My family and I had a wonderful time vacationing in Mexico City last week. We rented an apartment in Condesa, a friendly, walkable neighborhood marked by shade trees, lush gardens, and robust parks. And dogs. Lots of lovely dogs. Over eight days, we took in as much of the city as we could (as well as some excellent day trips to Grutas Tolantongo in Hidalgo and Teotihuacán in Edomex). The city is huge, with more than 150 museums, and the food is excellent. While the four members of our family share common interests (including a love of art), making sightseeing somewhat streamlined, I left Mexico City feeling like I had barely scratched the surface. It reminded me in disparate ways of New York City, Bangkok, and New Orleans. Like those cities, there’s not a single aspect that intrigues me, but rather a vibe. But this is not a travel blog, it is a book blog, so:
The first thing I noticed is that the selection of titles in the several bookstores I visited (a few just very briefly) was generally excellent. Shops tended to feature big-ell Literature titles in lieu of bestsellers and airport novels, with new releases like Mircea Cartarescu’s Solenoid and Yuri Herrera’s La estación del pantano getting prominent displays.
I visited both locations of Cafebrería El Péndulo, and picked up an inexpensive Debolsillo edition of Roberto Bolaño’s La literatura nazi en America, resisting the urge to grab one of the big novels. I’ve read Chris Andrews’ translation of Nazi Literature in the Americasa few times, and I figured that it would be better for me to attempt reading and comparing the shorter sketches here than to jump into 2666 in Spanish. Although I practiced my Spanish for a year in preparation for the trip (it helps to have a Spanish professor friend whose office is down the hall from mine), my vocabulary is still limited and my conjugations are a mess.
Also Bolaño-related: We lunched at Café la Habana, a charming restaurant boasting a history as a salon for poets, politicians, theorists and other bullshitters. In Bolaño’s Mexican opus The Savage Detectives, Café la Habana appears as Café Quito.
I also visited Under the Volcano, a tiny and charming bookstore in Condesa that carries English-language books–mostly literature. The store is named for Malcolm Lowry’s excellent novel, but there didn’t appear to be any of his books there the day I visited. There was a first-edition hardback copy of Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, but it was jacketless and out of my price range. There was also a standalone magazine-sized Dalkey Archive edition of William H. Gass’s story Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife, which, based on its price, the owner seemed to believe the most valuable item in the store. I also spied a copy of Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel Ransom, notable because it’s the first and so-far only hardcover of a Vintage Contemporaries edition I’ve ever seen.
I wound up with two books from Under the Volcano: a Europa Editions of Steven Erickson’s Zeroville and Vintage edition of Aldous Huxley’s Beyond the Mexique Bay. I listened to the audiobook of Zeroville a few years ago, loved it, and have kept an eye out for a reasonably-priced copy ever since. I admit that I picked up Huxley’s essay collection in large part because of its title and its cover design (by Bradbury Thompson). I only found it because I was looking for a copy of Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun. I’ve been falling asleep to an audiobook version of Devils for about three weeks now.
I stopped into a La Increíble Librería at random while walking through Condesa. It’s a charming store that specializes in art books and arty children’s books. They also sell a small but excellent selection of Latin American titles in English translation. I picked up a coffee table book there called 50 íconos de la Ciudad de México. The book is in both Spanish and English, and features lovely illustrations of iconic Mexico City locations by ten different artists. Here’s a detail from Diego Huacuja’s illustration of the Auditorio Nacional:
As we looked through this book this morning, my wife remarked on just how few of the fifty icons presented we missed seeing on this trip. And although we saw a lot that’s not in the book, it nevertheless confirmed my feeling that we need to visit Mexico City again.
He seemed less like a child than like a strand of seaweed.
little particles of his own filth floated, tiny bits of skin that traveled like submarines toward an inlet the size of an eye, a calm, dark cove, although there was no calm, and all that existed was movement
watching the fragments of his body drift away in all directions, like space probes launched at random across the universe
a region very like hell
he moved across the surface of the earth like a novice diver along the seafloor
strands that really did look like fingers
The Poles look like chickens, but pluck four feathers and you’ll see they’ve got the skin of swine.
They look like starving dogs but they’re really starving swine, swine that’ll eat anyone, without a second thought, without the slightest remorse.
They’re like swine disguised as Chihuahuas.
A churning gray like pus.
like ghost towns
like blood and rotting meat
moving like a diver
like a night diver
What was it about the boy that made him look like seaweed?
that dark sea, a sea like a pack of wolves
dark waves like forest beasts
the body of young Reiter floating like uprooted seaweed, upward, a brilliant white in the underwater space
sometimes the baby looked like a bag of rubbish left on a pebbly beach
other times like Petrobius maritimus, a marine insect that lives in crevices and rocks and feeds on scraps, or Lipura maritima, another insect, very small and dark slate or gray, its habitat the puddles among rocks
“My son,” said the one-legged man.
“He looks like a giraffe fish,” said the former pilot, and he laughed.
that weekend was like a month
samurais were like fish in a waterfall but the best samurai in history was a woman
an eternity, like the minutes of those condemned to die
like the minutes of women who’ve just given birth and are condemned to die
like luxurious excrescences or heartbeats
go forth like the keeper of a swarm of bees, except that this beekeeper wasn’t protected by a mesh suit or a helmet and woe betide the bee that tried to sting him, even if only in thought.
like the eyes of a hawk that flies and delights in its flight, but that also maintains a
noise like crumpled pages, noise like burned books
cavorted like a mermaid
he watched the sunrise as it washed like a wave over the city, drowning them all
darts along like a squirrel
the village, like a black lump set or encrusted in the darkness
like a box from some scientific research center where glove-wearing German scientists pack away something with the power to destroy the world and Germany too
like seeing a giraffe go off in a pack of wolves, coyotes, and hyenas
the seaweed jungle was like the locks of a dead giant
like sheep or little goats
He saw hills or rocky outcroppings that looked like ships about to sink, prows lifted, like enraged horses, nearly vertical
the towers of the castle like two gray candles on a deserted altar
being here is like being buried alive
like a shadow
more like a horse than a man
like an engraving of a worker or artisan, an innocent passerby suddenly blinded by a ray of moonlight
swaying back and forth, like a little shepherdess gone wild in the vastness of Asia
reality was increasingly vague, more like a dream
d her eyes, a washed-out blue, like the eyes of a blind woman
strolling like philosophers
woods like dark islands in the middle of endless wheat fields
a black fog rose before his eyes, full of granulated dots like a rain of meteors
he fired and walked, like someone strolling and taking photographs, until the
looking as if they were starving or like pupils at a reform school
the sergeant looked like an ant that gradually grew bigger and bigger
already approaching old age, like the biblical Abraham and Sarah
drank like a condemned woman
more like a strand of seaweed than a human being
the seaweedlike extraterrestrial
like a burning doll
a rending violence, like a claw, but not a claw that did any damage
like a claw that pounces and floats in the middle of the room, like a helium balloon, a selfconscious claw, a claw-beast that wonders what in God’s name it’s doing in this rather untidy room, who that old man is sitting at the table, who that young man is standing with tousled hair, then falls to the floor, deflated, returned once more to nothing.
like something rotting
like an orphan, a self-designated orphan
On the subject of art, a politician with power is like a colossal pheasant, able to crush mountains with little hops, whereas a politician without power is only like a village priest, an ordinary-sized pheasant.
They lived like garbagemen. They were the garbagemen of the jungle
like a horror painting
other poets shun them like lepers
the sudden appearance of this incredible woman is like a miracle
inspecting the dead like someone who inspects a lot for sale or a farm or a country house
like madmen escaped from an asylum
From a hill he saw a column of German tanks moving east. They looked like the coffins of an extraterrestrial civilization.
feeling something very strange that sometimes seemed like happiness and other times like a guilt as vast as the sky
the bottom of the river was like a gravel road
a vague noise, like the clatter of furniture, as if sick people were moving furniture around
the full moon filtered through the fabric of the tent like boiling coffee through a sock
my name has grown like a malignant tumor and now it turns up on the most unlikely documents
the light sweeping the tent like a bird’s wing or a claw
they seemed less like children than like the skeletons of children, abandoned sketches, pure will and bone
like girls who’ve just woken from a terrible nightmare
like the habitues of racetracks who commit suicide in cheap rented rooms or hotels tucked away on back-streets frequented by gangsters
like a murderer
like a ragpicker’s room
he drank like a Cossack
the killer will open the window of my room and come tiptoeing in like a nurse
and slit my throat, bleed me dry
I would never manage to create anything like a masterpiece.
He writes like someone taking dictation.
his old man’s neck, like the neck of a turkey or a plucked rooster
his gray temples like a stormy sea
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.
a kind of crepuscular lethargy crept from under the doors like poison gas
Mickey, like the mouse
Everything is burning. It looks more like the moon than Normandy.
like the living dead, zombies, cemetery dwellers, soldiers without eyes or mouths, but with penises
like the soldier who was trapped under a pile of corpses and there, beneath the corpses and the snow, he dug a little cave with his regulation shovel, and
to pass the time he jerked off, more boldly each time, because once the fear and surprise of the first few instants had vanished, all that was left was the fear of death and boredom, and to stave off boredom he began to masturbate, first timidly, as if he were seducing a peasant girl or a little shepherdess, then with increasing determination, until he managed to bring himself off to his full satisfaction, and he went on like that for fifteen days, in his little cave of corpses and snow, rationing his food and indulging his urges, which didn’t make him weaker but rather seemed to retronourish him, as if he had drunk his own semen or as if after going mad he had found a forgotten way back to a new sanity, until the German troops counterattacked and discovered him
not dirty or like shit or urine, nor like rot or worm meat
like Ali Baba’s cave
like a doll’s house, a cabin, a hut, a place that existed on the edge of time and remained fixed in a willed and imaginary childhood, comfortable and unspoiled.
like something out of a fairy tale
Then he began to talk, still pacing, about Europe, Greek mythology, and something
vaguely like a police investigation
like something out of a PreRaphaelite painting
a little white-chocolate house with beams like slabs of dark chocolate, surrounded by a little garden in which the flowers looked like paper cutouts and a lawn trimmed with mathematical precision
all human beings are obliged to bear until their deaths, like the rock of Sisyphus
throbbed like the ripped-out heart of an Aztec victim
typewriter was like a heart, a giant heart beating in the middle of the fog and chaos
the stain of blood was like a giant rose in full bloom
and the mountains multiplying in the night, all white, like nuns with no worldly ambitions.
a laugh that sounded to Archimboldi like a cascade of ice
she didn’t weigh a thing anymore, it was like climbing up with a bundle of sticks
like a couple of vagabonds
buildings propping each other up like little old Alzheimer’s patients, a jumble of houses and mazelike passageways where distant voices could be heard, worried voices asking questions and offering answers with great dignity
Like the final surroundings of Sisyphus
like a phantom
He smiled like a father
the place looked like a graveyard
the old man in pajamas looked less like a vanished novelist than like a justly forgotten novelist, the typical hard-luck bad French novelist, most likely born at the wrong time
a sweet and chirping voice, like the water of a brook that runs over a bed of flat stones
The essayist looked like a cigarette covered with a handkerchief.
arm in arm like two ex-lovers who no longer have many secrets to tell
a car like a hearse awaited her
the days were like nights and the nights like days
sometimes the days and nights were unlike anything, everything was a continuum of blinding brightness and explosions
Mouths like carrots, with peeling lips, and noses like wet potatoes
like women who haven’t yet begun to menstruate
he preferred someone decent and hardworking, who wouldn’t suck his blood like a
Her suffering was like the screech of chalk on a blackboard. As if a boy were dragging a piece of chalk across a blackboard on purpose to make it screech.
like looking for a needle in a haystack
slept like a baby
The sounds she heard were like the sounds of the abyss.
These similes are from “The Part About Archimboldi,” the fifth part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer.
The knife sharpener’s eyes narrowed until they looked like two lines drawn with charcoal.
music like water tumbling over smooth stones
like a child trying not to vomit
he looked like a madman
Like a child on the verge of tears.
children scattering through the countryside like defeated soldiers
a giant plume of dust, like the tail of a hallucinogenic coyote
The sidewalk was gray but the sun coming through the branches of the trees made it look bluish, like a river.
like a pig staring into the sun
the tops of trees were visible like a green-black carpet
he drifted like a ghost
eyes were a brown so light they looked yellow like the desert
letting the buckle dangle like a bell
La Vaca stood motionless, waiting, like someone who walks down a random street and suddenly hears her favorite song, the saddest song in the world, coming from a window
She fucks like someone on the brink of death
like a hummingbird
like a gold nugget in a trash heap
like a doll lost and found in a heap of somebody else’s trash
like a procession of penitents with their purple or fabulous vermilion or checkered hoods
Reinaldo felt a shiver descend his spine like an elevator, or maybe rise, or both at once
A goddamn gash, like the crack in the earth’s crust they’ve got in California, the San Bernardino fault
like a melon-colored pyramid, its sacrificial altar hidden behind smokestacks and two enormous hangar doors though which workers and trucks entered
the world was like a creaky coffin
like the stars
On the rare occasions when he laughed he sounded like a donkey and only then did his face seem bearable.
Lying there with his ass in the air, Farfan looked like a sow, but Gomez fucked him regardless and they resumed their friendship.
his eyes like a hawk’s as he strode that labyrinth of snores and nightmares
For me, being in prison was exactly like being dumped on a Saturday at noon in a neighborhood like Colonia Kino, San Damian, Colonia Las Flores. A lynching. Being torn to pieces. Do you understand? The mob spitting on me and kicking me and tearing me to pieces. With no time for explanations.
It’s like a noise you hear in a dream. The dream, like everything dreamed in enclosed spaces, is contagious.
like a mosquito around a campfire
paths off the highway that melted away like dreams, without rhyme or reason
like a skull
There were Cessna planes flying low over the desert like the spirits of Catholic Indians ready to slit everyone’s throats.
like a madman
He carried the amphetamines everywhere, like a tiny talisman that would protect him from evil.
like commandos lost on a toxic island on another planet
Gomez scooped the balls off the floor and remarked that they looked like turtle eggs. Nice and tender, he said.
what it was like to be in purgatory
like a flock of vultures
the policemen, moving wearily, like soldiers trapped in a time warp who march over and over again to the same defeat, got to work
like a free man
she would go everywhere wrapped in bandages, like a mummy, not an Egyptian mummy but a Mexican mummy
like an archaeologist who has just discovered an incredible bone
like a girl who carefully unwraps, bit by bit, a present that she wants to make last, forever
all the bandages slither like snakes, or all the bandages open their sleepy eyes like snakes, although she knows they aren’t snakes but rather the guardian angels of snakes
they talked about freedom and evil, about the highways of freedom where evil is like a Ferrari
like a troupe of gypsies heading into the unknown
like a worm or an insomniac mole
like a baby bird
the steam was tinted green, an intense green, like a tropical forest, and when Garibay saw it he invariably said: fuck, that’s pretty
they slunk out like vultures
a long coffee shop like a coffin, with few windows
like a squash ball
women are like laws
the slope of a hill that looked like a dinosaur or a Gila monster
witchlike language and manner
Living in this desert, thought Lalo Cura as the car, with Epifanio at the wheel, left the field behind, is like living at sea.
like a fast-acting tranquilizer
Sometimes he felt like a shepherd misunderstood by the very stones.
like children hearing the same story for the thousandth time
like somebody talking about medieval history or politics
the night like a glove over the hotel
that toadlike creature, that dumb, helpless greasy illegal, that lump of coal who in some other reincarnation could have been a diamond
like someone talking in his sleep
He could feel the Sonora night brushing his back like a ghost.
And most surprising of all: tied around her head, like a strange but not entirely implausible hat, was an expensive black bra.
like looking for a phantom
Being a criminologist in this country is like being a cryptographer at the North Pole.
It’s like being a child in a cell block of pedophiles.
It’s like being a beggar in the country of the deaf.
It’s like being a condom in the realm of the Amazons
his neck long like a turkey’s
we got out of there like a bomb was about to go off
sinking like crocodiles in the swamp
they spend money like water
like a queen
night crept like a cripple toward the east
like a giant chapel
like two whores allowed for the first time to dress their pimp
like boiled fruit
like a plaster cast
like a statue
ranches empty like shoe boxes
like a puzzle repeatedly assembled and disassembled
like a gift
like a double spinal cord
The truth is like a strung-out pimp.
The truth is like a strung-out pimp in the middle of a storm, said the congresswoman.
smiling and sniveling like a lap dog
like an eternity
trading puns like a couple of zombies
like someone in a trance
like a rat
like Satan’s helpers
like a mirror image
like black holes
These similes are from “The Part About the Crimes,” the fourth part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer.
I listened to Roberto Bolaño’s opus 2666 on audiobook (in English translation by Natasha Wimmer) over the last month,
I listened while I took long early walks in my neighborhood before the big sun burned me back home; I listened while I gardened; I listened while I undertook a list of summer chores that included painting the interior of the house.
I was listening to the book when our fire alarm gave alarum to an accidental fire in our kitchen, which I put out quickly (I was hearing but not listening to the book during this exercise). I was walking, listening to the audiobook of 2666 when I started getting texts from friends about the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe. I was walking, listening to the audiobook of 2666 when my neighbor waved me down, approached me, told me while crying (she was walking her dog) that her ex-husband, who I was very close to, loved, frankly, a kind man who I spent a few hours a week drinking wine and discussing x and y and z, but especially discussing literature and civics film and local raptors, this man, my friend, had died unexpectedly the previous morning. I turned the audiobook off, finished my walk, and drove four hours to the Gulf shore, a nice place I take every July 4th holiday with my extended family. I took a week off 2666.
I finished the 2666 audiobook yesterday. This audiobook is 39 hours and 15 minutes long. A different reader reads each of the novel’s five distinct parts. (The readers are John Lee, Armando Durán, G. Valmont Thomas, Scott Brick, and Grover Gardner.)
Should someone who hasn’t read 2666 before try it on audiobook first?
I have no idea.
(Try it and tell me.)
I don’t think it would have worked for me, an audiobook on the first go around, for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that there are so so so many voices in the novel, and not all of the five readers necessarily fully capture those voices. (G. Valmont Thomas and Grover Gardner do; Armando Durán gets close; John Lee fares well for the most part; Scott Brick tries too hard at times and not hard enough at others).
Some people are pretty good at auditing audiobooks; other people have a difficult time zoning in. Forty hours is a long time, and if I opened with a list of “I” statements, related to the book, it was because it felt like a sharp chunk of life passed as I listened to 2666. (Sorry.)
I probably also connected 2666 in some way to many, many other things while writing on this blog over the past thirteen years. I think it’s great, more than great, grand, gargantuan, giant stuff. I felt all sad and hollowed out when I got to the end yesterday, deflated, punctured, the final images of Archimboldi eating Neapolitan ice cream with a descendant of its creator, Fürst Pückler, kinda breaking my brain.
Put forty more hours in my ears.
If you follow this blog semi-regularly, you might’ve seen (and I hope read) excerpts I’ve posted from 2666 over the past few weeks. Something that initially caught me off guard, but that I soon came to predict, was that I would audit a section, and jot down notes, something like, Post this as an excerpt on the blog—and then it would turn out that I’d posted the same excerpt a decade ago.
I also remembered specific moments where I’d read some of the selections — on airplanes, or in hotel beds, or even on the beach of the Gulf, ten or eleven years ago over a July 4th vacation that wasn’t set against such a oh-wow-we’re-sliding-into-overt-authoritarian-oligarchy-dang backdrop. But also in blank or banal places, a black couch a now-dead cat clawed up, a chair my wife threatened to axe. Two different beds. And so much of what I audited the past month is blended into my experiences of the past month. (I will never ever forget that the moment when I found out about Roe, I was listening to a painful litany of misogynistic “jokes” told by a crooked cop to an audience of other cops in “The Part About the Crimes” — the section goes on and on, a little echo or prefiguration of the litany of rapes that formalize that particular section. I am looking for a way to use the word indelible here.)
(And while I’m in parentheses: Something I would have tuned out while reading 2666 that I certainly noticed while auditing it is how often Bolaño (and his translator Wimmer, of course) uses the phrase Around this time to begin a new paragraph.)
And so well anyway: A few remarks on the readers, translators all in their own right of the material:
John Lee reads “The Part About the Critics.” His posh British twang is well-suited to conveying the semi-serious/semi-ironic tone of this section, and if he sounds annoying as shit at times, that can be forgiven. Lee, who is often too arch, shows more restraint than in other audiobooks I’ve audited that he’s read.
Armando Durán reads “The Part About Amalfitano.” He’s perfect when conveying Amalfitano’s voice, as well as consciousness, but centers too closely to that consciousness. This is a very specific and petty criticism that is more about how I hear certain other voices in the novel. Great voice.
G. Valmont Thomas reads “The Part About Fate.” He inhabits the various voices the journalist Fate speaks to with aplomb, characterizing each voice with its own unique phrasing while staying true to the tone of the “Fate” section, which tip-toes to full-blown abject madness. My only gripe, and it’s not really even a gripe, is that he voices Fate himself as a total weirdo, a weirdo who simultaneously realizes he’s out of sync with everyone around him, but also doesn’t see to register that fact as a functioning human being might. Good interpretation, I guess, but still a bit of a bold choice.
Scott Brick reads “The Part About the Crimes.” Brick has the longest and arguably most-arduous section of 2666. I think the direction he takes (or the direction he was given) is a bit too intense — again this is a case of my own reading of the voices in the novel — I think the main narrative voice of “The Part About the Crimes” should be flat, affectless, reportorial, and that all drama and verve in that section should come from characters who ventriloquize the narrative — and Brick does a good job there.
Grover Gardner reads “The Part About Archimboldi” and I loved what he did, but I’m a big fan of his voice in general. And I love that particular section.
If I have quibbled with these voices it comes from a place of love—I loved getting to reread 2666 through their voices. And, like I said above, they are ultimately translators too of the work. So I’ll close with Bolaño himself on translation (via his 2666 translator, Natasha Wimmer, from his essay “Translation Is an Anvil,” collected in Between Parentheses):
How to recognize a work of art? How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarizers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate? Easy. Let it be translated. Let its translator be far from brilliant. Rip pages from it at random. Leave it lying in an attic. If after all of this a kid comes along and reads it, and after reading makes it his own, and is faithful to it (or unfaithful, whichever) and reinterprets it and accompanies it on its voyage to the edge, and both are enriched and the kid adds an ounce of value to its original value, then we have something before us, a machine or a book, capable of speaking to all human beings; not a plowed field but a mountain, not the image of a dark forest but the dark forest, not a flock of birds but the Nightingale.
“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.
From Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, in Natasha Wimmer’s translation.
The following excerpt of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (in Natasha Wimmer’s translation) is more or less self-contained, or at least as self-contained as anything in that labyrinth. It’s the summary of a character named Ansky’s novel; Hans Reiter (aka Archimboldi) is reading Ansky’s diaries while hiding during the war–
The novel, so unanimously acclaimed, was called Twilight and its plot was very simple: a boy of fourteen abandons his family to join the ranks of the revolution. Soon he’s engaged in combat against Wrangel’s troops. In the midst of battle he’s injured and his comrades leave him for dead. But before the vultures come to feed on the bodies, a spaceship drops onto the battlefield and takes him away, along with some of the other mortally wounded soldiers. Then the spaceship enters the stratosphere and goes into orbit around Earth. All of the men’s wounds are rapidly healed. Then a very thin, very tall creature, more like a strand of seaweed than a human being, asks them a series of questions like: how were the stars created? where does the universe end? where does it begin? Of course, no one knows the answers. One man says God created the stars and the universe begins and ends wherever God wants. He’s tossed out into space. The others sleep. When the boy awakes he finds himself in a shabby room, with a shabby bed and a shabby wardrobe where his shabby clothes hang. When he goes to the window he gazes out in awe at the urban landscape of New York. But the boy finds only misfortune in the great city. He meets a jazz musician who tells him about chickens that talk and probably think.
“The worst of it,” the musician says to him, “is that the governments of the planet know it and that’s why so many people raise chickens.”
The boy objects that the chickens are raised to be eaten. The musician says that’s what the chickens want. And he finishes by saying:
“Fucking masochistic chickens, they have our leaders by the balls.”
He also meets a girl who works as a hypnotist at a burlesque club, and he falls in love. The girl is ten years older than the boy, or in other words twenty-four, and although she has a number of lovers, including the boy, she doesn’t want to fall in love with anyone because she believes that love will use up her powers as a hypnotist. One day the girl disappears and the boy, after searching for her in vain, decides to hire a Mexican detective who was a soldier under Pancho Villa. The detective has a strange theory: he believes in the existence of numerous Earths in parallel universes. Earths that can be reached through hypnosis. The boy thinks the detective is swindling him and decides to accompany him in his investigations. One night they come upon a Russian beggar shouting in an alley. The beggar shouts in Russian and only the boy can understand him. The beggar says: I fought with Wrangel, show some respect, please, I fought in Crimea and I was evacuated from Sevastopol in an English ship. Then the boy asks whether the beggar was at the battle where he fell badly wounded. The beggar looks at him and says yes. I was too, says the boy. Impossible, replies the beggar, that was twenty years ago and you weren’t even born yet.
Then the boy and the Mexican detective set off west in search of the hypnotist. They find her in Kansas City. The boy asks her to hypnotize him and send him back to the battlefield where he should have died, or accept his love and stop fleeing. The hypnotist answers that neither is possible. The Mexican detective shows an interest in the art of hypnosis. As the detective begins to tell the hypnotist a story, the boy leaves the roadside bar and goes walking under the night sky. After a while he stops crying.
He walks for hours. When he’s in the middle of nowhere he sees a figure by the side of the road. It’s the seaweedlike extraterrestrial. They greet each other. They talk. Often, their conversation is unintelligible. The subjects they address are varied: foreign languages, national monuments, the last days of Karl Marx, worker solidarity, the time of the change measured in Earth years and stellar years, the discovery of America as a stage setting, an unfathomable void—as painted by Dore—of masks. Then the boy follows the extraterrestrial away from the road and they walk through a wheat field, cross a stream, climb a hill, cross another field, until they reach a smoldering pasture.
In the next chapter, the boy is no longer a boy but a young man of twenty-five working at a Moscow newspaper where he has become the star reporter. The young man receives the assignment to interview a Communist leader somewhere in China. The trip, he is warned, is extremely difficult, and once he reaches Peking, the situation may be dangerous, since there are lots of people who don’t want any statement by the Chinese leader to get out. Despite these warnings, the young man accepts the job. When, after much hardship, he finally gains access to the cellar where the Chinese leader is hidden, the young man decides that not only will he interview him, he’ll also help him escape the country. The Chinese leader’s face, in the light of a candle, bears a notable resemblance to that of the Mexican detective and former soldier under Pancho Villa. The Chinese leader and the young Russian, meanwhile, come down with the same illness, brought on by the pestilence of the cellar. They shake with fever, they sweat, they talk, they rave, the Chinese leader says he sees dragons flying low over the streets of Peking, the young man says he sees a battle, perhaps just a skirmish, and he shouts hurrah and urges his comrades onward. Then both lie motionless as the dead for a long time, and suffer in silence until the day set for their flight.
Each with a temperature of 102 degrees, the two men cross Peking and escape. Horses and provisions await them in the countryside. The Chinese leader has never ridden before. The young man teaches him how. During the trip they cross a forest and then some enormous mountains. The blazing of the stars in the sky seems supernatural. The Chinese leader asks himself: how were the stars created? where does the universe end? where does it begin? The young man hears him and vaguely recalls a wound in his side whose scar still aches, darkness, a trip. He also remembers the eyes of a hypnotist, although the woman’s features remain hidden, mutable. If I close my eyes, thinks the young man, I’ll see her again. But he doesn’t close them. They make their way across a vast snow-covered plain. The horses sink in the snow. The Chinese leader sings. How were the stars created? Who are we in the middle of the boundless universe? What trace of us will remain?
Suddenly the Chinese leader falls off his horse. The young Russian examines him. The Chinese leader is like a burning doll. The young Russian touches the Chinese leader’s forehead and then his own forehead and understands that the fever is devouring them both. With no little effort he ties the Chinese leader to his mount and sets off again. The silence of the snow-covered plain is absolute. The night and the passage of stars across the vault of the sky show no signs of ever ending. In the distance an enormous black shadow seems to superimpose itself on the darkness. It’s a mountain range. In the young Russian’s mind the certainty takes shape that in the coming hours he will die on that snow-covered plain or as he crosses the mountains. A voice inside begs him to close his eyes, because if he closes them he’ll see the eyes and then the beloved face of the hypnotist. It tells him that if he closes his eyes he’ll see the streets of New York again, he’ll walk again toward the hypnotist’s house, where she sits waiting for him on a chair in the dark. But the Russian doesn’t close his eyes. He rides on.
She looks like a nun, thought Quincy, or like she belongs to a dangerous cult.
the movie in the dream was like a negative of the real movie
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
like the work of a lunatic
like a miniature Russian Orthodox church
what it was most like was an enchanted island
like the lilies that bloom and die in a single day
a dream that breaks away from another dream like one drop of water breaking away from a bigger drop of water
a metaphor is like a life jacket
there are life jackets that float and others that sink to the bottom like lead
I went through books like they were barbecue.
friendly words that sounded like obscenities to my ear and that, thinking about it now, might actually have been obscene
Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach.
gestured and bobbed like a rapper
Hollows in the ground, like World War I bomb craters
Fate headed down the stairs, taking them in threes as if he were dashing for the street, like a boy heading out for a free afternoon with his friends.
smiling a catlike smile
everyone, I mean everyone, is like the ancient Christians in the Roman circus
Sunsets in the desert seem like they’ll never end, until suddenly, before you know it, they’re done. It’s like someone just turned out the lights
She had a hoarse, nasal voice and she didn’t talk like a New York secretary but like a
country person who has just come from the cemetery.
like butterflies summoned by his prayers
something like happiness
stood to attention like a soldier
the story grows like a snowball until the sun comes out and the whole damn ball melts and everybody forgets about it and goes back to work
The fucking killings are like a strike, amigo, a brutal fucking strike.
“It’s like a dream,” said Guadalupe Roncal. “It looks like something alive.”
it looks like a woman who’s been hacked to pieces. Who’s been hacked to pieces but is still alive. And the prisoners are living inside this woman.”
two Mexican reporters who stared at him like dying men
the knowledge slipped like water through his fingers
she smiled like a goddess
This place is like hell
A black sky like the bottom of the sea.
like fucking a man who isn’t exactly a man
like becoming a little girl again
like being fucked by a rock. A mountain.
it’s like you’re fucking a mountain but you’re fucking inside a cave
In other words it’s like being fucked by a mountain in a cave inside the mountain itself
Well, it feels like being fucked by the air. That’s exactly how it feels.
So fucking a policeman is like being fucked by a mountain and fucking a narco is like being fucked by the air.
like a tour guide with an eye for local color
he treated her like his slave
like a joke
like the title of a David Lynch film
narrow room like a monk’s cell
the shadows dispersed by the flashes of car lights like comet tails in the dark
It’s odd that someone would hang a book out like a shirt
like a huge hearse
She looked like an athlete from the 1940s.
All of this is like somebody else’s dream
the highway was like a river
These similes are from “The Part About Fate,” the third part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer.
Really, when you talk about stars you’re speaking figuratively. That’s metaphor. Call someone a movie star. You’ve used a metaphor. Say: the sky is full of stars. More metaphors. If somebody takes a hard right to the chin and goes down, you say he’s seeing stars. Another metaphor. Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming. In that sense a metaphor is like a life jacket. And remember, there are life jackets that float and others that sink to the bottom like lead. Best not to forget it. But really, there’s just one star and that star isn’t semblance, it isn’t metaphor, it doesn’t come from any dream or any nightmare. We have it right outside. It’s the sun. The sun, I am sorry to say, is our only star. When I was young I saw a science fiction movie. A rocket ship drifts off course and heads toward the sun. First, the astronauts start to get headaches. Then they’re all dripping sweat and they take off their spacesuits and even so they can’t stop sweating and before long they’re dehydrated. The sun’s gravity keeps pulling them ceaselessly in. The sun begins to melt the hull of the ship. Sitting in his seat, the viewer can’t help feeling hot, too hot to bear. Now I’ve forgotten how it ends. At the last minute they get saved, I seem to recall, and they correct the course of that rocket ship and turn it around toward the earth, and the huge sun is left behind, a frenzied star in the reaches of space.
From “The Part About Fate,” the third part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer.
These similes are from “The Part About Amalfitano,” the second part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer.
It’s like a fetus
he held the letter in his two hands like a life raft of reeds and grasses
a doglike fervor
a Turkish carpet like the threadbare carpet from the Thousand and One Nights, a battered carpet that sometimes functioned as a mirror, reflecting all of us from below
standing there like a tiny and infinitely patient Amazon
like mendicants or child prophets
like someone who’s burned himself
like sucking a small to medium dick
like shooting a Zen arrow with a Zen bow into a Zen pavilion
The lunatic, who was sitting down again, took it in the chest and dropped like a little bird.
those days were like a prolonged parachute landing after a long space flight
back and forth like a sleepwalker
marched from the west like a ragtag army whose only strength was its numbers
dropped down from the Pyrenees like the ghosts of dead beasts
the floor waxer like a cross between a mastiff and a pig sitting next to a plant
like a trick photograph that isn’t a trick, floating, floating pensively in the skies of Paris, weary
like a memory rising up from glacial seas
The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery that suddenly begins to think, in vain.
It also was like an empty dance club.
like a feudal lord riding out on horseback to survey his lands
like provincial intellectuals
like deeply self-sufficient men
like a zombie
like a medieval squire
like a medieval princess
Her hand was like a blind woman’s hand.
like a cloud cemetery
like a thick chili whose last simmer was fading in the west
the coffinlike shadow
purple like the skin of an Indian woman beaten to death
laughing in a whisper, like a fly
like an endoscopy, but painless
slept like a baby
I feel like a nightingale, he thought happily.
like a lover whose embrace maddened the horse as well as the rider, both of them dying of fright or ending up at the bottom of a ravine, or the colocolo, or the chonchones, or the candelillas, or so many other little creatures, lost souls, incubi and succubi, lesser demons that roamed between the Cordillera de la Costa and the Andes
very tan, like a singer or a Puerto Rican playboy
A confident, mocking smile, like the smile of a cocksure sniper.
like a joke
something like laughter but also something like sorrow
like the Greek state
like an arrowhead
burst out from a corner like someone playing a bad joke or about to attack him
the slight shadow, like a hastily dug pit that gives off an alarming stench
Something like the smoke signals
military men behaved like writers, and writers, so as not to be outdone,
behaved like military men, and politicians (of every stripe) behaved like writers and like military men, and diplomats behaved like cretinous cherubim, and doctors and lawyers behaved like thieves
a horrible and notably unhygienic bathroom that was more like a latrine or cesspit
A rather ordinary picture of a student in the capital, but it worked on him like a drug, a drug that brought him to tears, a drug that (as one sentimental Dutch poet of the nineteenth century had it) opened the floodgates of emotion, as well as the floodgates of something that at first blush resembled self-pity but wasn’t (what was it, then? rage? very likely)
the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness
their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings
went on the attack like Napoleon at Jena
demolished the counterattack like a Desaix, like a Lannes
old Hanseatic buildings, some of which looked like abandoned Nazi offices
like people endlessly analyzing a favorite movie
the parade of immigrants like ants loading the flesh of thousands of dead cattle into the ships’ holds
the little gaucho sounded like the moon, like the passage of clouds across the moon,
like a slow storm
his eyes shining with a strange intensity, like the eyes of a clumsy young butcher
the lady would begin to howl like a Fury
like an ice queen
news spreading like wildfire, like a nuclear conflagration
a rock jutting from the pool, like a dark and iridescent reef
like a painting by Gustave Moreau or Odilon Redon
I suffered like a dog
now the fucking mugs are like samurais armed with those fucking samurai swords
the appearance of the park, which looked to him like a film of the jungle, the colors wrong, terribly sad, exalted
The words old man and German he waved like magic wands to uncover a secret
like drudge work, like the lowest of menial tasks
that abyss like hour
Like the machine celibataire.
Like the bachelor who suddenly grows old, or like the bachelor who, when he returns from a trip at light speed, finds the other bachelors grown old or turned into pillars of salt.
like a howling Indian witch doctor
like talking to a stranger
like a whisper that he later understood was a kind of laugh
like a hula-hooping motion
you’re behaving like stupid children
they attended like sleepwalkers or drugged detectives
like missionaries ready to instill faith in God, even if to do so meant signing a pact with the devil
they behaved not like youths but like nouveaux youths
drifted through Bologna like two ghosts
who once said London was like a labyrinth
he could soar over the beach like a seagull
which circled in their guilty consciences like a ghost or an electric charge
they were so happy they began to sing like children in the pouring rain
Their remorse vanished like laughter on a spring night.
smiling like squirrels
like a fifteenth-century fortress
circles that faded like mute explosions
Coincidence, if you’ll permit me the simile, is like the manifestation of God at every moment on our planet.
a voice that didn’t sound like his but rather like the voice of a sorcerer, or more specifically, a sorceress, a soothsayer from the times of the Roman Empire
like the dripping of a basalt fountain
he and the room were mirrored like ghostly figures in a performance that prudence and fear would keep anyone from staging
Aztec ruins springing like lilacs from wasteland
like a river that stops being a river or a tree that burns on the horizon, not knowing that it’s burning
the city looked to them like an enormous camp of gypsies or refugees ready to pick up and move at the slightest prompting
the missing piece suddenly leaped into sight, almost like a bark
It’s like hearing a child cry
a kind of speed that looked to Espinoza like slowness, although he knew it was only the slowness that kept whoever watched the painting from losing his mind
brief moans shooting like meteorites over the desert
The words tunneled through the rarefied air of the room like virulent roots through dead flesh
The word freedom sounded to Espinoza like the crack of a whip in an empty classroom.
The light in the room was dim and uncertain, like the light of an English dusk.
Literature in Mexico is like a nursery school, a kindergarten, a playground, a kiddie club
the movement of something like subterranean tanks of pain
The stage is really a proscenium and upstage there’s an enormous tube, something like a mine shaft or the gigantic opening of a mine
like a bad joke on the part of the mayor or city planner
like pure crystal
like the legs of an adolescent near death
his eyes were just like the eyes of the blind
clung to the Chilean professor like a limpet
grimaced like a madman
like a reflection of what happened in the west but jumbled up
The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower.
For the first time, the three of them felt like siblings or like the veterans of some shock troop who’ve lost their interest in most things of this world
a smell of meat and hot earth spread over the patio in a thin curtain of smoke that enveloped them all like the fog that drifts before a murder
long roots like snakes or the locks of a Gorgon
like a shirt left out to dry
reality for Pelletier and Espinoza seemed to tear like paper scenery
lectures that were more like massacres
feeling less like butchers than like gutters or disembowellers
the boy on top of the heap of rugs like a bird, scanning the horizon
She was like a princess or an ambassadress
cry like a fool
I felt like a derelict dazzled by the sudden lights of a theater.
drew me like a magnet
a cement box with two tiny windows like the portholes of a sunken ship
a very soft voice, like the breeze that was blowing just then, suffusing everything with the scent of flowers
The cement box where the sauna was looked like a bunker holding a corpse.
These similes are from “The Part About the Critics,” the first part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer. I was originally going to try to record 666 similes, but then I didn’t. I’ll record similes from the other four parts of the novel though.
A passage from “The Part About The Crimes” from 2666 by Roberto Bolaño in translation by Natasha Wimmer
Talk to me about your family history, said the bastards. Explain your family tree, the assholes said. Self-sucking pieces of shit. Lalo Cura didn’t get angry. Faggot sons of bitches. Tell me about your coat of arms. That’s enough now. The kid’s going to blow. Stay calm. Respect the uniform. Don’t show you’re scared or back down, don’t let them think they’re getting to you. Some nights, in the dim light of the tenement, when he was done with the books on criminology (don’t lose it now, man), dizzy from all the fingerprints, blood and semen stains, principles of toxicology, investigations of thefts, breaking and entering, footprints, how to make sketches and take photographs of the crime scene, half asleep, drifting between sleep and wakefulness, he heard or remembered voices talking to him about the first Exposito, the family tree dating back to 1865, the nameless orphan, fifteen years old, raped by a Belgian soldier in a one-room adobe house outside Villaviciosa. The next day the soldier got his throat cut and nine months later a girl was born, called Maria Exposito. The orphan, the first one, said the voice, or several voices taking turns, died in childbirth and the girl grew up in the same house where she was conceived, which became the property of some peasants who took her in and treated her like another member of the family. In 1881, when Maria Exposito was fifteen, on the feast day of San Dimas, a drunk from another town carried her off on his horse, singing at the top of his lungs: Que chingaderas son estas I Dimas le dijo a Gestas. On the slope of a hill that looked like a dinosaur or a Gila monster he raped her several times and disappeared. In 1882, Maria Exposito gave birth to a child who was baptized Maria Exposito Exposito, said the voice, and the girl was the wonder of the peasants of Villaviciosa. From early on she showed herself to be clever and spirited, and although she never learned to read or write she was known as a wise woman, learned in the ways of herbs and medicinal salves. In 1898, after she had been away for seven days, Maria Exposito appeared one morning in the Villaviciosa plaza, a bare space in the center of town, with a broken arm and bruises all over her body. She would never explain what had happened to her, nor did the old women who tended to her insist that she tell. Nine months later a girl was born and given the name Maria Exposito, and her mother, who never married or had more children or lived with any man, initiated her into the secret art of healing. But the young Maria Exposito resembled her mother only in her good nature, a quality shared by all the Maria Expositos of Villaviciosa. Some were quiet and others liked to talk, but common to them all was their good nature and the fortitude to endure periods of violence or extreme poverty. But young Maria Exposito’s childhood and adolescence were more carefree than her mother’s and grandmother’s had been. In 1914, at sixteen, her thoughts and actions were still those of a girl whose only tasks were to accompany her mother once a month in search of rare herbs and to wash the clothes, not at the public washhouse, which was too far away, but behind the house, in an old wooden trough. That was the year Colonel Sabino Duque (who in 1915 would be shot to death for cowardice) came to town looking for brave men—and the men of Villaviciosa were famous for being braver than anyone—to fight for the Revolution. Continue reading “Talk to me about your family history, said the bastards | Roberto Bolaño”→
So, wanting the thick feeling and flavor of a long book but committed to so many skinny books, I started listening to the audiobook of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 this week. I’m about twelve hours in (it’s something like forty hours), and it’s activated so many memories and thoughts. I don’t think I’d recommend 2666 as an audiobook on the first read—it helps to know the novel’s abyssal shapes and strategies. I’ve read 2666 three times, including a back-to-back reading, and so much of the novel has stuck with me more than many other novels I’ve read. This morning—early for me—I went for a walk and listened in the baking Florida heat, sun blazing, and, in the book titled “The Part About Fate,” I heard a passage that resonated with me. I pulled my chunky body ‘neath a magnolia’s shade and opened up a note app on my phone to type some of the language, thinking I’d share it on this blog. When I got home I googled the phrases I’d recorded, and realized that I’d shared the passage on this blog eleven years ago.
I’ll put together some thoughts on revising 2666 after a decade, but here’s the passage.
From Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, “The Part About Fate, pages 266-267:
“We’ve gotten used to death,” he heard the young man say.
“It’s always been that way,” said the white-haired man, “always.”
In the nineteenth century, toward the middle or the end of the nineteenth century, said the white-haired man, society tended to filter death through the fabric of words. Reading news stories from back then you might get the idea that there was hardly any crime, or that a single murder could throw a whole country into tumult. We didn’t want death in the home, or in our dreams and fantasies, and yet it was a fact that terrible crimes were committed, mutilations, all kinds of rape, even serial killings. Of course, most of the serial killers were never caught. Take the most famous case of the day. No one knew who Jack the Ripper was. Everything was passed through the filter of words, everything trimmed to fit our fear. What does a child do when he’s afraid? He closes his eyes. What does a child do when he’s about to be raped and murdered? He closes his eyes. And he screams, too, but first he closes his eyes. Words served that purpose. And the funny thing is, the archetypes of human madness and cruelty weren’t invented by the men of our day but by our forebears. The Greeks, you might say, invented evil, the Greeks saw the evil inside us all, but testimonies or proofs of this evil no longer move us. They strike us as futile, senseless. You could say the same about madness. It was the Greeks who showed us the range of possibilities and yet now they mean nothing to us. Everything changes, you say. Of course everything changes, but not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes. Maybe it’s because polite society was so small back then. I’m talking about the nineteenth century, eighteenth century, seventeenth century. No doubt about it, society was small. Most human beings existed on the outer fringes of society. In the seventeenth century, for example, at least twenty percent of the merchandise on every slave ship died. By that I mean the dark-skinned people who were being transported for sale, to Virginia, say. And that didn’t get anyone upset or make headlines in the Virginia papers or make anyone go out and call for the ship captain to be hanged. But if a plantation owner went crazy and killed his neighbor and then went galloping back home, dismounted, and promptly killed his wife, two deaths in total, Virginia society spent the next six months in fear, and the legend of the murderer on horseback might linger for generations. Or look at the French. During the Paris Commune of 1871, thousands of people were killed and no one batted an eye. Around the same time a knife sharpener killed his wife and his elderly mother and then he was shot and killed by the police. The story didn’t just make all the French newspapers, it was written up in papers across Europe, and even got a mention in the New York Examiner. How come? The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, the dark-skinned people who died on the ship weren’t part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were. What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible. That said, words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance, not of revelation. Maybe they revealed something all the same. I couldn’t tell you.
As a young man Salvático advocated, among other things, the re-establishment of the Inquisition; corporal punishment in public; a permanent war against the Chileans, the Paraguayans, or the Bolivians as a kind of gymnastics for the nation; polygamy; the extermination of the Indians to prevent further contamination of the Argentinean race; curtailing the rights of any citizen with Jewish blood; a massive influx of migrants from the Scandinavian countries in order to effect a progressive lightening of the national skin color, darkened by years of promiscuity with the indigenous population; life-long writer’s grants; the abolition of tax on artists’ incomes; the creation of the largest air force in South America; the colonization of Antarctica; and the building of new cities in Patagonia.
He was a soccer player and a Futurist.
From 1920 to 1929, in addition to frequenting the literary salons and fashionable cafes, he wrote and published more than twelve collections of poems, some of which won municipal and provincial prizes. From 1930 on, burdened by a disastrous marriage and numerous offspring, he worked as a gossip columnist and copy-editor for various newspapers in the capital, hung out in dives, and practised the art of the novel, which stubbornly declined to yield its secrets to him. Three titles resulted: Fields of Honor (1936), about semi-secret challenges and duels in a spectral Buenos Aires; The French Lady (1949), a story of prostitutes with hearts of gold, tango singers and detectives; and The Eyes of the Assassin (1962), a curious precursor to the psycho-killer movies of the seventies and eighties.
He died in an old-age home in Villa Luro, his worldly possessions consisting of a single suitcase full of books and unpublished manuscripts.
His books were never republished. His manuscripts were probably thrown out with the trash or burned by the orderlies.
It’s a work of mesmerism and transformation—vampire powers. Dracula showing up is a winking sick joke, a satire.
IV. In his post “Castle Dracula” at Infinite Zombies, Daryl L. L. Houston connects the many strands of vampirism that run through 2666, suggesting that “Bolaño is using the vampirism in the story, and Dracula in particular, to tie together some of the threads he’s been unwinding pertaining to insiders and outsiders, parasitism and consumption of people, and a sort of larger parasitism of nations.” Hence Aztec blood rituals, the Holocaust, the murder of helpless, marginalized women in Santa Teresa . . .
V. Okay, so back to that thesis. Let’s start with the first appearance of the unnamed SS officer:
At midmorning they came to a castle. The only people there were three Romanians and an SS officer who was acting as butler and who put them right to work, after serving them a breakfast consisting of a glass of cold milk and a scrap of bread, which some soldiers left untouched in disgust. Everyone, except for four soldiers who stood guard, among them Reiter, whom the SS officer judged ill suited for the task of tidying the castle, left their rifles in the kitchen and set to work sweeping, mopping, dusting lamps, putting clean sheets on the beds.
Fairly banal, right? Also, “midmorning” would entail, y’know, sunlight, which is poison for most vampires. Let me chalk this up to the idea that the SS officer is inside the castle, which is sufficiently gloomy and dark enough to protect him (I’m not going to get into any vampire rules that might spoil my fun, dammit!). In any case, hardly noteworthy. Indeed, the SS officer—a butler commanding house chores—seems hardly a figure of major importance.
VI. Next, we get the Romanian castle explicitly identified as “Dracula’s castle” and meet the actors for this milieu:
“And what are you doing here, at Dracula’s castle?” asked the baroness.
“Serving the Reich,” said Reiter, and for the first time he looked at her.
He thought she was stunningly beautiful, much more so than when he had known her. A few steps from them, waiting, was General Entrescu, who couldn’t stop smiling, and the young scholar Popescu, who more than once exclaimed: wonderful, wonderful, yet again the sword of fate severs the head from the hydra of chance.
(I love Popescu’s line here).
VII. Our principals soon take a tour of castle and environs, led by the SS officer (boldface emphasis is mine):
Soon they came to a crypt dug out of the rock. An iron gate, with a coat of arms eroded by time, barred the entrance. The SS officer, who behaved as if he owned the castle, took a key out of his pocket and let them in. Then he switched on a flashlight and they all ventured into the crypt, except for Reiter, who remained on guard at the door at the signal of one of the officers.
So Reiter stood there, watching the stone stairs that led down into the dark, and the desolate garden through which they had come, and the towers of the castle like two gray candles on a deserted altar. Then he felt for a cigarette in his jacket, lit it, and gazed at the gray sky, the distant valleys, and thought about the Baroness Von Zumpe’s face as the cigarette ash dropped to the ground and little by little he fell asleep, leaning on the stone wall. Then he dreamed about the inside of the crypt. The stairs led down to an amphitheater only partially illuminated by the SS officer’s flashlight. He dreamed that the visitors were laughing, all except one of the general staff officers, who wept and searched for a place to hide. He dreamed that Hoensch recited a poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach and then spat blood. He dreamed that among them they had agreed to eat the Baroness Von Zumpe.
He woke with a start and almost bolted down the stairs to confirm with his own eyes that nothing he had dreamed was real.
When the visitors returned to the surface, anyone, even the least astute observer, could have seen that they were divided into two groups, those who were pale when they emerged, as if they had glimpsed something momentous down below, and those who appeared with a half smile sketched on their faces, as if they had just been reapprised of the naivete of the human race.
Bolaño concludes the crypt passage by highlighting an essential ambiguity that courses throughout the entire “Castle Dracula” episode, a strange axis of horror/humor, romance/banality. What has been revealed in the crypt? We don’t know, of course, but our surrogate Reiter allows us access to a few visions of what might have happened, including terror and fear and cannibalism. (He employs Hawthorne’s escape hatch too—it was all a dream).
VIII. Then, supper time:
That night, during dinner, they talked about the crypt, but they also talked about other things. They talked about death. Hoensch said that death itself was only an illusion under permanent construction, that in reality it didn’t exist. The SS officer said death was a necessity: no one in his right mind, he said, would stand for a world full of turtles or giraffes. Death, he concluded, served a regulatory function.
Clearly it’s easy to link any of the dinnertime comments about death to Dracula, but note that the SS officer’s idea that death is a “regulatory function” is terribly banal, is quite literally regular—this idea contrasts with Hoensch’s more poetic notion that death is an illusion (an illusion that the SS officer, if he is in fact Count Dracula, would realize in a perfectly mundane way that foreclosed the necessity of metaphor).
IX. Dinner conversation turns to murder—obviously one of the central themes of 2666:
The SS officer said that murder was an ambiguous, confusing, imprecise, vague, ill-defined word, easily misused.
Again, ambiguity: on one hand, sure, an SS officer’s job was in large part about coordinating and executing mass murder. At the same time, we might appreciate that murder is a vague term if people are one’s lunch.
X. Then conversation turns to culture:
The SS officer said culture was the call of the blood, a call better heard by night than by day, and also, he said, a decoder of fate.
I’m pretty sure that this was the moment I started entertaining the fancy that the SS officer might be Dracula.
XI. Popescu the intellectual also seems to reconsider the SS officer:
The intellectual Popescu remained standing, next to the fireplace, observing the SS officer with curiosity.
XII. Then, they finally riff on Dracula. Significantly, the SS officer believes that Dracula is a good German (bold emphasis mine):
First they praised the assortment of little cakes and then, without pause, they began to talk about Count Dracula, as if they had been waiting all night for this moment. It wasn’t long before they broke into two factions, those who believed in the count and those who didn’t. Among the latter were the general staff officer, General Entrescu, and the Baroness Von Zumpe. Among the former were Popescu, Hoensch, and the SS officer, though Popescu claimed that Dracula, whose real name was Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, was Romanian, and Hoensch and the SS officer claimed that Dracula was a noble Teuton, who had left Germany accused of an imaginary act of treason or disloyalty and had come to live with some of his loyal retainers in Transylvania a long time before Vlad Tepes was born, and while they didn’t deny Tepes a real historical or Transylvanian existence, they believed that his methods, as revealed by his alias or nickname, had little or nothing to do with the methods of Dracula, who was more of a strangler than an impaler, and sometimes a throat slitter, and whose life abroad, so to speak, had been a constant dizzying spin, a constant abysmal penitence.
The SS officer is the noble Teuton. More importantly, we get language that connects Dracula to the murders in Santa Teresa, most of which are stranglings; we also get the idea that Dracula has had a “life abroad”—one outside of time—a life that might see his spirit inhabit and ventriloquize an industrial city in the north of Mexico. (Or not. I know. Look, I’m just riffing here).
We also get the idea of an abyss (this is the structure of 2666), as well as the idea of Dracula as a penitent of sorts.
So, let us recall that early in “The Part About the Crimes,” detective Juan de Dios Martinez is searching for a criminal dubbed The Penitent who desecrates churches and has committed a few murders in the process. He goes to psychologist Elvira Campos for help:
Sacraphobia is fear or hatred of the sacred, of sacred objects, especially from your own religion, said Elvira Campos. He thought about making a reference to Dracula, who fled crucifixes, but he was afraid the director would laugh at him. And you believe the Penitent suffers from sacraphobia? I’ve given it some thought, and I do. A few days ago he disemboweled a priest and another person, said Juan de Dios Martinez.
This is the first mention of Dracula in 2666, and he’s explicitly likened to the Penitent; later, as we see above, Dracula will be explicitly linked to penitence.
(I’m not suggesting that the Penitent is Dracula traveled to Mexico to piss in churches. What I want to say is that Dracula’s dark spirit ventriloquizes the text of 2666).
XIII. Our other principals continue to discuss Dracula, but I won’t belabor that discussion (I’d prefer you, dear reader, to return to the text).
I will summarize though: Popescu sees Dracula in nationalistic terms (“a Romanian patriot” who repels the Turks), and General Entrescu goes on a long rant about heroism and villainy and history, culminating in a lengthy digression on Jesus Christ (recall now that Entrescu will be crucified JC-style by his men).
One aside on the SS officer bears mentioning: we learn that “the fastidious SS officer” is the most sober conversant as he “scarcely wet his lips with alcohol.” (Because he’s a vampire who prefers blood! Muahahahaha!)
XIV. Fast forward a few hours. Our man Reiter, among fellow soldiers, sets out to explore the secret crannies and passageways of Castle Drac and play voyeur:
The room they came to was empty and cold, as if Dracula had just stepped out. The only thing there was an old mirror that Wilke lifted off the stone wall, uncovering a secret passageway.
Dracula’s spirit leaves the room, creating an opening, behind the ever-symbolic mirror. (Muahahahaha!). (2666: Mirror, tunnels, chambers, labyrinths).
They enter the passageway and come first upon our supposed Dracula, the SS officer:
And so they were able to look into the room of the SS officer, lit by three candles, and they saw the SS officer up, wrapped in a robe, writing something at a table near the fireplace. The expression on his face was forlorn. And although that was all there was to see, Wilke and Reiter patted each other on the back, because only then were they sure they were on the right path. They moved on.
XV. Dracula, the epistolary novel. Count Dracula, troubled writer of letters, will author the following scenes, his spirit ventriloquizing the principals all: Here, we find Reiter and his homeboy Wilke, lurking in a secret passage, jerking off to werewolf-cum-Jesus-Christ-figure Gen. Entrescu screwing the lovely Baroness Von Zumpe and reciting poetry (emphasis per usual mine):
Then Wilke came on the wall and mumbled something too, a soldier’s prayer, and soon afterward Reiter came on the wall and bit his lips without saying a word. And then Entrescu got up and they saw, or thought they saw, drops of blood on his penis shiny with semen and vaginal fluid, and then Baroness Von Zumpe asked for a glass of vodka, and then they watched as Entrescu and the baroness stood entwined, each with a glass in hand and an air of distraction, and then Entrescu recited a poem in his tongue, which the baroness didn’t understand but whose musicality she lauded, and then Entrescu closed his eyes and cocked his head as if to listen to something, the music of the spheres, and then he opened his eyes and sat at the table and set the baroness on his cock, erect again (the famous foot-long cock, pride of the Romanian army), and the cries and moans and tears resumed, and as the baroness sank down onto Entrescu’s cock or Entrescu’s cock rose up into the Baroness Von Zumpe, the Romanian general recited a new poem, a poem that he accompanied by waving both arms (the baroness clinging to his neck), a poem that again neither of them understood, except for the word Dracula,which was repeated every four lines, a poem that might have been martial or satirical or metaphysical or marmoreal or even anti-German, but whose rhythm seemed made to order for the occasion, a poem that the young baroness, sitting astride Entrescu’s thighs, celebrated by swaying back and forth, like a little shepherdess gone wild in the vastness of Asia, digging her nails into her lover’s neck, scrubbing the blood that still flowed from her right hand on her lover’s face, smearing the corners of his lips with blood, while Entrescu, undeterred, continued to recite his poem in which the word Dracula sounded every four lines, a poem that was surely satirical, decided Reiter (with infinite joy) as Wilke jerked off again.
I contend that the poem is the work of the SS officer, psychic mesmerist, the poet Dracula, a poem no one in the scene can understand, a dark satire that might also be a war poem or a love poem or an elegy, but definitely a dark satire, written in violence and sex and blood, a poem that ventriloquizes not only Entrescu, phallic delivery device, but also the baroness, and also Reiter and Wilke. And perhaps the reader.
XVI. Where to go after such a climax? Maybe point out that Dracula infects Reiter and Wilke, of whom we learn:
Some of their battalion comrades dubbed them the vampires.
(But better to return I think to our strange figure, the SS officer).
XVII. Here, his last appearance:
The next morning the detachment left the castle after the departure of the two carloads of guests. Only the SS officer remained behind while they swept, washed, and tidied everything. Then, when the officer was fully satisfied with their efforts, he ordered them off and the detachment climbed into the truck and headed back down to the plain. Only the SS officer’s car—with no driver, which was odd—was left at the castle. As they drove away, Reiter saw the officer: he had climbed up to the battlements and was watching the detachment leave, craning his neck, rising up on tiptoe, until the castle, on the one hand, and the truck, on the other, disappeared from view.
Dracula stays in Dracula’s castle; his spirit, his seed, his blood seeps out.
[Ed. note: This post was originally published in 2012. Happy Halloween!]
My James M. Cain discovery tour continued with Double Indemnity, which I loved loved loved. The novel’s terse, mean, a bit queasy, and zippy as hell. Over the July 4th weekend my uncle and I made plans to watch Billy Wilder’s 1944 film adaptation, but maybe heat and alcohol got in the way. I’ll get to it soon. (I stalled out in Mildred Pierce, although I did see that film—the 1945 one with Joan Crawford.)
I checked out Roberto Bolaño’s “newest” collection of novellas, Cowboy Graves, from the library. I’ll probably pick it up in paperback or used when I get the chance. It’s a fragmentary affair, and paradoxically seems more complete because of this. Other “unfinished” pieces like Woes of the True Policeman and The Spirit of Science Fiction felt like dress rehearsals to his big boys—The Savage Detectives and 2666—but the trio in Cowboy Graves fit neatly if weirdly into the Bolañoverse proper. Good stuff.
I tore through four novels by British wrtier B.S. Johnson earlier this year before taking up his most gimmicky work— his “book in a box,” 1969’s The Unfortunates. The book consists of 27 pamphlets. One is labeled “FIRST”, another “LAST,” but it’s up to the reader to shuffle and go for it. I think there is a reason most novels are not composed in this format. If you are intrested in Johnson, check out Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry or Albert Angelo.
I will give Evan Dara’s new novel Permanent Earthquake a proper review when I finish it. I will simply state here that finishing it has been a slog. This may be a rhetorical conceit–the novel is about a world, or an island, which I suppose is its own world, in a state of permanent earthquake—or really the novel is about one dude in this world island of permanent earthquakes, trying to find a still spot. It’s clearly an allegory of late capitalist whatever butting up against climate disaster, and it’s very depressing, and it’s a slog slog slog. I think Dara is an important contemporary writer and I will do a better job assessing Permanent Earthquake when I finish it.
I picked up a used copy of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics a couple of weeks ago, largely because of its lovely cover. I’d read the book years ago, and mostly remember being amused and frustrated by it. Shelving it, I pulled out a trio of Calvino’s I hadn’t read in ages: Invisible Cities, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and The Baron in the Trees.
I started in on Invisible Cities (trans. William Weaver); I first read it on a train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai twenty years ago. My friend loaned it to me. He spent the night drinking with Germans; I read Calvino’s prose-poem-essay-cyle-thing over a few hours. Rereading it I found so much more—more humor, more humanity, more life. As a young man I think I demanded its philosophy, its semiotics, its brains. There’s more heart there than I remembered.
I then took up If on a winter’s night a traveler (trans William Weaver). I realized that I’d never read the novel just to read it—I read it as an undergrad and then as a grad student, and both times, like a character in the novel, I read it looking for bits of evidence to support an idea I already had. Winter’s night is a bit too long; its metatextual postmodernism starts to wear thin—you can almost open the novel at random to find it describing itself—but it is probably the best postmodernist example of a novel about reading a novel I can think of. (It’s also hornier than I remember.)
And so well now I’m in the middle of Calvino’s much-earlier novel, The Baron in the Trees (trans. Archibald Colquhoun). The story of a rebellious young aristocrat who vows to live in the trees and never set foot on ground again, Baron burns with a focused narrative heat absent in Calvino’s later more self-consciously postmodern work. It’s not exactly a picaresque, but it’s still one damn thing happening after another, and I love it.
NYRB published Esther Allen’s English translation in 2016. It is excellent.
What is Zama about?
Zama tells the brutally funny and often sad story of Don Diego de Zama, a bored and horny americano wasting away in the provincial backwaters of Paraguay. It’s the end of the world at the end of the 18th century, and there’s not a lot to do. Zama fills his time with schemes of lust and petty pride, shirking his job as a nominal governmental authority. He longs to be reunited with his wife and family in Buenos Aires, but seems to sabotage every opportunity to get back to them. He also longs for his glory days as a corregidor, putting down “the native rebellion” in the service of Spain’s imperial project. Zama is a confusing and confused character, frequently frustrating but also oddly sympathetic. He is a loser who does not seem to see that he is a loser, although life gives him every opportunity to come to this conclusion. As South African novelist J.M. Coetzee’s puts it in his excellent in-depth review of the novel:
[Zama] is vain, maladroit, narcissistic, and morbidly suspicious; he is prone to accesses of lust and fits of violence, and endowed with an endless capacity for self-deception.
He is also the author of himself, in a double sense. First, everything we hear about him comes from his own mouth, including such derogatory epithets as “swaggering” and “dogslayer,” which suggest a certain ironic self-awareness. Second, his day-to-day actions are dictated by the promptings of his unconscious, or at least his inner self, over which he makes no effort to assert conscious control. His narcissistic pleasure in himself includes the pleasure of never knowing what he will get up to next, and thus of being free to invent himself as he goes along.
Coetzee captures the joy of reading Zama in those last few lines: It’s the joy in watching a first-person perspective invent itself in shambling picaresque adventures born of sheer boredom. It’s the pleasure of seeing an asshole who refuses to acknowledge that he is an asshole try to pretend that he is not an asshole—all in a kind of language that is simultaneously romantic and flat.
Let me give you a taste of that language, reader. Here are the opening bars of the novel:
I left the city and made my way downriver alone, to meet the ship I awaited without knowing when it would come.
I reached the old wharf, that inexplicable structure. The city and its harbor have always been where they are, a quarter-league farther upriver.
I observed, among its pilings, the writhing patch of water that ebbs between them.
A dead monkey, still whole, still undecomposed, drifted back and forth with a certain precision upon those ripples and eddies without exit. All his life the water at forest’s edge had beckoned him to a journey, a journey he did not take until he was no longer a monkey but only a monkey’s corpse. The water that bore him up tried to bear him away, but he was caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf and there he was, ready to go and not going. And there we were.
There we were: Ready to go and not going.
The ship that won’t come in, the floating dead monkey, the state of unknowing—these abject and negative motifs are the paradoxical genesis of the novel. The clipped repetitions, culminating in “Ready to go and not going” recall Samuel Beckett, whom translator Esther Allen acknowledges as “a perfect counterpoint to the prose voice of Zama” in her introduction.
In addition to Beckett, easy points of comparison are Dostoevsky, Camus, Borges, and especially Kafka. In his perceptive analysis of Zama, critic Benjamin Kunkel points out the novel’s existential core, absurdist peripheries, and realistic contours:
As with novels by Kafka, Camus, Sartre, and Beckett, the story’s preoccupation is the tension between human freedom and constraining circumstance. Zama, a man as impetuous as he is stuck, resembles other existentialist antiheroes as he swings between spellbound passivity and sudden lunges into action. But Don Diego never seems like a figure in an allegory, like K. in The Castle; or an ambulatory philosophical argument, like Roquentin in Nausea. Zama induces a rare feeling—to put it as naïvely as possible—of the main character’s realness. Don Diego is consistently surprised by his own behavior, but not as much as he would like. His abrupt acts and swerving meditations have an air of unplotted inevitability about them. He is a character more convincing than coherent, and more persuasive than intelligible.
The spider approached the drunk. From a quarter vara away, these spiders can leap and bite so that if taken by surprise, even a man who’s awake has no time to defend himself. I had no wish to move. I could crush it with my boot but would postpone until the last.
The spider moved toward the sleeping head and I watched to see whether anything out of the ordinary would transpire. Would the man—obedient to some mysterious warning instinct—suddenly awaken and kill it? He did not. Now the insect was crawling in his hair. I didn’t see it climb up; I saw it there on him and then I was quite certain I should do nothing.
The episode continues in this way, building in tension as the large spider crawls over the man’s face while Zama remains inert and fascinated by his own inertia—until the drunken man absently bats the spider from his face. Zama is paradoxically stunned by this anticlimax:
I reviewed the episode. At no point had I felt any emotion, except when I imagined the man had wakened and was about to deliver himself of an entirely justified diatribe against me.
The passage is representative of Di Benedetto’s rhetorical skill—he gives us a deceptively lucid first-person narrator who articulately elides key information, both from the reader and himself. Zama refuses to name his intense desire to see the spider bite the man. Additionally, his emotional identification is bound to righteous anger, the righteous anger appropriate to the would-be-bitten drunkard. Instead of genuine pathos, Zama would usurp this man’s self-righteous anger, the anger that he feels all the time at his (literal and figurative) position in life. But the spider bite that would license self-righteousness never comes. Basically, Zama just wants something to happen.
And that’s the plot of Zama, more or less.Our (anti-)hero’s picaresque jabs at adventure and romance are sent awry or thwarted, usually by his own loutish passions. Zama’s would-be escapades unravel, that is, until the book’s final section, 1799—
–Okay, let me digress momentarily: Zama, a slim 200 pages, is structured into three sections: 1790, 1794, and 1799. The connective tissue between these sections hangs transparent, nearly invisible, but nevertheless accessible via small clues, motifs, scant threads. Di Benedetto gives us modernism in the last decade of the 18th century, boredom that tiptoes around the abyss of insanity. Rereading the three sections is a joy. But let me return to the central thread—
Zama’s would-be adventures unravel or collapse until the book’s final section, 1799, when Di Benedetto puts our hero in genuine harm’s way (and cunningly exfiltrates any opportunity for overt heroism on Zama’s part). The novel earns its drive toward what I take to be its central question: “Do you want to live?”
Di Benedetto hides his answer to this question not so much in the central figure Zama, but rather in Zama’s put-upon secretary, his mozo Manuel Fernández. Fernández is, at least for me, the secret star of the novel. When we first meet Fernández, Zama joins in gently mocking him at the lead of their boss, the governor. They tease Fernández when he tells them that he is writing a novel. “Make sons, Manuel, not books,” admonishes the governor, but the clerk replies: “I want to realize myself in myself…Children realize themselves, but whether for good or ill we don’t know. Books are made only for truth and beauty.” Later, Zama, in more of a ruse than in good faith, asks Fernández to read some of his book. He finds the “entangled” prose “incomprehensible,” to which Fernández replies: “the first man and the first lizard were each incomprehensible, as well, to all those who surrounded them.” Fernández declares that he writes for “no master.” If he has no audience today, his pages will be understood by his “grandchildren’s grandchildren…Things will be different then.” Later, Fernández reveals that he’s given away his manuscript to an old man, a stranger suffering boredom while waiting for a delayed ship to take him somewhere other than the end of the world.
Fernández sees himself as an author doomed to obscurity in the present, an author who awaits a future that will catch up to his originary vision. Perhaps it’s a bit much to suggest he’s a stand-in for Di Benedetto, but there are traces here. Above, I cited Benjamin Kunkel’s essay on Zama, “A Neglected South American Masterpiece,” and J.M. Coetzee’s review, “A Great Writer We Should Know.” Those titles point to the novel’s obscurity, an obscurity which I sense is now being (if in increments) reversed. Esther Allen’s English translation obviously opens Zama to an even wider audience, and Argentine director Lucrecia Martel is apparently adapting the novel to film. But it’s perhaps Roberto Bolaño, a writer who time caught up to, however too late, who helped guide new readers—however obscurely—to Zama. In Bolaño’s 1997 short story “Sensini,” the titular character is a clear transposition of Di Benedetto, a cult author, a writer’s writer:
The novel was the kind of book that circulates by word of mouth. Entitled Ugarte, it was about a series of moments in the life of Juan de Ugarte, a bureaucrat in the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata at the end of the eighteenth century. Some (mainly Spanish) critics had dismissed it as Kafka in the colonies, but gradually the novel had made its way, and by the time I came across Sensini’s name in the Alcoy anthology, Ugarte had recruited a small group of devoted readers, scattered around Latin America and Spain, most of whom knew each other, either as friends or as gratuitously bitter enemies.
Thank goodness, or thank evil, or thank boredom: thanks for word of mouth, for friends and enemies alike (as long as they have good taste); thanks for writer’s writers (and writer’s writer’s writers) and the cult books they transmit to us—like Zama.
Zama is a cult novel that deserves a larger cult. After two false starts (I admit I misread the voice, missing the humor), I read Di Benedetto’s novel in a kind of hunger. Then I read it again. Then I wrote this thing, to tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran this review in April, 2017.]