THE TIME TO SETTLE DOWN WILL NEVER COME
(which may or may not be by Breton, according to Roberto Bolaño's newly collected "Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998-2003 entitled Between Parentheses, New Directions, 2011)
The cowardly don’t publish the brave (or why the sunny-side up establishment resists the shadow-dwelling dissidents). This is the pithy Bolaño on the unjust neglect of Rodrigo Lira, and is equally applicable to Nicanor Parra, Pedro Lemedel and Witold Gombrowicz, among others.
Lira, unlike most of his contemporaries, isn’t an involuntary inhabitant of an incomprehensible dream, but a voluntary resident, someone with his eyes open in the middle of a nightmare.
On Pedro Lemedel,
the best poet of my generation…though he doesn’t write poetry:
Lemedel is one of those few who doesn’t speak respectability (the respectability for which Chilean writers would sell their asses) but freedom.
Bolaño picks up where Bernhard left off, in the lonely lineage of the disgruntled genius who dares speak the harsh truth against the grain, takes aim at the establishment from every angle. Bolaño pillories positivism, deflates the rose colored balloons of Hollywood & Hallmark-style romanticism, exposes all forms of reactionary fascism, liberal hypocrisy, cowardice and any perpetuating conformist status quo while maintaining a sense of humor that is requisitely self-deprecating, ironic, playful, and egalitarian in its targets. He joins Diogenes the Cynic, Cervantes & Shakespeare, Swift & Poe, Kafka & Musil.
Prizes, seats (in the Academy), tables, beds, even golden chamber pots belong, of course, to those who are successful or to those who play the part of loyal and obedient clerks.
As Barthelme points out, all art is affirmative by its nature, so Bolaño forges something luminous in the crucible of his wit, from the detritus of his pot shot diagnoses. His wish for his native Chilean literature reads like a manifesto for any of our dissident writers striving to create
something more decent, more radical, more free of chicanery…something reasonable and visionary, an exercise in intelligence, adventure and tolerance.
Though Auden may by too fey and academic for Roberto’s gang of poets, his double-edged “Our father” concludes with the following aspiration.
Inflict thy promises with each
Occasion of distress
So that from our incoherence we may learn
To put our trust in Thee
And brutal fact persuade us
To Adventure, Art and Peace. (from For the Time Being)
The epigraph-as-manifesto above is the concluding phrase of “Eight seconds with Nicanor Parra.” Descriptions like the following whet my appetite to discover another Chilean writer, which is one of the ways the window of our mind stays open.
Parra doesn’t write about purity. He does write about pain and loneliness; about pointless and necessary challenges; about words fated to drift apart just as the tribe is fated to drift apart. Parra writes as if the next day he’ll be electrocuted.
What a startling image of how we might live each day with more vitality, urgency and presence. Rilke may be too precious for Roberto. And I have to make room for the too-quickly departed Christopher Hitchens’ anti-Rilkean Letters to a Young Contrarian somewhere. The angel-communing, Orpheus-echoing poet’s injunction, you must change your life reverberates and harmonizes with Roberto and Hitch.
Where is the Bolaño for the USA today? Christopher Hitchens, whose targets have included progressives & neo-cons alike, Bill Clinton & Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa & God, died at the end of last year, aged 62. Bolaño died in 2003, aged 50.
Contextualizing Parra, Roberto describes an essential voice for any place / time:
He has survived the Chilean left, with its deeply right-wing convictions, and the memory-challenged, neo-Nazi Chilean right. He has survived the neo-Stalinist Latin American left and the Latin American right, now globalized and until recently the silent accomplice of repression and genocide. He has survived the mediocre Latin American professors who swarm to American university campuses and the zombies who stagger through the village of Santiago.
Partisanship is a dead-end and the establishment is deadening. Ars longa…
Returning to the cross-dresser, Pedro Lemedel,
Bolaño piques and arouses us again:
No one goes deeper than Lemedel. And also, as if that weren’t enough, Lemedel is brave. That is, he understands how to open his eyes in the darkness, in those lands where no one dares to tread. How do I know all this? Easy. By reading his books. And after reading them, in exhilaration, in hilarity, in dread, I called him on the phone and we talked for a long time…and then I know that this queer writer, my hero, might be on the side of the losers but that victory, the sad victory offered by Literature (capitalized, as it is here), was surely his. When everyone who has treated him like dirt is lost in the cesspit of nothingness, Pedro Lemedel will still be a star.
From the same notebook of epigrammatic entries containing “Phone conversations with Pedro Lemedel” (collected in Between Parantheses, brilliantly translated by Natasha Wimmer, and the source of this homage to one of my heroes), a closing quote from “Everybody Writes.”
Sometimes the fact that everyone in the world writes can be wonderful, because you find fellow-writers everywhere, and sometimes it can be a drag because illiterate jerks strut around sporting all the defects and none of the virtues of a real writer. As Nicanor Parra said: it might be a good idea to do a little more reading.