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

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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.

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

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.

Trans-Atlantyk — Witold Gombrowicz

Witold Gombrowicz’s semi-autobiographical novel Trans-Atlantyk is a slim, bristling work that dances out over a mere 122 pages with a force that simultaneously exhausts and engages. Our hero is the eponymous Gombrowicz, a Polish intellectual who travels via pleasure cruise to visit Argentina. The ship arrives to the near-immediate news that the Nazis have occupied Poland. Most of the dutiful, patriotic Poles clamber back on the ship; Gombrowicz, doubling the real-life author, elects to stay in a self-imposed exile. None of the reasoning or rationale behind these decisions is made especially clear (indeed, I had to glean much of the reasoning for these events from the book’s introduction). Here is how the scene plays out in Gombrowicz’s strange syntax—

Then would I fain have fallen on my knees! Albeit I did not fall at all, just quietly began to Curse, Damn mightily but only to Myself: “Sail, sail, you Compatriots, to your People! Sail to that holy Nation of yours haply Cursed! Sail to that St. Monster Dark, dying for ages yet unable to die! Sail to your St. Freak, cursed by all Nature, ever being born and still Unborn! Sail, sail, so he will not suffer you to Live or Die but keep you for ever between Being and Non-being. Sail to your St. Slug that she may ever the more Enslime you.” The ship turned aslant now and was moving off so this I likewise say: “Sail to that Madman, to that St. Bedlamite of yours—oh, haply Cursed—so that he may Torment, Torture you by those leaps and frenzies of his, drown you in blood, howl at you and by his Howling howl you out, by Torturing torture you, Children of yours, wives, to Death, to Agony—in agony himself, in the agonies of Madness Madden you, O’ermadden you!” With this Curse, turning my back on the ship, I entered the Town.

The passage, which I encourage you, gentle reader, to read again (go ahead, I’ll wait), showcases much of Trans-Atlantyk’s strange power: the archaisms, the snaky syntax (Gombrowicz repeatedly delays his predicate verb or even his subject, burying them at the end of the sentence), the bizarre capitalization, the acid humor, the bloody pathos, the impossible tone. So many of the book’s conflicts are laid bare in this passage. We see the essential conflict of an individual vs. the culture and society that would claim him as its mouthpiece; we find Poland, “that St. Monster Dark,” that cursed “St. Slug” forever trailing behind the rest of Europe, playing out the fight between tradition and modernism; we find the conflict of the exile, projected through the distortion of a fun house mirror, smacking back on our narrator who himself is now cursed “for ever between Being and Non-being.”

Trans-Atlantyk was composed during and after WWII, and much of the madness inherent in its themes became normalized during this time. As if to call attention to these psychic disjunctions, Gombrowicz writes Trans-Atlantyk in the mode of the gawęda, an antiquated form of Polish folk narrative popular with the rural nobility. Gawęda, oral in scope and tradition, emphasizes inner-textual creation, randomness, digression, alliteration, and, above all, energetic narrative freeplay—features Trans-Atlantyk displays with remarkable force. Gombrowicz uses this idiom in a celebratory mode, showcasing the possibility and liveliness of language, but he also ironizes language itself: Trans-Atlantyk might be read as a sustained attack on Poland’s obsessions with archaic tradition, as well as an attack on patriotism and patriarchal authority in general. In the 1994 translation I read, Carolyn French and Nina Karsov render Gombrowicz’s pseudo-gawęda in a kind of 17th or 18th century English style—and they do so to grand effect. Their “Translator’s Note” is perhaps the most instructive piece of scholarship on how translation happens that I have ever read. It’s worth the price of admission alone. And while I do not possess the skills to read the book in its original Polish, I imagine that French and Karsov have accurately and faithfully telegraphed the spirit of Gombrowicz’s novel.

If we return briefly, kind reader, to the excerpt above, we find our hero penniless and cursed, heading into town. Here he finds an odd non-home among the Polish ex-pats, who humorously call the Argentinians “aliens.” (Gombrowicz repeatedly stages scenes that show the extreme disconnection between the Poles and their New World surroundings; it is as if these Europeans are unable to comprehend that they are in the midst of a culture other than their own). Unsure of what to do and fearing the stigma of being a traitor (and, honestly, broke), Gombrowicz heads to the Polish Legate, essentially to turn himself in, but also in the hopes of gaining some kind of employment. He meets with the Polish Minister in a scene that is hilarious but, in its historical irony, also shocking and sad. The Minister is something of a mouthpiece for the Polish attitude that Gombrowicz satirizes—

He drew a breath. Did flash his eye. Did say: “We will, by my troth. I say this to you, and I say this so you cannot say that I was saying that we would not Vanquish, since I say to you that we will Vanquish, will Win, for we will reduce to dust with our mighty, gracious hand—smash, crush to dust, powder, with Sabres, Lances, anatomize, annihilate, and under our Colours and in our Majesty, oh Jesus Maria, oh Jesus, oh Jesus . . . we will grind, Kill! Oh, we will kill, anatomize, demolish! And why are you staring so? I tell you indeed, we will annihilate! Indeed you can see, you can hear the Minister himself, the Gracious Envoy is telling you we will Annihilate; perchance you can see that the Envoy himself, the Minister, is pacing here before you, waving his hands and telling you that we will Annihilate! And don’t you dare bark thus: that I didn’t Pace before you, that I didn’t Say, as you see that I do Pace and Say!”

The minister’s phallic aggression, bound in two of the book’s motifs—walking and speaking—reveals the deep paranoia that seethes under the surface of the ex-pat community; indeed, it’s this very paranoia that drives Gombrowicz to the Legate in the first place. In any case, Gombrowicz soon finds a job as a bank clerk, although the specifics here are a bit murky. The real-life Gombrowicz worked as a bank clerk for years in Argentina, famously saying that the job gave him the freedom to write while his boss wasn’t looking. Thankfully, Trans-Atlantyk spends little time in its protagonist’s workplace, but I think it’s worth sharing one of the few passages about office life in the book. There’s a Kafkaesque scope to Gombrowicz’s observations about the modern office, an innate realization of the dehumanizing aspects inherent in bureaucracy, but also a strong vein of absurd humor—

Amidst these rustlings I slightly opened the door that led to the next Room. A big room, long and Darkish, and a row of tables at which clerks sit, over Promissory Notes, Ledgers, Folios studiously bent; and such a number of Papers, so lumped, Swamped that you can hardly move, for likewise on the floor there a multitude of papers and old scribblings; and Ledgers from a cupboard protrude and even to the ceiling heave, out onto the windowsills bulge and swamp the Office. So if any of the clerks moves, he rustles as a Mouse in these papers.

The description continues, Gombrowicz marking the ways  in which the clerks remain at their desks even to eat. As the passage reaches its conclusion, the scene described might take place in any contemporary office—

Whereupon Tea was brought in, viz. Mugs with coffee and buns on a tray, and then all the clerks, having paused in their work, set upon the food. And anon, as usual, discourse sounded. I was overcome by laughter at the sight of that Coffee Drinking of those clerklets! Since at first sight one could see that, for years, sitting together in this Office, every day the eternal Coffee drinking and the eternal Bun munching, with these same old jokes treating themselves, they at once all there was of theirs was comprehended.

So much of contemporary life is there: its mundane rituals, its mechanical repetitions, its pathetic consolations. If Gombrowicz feels contempt for the idea that an individual owes a duty to society, that contempt extends right into the workplace.

Yet I’m barely scratching the surface here. The real plot of Trans-Atlantyk—and bear in mind, kind reader, that this plot hurtles or waltzes or jerks through its motions, rarely employing conventional narrative sequencing signals; rather, we have here a picaresque of sorts, a constant deferral of clear meaning—the real plot of Trans-Atlantyk (if such a thing exists) careens around a good old-fashioned duel. Somehow our hero falls into this intrigue, which results when a senior Polish man finds his honor assaulted. What assaults his honor? The lascivious intentions of a notorious and wealthy homosexual Argentinian on said senior Pole’s son. It’s easy here to frame the conflict in any number of dualities: Euorpean vs. New World, patriarchal tradition vs. homosexual outsider, familial order vs. alien anarchy. But there’s more to the conflict than mere duality. The homosexual Gonzalo, with his predatory designs on the Pole’s teenage son, comes to embody himself that core conflict of “Being and Non-being,” a figure whose conceptual impossibility reflexively engenders new and untold possibilities. Here’s our narrator’s description—

Ergo methinks: And what is’t? Where am I? What do I do? And from him would I have fled long ago, yet sorrowful sore was I to desert my only companion. For a Companion he was. Yet, when by the Tree he so together with me, I feel somewhat discomfited as neither Fish nor Fowl. Viz. hairs black, manly he had on his hand, but this hand—Dimpled, White, dainty Hand . . . and likewise perchance foot . . . and although a Cheek dark with shaven hairs, this Cheek of his charms and coquettes as if ’twere not Dark but indeed white . . . and likewise Leg though Manly as if ‘twould be a Dainty leg and Charms in curious caprices . . . and though head of a man in his prime, bald at the brow, Wrinkled, this head as if slips off a head, seeking to be a dainty head . . . So he as if fain would not himself Transforms in the silence of the night, and now you wit not whether ’tis He or She . . . and perchance, being neither this nor that, he has the aspect of a Creature and not a human . . . He lurks, the rascal, stands, says naught, and only at his Boy silently gazes. So I think, what the Devil, Werewolf, and wherefore I here with him . . .”

Notice how this in-betweener, this “Werewolf” recapitulates the perception of his own indeterminacy back on our narrator, who feels “discomfited as neither Fish nor Fowl.” This radical ambiguity plays out through the remainder of the novel, which alternately writhes, skips, and dances in an exploration of a world without fixed meaning, or, perhaps more accurately, a world where all meaning must be questioned, weighed not just in words and books but also in blood. Trans-Atlantyk ends in an explosion of radically ambiguous laughter, a gesture of hilarity and violence, joy and ridicule—it is a laughter that might claim the reader as its object or, perhaps, invite the reader to laugh along.

Trans-Atlantyk is a marvelous dare to readers, a work of language invention on par with the best in late modernism. Like any work that creates and enacts its own idiom, Trans-Atlantyk poses a learning curve that will doubtless frustrate or intimidate many readers. But its rewards are plentiful for those willing to trek through its anarchy and slip unresisting into its chaos. Recommended.