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”

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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)

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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.

Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog – Day Eight

cd8d4-mydocuments

Today’s inclusion on my Twelve Days of Christmas countdown, comes from South America, along with central America this is where I spent most of 2016 in my reading journeys, probably because I was meant to visit Mexico and Guatemala earlier in the year and the trip was postponed indefinitely, therefore I travelled there figuratively, through the novels and poems of the region.

Every so often I come across a writer whose language personally clicks with me, a writer where every sentence just seems to seamlessly flow, where the pages easily turn and I suddenly realise I’ve been reading for hours and have finished the book!!!

This is exactly what happened when I picked up Alejandro Zambra’s short story collection “My Documents” (translated by Megan McDowell).

Here is my review from earlier in the year:

A collection of eleven short stories it opens with the title work, “My Documents” and it reads like an autobiography;

Mass was held in the gymnasium of a convent school, Master Purissima; people always talked, though, about the church building that was in the works, and it was like they were describing a dream. It took so long to build that by the time it was finished, I no longer believed in God.

“Camilo” is a story of a godson, soccer fanaticism, living in Chile under Pinochet, family bonds, maturing and forgiveness. A very moving piece indeed. Only two stories into the collection and I’m thinking that the endings are exquisite, they are powerful explosions that linger well after you’ve finished the tale.

We have wonderfully real characters, including the late night call centre worker who reads literature (as there is little else to do whilst waiting for the phone to ring) and teaches letter writing to mature aged students on the side. Or the story of a relationship told through the lifespan of a PC, in the story “Memories of a Personal Computer”. An all too realistic tale of how technology has encroached on our lives, filled with nostalgia and the past where pen and paper and unedited texts prevailed.

The personal connection came hitting home in the story “I smoked very well”, as an ex-smoker myself the angst, futility, addiction all rang true, so much so I just have to refer all my smoker or ex-smoker friends to this short story:

What for a smoker is non-fiction, for a non-smoker is fiction. That majestic story by Julio Ramón Ribeiro, for example, about the smoker who desperately jumps out the window to rescue a pack of cigarettes, and who, years later, very ill, his wife keeping a vigilant watch over him, escapes to the beach every day to unearth, with the skill of an anxious puppy, the pack of cigarettes he has hidden in the sand. Non-smokers don’t understand these stories. They think they’re exaggerated; they read them cavalierly. A smoker, on the other hand, treasures them.

The anti-hero comes to the fore in the story “Family Life”, where a house sitter tells a simple lie, has to live with the untruth and as the date of the house owner’s return comes nearer the tension increases exponentially, I found myself holding my breath as my concern for the lie-teller was becoming a reality.

As this is Spanish Literature Month, I think it is only fitting that a poem by Enrique Lihn, about Madrid, appears in the story “I Smoked Very Well”;

I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here
Old, tired, sick, and thoughtful.
The Spanish I was spawned with
Father of so many literary vices
and from which I cannot free myself
many have brought me to this city
to make me suffer what I deserve:
a soliloquy in a dead language.

A number of the stories are dedicated to well known “celebrities” including a number of writers, Natalia García, Alejandra Costamagna, Marcelo Montecinos, Álvaro Enrigue, Valeria Luiselli, Gonzalo Maier, Paula Canal, with the whole collection dedicated to Chilean long jumper Josefina Gutiérrez. These dedications revealing not only a solid nationalist streak, but also a connection to likeminded writers, even if it is just because they love a cigarette!!!

A collection of stories that are cemented in the real, and although musing on grand subjects each one becomes a reality that could well occur to the reader. A very refreshing read away from some of the convoluted plots that sometimes land on my reading desk, the smaller minutiae of daily existence celebrated with aplomb.

If you want a taste of the collection here are two of the included stories available online.

“The Most Chilean Man in the World” (under a slightly different title here)

“Camilo” appeared in The New Yorker

And an interview with Alejandro Zambra about the short story “Camilo” appeared here.

Despite a couple of typos in the text, and two disconcerting instances where sentences were duplicated, this is a masterful example of the art of the short story, engaging characters, plausible plots, realist settings and wonderful endings. Blurring autobiography, essay and fiction I found all of these stories thoroughly engaging. At times collections can be uneven, I can assure you that it is not the case here. Another writer to add to my “favourites” pile and one to search out further works

 

The Musical Brain – César Aira (translated by Chris Andrews)

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Catch up time for reviews – I have seven books in backlog, my notebooks bulging at the sides, it’s just the distraction, the all immersing experience of reading Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream” that keeps me from writing up my notes and putting some sort of coherent review together.

Another entry from the “10 Essential Spanish-Language Books”, as listed by Daniel Saldaña Paris in Publisher’s Weekly  , is César Aira’s short story collection “The Musical Brain” (Translated by Chris Andrews). I’m almost through that full list, with Bellatin’s “Beauty Salon” (translated by Kurt Hollander) and “The Empty Book” by Josefina Vicens (translated by David Lauer)  no longer in print, I can only get to eight of the “top 10” and have covered off five on this blog. I do own the missing three, will I review and read them is a different matter?

Argentine César Aira, a prolific producer who has published of over 80 books, with thirteen alone available in English translation through New Directions (including this book), is not your standard narrative producer. As Daniel Saldaña Paris says in his article about essential Spanish Language books;

There are no gratuitous descriptions here, nor are there linguistic diversions that don’t reveal something fundamental about the author’s richly detailed, imagined world. Aira’s stories pave the way for the art of the twenty-first-century narrative.

Aria himself in the short story “The Spy” from this collection

Looking back at what I’ve written, it all seems rather muddled, and if I want to be understood, I need to say it differently (not by means of examples, but, once again, by making it the theme). Sooner or later there comes a time when being correctly understood is vitally important. The hidden cannot endure without that transparency, against which it becomes visible. The hidden: that is, secrets. I have secrets, like everyone else; I don’t know if mine are especially shameful, but I take all sorts of precautions to prevent them from coming to light. It’s natural for people to feel that their own affairs are important; the self is a natural amplifier. When the person concerned is a character in a dramatic performance, at the very centre of the plot, the amplification reaches deafening extremes. The whirlwind of the action forbids any kind of detachment.

Yes it does, it is said Aira writes his works and does not edit, this story is a classic case, the writer appears lost, and the reader is certainly confused.

A short story collection featuring twenty stories dated from 1993 to 2011 just about any subject you can think of would probably be included here, and if you haven’t thought of it, there is a good chance it will appear here…let’s have a look at a few highlights…

“The Dog” is about a dog chasing a bus and barking, or “In The Café”, a story about origami with paper napkins and a lamentation on napkin dispensers. If those two aren’t weird enough for you, how about “God’s Tea Party”

According to an old and immutable tradition in the Universe, God celebrates His birthday with a magnificent lavish Tea Party, to which only the apes are invited. Nobody knows or could know, in those timeless regions, when this custom began, but it has become a fixture in the great year of the All: it seems that the patiently anticipated day will never come, but come it does, precisely on time, and the Tea Party takes place. It is said, plausibly enough, that the original reason for the ceremony was negative: the idea was not so much to invite apes as to not invite humans. Apes are a sarcastic joke, a kind of deliberate and spiteful (or, at best, ironic) slight on the part of the Lord, aimed at a human race that has disappointed Him. It may well have begun like that. But as soon as the arrangement was in place, it was accepted as an ancestral tradition, without a clear meaning, but saved from blatant absurdity by the hefty weight of precedent.

It doesn’t stop there, how about the title story, contains a dwarf love triangle, a circus, theatre, a brain that sings, book swaps, an egg laying human flying phoenix and more .

In Aira’s world of shifting realities, nothing is absurd, his standard narrative suddenly explodes with possibilities as you turn each page, even if you do presume something bizarre will happen, you’ll be wrong.

How about the story “A Thousand Drops” where the one thousand drops that make up the Mona Lisa decide on a trip around the world, leaving the board on which it was painted, bare.

What is fiction? Anything you want it to be…

I persist in asserting, precisely, that literature does not require proof of aptitude. In my heart of hearts I never felt called to literature, or saw myself doing the work that such a vocation would entail. If I were to reply sincerely to the question of which professions I would have liked to pursue, had I possessed enough vigor to lead a real life, I’d have to list, in this order: ladies’ hairdresser, ice cream vendor, bird and reptile taxidermist. Why? I don’t know. It’s something deep, but at the same time I can feel it in my skin, in my hands. Sometimes, during the day, I find myself unintentionally gesturing as if I were doing those kinds of work and, in a sort on sensory daydream, experiencing the satisfaction of a job well done and the desire to excel myself; and then, as in a dream within a dream, I begin to hatch vague plans to market my skills, build up my client base, and modernize my premises.

No need to worry about the plot, if Aira paints himself into a corner, simply start painting in a different colour towards a different corner:

This is what literature really is. Now I can see it. Everything that came before, everything that people, including writers, think of as literature, that is to say the laborious search for themes and the exhausting work of giving them shape, all of that collapses like a house of cards, a youthful illusion or an error. Literature begins when you become literature, and if there’s such a thing as a literary vocation, it’s simply the transubstantiation of experience that has taken place in me today. By pure chance. Because of a fortuitous encounter, and the revelation that followed.

I enjoyed the evil shopping trolley that stalks in between the shelves alone at night, Aria proving anything can become fiction. Or how about two men, one with giant hands, the other with giant feet? Appendage’s so large, as large as their bodies, they live, shut away, together:

That was all: the hands of one, the feet of the other. The two men couldn’t have been more different, and yet, in a way, they were the same. It must have been because of the opposition, ot a kind of asymmetrical symmetry, as if putting them together would have made a man with giant hands and feet, or as if they had resulted from the division of a man like that…But putting them together the other way would have produced a perfectly normal man. You had to assemble and disassemble their images mentally, because there was something inherently illusory or inconceivable about those men, something that made it impossible to believe your eyes when faced with what, believe it or not, was real. It must have been their complementary opposition that made them seem alike.

This is not simply crazy experimental literature, it is also covers wide sociological territory, moral and cultural references. In the story “Acts of Charity”, a priest spends his money on building and furnishing a new house for his predecessor instead of helping the poor in his parish, he sees this as a charitable gift as his predecessor will have no wants and can dedicate more of his income to the poor. This collection is worth buying for this moral tale alone.

Or the story of the underappreciated and scorned jazz pianist, Cecil Taylor, which ends this collection. Is Aira the Cecil of literature, underappreciated? As in the jazz form, there are rules for writing too goddamit, C’mon César follow the rules…

A weird and wonderful collection of bizarre tales, stories that have tangents that just keep flying, strap yourself in before you open this one, a wild ride is ahead. Even the cover is brilliant with a hologram of a neon flashing hand, nothing is normal here, don’t expect sanity

In the end, biographies are literature. And what counts in literature is detail, atmosphere, and the right balance between the two. The exact detail, which makes things visible, and an evocative, overall atmosphere, without which the details would be a disjointed inventory. Atmosphere allows the author to work with forces freed of function, and with movements in a space that is independent of location, a space that finally abolishes the difference between the writer and the written: the great manifold tunnel in broad daylight…Atmosphere is the three-dimensional condition of regionalism, and the medium of music. Music doesn’t interrupt time. On the contrary.

Aira writing his own definition of literature, join in the party.

How To Travel Without Seeing – Andrés Neuman (translated by Jeffrey Lawrence)

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Away (again) from the crazy German behemoth and back to Latin America, this time travel fiction/essay/micro fiction. Andrés Neuman’s latest “How To Travel Without Seeing”. Subtitled “Dispatches from the new Latin America”. Let’s let Neuman’s opening paragraph explain:

When the publishing house Alfaguara sent me the exhaustive itinerary of the book tour for their annual novel prize, I was sorry I wouldn’t have more time to spend in each place. But then I thought, isn’t that the point? Aren’t I going to experience, without even planning it, the very essence of contemporary tourism?

The book then takes the form of singular paragraphs as written in Neuman’s Moleskine, as he’s observing events unfold on his journey.

Before I write a book, I think more about tone than about plot, listening for the book’s eventual cadence. In this case I began to imagine a restless journal, told from a tight point of view and made up of a series of compact entries. One observation for each situation. One paragraph for each observation. There would never be a change of topic within a single entry. There would be no pauses. We no longer travel like that. We no longer see that way.

With the structure and restrictions in place Neuman heads off on his whirlwind tour of Latin America, starting with observations from his local airport, then flying to Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago, Asunción, La Paz, Lima, Quito, Caracas, Bogotá, Mexico City, Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, Miami, San Juan, Santo Domingo, Panama, San Salvador, and San José. There is a break, so Neuman can recharge, about half way through, however that’s hardly relevant to the writing style or the content.

Before you start thinking, ‘what a tedious read…I went here…I read this here…I went there!!!”, the format doesn’t take that route whatsoever. Neuman observes the nuances of language in each place, documents the brief chats with taxi drivers, describes the subtle differences in his hotel rooms, relays the current affairs of the day in each nation, is the death of Michael Jackson more prominent in some places rather than others? How does each nation deal with the outbreak of swine flu, what are the differences in immigration forms into each nation, and so on, the list of topics is endless.

We eat at Pescados Capitales – Cardinal Fins – a seafood restaurant. The menu begins with a quote from Joyce: “God made food; the devil the cooks.” I scan the selection of sins: Wrath is a tuna prepared à la Karp; Pride, a risotto à la Bonaparte; Lust, fettuccine with Tuna à la Casanova; Envy, a shrimp pot à la Cain; Impatience, a grilled tuna; Greed, a Rockefeller flounder; Sloth, congressional lobster and calamari. As always, I choose impatience.

Writers themselves, the ones Neuman meets on his travels, do not appear in his journal (there is an odd exception but no spoilers), but he does take us through the depth of local writing as he is in each country. It is not simply the Vargas Llosa’s, Garcia-Marquez’s or Bolaño’s though,, Neuman explores the up and coming writers, or occasionally the ones on the margins;

I read Humberto Ak’abal. Once I heard him live in Madrid (the word “live” has never been more appropriate: Ak’abal sings, rattles, and rains down his verses in a trance that sound like a meeting of birds and rivers), but I had never seen one of his books. His poetry is a conversation with pre_Columbian culture, Western literature, and Buddhist perceptions. In La Danza del espanto I find a Platonic science-fiction idea : “We are born with the memory of the future.” Later I read, “Distance is a key: / it opens or closes.”

Simply to use this book as a future reading list would give you years of material to explore, with Neuman obviously reading his way through each nation, but only presenting a few short gems of sentences in his journal, now the book we hold. Sometimes the references are very short, the poignancy more subtle, reading a nation through a simple sentence;

In Rafael Lugo’s novel Veinte, I read, “A little while ago I ran over three men with my car. It happened in the course of an honest day’s work.”

Taxi drivers are one of the main stay barometers of the local culture, or politics, their fingers on the pulse;

At this point, my routine with drivers who take me to the airport is almost spouse-like. They begin by making guarded observations about the weather. Then they become interested in my impressions of the city. And finally they ask me questions about what it’s like to be a writer. I try to avoid the topic, or at least shorten it, and get them to talk about politics. On this occasion, the Lima driver’s diagnosis is the following: “The first Fujimori administration was very good. He fought against the inflation and terrorism that were destroying us. The bad thing was that he later tried to perpetuate himself in power.”

Distinctly different from the previous works of Neuman’s I have read, The Things We Don’t Do, Talking to Ourselves , Traveller of the Century (all three titles translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia), this is conceptually an intriguing book, and in the skilled hands of Neuman it is highly readable and educational. A little knowledge of Latin American geography and politics would greatly assist, but it is not a prerequisite. In fact as a travel journal some of the observations are more insightful than any Lonely Planet, as you’re hearing about some of the activities not to undertake directly from the local’s mouths.

Restless Books are a publisher that has only recently made it onto my radar, and with a mission for: “readers and writers in search of new destinations, experiences, and perspectives. From Asia to the Americas, from Tehran to Tel Aviv, we deliver stories of discovery, adventure, dislocation, and transformation. Our readers are passionate about other cultures and other languages. Restless is committed to bringing out the best of international literature—fiction, journalism, memoirs, travel writing, illustrated books, and more—that reflects the restlessness of our multiform lives.” They will be a publisher I will visit more frequently, having also read “God is Round” by Juan Villoro (translated by Thomas Bunstead), / from their catalogue.

 

2666 Roberto Bolaño (translated by Natasha Wimmer)

2666Not your usual entry from me to the blogosphere today, more an entry about my journey through a novel that did not make the BBC’s “Top 100 Books You Need to Read Before You Die” nor the Amazon “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime”, nor the Guardian’s “100 greatest novels of all time”, nor the BBC’s “Top 100 best reads” as nominated by the general public, nor the Harvard “top 100”, nor the Board selection nor public selection of the “100 best novels” for the Modern Library, nor the Telegraphs “100 novels everyone should read” (“The Savage Detectives” did make that list), nor the “Essential Man’s Library 100 Must-Read Books”. In fact, checking those lists I became quite bored, the same old tedious books came up again and again and again and for goodness sake Terry Pratchett’s “The Colour of Magic”? Stephen King? JK Rowling? Find me a desert island I’m heading off the grid!!

So based on the general public’s view of what is great, and their instructions of what I should do before I die, I’m dabbling in minor/fringe literature and wasting my time reading through 898 pages.

I’m sorry to let the general public know that I don’t care about their opinions, actually I’m not sorry at all,  as of today lists are banned in this household, I’ll read what I want when I want and if I like it so be it. I know I should have persevered in those medieval literature classes, I should have paid more attention when the ageing professor was flapping on about character development and perfunctory plot, if only I had stayed awake, I could like the same stuff everybody else likes.

But surely Roberto Bolaño’s final work, posthumously published, is revered somewhere, the cover alone is plastered with the words “masterpiece”, “landmark”, and “wondrous”, from learned journals too.

So where do I fit in this landscape of polar opposites? Quite firmly in the “masterpiece” camp.

Simply, for a novel to keep you entertained for close to 900 pages is an achievement in itself. Each and every section has something different to offer, a blend of genres with the standard Bolaño themes of missing writers, café’s, a desert, a mystery but all melded together with a plethora of other genres, a war story, a fairy tale (we have a German forest and a one-eyed mother and a one-legged father), a murder mystery, a love story, gothic horror, art, literature, Russian science fiction…

My contribution to the 2666 debate is insignificant, there are wiki’s dedicated to it, surely people have received doctorates for weighty thesis’ on the themes, heavyweights of world literature have weighed in on its merits, so what’s an old bloke from Australia got to add? Not a lot, hence my review which basically highlights a few sections that hit the mark whilst I was reading. Let’s be realists here, you’re not going to be swayed into reading this novel by my blog post alone, you’re either that way inclined already or there is no way you are going to attack a 900 page novel by a Chilean, who writes about Mexico whilst living in Spain.

For those not acquainted with the book, it is broken into five sections “The Part About The Critics”, “The Part About Amalfitano”, “The Part About Fate”, “The Part about the Crimes” and “The Part About Archimboldi”.  Each section intended to be published as individual works, as dictated by Bolaño shortly before his death, primarily to maximise the income for his estate, his wishes not adhered to and the work was published as a whole instead. Each of the five parts crisscross with another, common characters reappear (and disappear). As the first section draws to a conclusion we find the three main protagonists getting short sharp section each, we find that as the characters are naturally drifting away from each other the writing style becomes singularly focused and the relevance to each other slowly dissipates. A simple example of the many writing styles employed throughout, from observation, to character narration, to description, or stories gleaned through reading journals, there is no single approach here.

In “The Part about the Crimes” section we have three-hundred plus pages of repetition, of horror, of anonymity, a dismissive, journalistic, fact style presentation of the death of hundreds of female victims. In the novel these victims may only be allocated a single paragraph, but that is more than in the media, the style showcasing the enormity of humanity, the irrelevance of a single life:

In September, the body of Ana Muñoz Sanjuán was found behind some trash cans on Calle Javier Paredes, between Colonia Félix Gómez and Colonia Centro. The body was completely naked and showed evidence of strangulation and rape, which would later be confirmed by the medical examiner. After an initial investigation her identity was determined. The victim’s name was Ana Muñoz Sanjuán and she was eighteen. She lived on Calle Maestro Caicedo in Colonia Rubén Darío, where she shared a house with three other women, and she worked as a waitress at El Gran Chaparral, a coffee shop in the historic district of Santa Teresa. Her disappearance hadn’t been reported to the police. The last people she was seen with were three men known as El Mono, El Tamaulipas, and La Vieja. The police tried to find them, but it was as if the earth had swallowed them up. The case was shelved.

This section has been widely debated and even dismissed as “sexist”, “deadening”, lacking “joy” (FFS!). If you want to make your blood curdle (not boil but curdle) then head to Goodreads – why some people would even bother picking a novel like this up persevering and then writing such schlock?

Art is another theme, with characters such as an artist who becomes famous for severing his painting hand and including it in a “self-portrait”, the last ever painting he would paint. Or Guiseppe Arcimoboldo, the Italian painter from the 1500’s who created portraits using images of fruit, vegetables, meats, fish, books. And of course literature, with Bolaño’s usual style of referring to numerous books, poems, and writers or even slightly altering the facts of a real life writer, changing their name slightly and telling the tale of their writing struggle. One of the main protagonists is an elusive famous German writer.

Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wild-flowers.

Political? Of course. With references to Italian, German, French, Spanish, Mexican politics and even Bolaño’s home country of Chile:

And just as the book began with a jab to the jaw (“the Yekmonchi, called Chile, was geographically and politically identical to the Greek state”), the active reader – the reader as envisioned by Cortázar – could begin his reading with a kick to the author’s testicles, viewing him from the start as a straw man, a factotum in the service of some colonel in the intelligence services, or maybe of some general who fancied himself an intellectual, which wouldn’t be so strange either, this being Chile, in fact the reverse would be stranger, in Chile military men behaved like writers, and writers, so as not to be outdone, behaved like military men, and politicians (of every stripe) behaved like writers and like military men, and diplomats behaved like cretinous cherubim, and doctors and lawyers behaved like thieves, and so on ad nauseam, impervious to discouragement.

Full of wonderfully named characters (for example, Lalo Cura is a street kid, who becomes a “guard” and then a policeman, La Locura meaning “lunatic” in Spanish), peppered with inconclusive endings, this is a mirror of a real life, as people come into focus, move away, disappear, not everything has a happy ending, or an ending at all. And of course we have the all-pervading image of death’s shadow creeping across the work every few pages

“I don’t have much time, I have to haul corpses. I don’t have much time, I have to breathe, eat, drink, sleep. I don’t have much time, I have to keep the gears meshing. I don’t have much time. I’m busy living. I don’t have much time, I’m busy dying.”

All up an amazing work, one I thoroughly enjoyed, a book I would recommend to any reader of translated fiction. I’ll leave you with a few of my favourite quotes (ones that were too large for Tweets), and a statement, and commitment, “Tranquillity” by Attila Bartis must be pretty special to have won the 2009 Best Translated Book Award over and above this work, it does sit on my bookshelf so onto the “to be read pile” it goes. Here’s a few snippets from 2666:

Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, the one thing 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.

And

Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach.

And

Despondent, she went back to her house, to the other neighbor woman and the girls, and for a while the four of them experienced what it was like to be in purgatory, a long, helpless wait, a wait that begins and ends in neglect, a very Latin American experience, as it happened, and all too familiar, something that once you thought about it you realized you experienced daily, minus the despair, minus the shadow of death sweeping over the neighborhod like a flock of vultures and casting its pall, upsetting all routines, leaving everything overturned.

The Rest Is Silence – Carla Guelfenbein (translated by Katherine Silver)

Truth rises up from the depths and alters the orderly surface of things.
Last year I planned a full six week holiday/visit to Central America, taking in places such as Mexico and Guatemala and once my work situation changed and the bill came in, the passports were put back on mothballs and a local holiday to Kangaroo Island replaced my ambitious plans. Somehow that planning must have left a seed in my subconscious as I have been reading books from the region all year, twenty-one of the seventy-five posts I have made this year have been  from Central or south America, 28% shows a distinct leaning!!! I still have fifteen or twenty unread books on my “to be read” piles from the region so more will be forthcoming before the end of the year I am sure, there’s even a chance I’ll manage to fit one or two more in before the end of “Women In Translation Month” too.
Back to Chile for my latest read, a work nowhere near as experimental or as challenging as Diamela Eltit’s “Custody of the Eyes”  (translated by Helen Lane & Ronald Christ), more your very readable, approachable style like the last couple of works I have read from Mexico. As with “Ten Women” by Marcela Serrano (translated by Beth Fowler) which was told in ten different voices, or “Umami” by Laia Jufresa (translated by Sophie Hughes) with five narrators, “The Rest Is Silence” is narrated in three difference voices.
The novel opens with the innocent child voice of Tommy, who has been excluded from the other children’s games and is hiding under a table at a Wedding, listening, and in fact recording, adult conversations. By doing so Tommy accidentally learns that his mother did not die from an aneurysm, but rather committed suicide:
If Mama killed herself, it’s because she didn’t love me. I hold my breath and count: Ten, nine, eight, seven…I’m sure I can go back, back to before I hid under this table…six, five…the elephant would say anything to impress her friends…four, three, two…My head is spinning and I feel a thousand stabs in my belly, as if a propeller were turning round and round inside my guts. I can’t stand it anymore. I make a dash for it. I slip and fall. I bang my knees and my hands.
I’ve come to the very end of the garden, where it plunges down into the sea. The light in the sky is white. My cousins are playing ball at the top of the hill, the highest point in the garden. I sit down on the grass. I hug my knees and bury my head in my lap. I stink. I don’t know exactly when my guts exploded. Now I’m really in trouble.
Sometimes I know what it feels like to be unhappy, to wait for night-time so I can hide under the sheets, close my eyes, and escape forever to Kájef’s barge. Is that how Mama felt?
We then immediately move to the female voice of Alma, Tommy’s step mother, slowly the history of this family comes into focus. Finally the voice of Juan, Tommy’s father and Alma’s husband, takes the stage, and the grief over his first wife’s, Solidad’s, death, his young child’s heart condition and his relationship with his current wife become the dominant themes.
This is a story of a fractured family, with one character obsessed by his child’s failing heart, another about “love” and her relationship with her mother, her husband and her own child and step child and the other character wondering why everybody is so uneasy and where is his mum?
The innocent, but honest, voice of the child Tommy not only acts as a nice counterbalance to the two adult voices, who do not communicate directly with each other, but it also raises the tension in the novel. With Tommy talking to his imaginary friend or the maid Yerfa, or reviewing his illicit tape recordings, you know that the crescendo is slowly building, an explosive conclusion is a foregone conclusion.
The day’s first light is blue. The gate is open, and the outside light is on. IT wasn’t a dream. Alma came home with another man. I want to edit out that whole scene, like she does with her movies. Erase it from my memory. But when something new and important gets into my head, there’s no way to get it out of there. No matter how hard I try to forget, there are little monsters who keep reminding me it’s still there. Not long ago, I explained it to Alma and she told me that the little monsters are called your conscience. I asked her if they ever go away and she said they don’t, but we learn to live and just pretend we don’t see them. I wanted to know why I can’t do that and Alma told me that maybe I was one of those very few people who, instead of closing their eyes, confront the monsters and fight against them until they defeat them. That’s why I’ve been thinking that if I can discover ten things about Mama, everything will become clear. Why ten? Because God gave us ten commandments to live by, because we have ten fingers, because ten billion kilometres are one light year, because Yerfa says I should count to ten before I say or do anything that I might later regret.
As each voice reveals a little more of their history, and their experiences, the layers are slowly peeled back and your pre-conceived ideas are put to the test, they are simply illusions, the truth of this family is more complex than you initially thought. As the unsaid, the “silences” referred to in the title, accumulate, you can see the rift that is slowly breaking this family apart.
There are a few events that happen, especially how Tommy discovers his roots, which, to me, are too coincidental, or contrived, however these don’t detract from the overall theme, tension, or plot of the work.
As the opening quote, I chose here, says…”truth rises up from the depths and alters the orderly surface of things”…here we have three truths conveyed by three different voices, their individual truths different to the truths of the others. Confusing? It is not so when you read the book.
A pleasant read, not a challenging work by any means, and one that addresses the themes of family bonds, love, generational influence, addressing the truth and grief. Another fine addition to Women In Translation Month, one for people who are yet to dabble in such books to possibly try as a starter.

By the way Kangaroo Island is stunning, if you want remote, pristine, forests, walks along beaches, then this is a place to visit. It wasn’t my dream Central American trip, that can wait, I’ve been there through my reading choices for months now. 

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