Posts tagged ‘2666’

October 30, 2013

Bolaño’s Werewolves

by Edwin Turner

In the first chapter of his estimable volume The Book of Were-Wolves (1865), Sabine Baring-Gould outlines his project (emphasis mine):

In the following pages I design to investigate the notices of were-wolves to be found in the ancient writers of classic antiquity, those contained in the Northern Sagas, and, lastly, the numerous details afforded by the mediæval authors. In connection with this I shall give a sketch of modern folklore relating to Lycanthropy.

It will then be seen that under the veil of mythology lies a solid reality, that a floating superstition holds in solution a positive truth.

This I shall show to be an innate craving for blood implanted in certain natures, restrained under ordinary circumstances, but breaking forth occasionally, accompanied with hallucination, leading in most cases to cannibalism. I shall then give instances of persons thus afflicted, who were believed by others, and who believed themselves, to be transformed into beasts, and who, in the paroxysms of their madness, committed numerous murders, and devoured their victims.

The first few chapters of the book recount werewolf mythology in heavily archetypal terms: we’re talking Greek and Norse stuff here, really ancient stories that tap into primal-human-animal-instinct and so forth. Then there are a few chapters on Scandinavian werewolves (and other shapeshifters) that reminded me of William Vollmann’s marvelous saga The Ice-Shirt, a book that treats warriors shifting into bears as totally standard fare. The book then tackles “The Were-Wolf in the Middle Ages,” where Baring-Gould relies heavily on monks who seem to view their subject through the heady lens of supernaturalism. Baring-Gould weaves together these culturally disparate stories, citing a strong backlist of sources, and refraining from pointing out the obvious archetypal flavor that girds these tales.

It’s in Chapter VI, “A Chamber of Horrors,” that mythology and archetype give way to a kind of terrible realism. Perhaps this is simply an effect of records-keeping, of the vague fact that narratives and terms of the early Renaissance seem so much more accessible to us than, say, the terms of Scandinavian saga. In any case, the book takes on a horrific scope: the vagaries of myth give way to dates, names, places, witnessestrialsverdicts. To go back to Baring-Gould’s intro, we see the “solid reality” under “the veil of mythology,” stripped away.

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October 24, 2013

Wherein I Suggest Dracula Is a Character in Roberto Bolaño’s Novel 2666

by Edwin Turner

The Self Seers (Death and Man), Egon Schiele

1. Here’s my thesis:

Dracula is a character in Roberto Bolaño’s dark opus 2666.

Specifically, I’m suggesting that Dracula (like, the Count Dracula) is the unnamed SS officer in “The Part About Archimboldi” who hosts a strange party in a Romanian castle.

2. I’m willing to concede that my idea is probably full of holes and more than a little silly, but I think there’s some textual support for such a claim.

3. I’ve already suggested on this blog that 2666 is full of lycanthropic transformations, and in that earlier essay, I linked werewolves to vampires (using the work of mythologist Sabine Baring-Gould).

I also suggested on this blog that 2666 is a dark ventriloquist act, full of forced possessions and psychic hauntings.

It’s a work of mesmerism and transformation—vampire powers. Dracula showing up is a winking sick joke, a satire.

4. In his post “Castle Dracula” at Infinite Zombies, Daryl L. L. Houston connects the many strands of vampirism that run through 2666, suggesting that “Bolaño is using the vampirism in the story, and Dracula in particular, to tie together some of the threads he’s been unwinding pertaining to insiders and outsiders, parasitism and consumption of people, and a sort of larger parasitism of nations.” Hence Aztec blood rituals, the Holocaust, the murder of helpless, marginalized women in Santa Teresa . . .

5. Okay, so back to that thesis. Let’s start with the first appearance of the unnamed SS officer:

At midmorning they came to a castle. The only people there were three Romanians and an SS officer who was acting as butler and who put them right to work, after serving them a breakfast consisting of a glass of cold milk and a scrap of bread, which some soldiers left untouched in disgust. Everyone, except for four soldiers who stood guard, among them Reiter, whom the SS officer judged ill suited for the task of tidying the castle, left their rifles in the kitchen and set to work sweeping, mopping, dusting lamps, putting clean sheets on the beds.

Fairly banal, right? Also, “midmorning” would entail, y’know, sunlight, which is poison for most vampires. Let me chalk this up to the idea that the SS officer is inside the castle, which is sufficiently gloomy and dark enough to protect him (I’m not going to get into any vampire rules that might spoil my fun, dammit!). In any case, hardly noteworthy. Indeed, the SS officer—a butler commanding house chores—seems hardly a figure of major importance.

6. Next, we get the Romanian castle explicitly identified as “Dracula’s castle” and meet the actors for this milieu:

“And what are you doing here, at Dracula’s castle?” asked the baroness.

“Serving the Reich,” said Reiter, and for the first time he looked at her.

He thought she was stunningly beautiful, much more so than when he had known her. A few steps from them, waiting, was General Entrescu, who couldn’t stop smiling, and the young scholar Popescu, who more than once exclaimed: wonderful, wonderful, yet again the sword of fate severs the head from the hydra of chance.

(I love Popescu’s line here).

7. Our principals soon take a tour of castle and environs, led by the SS officer (boldface emphasis is mine):

Soon they came to a crypt dug out of the rock. An iron gate, with a coat of arms eroded by time, barred the entrance. The SS officer, who behaved as if he owned the castle, took a key out of his pocket and let them in. Then he switched on a flashlight and they all ventured into the crypt, except for Reiter, who remained on guard at the door at the signal of one of the officers.

So Reiter stood there, watching the stone stairs that led down into the dark, and the desolate garden through which they had come, and the towers of the castle like two gray candles on a deserted altar. Then he felt for a cigarette in his jacket, lit it, and gazed at the gray sky, the distant valleys, and thought about the Baroness Von Zumpe’s face as the cigarette ash dropped to the ground and little by little he fell asleep, leaning on the stone wall. Then he dreamed about the inside of the crypt. The stairs led down to an amphitheater only partially illuminated by the SS officer’s flashlight. He dreamed that the visitors were laughing, all except one of the general staff officers, who wept and searched for a place to hide. He dreamed that Hoensch recited a poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach and then spat blood. He dreamed that among them they had agreed to eat the Baroness Von Zumpe.

He woke with a start and almost bolted down the stairs to confirm with his own eyes that nothing he had dreamed was real.

When the visitors returned to the surface, anyone, even the least astute observer, could have seen that they were divided into two groups, those who were pale when they emerged, as if they had glimpsed something momentous down below, and those who appeared with a half smile sketched on their faces, as if they had just been reapprised of the naivete of the human race.

Bolaño concludes the crypt passage by highlighting an essential ambiguity that courses throughout the entire “Castle Dracula” episode, a strange axis of horror/humor, romance/banality. What has been revealed in the crypt? We don’t know, of course, but our surrogate Reiter allows us access to a few visions of what might have happened, including terror and fear and cannibalism. (He employs Hawthorne’s escape hatch too—it was all a dream).

The Knight of Death, Salvador Dali

8. Then, supper time:

That night, during dinner, they talked about the crypt, but they also talked about other things. They talked about death. Hoensch said that death itself was only an illusion under permanent construction, that in reality it didn’t exist. The SS officer said death was a necessity: no one in his right mind, he said, would stand for a world full of turtles or giraffes. Death, he concluded, served a regulatory function.

Clearly it’s easy to link any of the dinnertime comments about death to Dracula, but note that the SS officer’s idea that death is a “regulatory function” is terribly banal, is quite literally regular—this idea contrasts with Hoensch’s more poetic notion that death is an illusion (an illusion that the SS officer, if he is in fact Count Dracula, would realize in a perfectly mundane way that foreclosed the necessity of metaphor).

9. Dinner conversation turns to murder—obviously one of the central themes of 2666:

The SS officer said that murder was an ambiguous, confusing, imprecise, vague, ill-defined word, easily misused.

Again, ambiguity: on one hand, sure, an SS officer’s job was in large part about coordinating and executing mass murder. At the same time, we might appreciate that murder is a vague term if people are one’s lunch.

10. Then conversation turns to culture:

The SS officer said culture was the call of the blood, a call better heard by night than by day, and also, he said, a decoder of fate.

I’m pretty sure that this was the moment I started entertaining the fancy that the SS officer might be Dracula.

11. Popescu the intellectual also seems to reconsider the SS officer:

The intellectual Popescu remained standing, next to the fireplace, observing the SS officer with curiosity.

12. Then, they finally riff on Dracula. Significantly, the SS officer believes that Dracula is a good German (bold emphasis mine):

First they praised the assortment of little cakes and then, without pause, they began to talk about Count Dracula, as if they had been waiting all night for this moment. It wasn’t long before they broke into two factions, those who believed in the count and those who didn’t. Among the latter were the general staff officer, General Entrescu, and the Baroness Von Zumpe. Among the former were Popescu, Hoensch, and the SS officer, though Popescu claimed that Dracula, whose real name was Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, was Romanian, and Hoensch and the SS officer claimed that Dracula was a noble Teuton, who had left Germany accused of an imaginary act of treason or disloyalty and had come to live with some of his loyal retainers in Transylvania a long time before Vlad Tepes was born, and while they didn’t deny Tepes a real historical or Transylvanian existence, they believed that his methods, as revealed by his alias or nickname, had little or nothing to do with the methods of Dracula, who was more of a strangler than an impaler, and sometimes a throat slitter, and whose life abroad, so to speak, had been a constant dizzying spin, a constant abysmal penitence.

The SS officer is the noble Teuton. More importantly, we get language that connects Dracula to the murders in Santa Teresa, most of which are stranglings; we also get the idea that Dracula has had a “life abroad”—one outside of time—a life that might see his spirit inhabit and ventriloquize an industrial city in the north of Mexico. (Or not. I know. Look, I’m just riffing here).

We also get the idea of an abyss (this is the structure of 2666), as well as the idea of Dracula as a penitent of sorts.

So, let us recall that early in “The Part About the Crimes,” detective Juan de Dios Martinez is searching for a criminal dubbed The Penitent who desecrates churches and has committed a few murders in the process. He goes to psychologist Elvira Campos for help:

Sacraphobia is fear or hatred of the sacred, of sacred objects, especially from your own religion, said Elvira Campos. He thought about making a reference to Dracula, who fled crucifixes, but he was afraid the director would laugh at him. And you believe the Penitent suffers from sacraphobia? I’ve given it some thought, and I do. A few days ago he disemboweled a priest and another person, said Juan de Dios Martinez.

This is the first mention of Dracula in 2666, and he’s explicitly likened to the Penitent; later, as we see above, Dracula will be explicitly linked to penitence.

(I’m not suggesting that the Penitent is Dracula traveled to Mexico to piss in churches. What I want to say is that Dracula’s dark spirit ventriloquizes the text of 2666).

(I’m also suggesting, again, that 2666 be read intertextaully).

Riding with Death, Jean-Michel Basquiat

13. Our other principals continue to discuss Dracula, but I won’t belabor that discussion (I’d prefer you, dear reader, to return to the text).

I will summarize though: Popescu sees Dracula in nationalistic terms (“a Romanian patriot” who repels the Turks), and General Entrescu goes on a long rant about heroism and villainy and history, culminating in a lengthy digression on Jesus Christ (recall now that Entrescu will be crucified JC-style by his men).

One aside on the SS officer bears mentioning: we learn that “the fastidious SS officer” is the most sober conversant as he “scarcely wet his lips with alcohol.” (Because he’s a vampire who prefers blood! Muahahahaha!)

14. Fast forward a few hours. Our man Reiter, among fellow soldiers, sets out to explore the secret crannies and passageways of Castle Drac and play voyeur:

The room they came to was empty and cold, as if Dracula had just stepped out. The only thing there was an old mirror that Wilke lifted off the stone wall, uncovering a secret passageway.

Dracula’s spirit leaves the room, creating an opening, behind the ever-symbolic mirror. (Muahahahaha!). (2666: Mirror, tunnels, chambers, labyrinths).

They enter the passageway and come first upon our supposed Dracula, the SS officer:

And so they were able to look into the room of the SS officer, lit by three candles, and they saw the SS officer up, wrapped in a robe, writing something at a table near the fireplace. The expression on his face was forlorn. And although that was all there was to see, Wilke and Reiter patted each other on the back, because only then were they sure they were on the right path. They moved on.

15. Dracula, the epistolary novel. Count Dracula, troubled writer of letters, will author the following scenes, his spirit ventriloquizing the principals all: Here, we find Reiter and his homeboy Wilke, lurking in a secret passage, jerking off to werewolf-cum-Jesus-Christ-figure Gen. Entrescu screwing the lovely Baroness Von Zumpe and reciting poetry (emphasis per usual mine):

Then Wilke came on the wall and mumbled something too, a soldier’s prayer, and soon afterward Reiter came on the wall and bit his lips without saying a word. And then Entrescu got up and they saw, or thought they saw, drops of blood on his penis shiny with semen and vaginal fluid, and then Baroness Von Zumpe asked for a glass of vodka, and then they watched as Entrescu and the baroness stood entwined, each with a glass in hand and an air of distraction, and then Entrescu recited a poem in his tongue, which the baroness didn’t understand but whose musicality she lauded, and then Entrescu closed his eyes and cocked his head as if to listen to something, the music of the spheres, and then he opened his eyes and sat at the table and set the baroness on his cock, erect again (the famous foot-long cock, pride of the Romanian army), and the cries and moans and tears resumed, and as the baroness sank down onto Entrescu’s cock or Entrescu’s cock rose up into the Baroness Von Zumpe, the Romanian general recited a new poem, a poem that he accompanied by waving both arms (the baroness clinging to his neck), a poem that again neither of them understood, except for the word Dracula, which was repeated every four lines, a poem that might have been martial or satirical or metaphysical or marmoreal or even anti-German, but whose rhythm seemed made to order for the occasion, a poem that the young baroness, sitting astride Entrescu’s thighs, celebrated by swaying back and forth, like a little shepherdess gone wild in the vastness of Asia, digging her nails into her lover’s neck, scrubbing the blood that still flowed from her right hand on her lover’s face, smearing the corners of his lips with blood, while Entrescu, undeterred, continued to recite his poem in which the word Dracula sounded every four lines, a poem that was surely satirical, decided Reiter (with infinite joy) as Wilke jerked off again.

I contend that the poem is the work of the SS officer, psychic mesmerist, the poet Dracula, a poem no one in the scene can understand, a dark satire that might also be a war poem or a love poem or an elegy, but definitely a dark satire, written in violence and sex and blood, a poem that ventriloquizes not only Entrescu, phallic delivery device, but also the baroness, and also Reiter and Wilke. And perhaps the reader.

16. Where to go after such a climax? Maybe point out that Dracula infects Reiter and Wilke, of whom we learn:

Some of their battalion comrades dubbed them the vampires.

(But better to return I think to our strange figure, the SS officer).

17. Here, his last appearance:

The next morning the detachment left the castle after the departure of the two carloads of guests. Only the SS officer remained behind while they swept, washed, and tidied everything. Then, when the officer was fully satisfied with their efforts, he ordered them off and the detachment climbed into the truck and headed back down to the plain. Only the SS officer’s car—with no driver, which was odd—was left at the castle. As they drove away, Reiter saw the officer: he had climbed up to the battlements and was watching the detachment leave, craning his neck, rising up on tiptoe, until the castle, on the one hand, and the truck, on the other, disappeared from view.

Dracula stays in Dracula’s castle; his spirit, his seed, his blood seeps out.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept ran a version of this essay in September of 2012; I'm running it again in the healthy, evil spirit of Halloween]

June 3, 2013

“All Our Figments and Alogisms” | The Kafkaesque, Borgesian, Phildickian Worlds of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

by Edwin Turner

20130602-142757.jpg

At some point I acquired the notion, probably a fair one, that comparing writers to other writers is critically lazy. At the same time, writers write after other writers, through other writers, to other writers, against other writers, in other writers, out of other writers, on top of other writers, and so on. Literature is archaeological. And if I’m honest, a lot of the time it’s the comparison to another writer that prompts my interest in a writer I haven’t read.

Let me get to what I was getting at:

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: Russian, 1887-1950: His collection Memories of the Future: Seven stories in spirited translation by Joanne Turnbull: Available in English from the good folks at NYRB: It’s the sort of book that deserves its own book. Etc.

In lieu of writing that book, quite beyond my power, I’ll compare Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky to some other writers in the hope of piquing your interest in this neglected master.

***

KAFKAESQUE

You knew I would start here.

Four years senior to Krzhizhanovsky, Mr. Kafka of Prague was our Russian writer’s contemporary (if we want to use our postmodern imaginations). I was tempted to simply type “K” for Kafka, but they are both K. Kafkaesque is invoked frequently enough to potentially sap the adjective’s potency, but consider that the same nebulous yet very real forces that shaped (warped?) Kafka (which, in turn Kafka shaped (warped) in his own writing) shaped (warped?) Krzhizhanovsky. Unseen, displaced authority, alienation, and absurdity, yes, but also humor, the line of hysteria, the constraining order that induces madness. The nightmare of modernity.

From “The Branch Line”:

“Speaking in more modern terms,” the fine print went on, “our nightmares, weighing as they do on the brain, gradually form a sort of moral ceiling that is always about to come crashing down on one’s head: some of our customer’s call this ‘world history.’ But that’s not the point. The point is the durability, unwakeability, high depressiveness, and wide availability of our nightmares: mass-market products good for all eras and classes, nighttime and daytime, moonlight and sunlight, closed eyes and open.”

BULGAKOVIAN

If Kafka was Krzhizhanovsky’s psychical contemporary, Mikhail Bulgakov (Russian, b. 1891) is his geographic one. Both men were writing through (and to some extent, against) the Russian Revolution, rendering the crowded buzz of new Moscow in manic strokes. Humming under the surface of Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita is the threat of disappearance, the loss of personal space, but also absurd humor. These themes run through the seven stories collected in Memories of the Future, but perhaps evince most strongly in “Quadraturin” (maybe Krzhizhanovsky’s most famous story), where furtive bachelor Sutulin obtains a samizdat device that expands his tiny apartment—ad infinitum into limitless space and terror.

From “Quadraturin”:

In their sleep and in their fear, the occupants of the quadratures adjacent to citizen Sutulin’s eighty-six square feet couldn’t make head or tail of the timbre and intonation of the cry that woke them in teh middle of the night and compelled them to rush to the threshold of the Sutulin cell: for a man who is lost and dying in the wilderness to cry out is both futile and belated: but if even so—against all sense—he does cry out, then, most likely, thus.

BORGESIAN

So much of Kafkaesque applies to Borgesian, and perhaps I’ve quickly run up against one of the central problems of comparison: The originary: The source of the source: Primary (etc.). No matter. Krzhizhanovsky’s modernism is Borgesian: Tale-telling: nested tales, circular tales, winding tales, labyrinths and mirrors, trap doors and hidden texts (motives), narrators who tell us a story as if it’s just a distraction in the middle of some bigger story we won’t get to hear—yet. Could there be a more Borgesian title than “The Bookmark,” a tale loaded with hundreds of tales. (Okay, maybe not hundreds, but still loaded with that Scheherazade programming, that infinite looping…).

From “Someone Else’s Theme”:

And an invented person makes the greatest impression, naturally, on the seemingly not-invented, real person who, upon finding his reflection in a book, feels replaced and redoubled. This person cannot forgive his feeling of double insult: here I, a real, not-invented person, shall go to my grave and nothingness in ten or twenty years, whereas this fabricated, not-real “almost I” shall go on living and living as though it were the most natural thing in the world; more unforgivable still is the awareness that someone, some author, made you up like an arithmetic problem, what’s more he figured you out, arrived at an answer over which you struggled your entire life in vain, he divined your existence without ever having met you, he penned his way into your innermost thoughts, which you tried so hard to hide from yourself. One must refute the author and vindicate oneself. At once!

HAWTHORNESQUE

It might be easy to go to Poe for a comparison: He’s famous for his tales, and Krzhizhanovsky is a tale-master—whereas Hawthorne’s estimable short stories are often overlooked because he happened to write what may or may not be The Great American Novel. But Hawthorne’s dark romantic imagination, his weird sci-fi streak, and his wry sense of humor offer a better frame of reference for Krzhizhanovsky’s contours. Krzhizhanovsky is also fond of Hawthorne’s closing gambit, the “It-was-all-a-dream-or-hey-was-it?” maneuver. Both writers practice allegorical destabilization in their deeply darkly ironic parables. Soul detectives.

From “The Branch Line”:

He knew from experience that dreams, like the thieves in the parable, come unseen, they slip under foreheads, trying to avoid the eyes, and only there—under the cranial roof, safe and sound, sprawled the brain—do they throw off their invisibility.

DOSTOEVSKIAN

Krzhizhanovsky directly invokes several Russian writers by name, including Gogol and Turgenev, but Fyodor Dostoevsky seems to pop up the most. This makes sense. Dostoevsky is Krzhizhanovsky’s parent-writer. Or maybe Raskolnikov is. Or maybe the Underground Man is. Like Dostoevsky, Krzhizhanovsky crafts alienated loners and thrusts them into absurd moral quandaries.

From “Red Snow”:

Resignation to one’s fate takes practice. Like any art. Or so citizen Shushashin maintains. He begins every day—after putting on his shoes and washing his face, before throwing on his jacket—with an exercise. Again, the expression is his. This expression works like this: he walks over to the wall, puts his back up against it and stands there in an attitude of utter resignation. For a minute or two. And that’s all. The exercise is over. He can begin to live.

O’BRIENESQUE

Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman channels Crime and Punishment via the dream machines of Hawthorne, Wells, Verne et al—all elements we might find in Memories of the Future. And of course O’Brien is Kafkaesque, Borgesian, etc. The stories-within-stories, the fake philosophers, the hefty strawmen, the dreams, the nightmares…Must I draw this out?

From “The Bookmark”:

‘I remember I tossed all night, my elbows bumping against the hard theme that layers our entire life. My pen, as soon as I dipped it in ink, wrote Animal Disputans. That was the title. Next came…Perhaps this doesn’t interest you?’

‘Please go on.’

‘I took the title and the first verses of my song, if you will, from an old and long-forgotten book by the Danish humorist Holberg. This book—Nicolai Klimmi Her subterraneum, I believe it’s called—describes the fantastic adventures of a traveler who winds up, I can’t remember how, inside the Earth. The traveler is astonished to find that inside the planet, as inside a hermetically sealed vessel, lives a race with its own hermetically sealed State system, way of life, culture, everything that is customary in such cases. Over time the life of these undergroundlings—once rife with wars and conflict, cut off, hidden away beneath miles of crust—sorted itself out and settled into a harmonious routine. The problems of the hermetically sealed were all solved, everything ironed out and agreed upon. But in memory of those long-ago wars, Nicolai Klimmi tells us—no, please listen, it’s rather touching—the land’s noblest and richest magnates raised animal disputans. There isn’t anything to argue about in an isolated country where everything has been determined and predetermined in saecula saculorum but these disputants were trained for the purpose, fed a special diet that irritated the liver and sublingual nerve, then pitted against one another and forced to argue till they were hoarse and foaming at the mouth—to unanimous laughter and merry halloos from the lovers of old traditions…

PHILDICKIAN

I think we can all agree that Memories of the Future could be the title of a Philip K. Dick story, right? The story of the same title (the longest in the collection, a novella, really) strongly recalls Dick, channeling him through time travel, and Phildickian themes course throughout the book: Paranoia, identity crisis, cynicism, the realization that the waking life might conceal alternative consciousness…

From “The Branch Line”:

Haven’t we managed to unify dreams? Haven’t we hoodwinked humanity with that sweet million-brain dream of brotherhood, a united dream about unity? Flags the color of poppy petals flutter above the crowds. Reality is fighting back. But its blazing suns don’t frighten the newly ascendant underground. Sleepers’ eyes are shielded by eyelids. Yesterday’s utopia has become today’s science. We’ll break the backs of facts. We’ll rout their status quos: you’ll see those status quos turn tail and run. If an ‘I’ should rise up against our ‘we’, we’ll hurl him down a well of nightmares headfirst. We’ll hide the sun behind black blots, we’ll plunge the whole world into a deep, static slumber. We’ll even put the idea of waking to sleep, and if it resists, we’ll gouge out its eyes.

BOLAÑOESQUE

While reading Memories of the Future, I sometimes pretended that Krzhizhanovsky (and his doppelganger writer-protagonists) were versions of Boris Abramovich Ansky, the dissident Russian writer who appears (via diaries and fragments) in “The Part About Archimboldi” in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Sure, I brought some of that metatextual layering with me, but Krzhizhanovsky’s Borgesian stories repeatedly destabilize the notion of an authoritative narrator or storyteller, like matryoshka dolls that open into eggs that open into dreams and nightmares. Like Bolaño’s work, Krzhizhanovsky’s writing skates across an abyss of horror. The Krzhizhanovskian milieu shares psychic space with the Bolañoverse—in particular, both writers seem to love to walk their characters through graveyards.

From “The Thirteenth Category of Reason”:

That’s how it always is: first you call on your friends, and then—when the hearses have delivered them—on their graves. Now my turn too has come to exchange people for graves. The cemetery where I go more and more often lies behind high crenelated walls and looks from the outside like a fortress: only when the fighters have all fallen will the gates open. You walk in—first past a chaos of crosses, then past the inner wall—to the new crossless cemetery: gone are the monumental statics of the old human sepulchers, the massive family vaults and stone angels with their penguin-like wings grazing the earth: red metal starts on thin wire stems fidget nervously in the wind.

***

By way of conclusion, I’ll submit that Krzhizhanovsky is just as notable for his divergences from the writers I’ve listed above as he is for any similarities. There are also plenty of names that could be added to the list above, and readers of Krzhizhanovsky will likely protest that I’ve failed to underscore the political underpinnings of his writing (for the record, the seven stories in Memories of the Future clearly respond to (and in many ways protest and satirize) early Soviet politics and lifestyle, but Krzhizhanovsky’s approach is coded, oblique, and in this sense, timeless).

I’ll end with with another citation from “The Thirteenth Category of Reason,” a story that plays with Kant’s twelve categories of conception. Krzhizhanovsky’s work is always dialogic; he’s always performing voices, but occasionally one slips through that I take to be a more direct version of the author’s own. Here, Krzhizhanovsky offers a possible thesis statement for his project—his desire to write outside the confines of reason, his desire to find meaning in “all our figments and alogisms”:

For you see, all those who are off (I won’t look for another definition) or, rather, out of their heads, evicted, so to speak, from all twelve Kantian categories of reason, must naturally seek refuge in a thirteenth category, a sort of logical lean-to slouched against objective obligatory thinking. Given that the thirteenth category of reason is where we entertain, in essence, all our figments and alogisms, the old gravedigger may be useful to my projected cycle of “fantastic” stories.

That projected cycle of fantastic stories is Memories of the Future.

November 15, 2012

Passage on Courbet’s Lost Painting The Return from the Conference (Roberto Bolaño’s 2666)

by Biblioklept

It’s in Ansky’s notebook, long before he sees a painting by the man, that Reiter first reads about the Italian painter Arcimboldo, Giuseppe or Joseph or Josepho or Josephus Arcimboldo or Arcimboldi or Arcimboldus (1527-1593). When I’m sad or bored, writes Ansky, although it’s hard to imagine Ansky bored, busy fleeing twenty-four hours a day, I think about Giuseppe Arcimboldo and the sadness and tedium vanish as if on a spring morning, by a swamp, morning’s imperceptible advance clearing away the mists that rise from the shores, the reed beds. There are also notes on Courbet, whom Ansky considers the paradigm of the revolutionary artist. He mocks, for example, the Manichaean conception that some Soviet painters have of Courbet. He tries to imagine the Courbet painting The Return from the Conference, which depicts a gathering of drunken priests and ecclesiastical dignitaries and was rejected by the official Salon and the Salon des Refuses, which in Ansky’s judgment casts the reject-rejectors into ignominy. The fate of The Return from the Conference strikes him as not only inevitable and poetic but also telling: a rich Catholic buys the painting and no sooner does he get home than he proceeds to burn it.

The ashes of The Return from the Conference float not only over Paris, reads Reiter with tears in his eyes, tears that sting and rouse him, but also over Moscow and Rome and Berlin. Ansky talks about The Artist’s Studio. He talks about the figure of Baudelaire that appears on the edge of the painting, reading, and stands for Poetry. He talks about Courbet’s friendship with Baudelaire, Daumier, Jules Valles. He talks about the friendship of Courbet (the Artist) with Proudhon (the Politician) and likens the sensible opinions of the latter to those of a pheasant. On the subject of art, a politician with power is like a colossal pheasant, able to crush mountains with little hops, whereas a politician without power is only like a village priest, an ordinary-sized pheasant.

He imagines Courbet in the Revolution of 1848 and then he sees him in the Paris Commune, where the vast majority of artists and men of letters shone (literally) for their absence. Not Courbet. Courbet takes an active role and after the repression he is arrested and locked up in Sainte-Pelagie, where he occupies himself drawing still lifes. One of the charges the state brings against him is that of having incited the multitudes to destroy the column in the Place Vendome, although Ansky isn’t quite clear on this point or his memory fails him or he relies on hearsay. The monument to Napoleon in the Place Vendome, the monument plain and simple in the Place Vendome, the Vendome column in the Place Vendome.

In any case, the public office that Courbet held after the fall of Napoleon III made him responsible for the protection of the monuments of Paris, which in view of later events must certainly be taken as a monumental joke. France, however, wasn’t in the mood for jokes and all the artist’s assets were seized. Courbet left for Switzerland, where he died in 1877 at the age of fifty-eight. Then come some lines in Yiddish that Reiter can’t quite decipher. He supposes them to be expressions of pain or bitterness. Then Ansky goes off on a tangent about some Courbet paintings. The one called Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet suggests to him the beginning of a film, one that gets off to a bucolic start and gradually lapses into horror. The Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine recalls spies or shipwrecked sailors enjoying a brief rest, and Ansky goes on to say: spies from another planet, and also: bodies that wear out more quickly than other bodies, and also: disease, the transmission of disease, and also: the willingness to stand firm, and also: where does one learn to stand firm? in what kind of school or university? And also: factories, desolate streets, brothels, prisons, and also: the Unknown University, and also: meanwhile the Seine flows and flows and flows, and those ghastly faces of whores contain more beauty than the loveliest lady or vision sprung from the brush of Ingres or Delacroix.

From Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666.

September 11, 2012

Wherein I Suggest Dracula Is a Character in Roberto Bolaño’s Novel 2666

by Edwin Turner

The Self Seers (Death and Man), Egon Schiele

1. Here’s my thesis:

Dracula is a character in Roberto Bolaño’s dark opus 2666.

Specifically, I’m suggesting that Dracula (like, the Count Dracula) is the unnamed SS officer in “The Part About Archimboldi” who hosts a strange party in a Romanian castle.

2. I’m willing to concede that my idea is probably full of holes and more than a little silly, but I think there’s some textual support for such a claim.

3. I’ve already suggested on this blog that 2666 is full of lycanthropic transformations, and in that earlier essay, I linked werewolves to vampires (using the work of mythologist Sabine Baring-Gould).

I also suggested on this blog that 2666 is a dark ventriloquist act, full of forced possessions and psychic hauntings.

It’s a work of mesmerism and transformation—vampire powers. Dracula showing up is a winking sick joke, a satire.

4. In his post “Castle Dracula” at Infinite Zombies, Daryl L. L. Houston connects the many strands of vampirism that run through 2666, suggesting that “Bolaño is using the vampirism in the story, and Dracula in particular, to tie together some of the threads he’s been unwinding pertaining to insiders and outsiders, parasitism and consumption of people, and a sort of larger parasitism of nations.” Hence Aztec blood rituals, the Holocaust, the murder of helpless, marginalized women in Santa Teresa . . .

5. Okay, so back to that thesis. Let’s start with the first appearance of the unnamed SS officer:

At midmorning they came to a castle. The only people there were three Romanians and an SS officer who was acting as butler and who put them right to work, after serving them a breakfast consisting of a glass of cold milk and a scrap of bread, which some soldiers left untouched in disgust. Everyone, except for four soldiers who stood guard, among them Reiter, whom the SS officer judged ill suited for the task of tidying the castle, left their rifles in the kitchen and set to work sweeping, mopping, dusting lamps, putting clean sheets on the beds.

Fairly banal, right? Also, “midmorning” would entail, y’know, sunlight, which is poison for most vampires. Let me chalk this up to the idea that the SS officer is inside the castle, which is sufficiently gloomy and dark enough to protect him (I’m not going to get into any vampire rules that might spoil my fun, dammit!). In any case, hardly noteworthy. Indeed, the SS officer—a butler commanding house chores—seems hardly a figure of major importance.

6. Next, we get the Romanian castle explicitly identified as “Dracula’s castle” and meet the actors for this milieu:

“And what are you doing here, at Dracula’s castle?” asked the baroness.

“Serving the Reich,” said Reiter, and for the first time he looked at her.

He thought she was stunningly beautiful, much more so than when he had known her. A few steps from them, waiting, was General Entrescu, who couldn’t stop smiling, and the young scholar Popescu, who more than once exclaimed: wonderful, wonderful, yet again the sword of fate severs the head from the hydra of chance.

(I love Popescu’s line here).

7. Our principals soon take a tour of castle and environs, led by the SS officer (boldface emphasis is mine):

Soon they came to a crypt dug out of the rock. An iron gate, with a coat of arms eroded by time, barred the entrance. The SS officer, who behaved as if he owned the castle, took a key out of his pocket and let them in. Then he switched on a flashlight and they all ventured into the crypt, except for Reiter, who remained on guard at the door at the signal of one of the officers.

So Reiter stood there, watching the stone stairs that led down into the dark, and the desolate garden through which they had come, and the towers of the castle like two gray candles on a deserted altar. Then he felt for a cigarette in his jacket, lit it, and gazed at the gray sky, the distant valleys, and thought about the Baroness Von Zumpe’s face as the cigarette ash dropped to the ground and little by little he fell asleep, leaning on the stone wall. Then he dreamed about the inside of the crypt. The stairs led down to an amphitheater only partially illuminated by the SS officer’s flashlight. He dreamed that the visitors were laughing, all except one of the general staff officers, who wept and searched for a place to hide. He dreamed that Hoensch recited a poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach and then spat blood. He dreamed that among them they had agreed to eat the Baroness Von Zumpe.

He woke with a start and almost bolted down the stairs to confirm with his own eyes that nothing he had dreamed was real.

When the visitors returned to the surface, anyone, even the least astute observer, could have seen that they were divided into two groups, those who were pale when they emerged, as if they had glimpsed something momentous down below, and those who appeared with a half smile sketched on their faces, as if they had just been reapprised of the naivete of the human race.

Bolaño concludes the crypt passage by highlighting an essential ambiguity that courses throughout the entire “Castle Dracula” episode, a strange axis of horror/humor, romance/banality. What has been revealed in the crypt? We don’t know, of course, but our surrogate Reiter allows us access to a few visions of what might have happened, including terror and fear and cannibalism. (He employs Hawthorne’s escape hatch too—it was all a dream).

The Knight of Death, Salvador Dali

8. Then, supper time:

That night, during dinner, they talked about the crypt, but they also talked about other things. They talked about death. Hoensch said that death itself was only an illusion under permanent construction, that in reality it didn’t exist. The SS officer said death was a necessity: no one in his right mind, he said, would stand for a world full of turtles or giraffes. Death, he concluded, served a regulatory function.

Clearly it’s easy to link any of the dinnertime comments about death to Dracula, but note that the SS officer’s idea that death is a “regulatory function” is terribly banal, is quite literally regular—this idea contrasts with Hoensch’s more poetic notion that death is an illusion (an illusion that the SS officer, if he is in fact Count Dracula, would realize in a perfectly mundane way that foreclosed the necessity of metaphor).

9. Dinner conversation turns to murder—obviously one of the central themes of 2666:

The SS officer said that murder was an ambiguous, confusing, imprecise, vague, ill-defined word, easily misused.

Again, ambiguity: on one hand, sure, an SS officer’s job was in large part about coordinating and executing mass murder. At the same time, we might appreciate that murder is a vague term if people are one’s lunch.

10. Then conversation turns to culture:

The SS officer said culture was the call of the blood, a call better heard by night than by day, and also, he said, a decoder of fate.

I’m pretty sure that this was the moment I started entertaining the fancy that the SS officer might be Dracula.

11. Popescu the intellectual also seems to reconsider the SS officer:

The intellectual Popescu remained standing, next to the fireplace, observing the SS officer with curiosity.

12. Then, they finally riff on Dracula. Significantly, the SS officer believes that Dracula is a good German (bold emphasis mine):

First they praised the assortment of little cakes and then, without pause, they began to talk about Count Dracula, as if they had been waiting all night for this moment. It wasn’t long before they broke into two factions, those who believed in the count and those who didn’t. Among the latter were the general staff officer, General Entrescu, and the Baroness Von Zumpe. Among the former were Popescu, Hoensch, and the SS officer, though Popescu claimed that Dracula, whose real name was Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, was Romanian, and Hoensch and the SS officer claimed that Dracula was a noble Teuton, who had left Germany accused of an imaginary act of treason or disloyalty and had come to live with some of his loyal retainers in Transylvania a long time before Vlad Tepes was born, and while they didn’t deny Tepes a real historical or Transylvanian existence, they believed that his methods, as revealed by his alias or nickname, had little or nothing to do with the methods of Dracula, who was more of a strangler than an impaler, and sometimes a throat slitter, and whose life abroad, so to speak, had been a constant dizzying spin, a constant abysmal penitence.

The SS officer is the noble Teuton. More importantly, we get language that connects Dracula to the murders in Santa Teresa, most of which are stranglings; we also get the idea that Dracula has had a “life abroad”—one outside of time—a life that might see his spirit inhabit and ventriloquize an industrial city in the north of Mexico. (Or not. I know. Look, I’m just riffing here).

We also get the idea of an abyss (this is the structure of 2666), as well as the idea of Dracula as a penitent of sorts.

So, let us recall that early in “The Part About the Crimes,” detective Juan de Dios Martinez is searching for a criminal dubbed The Penitent who desecrates churches and has committed a few murders in the process. He goes to psychologist Elvira Campos for help:

Sacraphobia is fear or hatred of the sacred, of sacred objects, especially from your own religion, said Elvira Campos. He thought about making a reference to Dracula, who fled crucifixes, but he was afraid the director would laugh at him. And you believe the Penitent suffers from sacraphobia? I’ve given it some thought, and I do. A few days ago he disemboweled a priest and another person, said Juan de Dios Martinez.

This is the first mention of Dracula in 2666, and he’s explicitly likened to the Penitent; later, as we see above, Dracula will be explicitly linked to penitence.

(I’m not suggesting that the Penitent is Dracula traveled to Mexico to piss in churches. What I want to say is that Dracula’s dark spirit ventriloquizes the text of 2666).

(I’m also suggesting, again, that 2666 be read intertextaully).

Riding with Death, Jean-Michel Basquiat

13. Our other principals continue to discuss Dracula, but I won’t belabor that discussion (I’d prefer you, dear reader, to return to the text).

I will summarize though: Popescu sees Dracula in nationalistic terms (“a Romanian patriot” who repels the Turks), and General Entrescu goes on a long rant about heroism and villainy and history, culminating in a lengthy digression on Jesus Christ (recall now that Entrescu will be crucified JC-style by his men).

One aside on the SS officer bears mentioning: we learn that “the fastidious SS officer” is the most sober conversant as he “scarcely wet his lips with alcohol.” (Because he’s a vampire who prefers blood! Muahahahaha!)

14. Fast forward a few hours. Our man Reiter, among fellow soldiers, sets out to explore the secret crannies and passageways of Castle Drac and play voyeur:

The room they came to was empty and cold, as if Dracula had just stepped out. The only thing there was an old mirror that Wilke lifted off the stone wall, uncovering a secret passageway.

Dracula’s spirit leaves the room, creating an opening, behind the ever-symbolic mirror. (Muahahahaha!). (2666: Mirror, tunnels, chambers, labyrinths).

They enter the passageway and come first upon our supposed Dracula, the SS officer:

And so they were able to look into the room of the SS officer, lit by three candles, and they saw the SS officer up, wrapped in a robe, writing something at a table near the fireplace. The expression on his face was forlorn. And although that was all there was to see, Wilke and Reiter patted each other on the back, because only then were they sure they were on the right path. They moved on.

15. Dracula, the epistolary novel. Count Dracula, troubled writer of letters, will author the following scenes, his spirit ventriloquizing the principals all: Here, we find Reiter and his homeboy Wilke, lurking in a secret passage, jerking off to werewolf-cum-Jesus-Christ-figure Gen. Entrescu screwing the lovely Baroness Von Zumpe and reciting poetry (emphasis per usual mine):

Then Wilke came on the wall and mumbled something too, a soldier’s prayer, and soon afterward Reiter came on the wall and bit his lips without saying a word. And then Entrescu got up and they saw, or thought they saw, drops of blood on his penis shiny with semen and vaginal fluid, and then Baroness Von Zumpe asked for a glass of vodka, and then they watched as Entrescu and the baroness stood entwined, each with a glass in hand and an air of distraction, and then Entrescu recited a poem in his tongue, which the baroness didn’t understand but whose musicality she lauded, and then Entrescu closed his eyes and cocked his head as if to listen to something, the music of the spheres, and then he opened his eyes and sat at the table and set the baroness on his cock, erect again (the famous foot-long cock, pride of the Romanian army), and the cries and moans and tears resumed, and as the baroness sank down onto Entrescu’s cock or Entrescu’s cock rose up into the Baroness Von Zumpe, the Romanian general recited a new poem, a poem that he accompanied by waving both arms (the baroness clinging to his neck), a poem that again neither of them understood, except for the word Dracula, which was repeated every four lines, a poem that might have been martial or satirical or metaphysical or marmoreal or even anti-German, but whose rhythm seemed made to order for the occasion, a poem that the young baroness, sitting astride Entrescu’s thighs, celebrated by swaying back and forth, like a little shepherdess gone wild in the vastness of Asia, digging her nails into her lover’s neck, scrubbing the blood that still flowed from her right hand on her lover’s face, smearing the corners of his lips with blood, while Entrescu, undeterred, continued to recite his poem in which the word Dracula sounded every four lines, a poem that was surely satirical, decided Reiter (with infinite joy) as Wilke jerked off again.

I contend that the poem is the work of the SS officer, psychic mesmerist, the poet Dracula, a poem no one in the scene can understand, a dark satire that might also be a war poem or a love poem or an elegy, but definitely a dark satire, written in violence and sex and blood, a poem that ventriloquizes not only Entrescu, phallic delivery device, but also the baroness, and also Reiter and Wilke. And perhaps the reader.

16. Where to go after such a climax? Maybe point out that Dracula infects Reiter and Wilke, of whom we learn:

Some of their battalion comrades dubbed them the vampires.

(But better to return I think to our strange figure, the SS officer).

17. Here, his last appearance:

The next morning the detachment left the castle after the departure of the two carloads of guests. Only the SS officer remained behind while they swept, washed, and tidied everything. Then, when the officer was fully satisfied with their efforts, he ordered them off and the detachment climbed into the truck and headed back down to the plain. Only the SS officer’s car—with no driver, which was odd—was left at the castle. As they drove away, Reiter saw the officer: he had climbed up to the battlements and was watching the detachment leave, craning his neck, rising up on tiptoe, until the castle, on the one hand, and the truck, on the other, disappeared from view.

Dracula stays in Dracula’s castle; his spirit, his seed, his blood seeps out.

August 20, 2012

“What’s Outside the Window?” (Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives Revisited)

by Edwin Turner

Untitled (Desert Landscape) by Salvador Dali

Biblioklept has already published two reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s big novel The Savage Detectives.

In the first review, from 2008, I suggested that the book was technically impressive but ultimately “unmoving.” In the second review, from 2010, Dave Cianci argued that my first review “was unfair and premature.”

I tend to agree with Cianci’s criticism of my early review, although in my defense I struggled with a first reading of The Savage Detectives because I was ignorant of the history of Latin America, Central America, and Mexico, a history that provides much of the context for the Bolañoverse. I was like the auditor in The Savage Detectives who listened as Ulises Lima

reeled off a story that I had trouble following, a story of lost poets and lost magazines and works no one had ever heard of, in the middle of a landscape that might have been California or Arizona or some Mexican region bordering those states, a real or imaginary place, bleached by the sun and lost in the past, forgotten, or at least no longer of the slightest importance here . . .  A story from the edge of civilization . . .

The citation above more or less pins down some of the problems first time readers to Bolaño might have with The Savage Detectives. More so than the rest of his oeuvre, Detectives dwells on “lost poets and magazines and works no one had ever heard of.” These poets and writers are mixed in with famous poets (like Octavio Paz, who appears as a character in one segment), and parsing the various characters’ attitudes toward these writers can be a perplexing challenge, and at times a turn off.

And it’s not just the names of poets and writers that can addle a reader: Many of Bolaño’s narrators share an obsessive compulsion to name every avenue, street, or alley they walk on or past, details that become frankly boring over an extended period. It’s a novel of names and places: canonizing, map-making.

Why the map-making? Because this is a book about being lost. Its first section is titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico.” Notice how many times the word “lost” crops up in the citation above. Indeed, The Savage Detectives is not only about what it means to be lost, but also about what it means to lose—one’s friends, one’s group, one’s country, one’s mind. It’s a book about exiles.

Maybe, dear reader, you’re looking for a bit of plot summary, a morsel at least—that is, maybe you haven’t read The Savage Detectives and you want to know if you should or shouldn’t. I suggest reading Cianci’s review in that case. In any case, I don’t suggest starting Bolaño with The Savage Detectives (although I’m sure plenty of folks might disagree with me here). A better starting place might be the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth. Or really just jump into the beast at the abyssal heart of the Bolañoverse, 2666.

I reread 2666 this summer and immediately knew I had to reread The Savage Detectives, knew I had to parse some of what I missed in my first “unfair and premature” reading. I ended up checking out Blackstone Audio’s recording of the book, featuring the voice talents of Eddie Lopez and Armando Duran.

The audio production is excellent: Lopez, surely a very young man, reads the narratives of Juan García Madero that bookend the central section, “The Savage Detectives,” which is read with a startling depth of range by Duran. Lopez’s García Madero comes across as the naïve pretender to cynicism, the would-be artist faking a life of romance. In Duran’s handling, the myriad characters in the middle of the novel come to life with humor and pathos. He animates the characters, showcasing the irony and pain and sadness and small moments of lunatic joy that erupt in the book. The Savage Detectives makes for a surprisingly excellent audiobook. (Quick note anticipating a query those familiar with the novel may have: The cryptic pictograms that show up late in the novel are included in the audiobook; they displayed on my iPod in tandem with their sections, and I imagine they would pop up on any player with a screen).

I enjoyed The Savage Detectives much, much more this second time. I still found parts of it boring (perhaps purposefully boring, but boring nonetheless), and the episodes I enjoyed most on the first reading (the duel, the cavern, the Liberian segment, the Israeli prison, the campers in Spain) were the ones I enjoyed the most on the second round. Better equipped for this reading, I appreciated the riches of Detectives, the way its fragments, intertextual, metatextual, reach out through the Bolañoverse to couple with other fragments, other texts.

My metaphors above are all wrong—the texts don’t reach or couple—the reader does this work, this reaching, this coupling, this detecting.

In my first reading, not up to playing detective, I surely blew through this passage near the end of the novel, a passage that ripples with strange significance for anyone puzzling over 2666:

And Cesárea said something about days to come, although the teacher imagined that if Cesárea had spent time on that senseless plan it was simply because she lived such a lonely life. But Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn’t help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.

Here we have lost poet Cesárea Tinajero, object of the savage detectives’ quest, holed up in her room in Santa Teresa, the central setting for the murders of 2666, a map of a factory (a maquiladora, like the ones the murdered women work at in 2666?) pinned to her wall; here we have Cesárea Tinajero, who keeps “a switchblade with a horn handle and the word Caborca engraved on the blade” by her side, believing she is “under threat of death.” Cesárea Tinajero is prophet to the horrors at the core of 2666.

2666′s Benno von Archimboldi twins Cesárea Tinajero. Just as a quartet of savage detectives search for Tinajero, so to a quartet of literary critics seek out the lost Prussian writer. (Archimboldi even shows up a few times in The Savage Detectives, albeit under the pseudopseudonym “J.M.G. Arcimboldi,” identified as a “Frenchman,” the author of The Endless Rose, his second novel in 2666). Cesárea Tinajero is also repeated in 2666′s Florita Almada, a psychic medium who not only testifies to, but also tries to stop, the unrelenting violence in Santa Teresa.

I suppose I could keep teasing out these intertextual meetings. I could point out that Detectives character Joaquín Font winds up in an insane asylum babbling about fate (fate and insanity being two major themes of 2666). I could point out that Auxilio Lacouture, narrator of Bolaño’s novella Amulet, gets to tell her story in miniature in Detectives. I could point out that the central figures (“central” is not the right word of course) of Detectives, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are everywhere in the Bolañoverse—even unnamed, it is clear that one of the duo fathers the bastard Lalo Cura, one of the good detectives of 2666. But what would be my point in elaborating detail after detail here? Or, and perhaps this is the real question I mean to ask here—is a full reading of The Savage Detectives ultimately dependent on intertextual relationships with other Bolaño books?

Maybe a better way to finish here is to hash out the last few pages of the novel, which find our narrator García Madero driving around Sonora with Lupe, on the run from the law (maybe). The last few entries of the book—in diary form—are simply a list of place names, obscure places in the Sonora desert the pair presumably drive to. García Madero takes up the mantle of exile and reads Cesárea Tinajero’s notebooks, which perhaps influence him—the last three entries of Detectives feature pictographic riddles that recall Tinajero’s visual poem “Sion.” Here is the final entry, which is also the final page of the book—

20120819-152744.jpg

I suppose there are plenty of answers to Bolaño’s final riddle. What’s outside the window? Abyssvoiduncertainty. Aporia. And also: Possiblityopennessfreedom. Certainty. And also: The perforated suggestions of a shape, lines to guide our scissors, form. And also: It’s to be taken literally, a literal dare to the reader to get up, to look out, to see. I could probably keep going.

If we know Bolaño’s detective games, we know that the mysteries are really labyrinths, mazes where we might get trapped and go insane. (The Savage Detectives is in large part a novel that outlines the risks—mental, physical, emotional—of literature). How do I read the gaps in the visual riddle? The gesture is visual ambiguity, paradox. The dashes open to void and close to make form; they define yet are indefinite; the window is there and is not there. So what we’re left with is a way of seeing, or at least an invitation to a way of seeing, which is to say a way of reading. So, if you like—and I like—what’s outside the window is the rest of the Bolañoverse—or at least an offer to play detective.

August 2, 2012

“Sisyphus, Known as the Craftiest of Men” — Roberto Bolaño

by Biblioklept

 

Then, incomprehensibly, he began to make faces that in some way linked him to the wife of the writer from Mainz, to such a degree that Bubis thought they must be brother and sister and only thus could one fully understand the presence of the writer and his wife at the meal. It was also possible, thought Bubis, that they were lovers, because it was common knowledge that lovers often began to resemble each other, usually in their smiles, their opinions, their points of view, in short, the superficial trappings that all human beings are obliged to bear until their deaths, like the rock of Sisyphus, yes Sisyphus, known as the craftiest of men, son of Aeolus and Enarete, founder of the city of Ephyra, which is the old name for Corinth, a city that the good Sisyphus turned into the staging ground of his happy misdeeds, because with his characteristic nimbleness of body and intellectual inclination to see every turn of fate as a chess problem or a detective story to unravel, and his instinct for laughter and jokes and jests and cracks and quips and gags and pranks and punch lines and spoofs and stories and gibes and taunts and send-ups and satires, he turned to theft, in other words parting all passersby from their belongings, even going so far as to steal from his neighbor Autolycus, also a thief, perhaps with the remote hope that one who steals from a thief is granted one hundred years of forgiveness, and at the same time smitten by his neighbor’s daughter, Anticlea, because Anticlea was very beautiful, a treat, but the girl had an official suitor, she was promised to Laertes, of subsequent fame, which didn’t daunt Sisyphus, who could count on the complicity of the girl’s father, the thief Autolycus, whose admiration for Sisyphus had sprung up like the regard of an objective and honorable artist for another artist of superior gifts, so that even though it could be said that as a man of honor he remained true to his promise to Laertes, he didn’t look unkindly upon the romantic attentions Sisyphus lavished on his daughter or treat them as disrespect or mockery of his future son-in-law, and in the end his daughter married Laertes, or so it’s said, but only after surrendering to Sisyphus one or two or five or seven times, possibly ten or fifteen times, always with the collusion of Autolycus, who wanted his neighbor to plant the seed of a grandchild as clever as Sisyphus, and on one of these occasions Anticlea was left with child and nine months later, now the wife of Laertes, her son would be born, the son of Sisyphus, called Odysseus or Ulysses, who in fact turned out to be just as clever as his father, though Sisyphus never gave him a thought and continued to live his life, a life of excesses and parties and pleasure, during which he married Merope, the dimmest star in the Pleiades precisely because she married a mortal, a miserable mortal, a miserable thief, a miserable gangster in thrall to his excesses, blinded by his excesses, among which not least was the seduction of Tyro, the daughter of Sisyphus’s brother Salmoneus, whom Sisyphus pursued not because he was interested in Tyro, not because Tyro was particularly sexy, but because Sisyphus hated his own brother and wanted to cause him pain, and for this deed, after his death, he was condemned in hell to push a stone to the top of a hill only to watch it roll down to the bottom and then push it back up to the top of the hill and watch it roll again to the bottom, and so on eternally, a bitter punishment out of all proportion to his crimes or sins, the vengeance of Zeus, it’s said, because on a certain occasion Zeus passed through Corinth with a nymph he had kidnapped, and Sisyphus, who was smarter than a whip, seized his chance, and when Asopus, the girl’s father, came by in desperate search of his daughter, Sisyphus offered to give him the name of his daughter’s kidnapper, but only if Asopus made a fountain spring up in the city of Corinth, which shows that Sisyphus wasn’t a bad citizen or perhaps he was thirsty, to which Asopus agreed and the fountain of crystalline waters sprang up and Sisyphus betrayed Zeus, who, in a blind rage, sent him ipso facto to Thanatos, or death, but Sisyphus was too much for Thanatos, and in a masterstroke perfectly in keeping with his craftiness and sense of humor he captured Thanatos and threw him in chains, a feat within reach of very few, truly very few, and for a long time he kept Thanatos in chains and during all that time not a single human being died on the face of the earth, a golden age in which men, though still men, lived free of the anxiety of death, in other words, free of the anxiety of time, because now they had more than enough time, which is perhaps what distinguishes a democracy, spare time, surplus time, time to read and time to think, until Zeus had to intervene personally and Thanatos was freed and then Sisyphus died.

But the faces Junge was making didn’t have anything to do with Sisyphus, thought Bubis.

From “The Part About Archimboldi,” 2666, by Roberto Bolaño.

 

July 15, 2012

List of Lapsus Calami from Roberto Bolaño’s Novel 2666

by Biblioklept

A funny section from late in Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666; lapsus calami is Latin for “slip of the pen,” indicating a mistake or miswriting (although, as the characters discuss later, some of these examples may be purposeful):

. . . . and then they started to talk about lapsus calami, many of them collected in a book published long ago in Paris and fittingly titled Le Musee des erreurs, as well as others selected by Max Sengen, hunter of errata. And one thing led to another and it wasn’t long before the copy editors got out a book (which wasn’t the French Museum of Errors or Sengen’s text), whose title Archimboldi couldn’t see, and began to read aloud a selection of cultured pearls:

“Poor Marie! Whenever she hears the sound of an approaching horse, she is certain that it is I.” Vie de Ranee, Chateaubriand.

“The crew of the ship swallowed up by the waves consisted of twenty-five men, who left hundreds of widows consigned to misery.” Les Cages flottantes, Gaston Leroux.

“With God’s help, the sun will shine again on Poland.” The Deluge, Sienkiewicz.

” ‘Let’s go!’ said Peter, looking for his hat to dry his tears.” LourdesZola.

“The duke appeared followed by his entourage, which preceded him.” Letters from My Mill, Alphonse Daudet.

“With his hands clasped behind his back, Henri strolled about the garden, reading his friend’s novel.” Le Cataclysme, Rosny.

“With one eye he read, with the other he wrote.” On the Banks of the Rhine, Auback.

“Silently the corpse awaited the autopsy.” Luck’s Favorite, Octave Feuillet.

“William couldn’t imagine the heart served for anything other than breathing.” Death, Argibachev.

“This sword of honor is the most beautiful day of my life.” Honneur d’artiste, Octave Feuillet.

“I can hardly see anymore, said the poor blind woman.” Beatrix, Balzac.

“After they cut off his head, they buried him alive.” The Death of Mongomer, Henri Zvedan.

“His hand was as cold as a snake’s.” Ponson du Terrail. And here there was no indication of the source of the lapsus calami.

The following unattributed quotes from Max Sengen’s collection were particularly notable:

“The corpse stared reproachfully at those gathered around him.”

“What can a man do who’s been killed by a lethal bullet?”

“Near the city there were roaming whole packs of solitary bears.”

“Unfortunately, the wedding was delayed fifteen days, during which time the bride fled with the captain and gave birth to eight children.”

“Three- or four-day excursions were a daily occurrence.”

And then came the commentary.

July 12, 2012

Minor Works & Masterpieces — An Excerpt from Bolaño’s Novel 2666

by Biblioklept

Another stand-alone segment from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666—from “The Part About Archimboldi”:

Our hero Reiter (writer!)—who at this moment (or just before it, unbeknownst to the reader) adopts the ridiculous nom de thing Archimboldi (!!!)—secures a rented typewriter from a failed writer, an old man who takes the time to lecture on writing and camouflage and masterpieces and Jesus &c.—and writing as channeling (or maybe a type of divine madness), as a ventriloquist act (which I touched on here). (Perhaps I’m pushing the limits of copyright law here. Look, I think you should all buy and read this book and give copies to loved ones and enemies alike).

“I was a writer,” said the old man.

“But I gave it up. This typewriter was a gift from my father. An affectionate and cultured man who lived to the age of ninety-three. An essentially good man. A man who believed in progress, it goes without saying. My poor father. He believed in progress and of course he believed in the intrinsic goodness of human beings. I too believe in the intrinsic goodness of human beings, but it means nothing. In their hearts, killers are good, as we Germans have reason to know. So what? I might spend a night drinking with a killer, and as the two of us watch the sun come up, perhaps we’ll burst into song or hum some Beethoven. So what? The killer might weep on my shoulder. Naturally. Being a killer isn’t easy, as you and I well know. It isn’t easy at all. It requires purity and will, will and purity. Crystalline purity and steel-hard will. And I myself might even weep on the killer’s shoulder and whisper sweet words to him, words like ‘brother,’ ‘friend,’ ‘comrade in misfortune.’ At this moment the killer is good, because he’s intrinsically good, and I’m an idiot, because I’m intrinsically an idiot, and we’re both sentimental, because our culture tends inexorably toward sentimentality. But when the performance is over and I’m alone, the killer will open the window of my room and come tiptoeing in like a nurse and slit my throat, bleed me dry.

“My poor father. I was a writer, I was a writer, but my indolent, voracious brain gnawed at my own entrails. Vulture of my Prometheus self or Prometheus of my vulture self, one day I understood that I might go so far as to publish excellent articles in magazines and newspapers, and even books that weren’t unworthy of the paper on which they were printed. But I also understood that I would never manage to create anything like a masterpiece. You may say that literature doesn’t consist solely of masterpieces, but rather is populated by so-called minor works. I believed that, too. 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. I was wrong. There’s actually no such thing as a minor work. I mean: the author of the minor work isn’t Mr. X or Mr. Y. Mr. X and Mr. Y do exist, there’s no question about that, and they struggle and toil and publish in newspapers and magazines and sometimes they even come out with a book that isn’t unworthy of the paper it’s printed on, but those books or articles, if you pay close attention, are not written by them.

“Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces. Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. The poor man’s wife can testify to that, she’s seen him sitting at the table, bent over the blank pages, restless in his chair, his pen racing over the paper. The evidence would seem to be incontrovertible. But what she’s seen is only the outside. The shell of literature. A semblance,” said the old man to Archimboldi and Archimboldi thought of Ansky. “The person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece.

June 30, 2012

“The Solider Who Sold His Soul to God” — An Excerpt from Roberto Bolaño’s Novel 2666

by Biblioklept

A standalone excerpt from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666. This is from the final section, “The Part About Archimboldi”:

During the train trip Hans heard an odd story about a soldier of the 79th who had gotten lost in the tunnels of the Maginot Line. The section of tunnel he was lost in, as far as the soldier could tell, was called the Charles Sector. The soldier, of course, had nerves of steel, or so it was told, and he kept searching for a way to the surface. After walking some five hundred yards underground he came to the Catherine Sector. The Catherine Sector, it goes without saying, was in no way different from the Charles Sector, except for the signs. After walking half a mile, he got to the Jules Sector. By now the soldier was nervous and his imagination had begun to wander. He imagined himself imprisoned forever in those underground passageways, with no comrade coming to his aid. He wanted to yell, and although at first he restrained himself, for fear of alerting any French soldiers still hiding nearby, at last he gave in to the urge and began to shout at the top of his lungs. But no one answered and he kept walking, in the hope that at some point he’d find the way out. He left behind the Jules Sector and entered the Claudine Sector. Then came the Emile Sector, the Marie Sector, the Jean-Pierre Sector, the Berenice Sector, the Andre Sector, the Sylvie Sector. When he got to the Sylvie Sector, the soldier made a discovery (which anyone else would’ve made much sooner). He noticed the curious neatness of the nearly immaculate passageways. Then he began to think about the usefulness of the passageways, that is their military usefulness, and he came to the conclusion that they were of absolutely no use and there had probably never been soldiers here.

At this point the soldier thought he’d gone mad or, even worse, that he’d died and this was his private hell. Tired and hopeless, he lay down on the floor and slept. He dreamed of God in human form. The soldier was asleep under an apple tree, in the Alsatian countryside, and a country squire came up to him and woke him with a gentle knock on the legs with his staff. I’m God, he said, and if you sell me your soul, which already belongs to me anyway, I’ll get you out of the tunnels. Let me sleep, said the soldier, and he tried to go back to sleep. I said your soul already belongs to me, he heard the voice of God say, so please don’t be a fool, and accept my offer.

Then the soldier awoke and looked at God and asked where he had to sign. Here, said God, pulling a paper out of the air. The soldier tried to read the contract, but it was written in some other language, not German or English or French, of that he was certain. What do I sign with? asked the soldier. With your blood, as is only proper, God answered. Immediately the soldier took out a penknife and made a cut in the palm of his left hand, then he dipped the tip of his index finger in the blood and signed.

“All right, now you can go back to sleep,” God said.

“I’d like to get out of the tunnels soon,” the soldier pleaded.

“All will proceed as ordained,” said God, and he turned and started down a little dirt path toward a valley where there was a village of houses painted green and white and light brown.

The soldier thought it might be wise to say a prayer. He joined his hands and raised his eyes to the heavens. Then he saw that all the apples on the tree had dried up. Now they looked like raisins, or prunes. At the same time he heard a noise that sounded vaguely metallic.

“What is this?” he exclaimed.

From the valley rose long plumes of black smoke that hung in the air when they reached a certain height. A hand grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him. It was soldiers from a company that had come down the tunnel into the Berenice Sector. The soldier began to weep with joy, not much, but enough to find relief.

That night, as he ate, he told his best friend about the dream he’d had in the tunnels. His friend told him it was normal to dream nonsense when one found oneself in such situations.

“It wasn’t nonsense,” the soldier answered, “I saw God in my dreams, I was rescued, I’m back among friends again, but I can’t quite be easy.”

Then, in a calmer voice, he corrected himself:

“I can’t quite feel safe.”

To which his friend responded that in war no one could feel entirely safe. The friend went to sleep. Silence fell over the town. The sentinels lit cigarettes. Four days later, the soldier who had sold his soul to God was walking along the street when he was hit by a German car and killed.

June 17, 2012

Five Favorite Fictional Fathers

by Biblioklept

Literature seems to have an ambivalence toward fatherhood that’s too complex to address in a simple blog post–so I won’t even try. But before I riff on a few of my favorite fathers from a few of my favorite books, I think it’s worth pointing out how rare biological fathers of depth and complexity are in literature. That’s a huge general statement, I’m sure, and I welcome counterexamples, of course, but it seems like relationships between fathers and their children are somehow usually deferred, deflected, or represented in a shallow fashion. Perhaps it’s because we like our heroes to be orphans (whether it’s Moses or Harry Potter, Oliver Twist or Peter Parker) that literature tends to eschew biological fathers in favor of father figures (think of Leopold Bloom supplanting Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, or Merlin taking over Uther Pendragon‘s paternal duties in the Arthur legends). At other times, the father is simply not present in the same narrative as his son or daughter (think of Telemachus and brave Odysseus, or Holden Caulfield wandering New York free from fatherly guidance). What I’ve tried to do below is provide examples of father-child relationships drawn with psychological and thematic depth; or, to put it another way, here are some fathers who actually have relationships with their kids.

Prospero and Miranda--William Maw Egley

Prospero and Miranda–William Maw Egley

1. Prospero, The Tempest (William Shakespeare)

Prospero has always seemed to me the shining flipside to King Lear’s dark coin, a powerful sorcerer who reverses his exile and is gracious even in his revenge. Where Lear is destroyed by his scheming daughters (and his inability to connect to truehearted Cordelia), Prospero, a single dad, protects his Miranda and even secures her a worthy suitor. Postcolonial studies aside, The Tempest is fun stuff.

2. Abraham Ebdus, The Fortress of Solitude, (Jonathan Lethem)

Like Prospero, Abraham Ebdus is a single father raising his child (his son Dylan) in an isolated, alienating place (not a desert island, but 1970′s Brooklyn). After Dylan’s mother abandons the family, the pair’s relationship begins to strain; Lethem captures this process in all its awkward pain with a poignancy that never even verges on schlock. The novel’s redemptive arc is ultimately figured in the reconciliation between father and son in a beautiful ending that Lethem, the reader, and the characters all earn.

3. Jack Gladney, White Noise (Don DeLillo)

While Jack Gladney is an intellectual academic, an expert in the unlikely field of “Hitler studies” (and something of a fraud, to boot), he’s also a pretty normal dad. Casual reviewers of White Noise tend to overlook the sublime banality of domesticity represented in DeLillo’s signature novel: Gladney is an excellent father to his many kids and step-kids, and DeLillo draws their relationships with a realism that belies–and perhaps helps to create–the novel’s satirical bent.

4. Oscar Amalfitano, 2666 (Roberto Bolaño)

Sure, philosophy professor Amalfitano is a bit mentally unhinged (okay, more than a bit), but what sane citizen of Santa Teresa wouldn’t go crazy, what with all the horrific unsolved murders? After his wife leaves him and their young daughter, Amalfitano takes them to the strange, alienating land of Northern Mexico (shades of Prospero’s island?) Bolaño portrays Amalfitano’s descent into paranoia (and perhaps madness) from a number of angles (he and his daughter show up in three of 2666‘s three sections), and as the novel progresses, the reader slowly begins to grasp the enormity of the evil that Amalfitano is confronting (or, more realistically, is unable to confront directly), and the extreme yet vague danger his daughter is encountering. Only a writer of Bolaño’s tremendous gift could make such a chilling episode simultaneously nerve-wracking, philosophical, and strangely hilarious.

5. The father, The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

What happens when Prospero’s desert island is just one big desert? If there is a deeper expression of the empathy and bonding between a child and parent, I have not read it. In The Road, McCarthy dramatizes fatherhood in apocalyptic terms, positing the necessity of such a relationship in hard, concrete, life and death terms. When the father tells his son “You are the best guy” I pretty much break down. When I first read The Road, I had just become a father myself (my child was only a few days old when I finished it), yet I was still critical of McCarthy’s ending, which affords a second chance for the son. It seemed to me at the time–as it does now–that the logic McCarthy establishes in his novel is utterly infanticidal, that the boy must die, but I understand now why McCarthy would have him live–why McCarthy has to let him live. Someone has to carry the fire.


May 23, 2012

Discussion of Fears (A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s Novel 2666)

by Biblioklept

There are odder things than sacraphobia, said Elvira Campos, especially if you consider that we’re in Mexico and religion has always been a problem here. In fact, I’d say all Mexicans are essentially sacraphobes. Or take gephyrophobia, a classic fear. Eots of people suffer from it. What’s gephyrophobia? asked Juan de Dios Martinez. The fear of crossing bridges. That’s right, I knew someone once, well, it was a boy, really, who was afraid that when he crossed a bridge it would collapse, so he’d run across it, which was much more dangerous. A classic, said Elvira Campos. Another classic: claustrophobia. Fear of confined spaces. And another: agoraphobia. Fear of open spaces. I’ve heard of those, said Juan de Dios Martinez. And one more: necrophobia. Fear of the dead, said Juan de Dios Martinez, I’ve known people like that. It’s a handicap for a policeman. Then there’s hemophobia, fear of blood. That’s right, said Juan de Dios Martinez. And peccatophobia, fear of comitting sins. But there are other, rarer, fears. For instance, clinophobia. Do you know what that is? No idea, said Juan de Dios Martinez. Fear of beds. Can anyone really fear beds, or hate them? Actually, yes, there are people who do. But they can deal with the problem by sleeping on the floor and never going into a bedroom. And then there’s tricophobia, or fear of hair. That’s a little more complicated, isn’t it? Yes, very much so. There are cases of tricophobia that end in suicide. And there’s verbophobia, fear of words. Which must mean it’s best not to speak, said Juan de Dios Martinez. There’s more to it than that, because words are everywhere, even in silence, which is never complete silence, is it? And then we have vestiphobia, which is fear of clothes. It sounds strange but it’s much more widespread than you’d expect. And this one is relatively common: iatrophobia, or fear of doctors. Or gynophobia, which is fear of women, and naturally afflicts only men. Very widespread in Mexico, although it manifests itself in different ways. Isn’t that a slight exaggeration? Not a bit: almost all Mexican men are afraid of women. I don’t know what to say to that, said Juan de DiosMartinez. Then there are two fears that are really very romantic: ombrophobia and thalassophobia, or fear of rain and fear of the sea. And two others with a touch of the romantic: anthophobia, or fear of flowers, and dendrophobia, fear of trees. Some Mexican men may be gynophobes, said Juan de DiosMartinez, but not all of them, it can’t be that bad. What do you think optophobia is? asked the director. Opto, opto, something to do with the eyes, my God, fear of the eyes? Even worse: fear of opening the eyes. In a figurative sense, that’s an answer to what you just said about gynophobia. In a literal sense, it leads to violent attacks, loss of consciousness, visual and auditory hallucinations, and generally aggressive behavior. I know, though not personally, of course, of two cases in which the patient went so far as to mutilate himself. He put his eyes out? With his fingers, the nails, said the director. Good God, said Juan de Dios Martinez. Then we have pedophobia, of course, which is fear of children, and ballistophobia, fear of bullets. That’s my phobia, said Juan de Dios Martinez. Yes, I suppose it’s only common sense, said the director. And another phobia, this one on the rise: tropophobia, or the fear of making changes or moving. Which can be aggravated if it becomes agyrophobia, fear of streets or crossing the street. Not to forget chromophobia, which is fear of certain colors, or nyctophobia, fear of night, or ergophobia, fear of work. A common complaint is decidophobia, the fear of making decisions. And there’s a fear that’s just beginning to spread, which is anthrophobia, or fear of people. Some Indians suffer from a heightened form of astrophobia, which is fear of meteorological phenomena like thunder and lightning. But the worst phobias, in my opinion, are pantophobia, which is fear of everything, and phobophobia, fear of fear itself. If you had to suffer from one of the two, which would you choose? Phobophobia, said Juan de Dios Martinez. Think carefully, it has its drawbacks, said the director. Between being afraid of everything and being afraid of my own fear, I’d take the latter. Don’t forget I’m a policeman and if I was scared of everything I couldn’t work. But if you’re afraid of your own fears, you’re forced to live in constant contemplation of them, and if they materialize, what you have is a system that feeds on itself, a vicious cycle, said the director.

From “The Part About the Crimes,” 2666 by Roberto Bolaño.

May 19, 2012

Survival Story (Fragment from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666)

by Biblioklept

A small story from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Context not important:

Instead of ghosts, now the passengers in front of him were talking about a person they called Bobby. This Bobby lived in Jackson Tree, Michigan, and had a cabin on Lake Huron. One time this Bobby had gone out in a boat and capsized. He managed to cling to a log that was floating nearby and waited for morning. But as night went on, the water kept getting colder and Bobby was freezing and started to lose his strength. He felt weaker and weaker, and even though he did his best to tie himself to the log with his belt, he couldn’t no matter how hard he tried. It may sound easy, but in real life it’s hard to tie your own body to a floating log. So he gave up hope, turned his thoughts to his loved ones (here they mentioned someone called Jig, which might have been the name of a friend or a dog or a pet frog he had), and clung to the branch as tightly as he could. Then he saw a light in the sky. He thought it was a helicopter coming to find him, which was foolish, and he started to shout. But then it occurred to him that helicopters clatter and the light he saw wasn’t clattering. A few seconds later he realized it was an airplane. A great big plane about to crash right where he was floating, clinging to that log. Suddenly all his tiredness vanished. He saw the plane pass just overhead. It was in flames. Maybe a thousand feet from where he was, the plane plunged into the lake. He heard two explosions, possibly more. He felt the urge to get closer to the site of the disaster and that’s what he did, very slowly, because it was hard to steer the log. The plane had split in half and only one part was still floating. Before Bobby got there he watched it sinking slowly down into the waters of the lake, which had gone dark again. A little while later the rescue helicopters arrived. The only person they found was Bobby and they felt cheated when he told them he hadn’t been on the plane, that he’d capsized his boat when he was fishing. Still, he was famous for a while, said the person telling the story.

“And does he still live in Jackson Tree?” asked the other man.

“No, I think he lives in Colorado now,” was the response.

Then they started to talk about sports. The man next to Fate finished his water and belched discreetly, covering his mouth with his hand.

“Lies,” he said softly.

“What?” asked Fate.

“Lies, lies,” said the man.

Right, said Fate, and he turned away and stared out the window at the clouds that looked like cathedrals or maybe just little toy churches abandoned in a labyrinthine marble quarry one hundred times bigger than the Grand Canyon.

May 15, 2012

Bolaño’s Werewolves

by Edwin Turner

In the first chapter of his estimable volume The Book of Were-Wolves (1865), Sabine Baring-Gould outlines his project (emphasis mine):

In the following pages I design to investigate the notices of were-wolves to be found in the ancient writers of classic antiquity, those contained in the Northern Sagas, and, lastly, the numerous details afforded by the mediæval authors. In connection with this I shall give a sketch of modern folklore relating to Lycanthropy.

It will then be seen that under the veil of mythology lies a solid reality, that a floating superstition holds in solution a positive truth.

This I shall show to be an innate craving for blood implanted in certain natures, restrained under ordinary circumstances, but breaking forth occasionally, accompanied with hallucination, leading in most cases to cannibalism. I shall then give instances of persons thus afflicted, who were believed by others, and who believed themselves, to be transformed into beasts, and who, in the paroxysms of their madness, committed numerous murders, and devoured their victims.

The first few chapters of the book recount werewolf mythology in heavily archetypal terms: we’re talking Greek and Norse stuff here, really ancient stories that tap into primal-human-animal-instinct and so forth. Then there are a few chapters on Scandinavian werewolves (and other shapeshifters) that reminded me of William Vollmann’s marvelous saga The Ice-Shirt, a book that treats warriors shifting into bears as totally standard fare. The book then tackles “The Were-Wolf in the Middle Ages,” where Baring-Gould relies heavily on monks who seem to view their subject through the heady lens of supernaturalism. Baring-Gould weaves together these culturally disparate stories, citing a strong backlist of sources, and refraining from pointing out the obvious archetypal flavor that girds these tales.

It’s in Chapter VI, “A Chamber of Horrors,” that mythology and archetype give way to a kind of terrible realism. Perhaps this is simply an effect of records-keeping, of the vague fact that narratives and terms of the early Renaissance seem so much more accessible to us than, say, the terms of Scandinavian saga. In any case, the book takes on a horrific scope: the vagaries of myth give way to dates, names, places, witnessestrialsverdicts. To go back to Baring-Gould’s intro, we see the “solid reality” under “the veil of mythology,” stripped away.

An example to illustrate — “A Chamber of Horrors” begins:

In December, 1521, the Inquisitor-General for the diocese of Besançon, Boin by name, heard a case of a sufficiently terrible nature to produce a profound sensation of alarm in the neighbourhood. Two men were under accusation of witchcraft and cannibalism. Their names were Pierre Bourgot, or Peter the Great, as the people had nicknamed him from his stature, and Michel Verdung. Peter had not been long under trial, before he volunteered a full confession of his crimes. It amounted to this:–

In the interest of time and space, I’ll break from Baring-Gould’s summary of the Inquisitor General’s record of Peter the Great’s confession to quickly summarize: There are several pages detailing the ritual circumstances of Peter and Michel’s initial transmogrifications into werebeasts, including some early kills. Let’s skip ahead to some grisly details:

In one of his were-wolf runs, Pierre fell upon a boy of six or seven years old, with his teeth, intending to rend and devour him, but the lad screamed so loud that he was obliged to beat a retreat to his clothes, and smear himself again, in order to recover his form and escape detection. He and Michel, however, one day tore to pieces a woman as she was gathering peas; and a M. de Chusnée, who came to her rescue, was attacked by them and killed.

On another occasion they fell upon a little girl of four years old, and ate her up, with the exception of one arm. Michel thought the flesh most delicious. Another girl was strangled by them, and her blood lapped up. Of a third they ate merely a portion of the stomach.

One evening at dusk, Pierre leaped over a garden wall, and came upon a little maiden of nine years old, engaged upon the weeding of the garden beds. She fell on her knees and entreated Pierre to spare her; but he snapped the neck, and left her a corpse, lying among her flowers. On this occasion he does not seem to have been in his wolf’s shape. He fell upon a goat which he found in the field of Pierre Lerugen, and bit it in the throat, but he killed it with a knife.

Michel was transformed in his clothes into a wolf, but Pierre was obliged to strip, and the metamorphosis could not take place with him unless he were stark naked. He was unable to account for the manner in which the hair vanished when he recovered his natural condition.

I’ve given this example at some length as it’s a fairly representative passage. To be clear, Baring-Gould goes on for pages and pages and pages of this stuff, bringing up example after example of murderers and their victims and the villages and cities that prosecute them (you can read the book for free, if you wish—it’s in the public domain). It’s ugly and depressing, and one gets the picture that the kind of psychopathic homicidal behavior we often think of as pervasive in and native to the 20th and 21st centuries is actually far, far older. Pierre Bourgot and Michel Verdung are earlier instantiations of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole or Leopold and Loeb or any of the other partners in crime we might think of.

But not all these werewolves work in pairs. There’s the case of Jean Grenier, who gets his own chapter. A description of Grenier as a boy of about 13:

The appearance of the lad was peculiar. His hair was of a tawny red and thickly matted, falling over his shoulders and completely covering his narrow brow. His small pale-grey eyes twinkled with an expression of horrible ferocity and cunning, from deep sunken hollows. The complexion was of a dark olive colour; the teeth were strong and white, and the canine teeth protruded over the lower lip when the mouth was closed. The boy’s hands were large and powerful, the nails black and pointed like bird’s talons. He was ill clothed, and seemed to be in the most abject poverty. The few garments he had on him were in tatters, and through the rents the emaciation of his limbs was plainly visible.

Baring-Gould’s gift for detail—a gift bequeathed in part, one gathers, from trial testimonies and other criminal records—presents the ambiguity of Grenier. The boy is clearly a case of neglect who slips into madness and murder. Baring-Gould also has a gift for dialogue. Here, Grenier terrorizes some fair innocent maidens:

“Well, my maidens,” said he in a harsh voice, “which of you is the prettiest, I should like to know; can you decide among you?”

“What do you want to know for?” asked Jeanne Gaboriant, the eldest of the girls, aged eighteen, who took upon herself to be spokesman for the rest.

“Because I shall marry the prettiest,” was the answer.

“Ah!” said Jeanne jokingly; “that is if she will have you, which is not very likely, as we none of us know you, or anything about you.”

“I am the son of a priest,” replied the boy curtly.

“Is that why you look so dingy and black?”

“No, I am dark-coloured, because I wear a wolf-skin sometimes.”

“A wolf-skin!” echoed the girl; “and pray who gave it you?”

“One called Pierre Labourant.”

“There is no man of that name hereabouts. Where does he live?”

A scream of laughter mingled with howls, and breaking into strange gulping bursts of fiendlike merriment from the strange boy. The little girls recoiled, and the youngest took refuge behind Jeanne.

“Do you want to know Pierre Labourant, lass? Hey, he is a man with an iron chain about his neck, which he is ever engaged in gnawing. Do you want to know where he lives, lass? Ha., in a place of gloom and fire, where there are many companions, some seated on iron chairs, burning, burning; others stretched on glowing beds, burning too. Some cast men upon blazing coals, others roast men before fierce flames, others again plunge them into caldrons of liquid fire.”

The terrible scene continues in this vein, building dread until the poor girls (sensibly) flee.

Grenier takes off on a murderous, cannibalistic spree, before being apprehended and “sentenced . . . to perpetual imprisonment within the walls of a monastery at Bordeaux, where he might be instructed in his Christian and moral obligations.”

The monastery—the asylum—is the  kind of place where many if not most of these convicted werewolves end up. I’ve neglected to share Baring-Gould’s definition of lycanthropy, which also telegraphs part of his thesis (emphasis, again, is mine):

What is Lycanthropy? The change of man or woman into the form of a wolf, either through magical means, so as to enable him or her to gratify the taste for human flesh, or through judgment of the gods in punishment for some great offence. This is the popular definition.

Truly it consists in a form of madness, such as may be found in most asylums.

We see here that Baring-Gould’s project is to strip away the supernaturalism—indeed the glamor—of the werewolf to root out the all-too-human madness underneath.

Perhaps I’ve taken too long to connect Baring-Gould to the work of Roberto Bolaño, but I felt the need to set the stage and share some of Baring-Gould’s language, which, to be clear, I believe prefigures Bolaño’s own work in many ways. I am not suggesting that Bolaño read Baring-Gould, only that the realistic documentation of grisly murder and madness in The Book of Were-Wolves evinces throughout the Bolañoverse, particularly in 2666, from which I will draw my examples in this essay.

What Bolaño and Baring-Gould do in these books is explore madness and violence and the ways that our world tries to (or fails to) contain madness and violence.

If you’ve read 2666, you’ll likely note that Baring-Gould’s descriptions and even tone resonates strongly with “The Part About the Crimes,” a grisly catalog of murder and violence (even Baring-Gould’s chapter title “A Chamber of Horrors” seems to correspond). To be sure, both writers employ a frank, almost reportorial tone that often clashes against lucid nightmare details—there’s a heavy dose of unreality that poses as a kind of cure, almost, to the poisoned reality of mutilated bodies.

Maybe another way of approaching this is to point out how heavily the werewolves of Baring-Gould and Bolaño contrast with the glamorous, sexy werewolves of, say, True Blood or Twilight, werewolves that clearly tap into the mythos and psychology of transformation while at the same time sundering that transformative possibility away from any plain old Joe Schmo’s aptitude for grisly violence.

I’ve just referred to Bolaño’s werewolves—it’s also the title of this essay, so “just referred” is hardly accurate—so I should point out that the word werewolf never occurs in 2666.

What I want to suggest is that Bolaño’s werewolves are, in line with Baring-Gould’s, people fated to madness and violence, but also relatively normal people. These werewolves contain within them a dreadful capacity for violence.

The litany of evil in “The Part About Crimes,” as I’ve already suggested, showcases werewolf work: the mutilated bodies, the rape, the awful mystery of it all. There are even a few references to wolf transformations (of a kind). Here’s a late one:

Something ugly happened here, said the border patrol, but since there were no bodies, the whole thing was easy to write off. What did Ayala do with the bodies? According to El Tequila, he ate them, that’s how crazy and evil he was, although Haas doubted there was anyone capable of wolfing down eight illegal immigrants, no matter how demented or ravenous he might be.

I won’t torture the scene into something it’s not, but we see here the possibility—in language—of the criminal El Tequila “wolfing” down his victims in an act of cannibalism.

Or, this scene, where Epifanio Galinda, one of the few heroes of “The Part About the Crimes” believes he’s killed a wolf:

I killed a wolf, he said. Let’s see, said the police chief, and the two of them set out into the darkness again. There were no headlights visible on the highway. The air was dry but sometimes there were gusts of salty wind, as if before it made its way into the desert the air had brushed across a salt marsh. The boy looked at the lighted dashboard of the car and then he covered his face with his hands. A few yards away the police chief ordered Epifanio to pass him the flashlight and he shone it on the body of the animal lying in the road. It isn’t a wolf, said the police chief. Oh, no? Look at its coat, wolves’ coats are shinier, sleeker, not to mention they aren’t dumb enough to get themselves run over by a car in the middle of a deserted highway. Let’s see, let’s measure it, you hold the flashlight. Epifanio trained the beam on the animal as the chief laid it straight and eyeballed it. Coyotes, he said, are twenty-eight to thirty-six inches long, counting the head. What would you say this one measures? About thirty-two? asked Epifanio. Correct, said the police chief. And he went on: coyotes weigh between twenty-two and thirty-five pounds. Pass me the flashlight and pick it up, it won’t bite you. Epifanio picked up the dead animal, cradling it in his arms. How much would you say it weighs? Somewhere between twenty-six and thirty-three, maybe, said Epifanio. Like a coyote. Because it is a coyote, jackass, said the police chief.

The term coyote of course has its own associations in borderland—it’s a pejorative term for the men who smuggle immigrants into the U.S. Epifanio’s would-be wolf, symbol of predation and murder, morphs under closer analysis into another, subtler predator.

But I’m not particularly interested in literal wolves or even the metaphorical use of the word wolf in this discussion of 2666 and The Book of Were-Wolves. Again, what I think germane here is Bolaño’s ability to document the capacity of insanity and violence that lurks in each and every person—that is what the werewolf is. We can see the werewolf when we strip away what Baring-Gould calls “the veil of mythology,” the “floating superstition” that would otherwise explain away the secrets of evil.

Here’s a detail from the first few pages of 2666, from “The Part About the Critics”:

[Espinoza] also discovered that he was bitter and full of resentment, that he oozed resentment, and that he might easily kill someone, anyone . . .

The line seems almost casual so early in the text. It’s not necessarily forgettable, but it’s also not especially noteworthy—that is, until you work your way through the labyrinth of 2666 a second or third time. In a course of rereading, Espinoza’s murderous urge becomes not just a simple expression, but a genuine threat.

“The Part About the Critics” is, in some ways, the least obviously lycanthropic chapter of 2666, and hence all the more important to my (admittedly cloudy) thesis. I’m going to devote the rest of my energy solely to “Critics,” but first I’ll sweep over the rest of the book.

“The Part About Amalfitano” documents a descent into madness, and if its motif relies more on ghosts than werewolves, I’d still like to submit Marco Antonio Guerra as the worst kind of would-be werewolf, a youth primed for insane back alley violence of every stripe. He is pure Bolaño-sinister, a character from the shady margins of a Lynch film. When he tells Amalfitano that, “the human being, broadly speaking, is the closest thing there is to a rat,” his statement is all the more believable because he is, of course, a wererat.

“The Part About Fate” twins “Amalfitano,” similarly documenting descent into madness; its special werewolf—maybe more a vampire, to be fair—is Chucho Flores.

I’ve already remarked on “The Part About the Crimes.”

“The Part About Archimboldi,” with its Gothic scenes and numerous Dracula references perhaps skews more vampire again, but let’s just lump these supernatural predators together for now. Suffice to point out that Baring-Gould frequently reminds his audience  that “the were-wolf is closely related to the vampire.” He continues:

The lycanthropist falls into a cataleptic trance, during which his soul leaves his body, enters that of a wolf and ravens for blood. On the return of the soul, the body is exhausted and aches as though it had been put through violent exercise. After death lycanthropists become vampires. They are believed to frequent battlefields in wolf or hyæna shapes, and to suck the breath from dying soldiers, or to enter houses and steal the infants from their cradles.

Back to “The Part About the Critics”: The first time I read 2666, I thought of the “Critics” as a light, even romantic entry point to the novel—a sort of romantic quadrangle with ironic self-awareness. Subsequent readings reveal an extremely dark work, one that repeatedly hides its darkness, or shifts quickly away from it, as when the critic Morini reads about the Sonora killings that will figure so heavily in “Crimes” in a newspaper and only an hour later forgets the matter completely.

But that murderous violence is always there, seething under the surface, as in that early description of Espinoza, or in this description from early in the book, one of the first labyrinthine nesting doll tales, where the Swabian relates a story related to him by an old woman of a visit to Buenos Aires and her encounter with a strange ranch-hand:

 . . . the little gaucho looked up at the lady with the eyes of a bird of prey, ready to plunge a knife into her at the navel and slice up to the breasts, cutting her wide open, his eyes shining with a strange intensity, like the eyes of a clumsy young butcher, as the lady recalled, which didn’t stop her from following him without protest when he took her by the hand and led her to the other side of the house, to a place where a wrought-iron pergola stood, bordered by flowers and trees that the lady had never seen in her life or which at that moment she thought she had never seen in her life, and she even saw a fountain in the park, a stone fountain, in the center of which, balanced on one little foot, a Creole cherub with smiling features danced, part European and part cannibal, perpetually bathed by three jets of water that spouted at its feet, a fountain sculpted from a single piece of black marble, a fountain that the lady and the little gaucho admired at length . . .

Everything in that New World “part European and part cannibal.” The aesthetics of the episode devour or at least mask the little gaucho’s violence, his ability to transform into a murderous beast.

The critics who hear this story from the Swabian represent some of the old, dignified cultures of Europe—French, Italian, English, Spanish; they are erudite academics, situated above the dirty meaningless violence that litters the rest of the book.

Of course, Bolaño absolutely ridicules this notion, evoking the critics’ own dispositions to violence.

Here’s a passage that illustrates Bolaño’s lycanthropic powers. In this little episode, Pelletier and Espinoza—both in love and lust with fellow critic Norton—share a cab with her during a visit to London. I quote at some length:

And for the first few minutes, the driver, a Pakistani, watched them in his rearview mirror, in silence, as if he couldn’t believe what his ears were hearing, and then he said something in his language and the cab passed Harmsworth Park and the Imperial War Musuem, heading along Brook Drive and then Austral Street and then Geraldine Street, driving around the park, an unnecessary maneuver no matter how you looked at it. And when Norton told him he was lost and said which streets he should take to find his way, the driver fell silent again, with no more murmurings in his incomprehensible tongue, until he confessed that London was such a labyrinth, he really had lost his bearings.

Which led Espinoza to remark that he’d be damned if the cabbie hadn’t just quoted Borges, who once said London was like a labyrinth— unintentionally, of course. To which Norton replied that Dickens and Stevenson had used the same trope long before Borges in their descriptions of London. This seemed to set the driver off, for he burst out that as a Pakistani he might not know this Borges, and he might not have read the famous Dickens and Stevenson either, and he might not even know London and its streets as well as he should, that’s why he’d said they were like a labyrinth, but he knew very well what decency and dignity were, and by what he had heard, the woman here present, in other words Norton, was lacking in decency and dignity, and in his country there was a word for what she was, the same word they had for it in London as it happened, and the word was bitch or slut or pig, and the gentlemen who were present, gentlemen who, to judge by their accents, weren’t English, also had a name in his country and that name was pimp or hustler or whoremonger.

This speech, it may be said without exaggeration, took the Archimboldians by surprise, and they were slow to respond. If they were on Geraldine Street when the driver let them have it, they didn’t manage to speak till they came to Saint George’s Road. And then all they managed to say was: stop the cab right here, we’re getting out. Or rather: stop this filthy car, we’re not going any farther. Which the Pakistani promptly did, punching the meter as he pulled up to the curb and announcing to his passengers what they owed him, a fait accompli or final scene or parting token that seemed more or less normal to Norton and Pelletier, no doubt still reeling from the ugly surprise, but which was absolutely the last straw for Espinoza, who stepped down and opened the driver’s door and jerked the driver out, the latter not expecting anything of the sort from such a well-dressed gentleman. Much less did he expect the hail of Iberian kicks that proceeded to rain down on him, kicks delivered at first by Espinoza alone, but then by Pelletier, too, when Espinoza flagged, despite Norton’s shouts at them to stop, despite Norton’s objecting that violence didn’t solve anything, that in fact after this beating the Pakistani would hate the English even more, something that apparently mattered little to Pelletier, who wasn’t English, and even less to Espinoza, both of whom nevertheless insulted the Pakistani in English as they kicked him, without caring in the least that he was down, curled into a ball on the ground, as they delivered kick after kick, shove Islam up your ass, which is where it belongs, this one is for Salman Rushdie (an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mention seemed pertinent), this one is for the feminists of Paris (will you fucking stop, Norton was shouting), this one is for the feminists of New York (you’re going to kill him, shouted Norton), this one is for the ghost of Valerie Solanas, you son of a bitch, and on and on, until he was unconscious and bleeding from every orifice in the head, except the eyes.

When they stopped kicking him they were sunk for a few seconds in the strangest calm of their lives. It was as if they’d finally had the menage a trois they’d so often dreamed of.

Pelletier felt as if he had come. Espinoza felt the same, to a slightly different degree. Norton, who was staring at them without seeing them in the dark, seemed to have experienced multiple orgasms. A few cars were passing by on St. George’s Road, but the three of them were invisible to anyone traveling in a vehicle at that hour. There wasn’t a single star in the sky. And yet the night was clear: they could see everything in great detail, even the outlines of the smallest things, as if an angel had suddenly clapped night-vision goggles on their eyes. Their skin felt smooth, extremely soft to the touch, although in fact the three of them were sweating. For a moment Espinoza and Pelletier thought they’d killed the Pakistani. A similar idea seemed to be passing through Norton’s mind, because she bent over the cabbie and felt for his pulse. To move, to kneel down, hurt her as if the bones of her legs were dislocated.

The scene shifts from erudite literary reference to sadistic violence, with strange interruptions of very dark humor (I am ashamed that the first time I read this passage it made me laugh out loud in places—the line about Rushdie, in particular), ending in whorl that directly connects the violence to (extremely satisfying) sex. In short, it underlines the lurid, inexplicable violence (and interwoven sexuality) capable of erupting in even the most apparently staid people (think of the poor driver who would never expect expect violence “of the sort from such a well-dressed gentleman”). Bolaño’s project, like Baring-Gould’s, is to cut through the mythologies of transformation and violence to plumb the visceral nightmare of reality underneath.

Let’s return to that last part of Baring-Gould’s definition of lycanthropy: “Truly it consists in a form of madness, such as may be found in most asylums.”

Need I remark on the asylums of 2666?

The word asylum appears 43 times in the text.

The word prison 164.

Labyrinth 14.

Madness 29.

Lunatic 21.

Abyss 22.

You get the picture.

I’ll end then with a minor character of 2666, a minor werewolf I suppose, whose predation is perhaps limited to himself. In “The Part About the Critics,” we learn of the artist Edwin Johns who “cut off his painting hand” and then incorporated it into a self-portrait:

This painting, viewed properly (although one could never be sure of viewing it properly), was an ellipsis of self-portraits, sometimes a spiral of self-portraits (depending on the angle from which it was seen), seven feet by three and a half feet, in the center of which hung the painter’s mummified right hand.

Edwin Johns’s madness leads him to self-mutilation, but his violence is also bizarrely controlled and, well, artistic. It lands him in an asylum of course (where he meets some of the critics), but it also helps create his defining work, described as a kind of elliptical, abyssal spiral at the center of which is suspended the very instrument that created the work itself. Johns’s mummified hand perhaps represents a kind of purity of self, an act of self-negation that paradoxically preserves a self. It’s a transformation that leaves a pure trace (which, sundered, is impure, incomplete). It simultaneously makes and breaks Johns, confers his identity (as that artist who cut his hand off) and takes it away, pushing him into an asylum where he can presumably do no more harm to himself. And how does Johns die? We learn that he falls off a mountain — “he fell into the abyss.” Complete self-erasure, the finishing touch on his strange self-portrait.

But I seem to have jumped into my own little abyss here, or at least written myself into an ill-defined corner, one that provides no clean surface to rest my back against (in any case, I’m jumbling metaphors here).

Maybe I’m just trying to recommend Baring-Gould’s strange ghoulish book.

Maybe I’m just taking another stab at writing about 2666.

Maybe I just have werewolves on the brain.

Maybe it’s germane to all of this that I’ve been reading the books in a weird kind of tandem switch-hitting rhythm in the deep dark of night, said books nestled neatly on the low glow of my trusty Kindle.

Maybe it’s just that Baring-Gould gives us an answer to the murder-mystery 2666 is sometimes supposed to be, an answer that I perhaps like so much because I proposed it in my first review of the book.

Who killed all those women in Sonora?

Why, we all did it.

I’ve quoted Bolaño at length in this piece, so I’ll give the last words—again at some length—to Sabine Baring-Gould.

Here, he describes—but makes no attempt to explain away—the pleasure we may take in cruelty:

Startling though the assertion may be, it is a matter of fact, that man, naturally, in common with other carnivora, is actuated by an impulse to kill, and by a love of destroying life.

It is positively true that there are many to whom the sight of suffering causes genuine pleasure, and in whom the passion to kill or torture is as strong as any other passion. Witness the number of boys who assemble around a sheep or pig when it is about to be killed, and who watch the struggle of the dying brute with hearts beating fast with pleasure, and eyes sparkling with delight. Often have I seen an eager crowd of children assembled around the slaughterhouses of French towns, absorbed in the expiring agonies of the sheep and cattle, and hushed into silence as they watched the flow of blood.

The propensity, however, exists in different degrees. In some it is manifest simply as indifference to suffering, in others it appears as simple pleasure in seeing killed, and in others again it is dominant as an irresistible desire to torture and destroy.

This propensity is widely diffused; it exists in children and adults, in the gross-minded and the refined., in the well-educated and the ignorant, in those who have never had the opportunity of gratifying it, and those who gratify it habitually, in spite of morality, religion, laws, so that it can only depend on constitutional causes.

The sportsman and the fisherman follow a natural instinct to destroy, when they make wax on bird, beast, and fish: the pretence that the spoil is sought for the table cannot be made with justice, as the sportsman cares little for the game he has obtained, when once it is consigned to his pouch. The motive for his eager pursuit of bird or beast must be sought elsewhere; it will be found in the natural craving to extinguish life, which exists in his soul. Why does a child impulsively strike at a butterfly as it flits past him? He cares nothing for the insect when once it is beaten down at his feet, unless it be quivering in its agony, when he will watch it with interest. The child strikes at the fluttering creature because it has life in it, and he has an instinct within him impelling him to destroy life wherever he finds it.

Parents and nurses know well that children by nature are cruel, and that humanity has to be acquired by education. A child will gloat over the sufferings of a wounded animal till his mother bids him “put it out of its misery.” An unsophisticated child would not dream of terminating the poor creature’s agonies abruptly, any more than he would swallow whole a bon-bon till he had well sucked it. Inherent cruelty may be obscured by after impressions, or may be kept under moral restraint; the person who is constitutionally a Nero, may scarcely know his own nature, till by some accident the master passion becomes dominant, and sweeps all before it. A relaxation of the moral check, a shock to the controlling intellect, an abnormal condition of body, are sufficient to allow the passion to assert itself.

As I have already observed, this passion exists in different persons in different degrees.

April 14, 2012

“It Sounds Like the Title of a David Lynch Film” — A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

by Biblioklept

A passage from Roberto Bolaño’s opus 2666

The card for the Santa Teresa cybercafe was a deep red, so red that it was hard to read what was printed on it. On the back, in a lighter red, was a map that showed exactly where the cafe was located. He asked the receptionist to translate the name of the place. The clerk laughed and said it was called Fire, Walk With Me.

“It sounds like the title of a David Lynch film,” said Fate.

The clerk shrugged and said that all of Mexico was a collage of diverse and wide-ranging homages.

“Every single thing in this country is an homage to everything in the world, even the things that haven’t happened yet,” he said.

After he told Fate how to get to the cybercafe, they talked for a while about Lynch’s films. The clerk had seen all of them. Fate had seen only three or four. According to the clerk, Lynch’s greatest achievement was the TV series Twin Peaks. Fate liked The Elephant Man best, maybe because he’d often felt like the elephant man himself, wanting to be like other people but at the same time knowing he was different. When the clerk asked him whether he’d heard that Michael Jackson had bought or tried to buy the skeleton of the elephant man, Fate shrugged and said that Michael Jackson was sick. I don’t think so, said the clerk, watching something presumably important that was happening on TV just then.

“In my opinion,” he said with his eyes fixed on the TV Fate couldn’t see, “Michael knows things the rest of us don’t.”

“We all know things we think nobody else knows,” said Fate.

November 14, 2011

Sisyphus, Bolaño Style

by Biblioklept

A passage from Roberto Bolaño’s big fat novel 2666 (context unimportant)—

Archimboldi’s response surprised Bubis. In it he said that Sisyphus, once he was dead, had escaped from hell by means of a legal stratagem. Before Zeus freed Thanatos, Sisyphus asked his wife not to perform the usual funeral rites, knowing that the first thing Death would do was come for him. So when he got to hell, Hades scolded him and all the infernal lords naturally clamored to the skies or the vault of hell and tore out their hair and took offense. But Sisyphus said it was his wife’s fault, not his, and he requested permission to return to Earth to punish her.

Hades considered it: the proposal Sisyphus made was reasonable and freedom was granted to him on the condition that he stay away for only three or four days, long enough to get his just vengeance and set in motion, however belatedly, the proper funeral rites. Of course, Sisyphus jumped at the chance—not for nothing was he the craftiest man in the world—and he returned to Earth, where he lived happily to a ripe old age, and didn’t go back to hell until his body failed him.

According to some, the punishment of the rock had only one purpose: to keep Sisyphus occupied and prevent him from hatching new schemes. But at the least expected moment, Sisyphus will devise something and he’ll come back to Earth, Archimboldi ended his letter.

February 12, 2011

“The novel, so unanimously acclaimed, was called Twilight” — An Excerpt from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

by Biblioklept

The following excerpt of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is more or less self-contained, or at least as self-contained as anything in that labyrinth. It’s the summary of a character named Ansky’s novel; Hans Reiter (aka Archimboldi) is reading Ansky’s diaries while hiding during the war–

The novel, so unanimously acclaimed, was called Twilight and its plot was very simple: a boy of fourteen abandons his family to join the ranks of the revolution. Soon he’s engaged in combat against Wrangel’s troops. In the midst of battle he’s injured and his comrades leave him for dead. But before the vultures come to feed on the bodies, a spaceship drops onto the battlefield and takes him away, along with some of the other mortally wounded soldiers. Then the spaceship enters the stratosphere and goes into orbit around Earth. All of the men’s wounds are rapidly healed. Then a very thin, very tall creature, more like a strand of seaweed than a human being, asks them a series of questions like: how were the stars created? where does the universe end? where does it begin? Of course, no one knows the answers. One man says God created the stars and the universe begins and ends wherever God wants. He’s tossed out into space. The others sleep. When the boy awakes he finds himself in a shabby room, with a shabby bed and a shabby wardrobe where his shabby clothes hang. When he goes to the window he gazes out in awe at the urban landscape of New York. But the boy finds only misfortune in the great city. He meets a jazz musician who tells him about chickens that talk and probably think.

“The worst of it,” the musician says to him, “is that the governments of the planet know it and that’s why so many people raise chickens.”

The boy objects that the chickens are raised to be eaten. The musician says that’s what the chickens want. And he finishes by saying:

“Fucking masochistic chickens, they have our leaders by the balls.”

He also meets a girl who works as a hypnotist at a burlesque club, and he falls in love. The girl is ten years older than the boy, or in other words twenty-four, and although she has a number of lovers, including the boy, she doesn’t want to fall in love with anyone because she believes that love will use up her powers as a hypnotist. One day the girl disappears and the boy, after searching for her in vain, decides to hire a Mexican detective who was a soldier under Pancho Villa. The detective has a strange theory: he believes in the existence of numerous Earths in parallel universes. Earths that can be reached through hypnosis. The boy thinks the detective is swindling him and decides to accompany him in his investigations. One night they come upon a Russian beggar shouting in an alley. The beggar shouts in Russian and only the boy can understand him. The beggar says: I fought with Wrangel, show some respect, please, I fought in Crimea and I was evacuated from Sevastopol in an English ship. Then the boy asks whether the beggar was at the battle where he fell badly wounded. The beggar looks at him and says yes. I was too, says the boy. Impossible, replies the beggar, that was twenty years ago and you weren’t even born yet.

Then the boy and the Mexican detective set off west in search of the hypnotist. They find her in Kansas City. The boy asks her to hypnotize him and send him back to the battlefield where he should have died, or accept his love and stop fleeing. The hypnotist answers that neither is possible. The Mexican detective shows an interest in the art of hypnosis. As the detective begins to tell the hypnotist a story, the boy leaves the roadside bar and goes walking under the night sky. After a while he stops crying.

He walks for hours. When he’s in the middle of nowhere he sees a figure by the side of the road. It’s the seaweedlike extraterrestrial. They greet each other. They talk. Often, their conversation is unintelligible. The subjects they address are varied: foreign languages, national monuments, the last days of Karl Marx, worker solidarity, the time of the change measured in Earth years and stellar years, the discovery of America as a stage setting, an unfathomable void—as painted by Dore—of masks. Then the boy follows the extraterrestrial away from the road and they walk through a wheat field, cross a stream, climb a hill, cross another field, until they reach a smoldering pasture.

In the next chapter, the boy is no longer a boy but a young man of twenty-five working at a Moscow newspaper where he has become the star reporter. The young man receives the assignment to interview a Communist leader somewhere in China. The trip, he is warned, is extremely difficult, and once he reaches Peking, the situation may be dangerous, since there are lots of people who don’t want any statement by the Chinese leader to get out. Despite these warnings, the young man accepts the job. When, after much hardship, he finally gains access to the cellar where the Chinese leader is hidden, the young man decides that not only will he interview him, he’ll also help him escape the country. The Chinese leader’s face, in the light of a candle, bears a notable resemblance to that of the Mexican detective and former soldier under Pancho Villa. The Chinese leader and the young Russian, meanwhile, come down with the same illness, brought on by the pestilence of the cellar. They shake with fever, they sweat, they talk, they rave, the Chinese leader says he sees dragons flying low over the streets of Peking, the young man says he sees a battle, perhaps just a skirmish, and he shouts hurrah and urges his comrades onward. Then both lie motionless as the dead for a long time, and suffer in silence until the day set for their flight.

Each with a temperature of 102 degrees, the two men cross Peking and escape. Horses and provisions await them in the countryside. The Chinese leader has never ridden before. The young man teaches him how. During the trip they cross a forest and then some enormous mountains. The blazing of the stars in the sky seems supernatural. The Chinese leader asks himself: how were the stars created? where does the universe end? where does it begin? The young man hears him and vaguely recalls a wound in his side whose scar still aches, darkness, a trip. He also remembers the eyes of a hypnotist, although the woman’s features remain hidden, mutable. If I close my eyes, thinks the young man, I’ll see her again. But he doesn’t close them. They make their way across a vast snow-covered plain. The horses sink in the snow. The Chinese leader sings. How were the stars created? Who are we in the middle of the boundless universe? What trace of us will remain?

Suddenly the Chinese leader falls off his horse. The young Russian examines him. The Chinese leader is like a burning doll. The young Russian touches the Chinese leader’s forehead and then his own forehead and understands that the fever is devouring them both. With no little effort he ties the Chinese leader to his mount and sets off again. The silence of the snow-covered plain is absolute. The night and the passage of stars across the vault of the sky show no signs of ever ending. In the distance an enormous black shadow seems to superimpose itself on the darkness. It’s a mountain range. In the young Russian’s mind the certainty takes shape that in the coming hours he will die on that snow-covered plain or as he crosses the mountains. A voice inside begs him to close his eyes, because if he closes them he’ll see the eyes and then the beloved face of the hypnotist. It tells him that if he closes his eyes he’ll see the streets of New York again, he’ll walk again toward the hypnotist’s house, where she sits waiting for him on a chair in the dark. But the Russian doesn’t close his eyes. He rides on.

January 26, 2011

“It Sounds Like the Title of a David Lynch Film” — A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

by Biblioklept

A passage from Roberto Bolaño’s opus 2666

The card for the Santa Teresa cybercafe was a deep red, so red that it was hard to read what was printed on it. On the back, in a lighter red, was a map that showed exactly where the cafe was located. He asked the receptionist to translate the name of the place. The clerk laughed and said it was called Fire, Walk With Me.

“It sounds like the title of a David Lynch film,” said Fate.

The clerk shrugged and said that all of Mexico was a collage of diverse and wide-ranging homages.

“Every single thing in this country is an homage to everything in the world, even the things that haven’t happened yet,” he said.

After he told Fate how to get to the cybercafe, they talked for a while about Lynch’s films. The clerk had seen all of them. Fate had seen only three or four. According to the clerk, Lynch’s greatest achievement was the TV series Twin Peaks. Fate liked The Elephant Man best, maybe because he’d often felt like the elephant man himself, wanting to be like other people but at the same time knowing he was different. When the clerk asked him whether he’d heard that Michael Jackson had bought or tried to buy the skeleton of the elephant man, Fate shrugged and said that Michael Jackson was sick. I don’t think so, said the clerk, watching something presumably important that was happening on TV just then.

“In my opinion,” he said with his eyes fixed on the TV Fate couldn’t see, “Michael knows things the rest of us don’t.”

“We all know things we think nobody else knows,” said Fate.

January 17, 2011

Books I Am Always (Re-)Reading

by Edwin Turner

Trudging through a very long book the other night–never mind the title, at least now anyway–it occurred to me that I’d rather be reading from 2666; that, at that particular moment, I’d rather re-read from “The Part About the Crimes.” I don’t know if it was the effete dullness of the first volume that made me want to pick up Bolaño’s epic, perhaps trying to zap some life into my waning eyeballs; perhaps it was just the sense that I was wasting my time with the merely good, which, after all, is mediocrity when set against genius (yes, these are subjective terms).

Anyway, I didn’t have to go looking for 2666 — I have a copy (yes, I have two) right there jammed into my nightstand, along with a few other books that I realize that I’m always reading. Furthermore, I’m always reading these books in the most discontinuous, stochastic fashion, often picking them up at random and thumbing through them. I think I use these books to clear my literary palate, to get a bad (or worse, boring) taste out of my brain, to inspire me, to suggest another book. Some of these books, like 2666 are big, fat volumes, volumes that I set close at hand in the hopes of rereading in full. Sometimes I’ve met this goal; in the case of Moby-Dick, I’ve read the book through at least three times now, and yet never tire of it. I’m always picking it up again and again, sometimes to find Elijah’s rant or to dip into Ahab’s mad monologue or perhaps just to hear Stubb comment on the proper preparation of shark steaks. Of a piece with those big novels is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I turn to repeatedly, reading over a riff or two at a time, perhaps still trying to figure out the ending, or some clue of the ending, perhaps trying to figure out why Hal can’t speak (you know, beyond like, a a metaphorical level).

There’s also Blood Meridian.

A book I always keep proximal is D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, which, if this were a dictatorship under Biblioklept might replace the Constitution (jaykay, Tea Partiers!). Tellingly, I’ve never managed to finish one of Lawrence’s novels (I even struggle through his much-anthologized piece, “The Rocking Horse Winner”), but I consider his dissertations on Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville indispensable (and creative in their own right). I guess I just like lit crit; Harold Bloom’s too-huge volume The Western Canon is a book I return to again and again. Sometimes I find myself throwing it to the ground, quite literally (if I’ve enjoyed a drink or two, that is), in disgust. Bloom’s battle with “The School of Resentment” can be maddening, especially when he’s so up front about essentially making Shakespeare God. Still, Shakespeare doesn’t seem like a bad God to have.

I should point out that I’ve made no attempt to read The Western Canon the whole way through; in fact, I’ve never made a single attempt to read it systematically. I just sort of pick it up, thumb through it, occasionally plumb the index. There are several books that I am always rereading in this category: Books That I Am Always Reading and Yet Have Never Finished. Foremost among these is Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, a book that I probably, at this point, have read in full, but never fully through. Its aphorisms beg to be read discontinuously; I think Nietzsche wet-dreamed about his fragmentary works being literally fragmented and then later found, read piecemeal against some newer, more garish culture. Or perhaps that’s just my metaphorical wet dream.

Other Books That I Am Always Reading and Yet Have Never Finished — The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman stands out, as does Finnegans Wake. Sterne’s book is such an oddity: I remember picking it up in a stack of books to be shelved at my college library, thumbing through it, bewildered, thinking that it must be contemporary with John Barth. A bit of research left me even more perplexed. Like Tristram, who can’t seem to finish his story, I can’t seem to actually finish it, but I’m okay with picking it up again and again. Similarly, Finnegans Wake strikes me as an unfinished-unfinishable volume (I do not mean this literally; I know that Joyce “finished” the book as an infinite strange loop, just as I know that the book can be read). I have an audio recording of Finnegans Wake that I like to listen to occasionally (especially while driving), as well as William York Tindall’s  guide (which is fun), but I’d rather just sort of grab the thing at random and read a page or two. I know, in an intellectual sense, that is, that I could easily read the book in a calendar year by committing to three pages a day (plus a few pages of Tindall), but I don’t think that I can read books in an intellectual sense. I think, at the risk of sounding unbearably corny, that books have to call to their readers in an emotional and perhaps even spiritual sense. Otherwise, what’s the point?

January 10, 2011

“We’ve Gotten Used to Death” — A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

by Biblioklept

From Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, “The Part About Fate, pages 266-267:

“We’ve gotten used to death,” he heard the young man say.

“It’s always been that way,” said the white-haired man, “always.”

In the nineteenth century, toward the middle or the end of the nineteenth century, said the white-haired man, society tended to filter death through the fabric of words. Reading news stories from back then you might get the idea that there was hardly any crime, or that a single murder could throw a whole country into tumult. We didn’t want death in the home, or in our dreams and fantasies, and yet it was a fact that terrible crimes were committed, mutilations, all kinds of rape, even serial killings. Of course, most of the serial killers were never caught. Take the most famous case of the day. No one knew who Jack the Ripper was. Everything was passed through the filter of words, everything trimmed to fit our fear. What does a child do when he’s afraid? He closes his eyes. What does a child do when he’s about to be raped and murdered? He closes his eyes. And he screams, too, but first he closes his eyes. Words served that purpose. And the funny thing is, the archetypes of human madness and cruelty weren’t invented by the men of our day but by our forebears. The Greeks, you might say, invented evil, the Greeks saw the evil inside us all, but testimonies or proofs of this evil no longer move us. They strike us as futile, senseless. You could say the same about madness. It was the Greeks who showed us the range of possibilities and yet now they mean nothing to us. Everything changes, you say. Of course everything changes, but not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes. Maybe it’s because polite society was so small back then. I’m talking about the nineteenth century, eighteenth century, seventeenth century. No doubt about it, society was small. Most human beings existed on the outer fringes of society. In the seventeenth century, for example, at least twenty percent of the merchandise on every slave ship died. By that I mean the dark-skinned people who were being transported for sale, to Virginia, say. And that didn’t get anyone upset or make headlines in the Virginia papers or make anyone go out and call for the ship captain to be hanged. But if a plantation owner went crazy and killed his neighbor and then went galloping back home, dismounted, and promptly killed his wife, two deaths in total, Virginia society spent the next six months in fear, and the legend of the murderer on horseback might linger for generations. Or look at the French. During the Paris Commune of 1871, thousands of people were killed and no one batted an eye. Around the same time a knife sharpener killed his wife and his elderly mother and then he was shot and killed by the police. The story didn’t just make all the French newspapers, it was written up in papers across Europe, and even got a mention in the New York Examiner. How come? The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, the dark-skinned people who died on the ship weren’t part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were. What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible. That said, words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance, not of revelation. Maybe they revealed something all the same. I couldn’t tell you.

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