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

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.

“Our good craftsman writes. He’s absorbed in what takes shape well or badly on the page. His wife, though he doesn’t know it, is watching him. It really is he who’s writing. But if his wife had X-ray vision she would see that instead of being present at an exercise of literary creation, she’s witnessing a session of hypnosis. There’s nothing inside the man who sits there writing. Nothing of himself, I mean. How much better off the poor man would be if he devoted himself to reading. Reading is pleasure and happiness to be alive or sadness to be alive and above all it’s knowledge and questions. Writing, meanwhile, is almost always empty. There’s nothing in the guts of the man who sits there writing. Nothing, I mean to say, that his wife, at a given moment, might recognize. He writes like someone taking dictation. His novel or book of poems, decent, adequate, arises not from an exercise of style or will, as the poor unfortunate believes, but as the result of an exercise of concealment. There must be many books, many lovely pines, to shield from hungry eyes the book that really matters, the wretched cave of our misfortune, the magic flower of winter!

“Excuse the metaphors. Sometimes, in my excitement, I wax romantic. But listen. Every work that isn’t a masterpiece is, in a sense, a part of a vast camouflage. You’ve been a soldier, I imagine, and you know what I mean. Every book that isn’t a masterpiece is cannon fodder, a slogging foot soldier, a piece to be sacrificed, since in multiple ways it mimics the design of the masterpiece. When I came to this realization, I gave up writing. Still, my mind didn’t stop working. In fact, it worked better when I wasn’t writing. I asked myself: why does a masterpiece need to be hidden? what strange forces wreath it in secrecy and mystery?

“By now I knew it was pointless to write. Or that it was worth it only if one was prepared to write a masterpiece. Most writers are deluded or playing. Perhaps delusion and play are the same thing, two sides of the same coin. The truth is we never stop being children, terrible children covered in sores and knotty veins and tumors and age spots, but ultimately children, in other words we never stop clinging to life because we are life. One might also say: we’re theater, we’re music. By the same token, few are the writers who give up. We play at believing ourselves immortal. We delude ourselves in the appraisal of our own works and in our perpetual misappraisal of the works of others. See you at the Nobel, writers say, as one might say: see you in hell.

“Once I saw an American gangster movie. In one scene a detective kills a crook and before he fires the fatal shot he says: see you in hell. He’s playing. The detective is playing and he’s deluded. The crook, who meets his gaze and curses him just before he dies, is also playing and deluded, although his fields of play and delusion have been reduced to almost zero, since in the next shot he’s going to die. The director of the film is also playing. So is the scriptwriter. See you at the Nobel. We’ll go down in history. We have the gratitude of the German people. A heroic battle remembered for generations to come. An immortal love. A name inscribed in marble. The time of the Muses. Even a phrase as seemingly innocent as echoes of Greek prose is all play and delusion.

“Play and delusion are the blindfold and spur of minor writers. Also: the promise of their future happiness. A forest that grows at a vertiginous rate, a forest no one can fence in, not even the academies, in fact, the academies make sure it flourishes unhindered, as do boosters and universities (breeding grounds for the shameless) and government institutions and patrons and cultural associations and declaimers of poetry— all aid the forest to grow and hide what must be hidden, all aid the forest to reproduce what must be reproduced, since the process is inevitable, though no one ever sees what exactly is being reproduced, what is being tamely mirrored back.

“Plagiarism, you say? Yes, plagiarism, in the sense that all minor works, all works from the pen of a minor writer, can be nothing but plagiarism of some masterpiece. The small difference is that here we’re talking about sanctioned plagiarism. Plagiarism as camouflage as some wood and canvas scenery as a charade that leads us, likely as not, into the void.

“In a word: experience is best. I won’t say you can’t get experience by hanging around libraries, but libraries are second to experience. Experience is the mother of science, it is often said. When I was young and I still thought I would make a career in the world of letters, I met a great writer. A great writer who had probably written a single masterpiece, although in my judgment everything he had written was a masterpiece.

“I won’t tell you his name. It’ll do you no good to learn it, nor do you need to know it for the purposes of this story. Suffice it to say that he was German and one day he came to Cologne to give a few lectures. Of course, I didn’t miss a single one of the three he gave at the university. At the last lecture I got a seat in the front row, and rather than listen (the truth is he repeated things he’d already said in the first and second lectures), I spent the time observing him in detail, his hands, for example, bony and energetic, his old man’s neck, like the neck of a turkey or a plucked rooster, his faintly Slavic cheekbones, his lifeless lips, lips that one could slash with a knife and from which one could be sure not a single drop of blood would fall, his gray temples like a stormy sea, and especially his eyes, deep eyes that at the slightest tilt of his head seemed at times like two endless tunnels, two abandoned tunnels on the verge of collapse.

“Of course, once the lecture was over he was mobbed by local worthies and I wasn’t even able to shake his hand and tell him how much I admired him. Time went by. The writer died, and, as one might expect, I continued to read and reread him. The day came when I decided to give up literature. I gave it up. This was in no way traumatic but rather liberating. Between you and me, I’ll confess that it was like losing my virginity. What a relief to give up literature, to give up writing and simply read!

“But that’s another story. We can discuss it when you return my typewriter. And yet I couldn’t forget the great writer and his visit. Meanwhile, I began to work at a factory that made optical instruments. I did well for myself. I was a bachelor, I had money, every week I went to the movies, the theater, exhibitions, and I also studied English and French and visited bookshops where I bought whatever books struck my fancy.

“A comfortable life. But I couldn’t shake the memory of the great writer’s visit, and what’s more, I realized abruptly that I remembered only the third lecture, and my memories were limited to the writer’s face, as if it was supposed to tell me something that in the end it didn’t. But what? One day, for reasons that are beside the point, I went with a doctor friend of mine to the university morgue. I doubt you’ve ever been there. The morgue is underground and it’s a long room with white-tiled walls and a wooden ceiling. In the middle there’s a stage where autopsies, dissections, and other scientific atrocities are performed. Then there are two small offices, one for the dean of forensic studies and the other for another professor. At each end are the refrigerated rooms where the corpses are stored, the bodies of the destitute or people without papers visited by death in cheap hotel rooms.

“In those days I showed a doubtless morbid interest in these facilities and my doctor friend kindly took it upon himself to give me a detailed tour. We even attended the last autopsy of the day. Then my friend went into the dean’s office and I was left alone outside in the corridor, waiting for him, as the students left and a kind of crepuscular lethargy crept from under the doors like poison gas. After ten minutes of waiting I was startled by a noise from one of the refrigerated rooms. In those days, I promise you, that was enough to frighten anyone, but I’ve never been particularly cowardly and I went to see what it was.

“When I opened the door a gust of cold air hit me in the face. At the back of the room, by a stretcher, a man was trying to open one of the lockers to stow away a corpse, but no matter how hard he struggled, the door to the locker or cell wouldn’t budge. Without moving from the threshold, I asked whether he needed help. The man straightened up, he was very tall, and gave me what seemed to me a despairing look. Perhaps it was because I sensed despair in his gaze that I was emboldened to approach him. As I did, flanked by corpses, I lit a cigarette to calm my nerves and when I reached him the first thing I did was offer him another cigarette, perhaps forcing a false camaraderie.

“Only then did the morgue worker look at me and it was as if I had gone back in time. His eyes were exactly like the eyes of the great writer whose Cologne lectures I had devoutly attended. I confess that just then, for a few seconds, I even thought I was going mad. It was the morgue worker’s voice, nothing like the warm voice of the great writer, that rescued me from my panic. He said: smoking isn’t allowed here.

“I didn’t know what to answer. He added: smoke is harmful to the dead. I laughed. He supplied an explanatory note: smoke interferes with the process of preservation. I made a noncommittal gesture. He tried a last time: he spoke about filters, he spoke about moisture levels, he uttered the word purity. I offered him a cigarette again and he announced with resignation that he didn’t smoke. I asked whether he had worked there for a long time. In an impersonal and somewhat shrill voice, he said he had worked at the university since long before the 1914 war.

‘”Always at the morgue?’ I asked.

“‘Here and nowhere else,’ he answered.

“‘It’s funny,’ I said, ‘but your face, and especially your eyes, remind me of a great German writer.’ At this point I mentioned the writer’s name.

‘”I’ve never heard of him,’ was his response.

“In earlier days this reply would have outraged me, but thanks God I was living a new life. I remarked that working at the morgue must surely prompt wise or at least original reflections on human fate. He looked at me as if I were mocking him or speaking French. I insisted. These surroundings, I said, with a gesture that encompassed the whole morgue, are in a certain way the ideal place to contemplate the brevity of life, the unfathomable fate of mankind, the futility of earthly strife.

“With a shudder of horror, I was suddenly aware that I was talking to him as if he were the great German writer and this was the conversation we’d never had. I don’t have much time, he said. I looked him in the eye again. There could be no doubt about it: he had the eyes of my idol. And his reply: I don’t have much time. How many doors it opened! How many paths were suddenly cleared, revealed to me!

“I don’t have much time, I have to haul corpses. I don’t have much time, I have to breathe, eat, drink, sleep. I don’t have much time, I have to keep the gears meshing. I don’t have much time, I’m busy living. I don’t have much time, I’m busy dying. As you can imagine, there were no more questions. I helped him open the locker. I wanted to help him slide the corpse in, but my clumsiness was such that the sheet slipped and then I saw the face of the corpse and I closed my eyes and bowed my head and let him work in peace.

“When my friend came out he watched me from the door in silence. Everything all right? he asked. I couldn’t answer, or didn’t know how to answer. Maybe I said: everything’s wrong. But that wasn’t what I meant to say.”

Before Archimboldi left, after they’d had a cup of tea, the man who rented him the typewriter said:

“Jesus is the masterpiece. The thieves are minor works. Why are they there? Not to frame the crucifixion, as some innocent souls believe, but to hide it.”

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