Posts tagged ‘Roberto Bolaño’

July 26, 2012

“Among the Horses” — Roberto Bolaño

by Biblioklept


Among the Horses

I dreamed of a woman with no mouth, says the man in bed. I couldn’t help smiling. The piston forces the images up again. Look, he tells her, I know another story that’s just as sad. He’s a writer who lives on the edge of town. He makes a living working a riding school. He’s never asked for much, all he needs is a room and time to read. But one day he meets a girl who lives in another city and he falls in love. They decide to get married. The girl will come to live with him. The first problem arises: finding a place big enough for the two of them. The second problem is where to get the money to pay for it. Then one thing leads to another: a job with a steady income (at the stables he works on commission, plus room, board, and a small monthly stipend), getting his papers in order, registering with social security, etc. But for now, he needs money to get to the city where his fianceé lives. A friend suggests the possibility of writing articles for a magazine. He calculates that the first four would pay for the bus trip there and back and maybe a few days at a cheap hotel. He writes his girlfriend to tell her he’s coming. But he can’t finish a single article. He spends the evenings sitting outdoors at the bar of the riding school where he works, trying to write, but he can’t. Nothing comes out, as they say in common parlance. The man realizes that he’s finished. All he writes are short crime stories. The trip recedes from his future, is lost, and he remains listless, inert, going automatically about his work among the horses.

“Among the Horses” by Roberto Bolaño. Section 11 of his poem-novel Antwerp.

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July 18, 2012

Intertexuality and Structure in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

by Edwin Turner

The Librarian, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

1. I had been reading William T. Vollmann’s enormous book Imperial. I bought the book in paperback and then put an illicit copy on my Kindle (this riff is not about the ethics of that move). It’s just easier to read that way, especially at night. At some point in Imperial, probably at some mention of coyotes or polleros—smugglers of humans—I felt a tug in the back of my brain pan, a tug that wanted to pull up Roberto Bolaño’s big big novel 2666—also on my Kindle (also an illicit copy, although I bought the book twice).

This is how I ended up rereading 2666 straight through. It was unplanned.

2. Like many readers, I aim to reread more than I actually end up rereading.

Truly excellent novels are always better in rereading: richer, fuller, more resonant. Sometimes we might find we’ve thoroughly misread them. (Imagine my horror rereading Lolita in my twenties to discover the vein of evil throbbing through it). Sometimes we find new tones that seemed impossible on the first run through. (I’ve read Blood Meridian at least once a year since the first time I read it, and it keeps getting funnier and funnier). Most of the time, rereading confirms the greatness of the novel, a greatness inhabiting the smallest details. (I’m looking at you Moby-Dick).

3. Even a riff should have a thesis, and here’s mine:  2666 has a reputation for being fragmentary and inconclusive—and in some ways, yes, of course it is—but a second full reading of 2666 reveals a book that is cohesive, densely allusive, and thematically precise.

Rereading is one way of stepping back to see the bigger picture that  Bolaño twists together from smaller fragments. Rereading reveals the intertextual correspondences between the books of 2666 (the five books proper, the “Parts,” of course, but also the texts, invented or real, that those books house).

4. 2666 is also a book about writing.

Earth, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

5. To wit: “The Part About Archimboldi,” the fifth and final book of 2666, the book that features Benno von Archimboldi, the writer at the heart of 2666—this final chapter sews together many of the book’s (apparently) loose threads.

6. Two problems with point #5:

A. Benno von Archimboldi (aka Hans Reiter) is not at the heart of 2666 but rather a shadowy trace slipping through the margins, a ghost-presence that’s always there, but not generative or muscular like a heart. (I’m not sure exactly what I mean by this).

B. “The Part About Archimboldi” most decidedly does not sew together all the loose threads: That’s the reader’s job (or task or pleasure or plight or burden).

7. And so then point #4 (“2666 is also a book about writing”): 2666 is also a book about reading: A book about reading as detective work.

8. Who are the heroes of 2666?

They are all detectives of some kind, literal or otherwise.

Literary critics. Journalists. Philosophers. Psychologists. Psychics and fortune tellers. Police detectives. Private detectives. An American sheriff. A rogue politician. Poets. Publishers. Parents. Searchers.

9. Archimboldi shows up in the first book of 2666, “The Part About the Critics”; the eponymous critics, literary detectives are searching for him.

How does Archimboldi show up?

Inside a story (the Frisian lady’s) inside a story (the Swabian’s) (inside the story of “Critics,” which is inside the story of 2666).

The Frisian lady asks:

“Does anyone know the answer to the riddle? Does anyone understand it? Is there by chance a man in this town who can tell me the solution, even if he has to whisper it in my ear?”

And Archimboldi answers. He’s a reader, a detective.

10. Swinging back to point #4: 2666 is a book about writing, and it shares the postmodern feature of calling attention to its own style and construction, yet it never does this in an overtly clever or insufferable fashion: It’s far more sly.

Water, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

11. What is the construction or shape of 2666?

A straightforward answer: Five books in an intertextual conversation that seem to loop back around, where the last book prefigures the first book in a strange circuit.

Some possible metaphorical answers:

A void (“Voids can’t be filled,” Archimboldi says).

A labyrinth (the word labyrinth appears 14 times in Wimmer’s translation of 2666).

A mirror (61 times).

An abyss (22 times)

An asylum (43 times; madhouse appears 5 times).

12. And then, back to point #10: How does Bolaño slyly announce or criticize or puncture his style in 2666?

In Ignacio Echevarria’s “Note to the First Edition” of 2666, he tells us that:

Among Bolaño’s notes for 2666 there appears the single line: “The narrator of 2666 is Arturo Belano.” And elsewhere Bolaño adds, with the indication “for the end of 2666″: “And that’s it, friends. I’ve done it all, I’ve lived it all. If I had the strength, I’d cry. I bid you all goodbye, Arturo Belano.”

Belano is Bolaño’s alter ego, a trace who slips and sails and ducks through the Bolañoverse (he also shows up unnamed in 2666 with his partner Ulises Lima; they manage to father a bastard son, Lalo Cura).

So Belano who narrates 2666 (how?!) is Bolaño: Okay: So? Now?

13. I suggested earlier on Biblioklept that 2666 is a grand ventriloquist act, a forced possession, a psychic haunting. Bolaño channels Belano who channels detectives, journalists, poets, writers. Readers.

14. The channeling is metatextual or intertextual, a series of transpositions between the various narrators and protagonists and readers (detectives all).

15. The passage that I see most frequently cited from 2666 points to its intertextuality.

The passage is likely frequently cited because

A) Ignacio Echevarria cites it in his note at the beginning of 2666 and

B) it describes Bolaño’s project in 2666, both internally (the book as a strange beast, with intertextual readings within its five (plus) parts), and also externally (intertextually against the canon). Here is the passage (from “The Part About Amalfitano”):

One night, while the kid was scanning the shelves, Amalfitano asked him what books he liked and what book he was reading, just to make conversation. Without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Simple Heart, A Christmas Carol. And then he said that he was reading Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Leaving aside the fact that A Simple Heart and A Christmas Carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been Trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick,he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pecuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

16. At the risk of belaboring or repeating the last point: Bolaño, ever the canon-maker, the list maker, situates 2666, his final work (he knows it’s his final work) along with “the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown,” a book that struggles “against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”

Air, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

17. So some metatextual moments that, read intertextually, perhaps (perhaps!) work to outline that “unknown,” that “something” of 2666:

18. Near the end of “The Part About Crimes,” a culminating moment, where a female journalist (NB: a female journalist is the first murder victim in “Crimes”) reads the work of the poet/journalist Mercado:

Hernandez Mercado’s style wavered between sensationalism and flatness. The story was riddled with clichés, inaccuracies, sweeping statements, exaggerations, and flagrant lies. Sometimes Hernandez Mercado painted Haas as the scapegoat of a conspiracy of rich Sonorans and sometimes Haas appeared as an avenging angel or a detective locked in a cell but by no means defeated, gradually cornering his tormentors solely by dint of intelligence.

A description of the style of “The Part About the Crimes”: “The story was riddled with clichés, inaccuracies, sweeping statements, exaggerations, and flagrant lies.”

19. And, from “The Part About Archimboldi,” a moment where some critics read Ansky’s novel Twilight and assess it:

Professor Stanislaw Strumilin read it. It struck him as hard to follow. The writer Aleksei Tolstoy read it. It struck him as chaotic. Andrei Zhdanov read it. He left it half finished. And Stalin read it. It struck him as suspect.

These are internal criticisms of 2666.

20. Another moment from Ansky’s journal that seems to describe “The Part About the Crimes,” 2666, and the Bolañoverse in general:

He mentions names Reiter has never heard before. Then, a few pages on, he mentions them again. As if he were afraid of forgetting them. Names, names, names. Those who made revolution and those who were devoured by that same revolution, though it wasn’t the same but another, not the dream but the nightmare that hides behind the eyelids of the dream.

21. While I’m using Ansky’s journal as a pseudo key for the intertextual labyrinth of 2666, let me grab this nugget:

Only in chaos are we conceivable.

(I added the note “thesis” in the electronic margin).

22. Or another description of the novel, couched in a description of history:

. . . history, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.

23. Another description of 2666 can be found in Bubis’s description of Archimboldi’s second novel:

Lüdicke had yet to come off the presses when Mr. Bubis received the manuscript of The Endless Rose, which he read in two nights, after which, deeply shaken, he woke his wife and told her they would have to publish this new book by Archimboldi.

“Is it good?” asked the baroness, half asleep and not bothering to sit up.

“It’s better than good,” said Bubis, pacing the room.

Then he began to talk, still pacing, about Europe, Greek mythology, and something vaguely like a police investigation, but the baroness fell back asleep and didn’t hear him.

The names of the novels here also suggest something about the structure of 2666The Endless Rose suggests an eternal loop, as does Lüdicke, which etymologically suggests ludic, recursively playful . . . (Again, I’m just riffing here).

24. Another description of Archimboldi’s writing, which is of course a description of Bolaño’s 2666:

The style was strange. The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one after another didn’t lead anywhere: all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbors, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely.

Fire, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

25. Archimboldi’s name is some sort of secret key to the novel. He invents the name, of course, seemingly on the spot. (Invents is not the right word—rather, he synthesizes the name, cobbles it together from his readings. The name is intertextual).

The last name he appropriates from the painter Arcimboldo, whose paintings are instructive in understanding the structure of 2666, a narrative that comprises hundreds of internal discrete narratives that define the shape of the larger picture.  The first name?

“They called me Benno after Benito Juarez,” said Archimboldi, “I suppose you know who Benito Juarez was.”

The dark heart of 2666, site of “Crimes,” is Santa Teresa, a transparent stand-in for Ciudad Juarez.

(Florita Almada, psychic medium and honest detective of “Crimes” channels Benito Juarez, the shepherd boy who became the president of Mexico; I’m tempted to quote here at some length but resist).

26. Re: #25: I foolishly suggest that Archimboldi’s name is some sort of secret key. I don’t think there is a secret key. Just reading. Rereading.

27. I seem to be focusing a lot on “The Part About Archimboldi” in this riff. I riffed about the first three books here, and “The Part About Crimes” here.

28. But, still dwelling on “Archimboldi,” there’s a moment in it where an old alpine hermit confesses to murdering his wife by pushing her into a ravine. In some way his confession seems to answer all the puzzles of “Crimes,” all the unresolved abysses, all the falls (literal and metaphorical).  How can I justify this claim? How does a man confessing to a murder in a remote German border town in the 1950s answer the murders in Mexico in the 1990s? Or any of the other murders in the book? I suppose it’s a thematic echo, not a solution. Sweating late at night, reading past midnight, the moment struck me as larded with significance. I’m losing whatever thread I had . . .

29. So to end—how to end? Perhaps I’ll raid my first review of 2666, from January, 2009—surely I must have remarked on the end of the book, or on its apparent inconclusiveness—

30. —and so I did. And I don’t know if I can do better than this: 

Readers enthralled by the murder-mystery aspects of the novel, particularly the throbbing detective beat of “The Part About The Crimes,” may find themselves disappointed by the seemingly ambiguous or inconclusive or open-ended ending(s) of 2666. While the final moments of “The Part About Archimboldi” dramatically tie directly into the “Crimes” and “Fate” sections, they hardly provide the types of conclusive, definitive answers that many readers demand. However, I think that the ending is perfect, and that far from providing no answers, the novel is larded with answers, bursting at the seams with answers, too many answers to swallow and digest in one sitting. Like a promising, strangely familiar turn in the labyrinth, the last page of the book invites the reader back to another, previously visited corridor, a hidden passage perhaps, a thread now charged with new importance . . . 2666 is a book that demands multiple readings.

It was a good suggestion three years ago and I’ll take it up again.

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.

July 2, 2012

Roberto Bolaño’s Powers of Horror

by Edwin Turner

Scenes of Rape and Murder, Francisco Goya

1. In Powers of Horror philosopher Julia Kristeva describes the idea with which she’s most closely identified, the abject, the intense horror our subjective psychology—and our bodies—experience when faced with corporeal reality: the edges of our body: filth, vomit, shit, blood, death: the me that is not me. Breakdown of subject and object: abject.

2. Julia Kristeva shows up as a character, a phantom from a photograph in Roberto Bolaño’s story “Labyrinth,” collected in The Secret of Evil, new from New Directions.

3. (Can there be a more Bolañoesque title than “Labyrinth”?)

4. This is ostensibly a review of that Bolaño collection, but I’ll be riffing on some other things.

5. Bolaño created his own genre. His oeuvre, piecemeal and posthumous at times, is nevertheless a complete fiction or discourse of its own. Think of the Bolañoverse like Middle Earth, like Yoknapatawpha County, like dark Narnia with no Aslan to redeem it.

6. The Bolañoverse is abject. Consider the pile of bodies that heap like rubbish in “The Part About the Crimes,” the cruel center of 2666—has ever a book repeated the phrase “vaginally and anally raped” so many times?

7. Kristeva, in Powers of Horror:

The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanninness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.

It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior . . .  Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility.

Sex Murder, Otto Dix

8. But I promised to remark upon The Secret of Evil; I used the term “review” even.

A few things:

It’s a beautiful book (I mean the physical book itself; the cover, the design). The name is perfect.

Much of what’s collected here is perhaps unfinished—-scraps, riffs, bits of tales, sketches.

But also:

Much of what’s here is finished, or, more to the point, much of what’s here—scratch that, all of what’s collected in The Secret of Evil—fits into the Bolañoverse, fleshes it out, or stretches it, or condenses it maybe (let me have my paradoxes, will you?).

9.  Bolaño’s friend (and literary executor) Ignacio Echevarría puts it aptly in his introduction to The Secret of Evil:

 Bolaño’s work as a whole remains suspended over the abysses that it dares to sound. All his narratives, not just The Secret of Evil, seem to be governed by a poetics of inconclusiveness. The eruption of horror seems to determine the interruption of the storytelling; or perhaps it is the other way around: the interruption of the telling suggests the imminence of horror.

10. I have been slowly, slowly rereading my way through 2666, edging my way into it in the latest of hours. I’m nearing the end, or the end of “The Part About Archimboldi,” and what I find most remarkable upon rereading is how precise, how tight it seems this time, how each book seems to answer to the other. (Take, for instance the female politician who, at the end of “The Part About the Crimes,” seems to peer through a strange mirror into the future (past?) to see the English critic Norton, who, in “The Part About the Critics,” in turn gazes into (the same?) mirror at a woman—not herself but surely the politician. Or take another instance: The visitations to madhouses made by peripheral characters to even more peripheral characters: artists, suspects, lovers, poets, teachers. Or take all the abysses. Or the labyrinths. Or mirrors. Or dreams. Or murders. Maybe I’m tipping into a simple recitation of motifs and themes now).

11. But no, what I want to remark on is how The Secret of Evil is part and parcel of the  Bolañoverse, how it answers backward and forward and throughout  Bolaño’s “poetics of inconclusiveness,” his “eruption[s] of horror.” Fragments like “The Secret of Evil” and “Crimes,” with their journalist heroes and noir lighting seem to dance around the same central mysteries that pulse through 2666. The strange literary criticism of “Vagaries of the Literature of Doom” and “Scholars of Sodom” answers not only to “The Part About the Critics,” but to the entire course of  Bolaño’s work as well. And continuing—

12. Of course Arturo Belano appears in The Secret of Evil, as does his erstwhile partner Ulisses Lima. How could they not? They roam the Bolañoverse beyond their own narrative proper, The Savage Detectives (that is what detectives do), even popping up (unnamed) in 2666 where they father (both of them figuratively and one of them literally) that other savage detective, Lalo Cura.

13. And then (back to The Secret of Evil) there’s “The Colonel’s Son,” a sketch of a zombie film, a B-movie, shades of Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (recall that Rodriguez is given a vague credit for a surreal porno horror film that plays in “The Part About Fate” in 2666). “The Colonel’s Son” shows  Bolaño’s poetics of inconclusiveness at their sharpest. Our narrator describes a terrible film he sees on late night TV, only he misses the beginning, so we are without context, without rationale or reason for the awful onslaught that happens. There’s a labyrinth, 0f course, a dark twisting complex of passageways that hide secrets under a military facility, and then a twin labyrinth, a sewer system. There’s love, familial and romantic. There are Kristevan bodies, zombies, corpses infected with life (or is it the other way around). There’s horrific indeterminancy.

14. I remarked on Bolaño’s powers of horror back in the spring, making a bizarre argument that 2666 was somehow a werewolf story. 2666 and the Bolañoverse in general is crawling with all kinds of monsters though.

The Murderer, Franz Stuck

15. I’ve used the word Lynchian repeatedly when writing about Bolaño, in reference to the American film director David Lynch—whose name is in fact directly evoked in 2666, in “The Part About Fate.” In his essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” David Foster Wallace provides a succinct description of David Lynch’s powers of horror, a description that I believe applies to Bolaño as well:

Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them. This point is worth emphasizing. Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of noirish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movies’ world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally, possessed.

16. The Bolañoverse is darkly haunted, comically haunted, savagely haunted, haunted by history and the present as well. The crimes of the Nazis, maddeningly, expertly elided in “The Part About Archimbolid” extend in “The Part About the Crimes” to Santa Teresa, fictional stand-in to real-life murder capital Juarez—and Nazism percolates out into neo-fascism, into the horrific confessions in By Night in Chile or the art-terror of Distant Star, or to the absurdity of Nazi Literature of the Americas. Throughout it all though, Bolaño crafts his powers of horror not so much through evil individuals (although they are easy to find there) but through, to use Wallace’s term, “evil as environment.”

17. How often do the characters in 2666 look out on the desert in a horror approaching madness?

18. And then madness, too, madness as a type of possession, but also madness as a kind of inescapable outcome, or madness as even a type of salvation, the sense that we might end up mad or dead (murder or suicide).

19. Let me try to connect these last few points in a citation from late in “The Part About the Crimes,” a few lines from our female politician trying to find justice for her friend Kelly who soon learns about the extensive victimization of women in Santa Teresa:

As I learned about other cases, however, as I heard other voices, my rage began to assume what you might call mass stature, my rage became collective or the expression of something collective, my rage, when it allowed itself to show, saw itself as the instrument of vengeance of thousands of victims. Honestly, I think I was losing my mind. Those voices I heard (voices, never faces or shapes) came from the desert. In the desert, I roamed with a knife in my hand. My face was reflected in the blade. I had white hair and sunken cheeks covered with tiny scars. Each scar was a little story that I tried and failed to recall. I ended up taking pills for my nerves.

We see here the descent into madness, the rage of it all, the violence of the landscape, the great ventriloquist act of insanity.

20. Bolaño, master ventriloquist, authors the heteroglossic Bolañoverse with an abyssal void at its invisible center. His characters wish to speak some kind of truth or name or answer to this void, but it exists outside of the realm of language, of possibility, accessible instead only in dreams or nightmares or mirrors or strange transmissions, psychic or otherwise. It’s terrifying, of course.

21. But it’s a mistake to cast Bolaño as some kind of malevolent puppet master, confounding his ventriloquized characters and driving them mad (not to mention his poor readers!). Perhaps it’s instructive to dip into Kristeva again, who gives us the deject to go with her abject. From Powers of Horror:

The one by whom the abject exists is thus a deject who places (himself), separates (himself), situates (himself), and therefore strays, instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing. Situationist in a sense, and not without laughter—since laughing is a way of placing or displacing abjection.

. . . wishing to know his abjections is not at all unaware of them. Often, moreover, he includes himself among them, casting within himself the scalpel that carries out his separations. . . the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded, is never one, nor homogeneous, nor totalizable, but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic. A deviser of territories, languages, works, the deject never stops demarcating his universe whose fluid confines—for they are constituted of a nonobject, the abject–constantly questions his solidity and impel him to start afresh. A tireless builder, the deject is in short a stray.

22.  Bolaño the exile. Bolaño the stray.

23. This riff has swollen now, ballooned up, mutated; I can no longer wrangle the rest of my outline into cohesion at this point. Save it for later.

24. I’ll try to end more sensibly, or at least more practically. The Secret of Evil is not some grand intertextual key that unlocks the secret of the Bolañoverse; the “secret” in the title is not a revelation but a synonym for “mystery”. Fans will find some sharp moments here, but it’s not a good starting place for those unfamiliar with his writing (try Last Evenings on Earth or Distant Star). For completists only—but completists will find dark joy here.

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

“The Son Never Asked to Be Born” — Roberto Bolaño’s Parenting Advice

by Biblioklept

Roberto Bolaño, from an interview with Eliseo Álvarez, republished this month in Melville House’s Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview:

I suppose that within his brutality and his courage–he is a very courageous man–my father loved me as I love my son. In the end, one could talk for hours about the relationship between a father and a son. The only clear thing is that a father has to be willing to be spat upon by his son as many times as the son wishes to do it. Even still the father will not have paid a tenth of what he owes because the son never asked to be born. If you brought him into this world, the least you can do is put up with whatever insult he wants to offer.

Okay, so sons didn’t ask to be born, but what about daughters? How did Bolaño feel about his daughter?

I won’t say anymore. I’ll start to cry. The only explanation I could give would be to cry. It’s beyond the beyond.

Reading these quotes, I thought about two of my favorite depictions of fathers and children in Bolaño’s work. First, there’s Bolaño as the son, “B,” in the title track from the collection Last Evenings on Earth. The story is a strange mix of sinister and funny, with the (perhaps overly literary) son fearing for his dad, a boxer who, at least in the son-narrator’s view, doesn’t seem to be paying attention to just how bad things seem to be turning on the pair’s vacation to Acapulco. Then there’s (possibly) Bolaño as parent, this time in the form of Oscar Amalfitano in 2666. If Bolaño would cry for his daughter’s safety, for anxiety and wariness of a cruel world, then Amalfitano becomes a literary center for those fears. And, if you’ve read that book, you know his paranoia is justified. In any case, it’s clear that Bolaño loved his children deeply. In another of the the book’s interviews–literally, “The Last Interview,” Bolaño, the exile who lived everywhere said, “my only country is my two children.” He even asked that his masterpiece 2666 be divvied up into five parts in the hopes that it would provide steady income for his son and daughter.

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 21, 2012

Roberto Bolaño Crochet Doll

by Biblioklept

Roberto Bolaño crochet doll by Santo Crochet; via Matt Bucher on Twitter

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 15, 2012

Roberto Bolaño’s The Secret of Evil (Book Acquired, 4.09.2012)

by Biblioklept


How you react to a “new” book by Roberto Bolaño at this point is probably dependent on how much you love or loathe his work—although I imagine those indifferent to or unfamiliar with his writing might be unduly put off by this point at the volume of material that this writer drops posthumously [insert Tupac joke here].

I’m a fan though, so I’m excited about The Secret of Evil, even if the material collected here is in part unfinished . . . although, as Ignacio Echevarria points out in his introduction, all of Bolaño’s “narratives, not just The Secret of Evil, seem to be governed by a poetics of inconclusiveness.” A few of the pieces in Evil have already been excerpted, and I read a few this weekend (who can resist a Bolaño text called “Crimes”?), and while some pieces here are sketchier than others, there’s that preponderance of life force that we expect from late period Bolaño, from a man who seemed to pour what was left of himself into his words and sentences.

From publisher New Directions’ website:

Opening this book is like being granted access to the Chilean master’s personal files. Included in this one-of-a-kind collection is everything Roberto Bolaño was working on just before his death in 2003, and everything that he wanted to share with his readers. Fans of his writing will find familiar characters in new settings, and entirely new stories and styles, too.

A North American journalist in Paris is woken at 4 a.m. by a mysterious caller with urgent information. Daniela de Montecristo (familiar to readers of Nazi Literature in the Americas and 2666) recounts the loss of her virginity. Arturo Belano returns to Mexico City and meets the last disciples of Ulises Lima, who play in a band called The Asshole of Morelos. Belano’s son Gerónimo disappears in Berlin during the Days of Chaos in 2005. Memories of a return to the native land; Argentine writers as gangsters; zombie schlock as allegory…and much more.

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.

April 5, 2012

Read “Scholars of Sodom,” an Excerpt from Roberto Bolaño’s New Book The Secret of Evil

by Biblioklept

It’s 1972 and I can see V.S. Naipaul strolling through the streets of Buenos Aires. Well, sometimes he’s strolling, but sometimes, when he’s on his way to meetings or keeping appointments, his gait is quick and his eyes take in only what he needs to see in order to reach his destination with a minimum of bother, whether it’s a private dwelling or, more often, a restaurant or a café, since many of those who’ve agreed to meet him have chosen a public place, as if they were intimidated by this peculiar Englishman, or as if they’d been disconcerted by the author of Miguel Street and A House for Mr. Biswas when they met him in the flesh and had thought: Well, I didn’t think it would be like this, or: This isn’t the man I’d imagined, or: Nobody told me.

So there he is, Naipaul, and it seems that all he can notice are outward movements, but in fact he’s noticing inward movements too, although he interprets them in his own way, sometimes arbitrarily, and he’s moving through Buenos Aires in the year 1972 and writing as he moves or perhaps only wanting to write as his legs move through that strange city, and he’s still young, forty years old, but he already has a considerable body of work behind him, a body of work that doesn’t weigh him down or prevent him from moving briskly through Buenos Aires when he has an appointment to keep—the weight of the work, that’s something to which we shall have to return, the weight and the pride that he takes in his work, the weight and the responsibility, which don’t prevent his legs from moving nimbly or his hand from rising to hail a taxi, as he acts in character, like the man he is, a man who keeps his appointments punctually—but he is weighed down by the work when he goes strolling through Buenos Aires without appointments to exercise his British punctuality, without any pressing obligations, just walking along those strange avenues and streets, through that city in the southern hemisphere, so like the cities of the northern hemisphere, and yet nothing like them at all, a hole, a void that someone has suddenly inflated, a show that is strictly for local consumption; that’s when he feels the weight of the work, and it’s tiring to carry that weight as he walks, it exhausts him, it’s irritating and shameful.

Read the rest of the essay at NRYBFrom The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews, new from New Directions this month.

March 18, 2012

Book Shelves #12, 3.18.2012

by Biblioklept


Book shelves series #12, twelfth Sunday of 2012.

The shelf holds literature in translation: Witold Gombrowicz, Heinrich Böll, W.G. Sebald, Julio Cortázar, and Roberto Bolaño. There was a geode bookend here until Thursday, when I reorganized (finally giving the Gombrowicz a home and restoring the finished copy of Between Parentheses to its brothers). No, I never finished Hopscotch, nor much of the Böll (although I did read Irish JournalThe Train Was on Time, and The Clown); I haven’t read Ferdydurke yet either.

January 17, 2012

Read “Labyrinth,” an Excerpt from Roberto Bolaño’s Forthcoming Work, The Secret of Evil

by Biblioklept

The New Yorker has published an excerpt from The Secret of Evil, the latest posthumous offering from Roberto Bolaño (new this spring from New Directions). The excerpt begins by extrapolating on a photo of some of the Tel Quel folks, (including a striking Julia Kristeva):

They’re seated. They’re looking at the camera. They are captioned, from left to right: J. Henric, J.-J. Goux, Ph. Sollers, J. Kristeva, M.-Th. Réveillé, P. Guyotat, C. Devade, and M. Devade.

There’s no photo credit.

They’re sitting around a table. It’s an ordinary table, made of wood, perhaps, or plastic, it could even be a marble table on metal legs, but nothing could be less germane to my purpose than to give an exhaustive description of it. The table is a table that is large enough to seat the above-mentioned individuals and it’s in a café. Or appears to be. Let’s suppose, for the moment, that it’s in a café.

The eight people who appear in the photo, who are posing for the photo, are fanned out around one side of the table in a crescent or a kind of opened-out horseshoe, so that each of them can be seen clearly and completely. In other words, no one is facing away from the camera. In front of them, or rather between them and the photographer (and this is slightly strange), there are three plants—a rhododendron, a ficus, and an everlasting—rising from a planter, which may serve, but this is speculation, as a barrier between two distinct sections of the café.

Read more.

January 3, 2012

“Books Are Like Ghosts” — Roberto Bolaño on Lost Books

by Biblioklept

Roberto Bolaño on lost books. From Between Parentheses:

To search for those copies or similar copies, the same font, the same layout, the same plot, the dark or bright syntax, somehow forces me to remember a time when I was young and poor and careless, though I know that the same copies, the exact same ones, will never be found, and to set myself to such a task would be like marching into Florida in search of El Dorado.

Even so, I often browse used bookstores, sorting through stacks of books left behind by others or sold in a dark moment, and in corners like these I try to find the books that I lost or forgot more than thirty years ago on another continent, with the hope and dedication and bitterness of those who search for their first lost books, books that if found I wouldn’t read anyway, because I’ve already read them over and over, but that I would look at and touch just as the miser strokes the coins under which he’s buried.

But books have nothing to do with greed, though they do have something to do with coins. Books are like ghosts.

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.

November 13, 2011

The Third Reich: Part III — Roberto Bolaño

by Edwin Turner

As a means of plot summary, here’s an excerpt from my review of the second part of Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Third Reich (serialized this year by The Paris Review and forthcoming in hardback from FSG (uh, the Bolaño’s book, not my review, of course))—

If 2666 impossibly haunts The Third Reich from the future, then paranoid Poe haunts it from the past. Last time we checked in, Udo Berger and his beautiful girlfriend Ingeborg had made tentative friends with another German couple while spending the summer at a seaside resort in Spain. Through this pair, they meet up with two nefarious locals, the Wolf and the Lamb; Udo also begins obsessing over a man named El Quemado, a burn victim who rents paddle boats to tourists. For Udo, the holiday is meant to be a working vacation—he’s a wargame enthusiast, and he plans to write a defining strategy for a new game called “The Third Reich” (implicitly, he plays the Nazi’s side). In the meantime, he’s also taken with the hotel’s owner, Frau Else, a German transplant who mysteriously disappears to take care of an ill husband who no one seems to see.

The third installment of The Third Reich amplifies Udo’s paranoia and isolation. He spends most of his time playing Third Reich with El Quemado, and although he assures his best friend Conrad, via telephone, that he’s beating the burned man, we see his control (and sanity) slipping away. Udo seems unconcerned that Conrad has been comforting Ingeborg, probably because Udo is still trying to bed Frau Else, who has mysteriously disappeared in this third chapter. When he’s not busy sleeping nightmarish sleep or lurking around the hotel at night, Udo picks fights with the night-watchman; clearly, he’s outlasted his welcome in this tourist town.

This section of The Third Reich is shorter than the first two, and although I’ve enjoyed reading the novel in pieces, it’s with this section that the strain of serialization begins to show. Bolaño’s slow-burn Lynchian dread is clearly climaxing here, and it’s unsatisfying to have that suspense interrupted. It’s also unclear how The Third Reich will resolve, or if it will resolve—Bolaño isn’t exactly one to neatly tie up loose ends—but I’m hoping that we’ll get to learn more about El Quemado’s strange motivations, and get another glimpse of Frau Else’s husband. We’ll see soon—the winter issue is out soon with the final installment.


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