Thursday, January 15, 2009

Roberto Bolaño: "dirty, poorly dressed, and filled with love"

I have just finished reading Roberto Bolaño's sprawling and concentrated, epic and contemporary novel, 2666. Over 1100 pages in the original Spanish, the new translation comes in at just under 900 pages, and is the remarkable swan-song of the Chilean poet, novelist, and provocateur who died in 2003 at age 50. Bolaño's biography and the astonishing output of fiction of his final decade have taken the English-speaking literary world by storm (6 novels, two of them epic in proportion, and a collection of short stories). An anti-establishment poet, jailed (like many of his contemporaries) after Pinochet's coup of 1973 (look it up, kids: on September 11, no less) he is just coming to our attention. The first of these epic novels, "The Savage Detectives" (1998) appeared in English in 2007 and was heralded as one of the best books of the year. It is a wild, 700-page ride chronicling the exploits of two "visceral realist" poets, autobiographical characters based on the author and his friend, comrade & co-conspirator, Mario Santiago. In real life Bolaño & Santiago called themselves "infra-realists," rejected the literary and political establishments, read avant-garde writers of all periods (from French Symbolism to Surrealism to Kafka to Sci-fi) and were the literary revolutionaries of their day, disrupting readings of writers they opposed (both for their literature and their politics). With the posthumous publication of his magnum opus, "2666" (itself one of the notable books of 2008) Bolaño has been established as THE major Latin American writer of his generation, and the most important voice to appear on that scene since the "Boom" (the generation of writers led by Gabriel Garcia Marquez--"Love in the time of Cholera" and "100 Years of Solitude" among other fables known for their "magic realism"--and one of many writers Bolaño & co. rejected).

His style is difficult to succinctly describe. He can be a fast-paced storyteller, writing a page-turner mystery or action tale. His voice is of his time, and its contemporaneousness is a distinguishing feature for so literary a writer. Indeed, the writing is a dense labyrinth of references and allusions, metaphors and allegories, and the more well-read one is, the more one gets the references to writers and artists, the artist's life, and the creative process itself. Yet one needn't be a Renaissance-type reader to get Bolaño: the writing is challenging and entertaining, provocative and ruminative, at times gritty, even raunchy (films of his novels would be rated R), and at turns utterly romantic and poetic. I can't remember having such a range of reactions to a work of fiction--Bolaño's writing spans the gamut of human emotions, responses and pursuits. It is alternatively laugh-out-loud funny, morally exacting, riveting as a thriller, and dense as graduate seminars on literary criticism or philosophy.

"The Savage Detectives" is laid out in three panoramic sections. The first and last relate the story of the two "visceral realist" poets and their exploits in Mexico: literary, political, social, sexual in a distinct Latin American voice that is beholden to the poet's own journey from Chile to Mexico to Spain in the late 20th century--a distinguishing characteristic from the voices of the Boom (more beholden to the 19th century European novel, to oversimplify to the point of insulting all the involved parties). The middle section of the novel is a dizzying collection of short stories told in first-person perspectives from an array of characters, locations and years (Mexico, France, Italy, Austria, and among others, Israel, from 1976 to 1996). The last section gives the novel its name, brings the narrative from the first section to some sort of conclusion, and eerily (if opaquely) foreshadows the "vanishing point" of his final novel, "2666."

That focal point is the Sonora Desert of Mexico, where in the real-world Cuidad Juarez, hundreds of women were murdered in still-unsolved cases (an expose of the crimes can be found on Amnesty International's site). Bolaño calls his border town Santa Teresa (there are allusions to Saints throughout the epic novel), and it is a common denominator in the 5 separate novellas that make up "2666"--a point of no return, a literal and symbolic cemetery. Another common denominator is the novel's mysterious protagonist, the reclusive German writer Benno von Archimboldi. The name itself is a cryptic allusion to the Renaissance Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. And in that connection lies one of the seeds of Bolaño's genius. Natasha Wimmer, translator of both "The Savage Detectives" and "2666" talks of Bolaño's fascination with detectives. The intersection in these stories between the unravelling of mysteries and the life of artists (especially writers), and the author's knack for weaving between these worlds while concurrently entangling them in layers of significance is but one of Bolaño's distinguishing marks. I would like to think he'd be pleased that this reader's curiosity was piqued enough to investigate--like a cultural detective-- references from the novels' characters & settings.

The novel's first section "The Part about the Critics" introduces us to this writer, Archimboldi, who is a cult favorite among the European literary cognoscenti. The French critic, Pelletier, the Spaniard Espinoza, and the Italian Morini share an obsession with both their nobel-prize-hopeful-author, and his unlikely pre-eminent British advocate, Liz Norton. I don't know another writer who manages to weave a love rectangle around a dense tale of that most erotic of fields, literary criticism. Among the other cast of fascinating characters are a self-mutilating artist, critics from Serbia & Swabia, and a Pakistani taxi driver who figures in one of the most topical (& unsettling) episodes in this opening novella. The critics end their search for Archimboldi (so reclusive, none of his critics, biographers, or readers have ever met him) in Mexico where they meet the fascinatingly unbalanced professor Amalfitano. The second "Part about Amalfitano" chronicles this curious character, his estranged wife, their daughter, and the voice(s) inside his head. The third "Part about Fate" follows an African-American journalist as he faces his mother's untimely death, interviews a founder of the Black Panthers, and is then sent to Mexico to report on a boxing match after his Harlem magazine's sports-writer is murdered. While in Santa Teresa, among other adventures, he falls for Rosa Amalfitano, and hears more about the mysterious murders of women that have been happening around the maquiladora factories in this city on the Mexico-US border. The central section, "The Part about the Crimes" at nearly 300 pages alone, is the longest, densest and most difficult section of the novel. It chronicles, with documentary attention to detail, the murders of young women. I found myself asking, on more than one occasion, "what kind of man writes these kinds of gruesome details, page after page, of violent crimes committed against women?" The "Crimes" follow one another in pithy, biographical sketches of the victims, their families, the circumstances and details surrounding them, and the suspects (if any). These episodes are occasionally interrupted with other characters that connect us to a sense of time & place already established, even if the narrative connection is tenuous. One of the obvious answers to the question I posed about this section is the same answer to any question about dredging up the grisly details about any kind of "hate crime"--to tell the truth, to give voice to the silenced ("poetry exists so that the dead may speak" said a more poetic voice than mine), and to open eyes and ears to the ugliness many would just as soon ignore, avoid, or smooth-over. This dynamic is harrowingly paralleled in a central story from the final "Part about Archimboldi." This final novella tells the fascinating story of the making of Archimboldi. Without revealing plot details the curious reader will want to discover unassisted, Archimboldi is a soldier in the Nazi Army. While interned in an allied camp, he hears a first-hand story about one episode of atrocities that contributed to the Holocaust. The connection of the Polish town where those crimes occurred is not explicitly linked to Santa Teresa, where Archimboldi is headed as the novel ends. It doesn't have to be. Nor does it need tout itself as "historical fiction" to resonate so palpably with atrocities from the Holocaust to the "disappeared" of Latin America. This tour de force also works as a meditation on the mysterious makings of an artist, and the stories and lives--real and imagined--such an individual spins into being.

This enthralling, dizzying, disturbing, provocative, fascinating, entertaining, and allegorical tome might be the best epic novel of its time. The title of my essay on my new favorite author comes from one of his poems, titled "Dirty, Poorly Dressed." Featured in the Poetry magazine of last November, it is from his collection, "The Romantic Dogs" and ends with an autobiographical, artistic credo that applies to any and all of his works:

Only fever and poetry provoke visions.
Only love and memory.
Not these paths or these plains.
Not these labyrinths.
Until at last my soul came upon my heart.
It was sick, it's true, but it was alive.

The cryptic title of his last literary testament, 2666, is alluded to in one of Bolaño's earlier novella's "Amulet" as his executor illustrates in 2666's afterword: "more like a cemetery...not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968...but a cemetery in 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."

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