“Cowshed,” a short story by Robert Walser—
I went to see Bonn. I beheld him in his famous checked Sherlock Holmes suit. The sight of his tawny leather spats devastated me. But it is far from my intention to make so bold as to speak of Bonn, whom I also learned to admire as Edmund Kean in the play by Dumas. Today, with the kind reader’s permission, I wish to speak of the Cowshed, an artistic singsong and jinglejangle establishment that lies in the northern reaches of our beloved city, Berlin. At the Cowshed, among other things, I met and learned to revere beyond all measure a Swiss girl who figured as a waitress there. There are figures galore at the Cowshed. I myself am a not unpopular, at times even celebrated regular. When I set foot on the premises, which are redolent of an aging, half-dead elegance, the publican gets up from his seat where he is keeping watch and greets me with great amicability by making a thoroughly courteous, suave bow, the significance of which is that I should buy a round of cognac. Oh, the conduct I display here at the Cowshed. It resembles the conduct of a Prince Dolgoroucki, a Count Osten-Sacken, a Prince Poniatowski. I always treat the artistes assembled upon the small triangular stage, which is stuck in a corner as if lost in indeterminacy and incertitude, to a boot. The significance of the term boot in localities such as the Cowshed is no doubt unfamiliar to most ladies and gentlemen of a literary bent. A boot of this sort is quite simply a tankard of beer shaped like a lady’s boot, made of glass and holding nearly two liters. The music made at the Cowshed is often ear-rending; nonetheless I do adore it and dream of divinely beautiful things whenever it creeps into my ear to ensnare me with melodies. Invariably I have some refreshment placed upon the fortepiano of the bushy-haired, gasconading lout of a band leader. This amenity, which he loses no time in appreciating and, as for the rest, most artfully guzzling, ah pardon, I mean drinking, consists in nothing other than various glasses of beer. Yes, I do have to say that quite a lot of money exits my pockets at the Cowshed. Excellent interest accrues on the capital thus invested, and this interest takes the form of merriments that give me no end of pleasure. For the most part I am a most cleverly respectable fellow, but at times, at times when the mood happens to strike.
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.
I try to spend 10 or 20 minutes with every book that comes in to Biblioklept World Headquarters—assessing plot and prose, trying to get a sense of the potential audience for each volume, etc. Sometimes this task is difficult, and especially difficult when I find myself with too much to read, yet intrigued by the book at hand.
This is a lot of hemming and hawing leading up to: I very much enjoyed the first fifty or so pages of Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues. Here’s a plot description from the Man Booker Prize website:
‘Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you…’ The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero’s bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there’s more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero’s fate was settled. In Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don’t tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong…
Edugyan writes in an energetic colloquial syntax, one that matches–and embodies—the spirit of the jazz musicians at the forefront of her narrative. So far, great stuff.
Picador has picked up the book and given it a wider distribution in the US. Check it out.
Places has published a new essay by novelist Richard Powers. “What Does Fiction Know” is kinda sorta about Berlin. A good read. From the essay—
Jane and I are in the aerospace hall, swept along from the 18th-century balloon fantasies to the Berlin Airlift, when I see it: the Rheintochter. I recognize it even before reading the tag. It’s a surface-to-air missile, one of the offspring of the V2, tested successfully but cancelled at the very end of the war in a power struggle between Göring, Speer, and Himmler. The romance of the name stops me: Wagner’s Rhine Maidens, guarding the gold that holds the secret to world dominion. The level of technology is stunning, years beyond the Allies’ similar efforts. But it’s the rocket’s gesamtkunstwerk — the total artwork of it — that does me in.
The thing is made of dark wood and bright chrome, shaped and polished like some loving piece of Amish furniture, as carefully crafted as anything out of the Museum of Decorative Arts: a lovely sculpture with a hint of Jugendstil. And it stands as just the simplest precursor to our infinitely more Wagnerian productions, those armed, unmanned drones right now winging through the Swat and Korengal valleys, the Predators and Reapers, controlled by satellite and coordinated by pilots at terminals on the far side of the planet. I stare at the Rhine daughter, seeing all the things she will yet grow up to become. Even a novelist can see that much; it does not take rocket science.
I feel like I’m having an asthma attack in a sealed coffin. Every guardedly optimistic, would-be redemptive human story I’ve ever shepherded into print has missed the point. We are built for this plot, shaped by evolution for it, and our steadily expanding mastery of the materials will not stop short of a magnum opus. No other craft that we put our hands to can hope to keep pace. By the time my wife and I find the exit through the labyrinth of machines, I want to burn every novel I’ve ever written.