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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: roberto bolano (page 1 of 3)

Jose Donoso: The Garden Next Door

This is a late novel by Donoso, and it bears very little resemblance to anything else I’ve read by him. The Obscene Bird of Night and A House in the Country are two of the greatest Latin American novels I have read; hell, two of the greatest novels I have read, period. (Just for comparison, I would easily rate both above Hopscotch, Avalovara, Terra Nostra, Three Trapped Tigers, Paradiso, and anything by Garcia Marquez.) Garden does not even seem to try for such heights: it is realistic and contemporary, two characteristics utterly lacking from the other works. And it is more or less a joke, which is not to say that it’s not brilliant. It’s just that the book is perplexing until the “punchline” of the last chapter, which is one hell of a punchline.

It’s also fascinating for how much it prefigures Roberto Bolano. There is very little similarity between Bolano’s work and Donoso’s earlier novels, but the overlap here is ridiculous. The novel uses a first-person reportage style to describe a sad Chilean expatriate writer living in Spain, a Boom also-ran associating with his obnoxious betters, and so has lots of sniping and sour grapes about the politics of the Boom and the poor standards used to decide who gets anointed as genius. Our narrator Julio is bitter, and so he creates his own, even more exclusive world in the strange, aristocratic house next to his apartment, shutting out even the famous writers:

Ah, the splendor…the old heart-rending nostalgia for impossible times and bodies! The Gatsby-F. Scott Fitzgerald part of a world out of my reach, the party I wasn’t invited to and can only dream about…. Ah, the childish fantasy, the terror at being left out! Left out? Impossible? What about my novel, that fierce weapon, to start forcing the breach? Nuria Monclus, Vargas Llosa, Roa Bastos, Fuentes, Chiriboga, Cortazar…do they have access? No. This is a closed circuit, with its own language and values, an underworld with its different stars. I long to pass through to the other side of the looking glass they live in, where perhaps the air is so thick it stops you from breathing.

It is the fictional Chiriboga to whom Julio has the most animosity, and his rants against him are hilarious. (Does Chiriboga have a real-life analogue? It seems unlikely.) He is also vexed by kingmaker editor Nuria Monclus, who does not seem to have much interest in making him into the next Cortazar. Julio is in agony because he also realizes he does not have it in him to write the great novel that he can conceive of in his mind, the one that would beat out all these other pretenders and give him the fame he thinks he deserves. But as Julio listlessly drags himself to art parties and associates with the local lowlife, his wife descends into alcoholic stupor assisted by the street kid Bijou and her friend Katy, while Julio remains utterly ineffective and sidelined. These are the Pinochet years: the expatriates either seem to delude themselves into their own private world of importance, or they are simply resigned and lost.

And then, after the novel enters the impoverished streets of Spain, the narrative turns into something out of The Sheltering Sky with a detour to Tangiers, and then…well, I can’t give away the punchline. The novel is short enough that I won’t ruin it other than saying that it is a damn near perfect double-punchline, ironic, incisive, and ambivalent all at once, and I had no idea Donoso had it in him to pull something like this off. It gives greater resonance and cruel humor to all that has happened up to that point, and makes it clear that the novel is about more than writing, but the use and abuse of human imagination in losing and finding one’s self. Bravo.

Cesar Aira’s Bad Writing

I don’t usually write about bad books because there’s little point to it, even if they’re popular. (This is why you don’t see me complaining about such important contemporary writers like M_______ or F_______ or L________.) But sometimes I read a book where the badness is illustrative or at least interesting, and Aira’s Ghosts is one of them. Aira writes short books with endorsements from Roberto Bolano. Here is a bit from one of his dips into philosophical musing in Ghosts:

She dreamed of the building on top of which she was sleeping, not as it would be later on, not seeing it finished and inhabited, but as it was now, that is, under construction. It was a calm vision, devoid of troubling portents or inventions, almost a verification of the facts. But there is always a difference between dreams and reality, which becomes clearer as the superficial contrast diminishes. The difference in this case was reflected in the architecture, which is, in itself, a reciprocal mirroring of what has already been built and what will be built eventually. The all-important bridge between the two reflections was provided by a third term: the unbuilt.

The architectural reflections go on, but this is enough. On first glance it may read well, but the longer you look at it, the more incoherent it seems. I do not think this is the fault of translator Chris Andrews, whose translations of Bolano had no such issues. How is a vision a “verification of the facts”? If the superficial contrast between dreams and reality is not the important difference, what is it in the general case, not just for this building? Why does the architecture “mirror” the built and the unbuilt? Why is the mirroring reciprocal? How does one bridge two reflections?

Such elisions would not be capital offenses if they didn’t point to such a sloppiness on Aira’s part, as though he were writing more quickly than I read. (He publishes 2-4 books a year, so perhaps he does.) Skewing concepts toward surrealism can be effective, but with Aira, that impression is merely an unpleasant side effect of a quick, lazy attempt at profundity. The ensuing reflections on “the unbuilt” also fail to cohere for the same reasons: Aira hasn’t spent enough time thinking things through.

Because rigor and precision are not traits that are greatly valued in fiction (not now and probably not ever–even now it is rare to see Musil elevated above Mann and Broch as the sharpest thinker of the three by far), there’s little context in which to criticize Aira’s faults. His flashy collisions of ideas give the book credibility as fine literature, but in the race to write, publish, read, review, and ultimately forget about books, no one seems to have stood back and said that the ideas are inchoate, secondhand, and lacking.

For contrast, I was just reading some stories by Mario Benedetti. They don’t shoot for highbrow philosophy, but the writing is sharp, and the ideas are, as a philosopher said, clear and distinct.

Further Last Thoughts on Roberto Bolano’s 2666

The last section is about Archimboldi, the mysterious writer who the academics were chasing after way back at the start of the book, and who has not been of much significance since then. Bolano explicitly constructs the section as a linear Bildungsroman, or at least as a pastiche of one.

While the section eventually joins with the rest of the book, it is mostly self-sufficient. Archimboldi is born as a naif, grows up and has horrendous wartime experiences, then slowly becomes a writer. The section is solid if not overwhelming (unlike the penultimate section about the murders), and Archimboldi does give Bolano a nice but contrived mouthpiece for discoursing directly on literature. By this point the critics of the first section are long forgotten, and consequently the the contrast of Archimboldi’s life with their facile obsessions does not weigh too heavily on the writing.

I don’t want to say that much about this section other than to point out a movement that takes place toward its end. After Archimboldi has gone through most of the formative experiences of his life and has established himself as a writer, he disappears. His person is still there in the book, but the intimate introspection given into his mind for much of the section is drastically curtailed. He moves from being a subject to an opaque object, i.e., the object studied by the critics. And evidently this is where he is to stay.

What is meant by this movement? Bolano heavily uses reportage in his work, and when introspection is present, as in By Night and Chile and Amulet, it is carefully circumscribed so as not to overreach its place and time. I suspect that there is some criticism of introspection and psychology as being a luxurious distraction, something that draws our eyes away from things like the horrible murders of Santa Teresa. So Bolano’s abandonment/subversion of the Bildungsroman, where rather than coming to fruition, Archimboldi becomes a cipher, is Bolano’s proposal for how individuals turn into history, or how the mask of intimacy is removed so that inexplicable reality is faced. And this is the movement of the novel as a whole: 2666 is about removing the mask.

In conclusion? The novel is a major achievement, but I can’t call it a masterpiece. (Archimboldi’s somewhat incongruous speech beginning on page 785 rails against the hierarchy of masterpieces and minor works, so take the terms with a grain of salt.) Bolano’s intent was too focused on undermining the claims of the integrity and autonomy of literary work for his skills to work best in long form. By Night in Chile and the stories in Last Evenings on Earth strike me as his best work, where the prose does not have to take on too much weight of undermining itself.

Still, self-abnegation at this scale is striking, and it seems to have successfully disoriented a number of his readers, including Ignacio Echevarria, who writes in his somewhat haughty afterword: “Although the five parts can be read independently, they not only share many elements (a subtle web of recurring motifs), they also serve a common end. There is no point attempting to justify the relatively ‘open’ structure that contains them.” Conveniently, he concludes no justification is necessary, alluding to subtle but apparently indisputable evidence without presenting it. This, too, is something that Bolano would not tolerate.

Last thoughts on Bolano’s 2666

I let the book sit in my head for a while before writing about the last two sections because Bolano piles up a lot of fairly disparate material in the last two sections, and it’s not easy on first reading to get a sense of how effective the amalgamation is. After a purposefully soporific first part and a vital second part comes a brief and somewhat distracting interlude involving an American reporter named Fate, followed by the two final mammoth sections that make up most of the book, the first about the murders in Santa Teresa (a thinly veiled depiction of Ciudad Juarez), and the second a fairly complete telling of the life of Archimboldi, the mysterious and unseen writer that the dreary academics were pursuing in the first part.

The fourth section, the one about the murders, is the key to the book. I talked to people who had gotten bogged down in it, and I feared that it would be 300 pages of nonstop horror. It is, but Bolano structures it brilliantly. Multiple plot threads keep things moving and there is a small set of characters who provide the necessary continuity to what would otherwise be a series of dozens of female homicides with little connection to one another but for their misfortunes. We only meet these women in retrospect, and sometimes not even, if the police or reporters fail to discover any information about the bodies. It is implied there are many more murders that aren’t even discovered. Bolano resists any conspiracy theories or even hypotheses to explain the murder rate; some of the murders have obvious situational explanations, though most are seemingly random. The lack of explanation only makes the major point more clear, which is that hardly anyone cares. The local police, most of them corrupt and indifferent, a few of them earnest but impotent, go through their motions, there is occasional interest from outside the town, but over the ten years that are chronicled chronologically, month by month, there is never much change, no revelations, just the steady trickle of mostly unsolved, uninvestigated murders, and the novel’s steady intent to bear witness to them. The continuous series of graphic, clinical descriptions of the murders (most of them with evidence of rape) is horrific, and Bolano provides just enough narrative material to prevent it from becoming numbing. I think maintaining that reader response and interest is the main motive of the section, and by itself it stands as a real achievement.

There is one anomaly, which is Klaus Haas, a German-born American who gets arrested in connection with one of the murders and scapegoated for the rest of them. Fake evidence is concocted and he is imprisoned, though with his money and connections he manages to create a nice life for himself in the prison. The murders continue anyway, though no one seems to care enough to evaluate what this might mean. Still, he remains mysterious and sinister; we only see him from the outside. According to this useful essay, Haas is apparently based on Abdul Latif Sharif, though Sharif had a much nastier history than anything we find out about Haas. Bolano prefers to leave him as an enigma.

The literary influence who comes through in all of this is given by Bolano in the last section: Alfred Döblin. Döblin was the most “naturalistically” inclined of the Germanic modernists of the early 20th century, preferring to downplay the overt philosophy in favor of a panoramic and very immediate depiction of urban society. Bolano tends to bury his pure intellectual force, never talking about books or ideas for too long, and instead accumulating brute details in a similar way to Döblin. Hence, Haas is not a figure like Moosbrugger in The Man Without Qualities, designed to take on great symbolic weight and social context. He’s just a figure of menace but also mystery, much more a force of nature than a force of humanity. He’s meant to confront rather than explain. And he can only be seen from the outside, which is the link he provides to the last section about Archimboldi. Which will have to wait until next time.

More Notes on Roberto Bolano’s 2666

(See part one.)

Even as the second part (about Amalfitano, a peripheral character in the first section) begins, Bolano is already undermining the first section. In the story of pharmacist/teacher/literary enthusiast Amalfitano, citizen of Santa Teresa and general sad sack, Bolano gives a richer, more detailed portrait of life than anything on hand in the first section, and the specters of the four characters and their bedroom athletics quickly disappear in favor of the muddy and depressing history of Amalfitano. His wife, as it turned out, ran away from him and their daughter years ago to pursue a silly Bohemian existence of the sort that the first section bloodlessly presented, and Bolano presents it as being about as meaningful. (When she returns years later, she observes that Amalfitano has changed, and Amalfitano observes that she has not. She mistakenly takes it as a compliment.)

When Amalfitano begins to go a bit insane, the literary knowledge in his head jumbles itself incoherently, attempting to find a meaningful form and failing. He reads a book about a bizarre paranormal conspiracy theory. He dreams.

Failure and inadequacy replace the indulgence of earlier, but Bolano, with full certitude, tries to elevate the material to the level of truth. There’s a hard-boiled attitude to Bolano’s repeated myth-busting and proclaiming of the failures of the literary project and its world. The problem with such an attitude is that its effectiveness lies in the vividness of the portrayal, not with the attitude itself, or else people would be reading E.M. Cioran rather than Dashiell Hammett. And Amalfitano himself, unglamorous and earnest, is what makes it vivid. When the fourth section (about the murders) rolls around and Bolano abandons most of the embellishments for a flat recounting of the facts, he is at his best.

What remains from the first section are not the scholars (who, in a rather obvious move by Bolano, ridiculed Amalfitano for being a literary neophyte), but the small affair that one of the scholars had with a local girl, Rebeca, whom he used and tossed away while nursing his own romantic wound. Now Rebeca is part of the real world and he is not, and her life and the danger she is in, with girls like her being murdered constantly, remain in the air long after the scholars have been forgotten.

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