the blog shortly. When Women In Translation month comes around in August “Fever Dream” is one book you should be adding to your reading piles.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? Most definitely, this is a unique work, one that you complete quickly but immediately are drawn to a rereading. This book is totally unlike many literary works that contain dreamlike sequences where the symbolism is too obvious. Surely a book that will make the shortlist which is to be announced later this week.

 

Antwerp -Roberto Bolaño (tr. Natasha Wimmer)

antwerp

After a post about Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream” to open the year, it is probably also appropriate to now have a look at one of Roberto Bolaño’s books, given I have lofty ambitions to make my way through all of his works, those I haven’t read before, over the coming year.

His earliest “collection” is “Antwerp”, written in 1980 but not published, originally under the title “Amberes”, until 2002.

A collection of fifty-six vignettes, a work that is commonly referred to as the only book “he wasn’t embarrassed by”, from the off this collection has a mystical, cryptic, poetic feel. It is a façade, but so is life, and Bolaño is telling us, in a clipped style, that you shouldn’t try and read too much into it;

 

  1. FAÇADE

Once photographed, life here is ended. It is almost symbolic of Hollywood. Tara has no rooms inside. It was just a façade.
– David O Selznick

The kid heads toward the house. Alley of larches. The Fronde. Necklace of tears.  Love is a mix of sentimentality and sex (Burroughs). The mansion is just a façade – dismantled, to be erected in Atlanta. 1959. Everything looks worn. Not a recent phenomenon. From a long time back, everything wrecked. And the Spaniards imitate the way you talk. The South American lilt. An alley of palms. Everything slow and asthmatic. Bored biologists watch the rain from the windows of their corporations. It’s no good singing with feeling. My darling, wherever you are: it’s too late, forget the gesture that never came. “It was just a façade.” The kid walks toward the house.

This is a work where the images of a young poet, turning his hand to fiction, splash over the page in front of you, there are unpolished gems a plenty. For example on page two Sophie Podolski makes an appearance, she also appears in “The Savage Detectives” and “Distant Star”.

“…Not to mention France, great country of devouring mouths, where one hundred faggot poets, from Villon to our beloved Sophie Podolski, have nurtured, still nurture, and will nurture with the blood of their tits ten thousand queer poets with their entourage of philenes, nymphs, butches, and sissies, lofty editors of literary magazines, great translators, petty bureaucrats, and grand diplomats of the Kingdom of Letters (see, if you must, the shameful and malicious reflections of the Tel Quel poets). And the less said the better about the faggotry of the Russian Revolution, which, if we’re to be honest, gave us just one faggot poet, a single one.” (From “The Savage Detectives” P73 Picador edition)

Soto also tried (unsuccessfully) to translate Sophie Podolski, the Belgian poet who committed suicide at the age of twenty-one,… (from “Distant Star” Page 67 Vintage edition)

Sophie Podolski was a Belgian poet, who had one published work, she suffered from schizophrenia and died, just aged twenty-one, ten days after a suicide attempt.

As each vignette unfolds, you can see this being the rich fertile soil of Bolaño’s later literature at work, here he is sowing the roots, the seedlings that will take root, be grafted, and develop into fully fledged novels, stories or poems.

Although, on the surface, it would be easy to dismiss this as experimental, for example in “I’m my own bewitchment”, there is the quote “My name is Roberto Bolaño”, “our stories are sad, sergeant, there’s no point trying to understand them.”

The images set of down the road and yet they never get anywhere, they’re simply lost, it’s hopeless, says the voice – and the hunchback asks himself, hopeless for who? The Roman bridges are our fate now, thinks the author as the images still shine, not too distant, like towns that the car gradually leaves behind. (But in this case the man isn’t moving.) “I’ve made a count of air-heads and severed heads”…”Although in eternity it’s hard to tell them apart”…I told a Jewish girl, a friend of mine, that it was sad to spend hours in a bar listening to dirty stories. Nobody tried to change the subject. Shit dripped from the sentences at breast height, so that I couldn’t stay seated, and I went up to the bar. Stories about cops chasing immigrants. Nothing shocking, really, people upset because they were out of work, etc. These are the sad stories I have to tell.

So many images that appear in Bolaño’s later works are tossed at the reader here. There are cinematic glimpses, a man ties a sheet to trees in the forest “I’m going to show a film”, the sections are peppered with “fade to black” or “on the screen”, accompanied by silence. This is a collection of cinematic images that will become Bolaño’s toolkit, or trash can, he will draw on these throughout his writing career.

Here is a mysterious poem from “The Savage Detectives”

savage

In the novel the following explains the poem “And I asked the boys, I said, boys, what do you make of this poem? I said, boys, I’ve been looking at it for more than forty years and I’ve never understood a goddamn thing.”

In “Antwerp” here is the poem;

antwerppoem

And the explanation? “The straight line is the sea, when it’s calm, the wavy line is the sea with waves, and the jagged line is a storm”…The straight line made me feel calm. The wavy line made me uneasy, I sensed danger but I liked the smoothness: up and down. The last line was agitation. My penis hurt, my belly hurt, etc. (sections 21 and 22 from “Antwerp”).

Another common theme is the campground reference, readers of Bolaño’s other books will know of the recurring campground, here “a campground should be the closest thing to Purgatory”. I’ll post my thoughts about Bolano’s 1993 novel “The Skating Rink” in the coming days, another very early work, where the campground is a central theme.

Another interesting dimension to this work is that it also appears as a section in the larger publication “The Unknown University” (2007), under the title “People Walking Away”. Laura Healy the translator in 2013, and there are stark differences to Natasha Wimmer’s translation of 2010. Here are a couple of examples:

The vignette “Calle Tallers” in “Antwerp” contains an extra sentence – “I saw it all from the next room through the hole, someone had drilled for that purpose.” Occasionally the tense is different “flashes” instead of “flashed”, but the inclusion of a whole sentence that adds the voyeuristic element is quite extraordinary.

Another example “Like a Waltz” in “The Unknown University” collection contains the extra sentence “like campground spiders, she moves about, weaving a web over my face.”

I will leave it to Bolaño scholars and people more au fait with Spanish, or those with access to manuscripts to figure out which is the definitive text.

A work I would suggest readers approach later in their Bolaño journey, once you’ve got a handle on the motifs, themes and recurring images, it adds another element to those features of his work, however if you were to read this as your first Bolaño escapade you would probably believe the move from poetry to fiction was blurred and it could taint your future reading of his works. Having personally read six of his novels I found this a fascinating melting pot of ideas, ones that would later take shape as a central theme, or a Mc Guffin, and it will be a book I will refer back to as I make my way through his other novels, short stories and poems.

amulet – Roberto Bolaño (translated by Chris Andrews)

amulet.jpg

Every time I read and review a book that has been around for a number of years, I am confronted with a dilemma, is my view adding anything worthwhile to the plethora of other reviews that happen to be in the public domain? Will my views sway anybody into a purchase or an avoidance? Am I just posting here to say “I read this book too”?

I personally own all of Bolaño’s novels, short story collections and poetry collections, so why I decided to pick up “amulet” is now a blur. I have some vague recollection of glancing at Wikipedia and thinking it was an early work so I’d start with it. Having a look at Wikipedia now I notice it makes no mention of “Monsieur Pain” on the main Bolaño page, so a bit of work needs to be done on that page.

“amulet” is not an early work, it was published soon after “The Savage Detectives” and contains a number of links to that work (more on them later).

A first person narration by Auxilia Lacouture, she could say she is “the mother of Mexican poetry”;

By day I busied myself at the university; by night I led a bohemian life, and slept, and gradually scattered my few belongings, leaving them in the houses and apartments of friends: my clothes, my books, my magazines, my photos. I, Remedios Varo, I, Leonora Carrington, I, Eunice Odio, I, Lilian Serpas (ah, poor Lilian Serpas, I still have to tell you about her). And my friends, of course, would eventually get tired of me and ask me to leave. I would try and make light of it and leave. I would hang my head and leave. I would give them a kiss on the cheek and say thanks and leave.

Auxilio Lacouture is locked in the bathroom of the university in 1968 whilst it is raided by the military and the police, an historical moment in Mexican history, known as “Mexico 68” and leading up to the Olympic Games in Mexico City, brought on by ideological and political clashes. The narration takes place from the bathroom as Auxillo talks of the past, the future and a little of the present.

I don’t know why I remember that afternoon. That afternoon of 1971 or 1972. And the strangest thing is that I remember it prospectively, from 1968. From my watchtower, my bloody subway carriage, from my gigantic rainy day. From the women’s bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature, the timeship from which I can observe the entire life and times of Auxilio Lacouture, such as they are.

Besides Bolaño’s style, which of course I adore, why else would I own every book he wrote (those translated into English that is), this novel has a number of interesting connections to other works. Besides the common recurring Bolaño alter ego Arturo Belano, about half way through the book we come across Ernesto San Epifanio, who had earlier appeared in “The Savage Detectives” . Of course Auxilio also appeared in “The Savage Detectives” in Part II Chapter four, a full 10 page single paragraph that is almost replicated word for word as the opening to “amulet”. The short novella a little more polished in my opinion. Back to Ernesto;

Then we walked down the Avenida Guerrero; they weren’t stepping so lightly any more, and I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic either. Guerro, at that time of the night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or in 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.

After a long drunken night, Ernesto and Arturo “why still hadn’t turned twenty-one” travel “down that turbulent river that was and is the Avenida Guerro”, crossing the metaphorical River Styx into hell, “into the kingdom of the King of the Rent Boys”, where Arturo is going to negotiate the release of Ernesto’s “body and soul”.

Another interesting reference is, of course, (apparently Bolaño’s only reference) to 2666.

As Auxilio, locked in the bathroom, moves from time and place to time and place it is as though a dreamlike fog has descended upon her tale. Surrealist painters emerge, obscure poets, mothers of painters, promiscuous characters move in and out of the spotlight. The references to real characters are vast, unfortunately not a lot of their work is available in English.

To complete the surrealist picture, Auxilio is taken on an operating table to attend the birth of History. A reference to the permanent social change that occurred as a result of the student sacrifice and protest.

Another interesting work from one of my favourite writers, the references coming thick and fast, giving me reading lists to keep me going well beyond the grave, the mythological links, and the links to other works of his own, all part of the melting pot that is Roberto Bolaño.