Noise like crumpled pages, noise like burned books, and over 100 other similes from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

    1. black eyes like two deep wells
    2. He seemed less like a child than like a strand of seaweed.
    3. 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
    4. watching the fragments of his body drift away in all directions, like space probes launched at random across the universe
    5. a region very like hell
    6. he moved across the surface of the earth like a novice diver along the seafloor
    7. strands that really did look like fingers
    8. The Poles look like chickens, but pluck four feathers and you’ll see they’ve got the skin of swine.
    9. They look like starving dogs but they’re really starving swine, swine that’ll eat anyone, without a second thought, without the slightest remorse.
    10. They’re like swine disguised as Chihuahuas.
    11. A churning gray like pus.
    12. like ghost towns
    13. like blood and rotting meat
    14. moving like a diver
    15. like a night diver
    16. What was it about the boy that made him look like seaweed?
    17. that dark sea, a sea like a pack of wolves
    18. dark waves like forest beasts
    19. the body of young Reiter floating like uprooted seaweed, upward, a brilliant white in the underwater space
    20. sometimes the baby looked like a bag of rubbish left on a pebbly beach
    21. 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
    22. like prophecies
    23. “My son,” said the one-legged man.
      “He looks like a giraffe fish,” said the former pilot, and he laughed.
    24. that weekend was like a month
    25. samurais were like fish in a waterfall but the best samurai in history was a woman
    26. an eternity, like the minutes of those condemned to die
    27. like the minutes of women who’ve just given birth and are condemned to die
    28. like luxurious excrescences or heartbeats
    29. 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.
    30. like the eyes of a hawk that flies and delights in its flight, but that also maintains a
      watchful gaze
    31. noise like crumpled pages, noise like burned books
    32. cavorted like a mermaid
    33. he watched the sunrise as it washed like a wave over the city, drowning them all
    34. darts along like a squirrel
    35. the village, like a black lump set or encrusted in the darkness
    36. 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
    37. like seeing a giraffe go off in a pack of wolves, coyotes, and hyenas
    38. the seaweed jungle was like the locks of a dead giant
    39. like sheep or little goats
    40. He saw hills or rocky outcroppings that looked like ships about to sink, prows lifted, like enraged horses, nearly vertical
    41. the towers of the castle like two gray candles on a deserted altar
    42. being here is like being buried alive
    43. like a shadow
    44. more like a horse than a man
    45. like an engraving of a worker or artisan, an innocent passerby suddenly blinded by a ray of moonlight
    46. swaying back and forth, like a little shepherdess gone wild in the vastness of Asia
    47. reality was increasingly vague, more like a dream
    48. d her eyes, a washed-out blue, like the eyes of a blind woman
    49. strolling like philosophers
    50. woods like dark islands in the middle of endless wheat fields
    51. a black fog rose before his eyes, full of granulated dots like a rain of meteors
    52. he fired and walked, like someone strolling and taking photographs, until the
      fort exploded
    53. looking as if they were starving or like pupils at a reform school
    54. the sergeant looked like an ant that gradually grew bigger and bigger
    55. already approaching old age, like the biblical Abraham and Sarah
    56. drank like a condemned woman
    57. more like a strand of seaweed than a human being
    58. the seaweedlike extraterrestrial
    59. like a burning doll
    60. a rending violence, like a claw, but not a claw that did any damage
    61. 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.
    62. like something rotting
    63. like an orphan, a self-designated orphan
    64. 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.
    65. They lived like garbagemen. They were the garbagemen of the jungle
    66. like birds
    67. like a horror painting
    68. other poets shun them like lepers
    69. the sudden appearance of this incredible woman is like a miracle
    70. inspecting the dead like someone who inspects a lot for sale or a farm or a country house
    71. like madmen escaped from an asylum
    72. From a hill he saw a column of German tanks moving east. They looked like the coffins of an extraterrestrial civilization.
    73. feeling something very strange that sometimes seemed like happiness and other times like a guilt as vast as the sky
    74. the bottom of the river was like a gravel road
    75. a vague noise, like the clatter of furniture, as if sick people were moving furniture around
    76. the full moon filtered through the fabric of the tent like boiling coffee through a sock
    77. my name has grown like a malignant tumor and now it turns up on the most unlikely documents
    78. the light sweeping the tent like a bird’s wing or a claw
    79. dreamlike
    80. they seemed less like children than like the skeletons of children, abandoned sketches, pure will and bone
    81. like girls who’ve just woken from a terrible nightmare
    82. like the habitues of racetracks who commit suicide in cheap rented rooms or hotels tucked away on back-streets frequented by gangsters
    83. like a murderer
    84. like a ragpicker’s room
    85. he drank like a Cossack
    86. the killer will open the window of my room and come tiptoeing in like a nurse
      and slit my throat, bleed me dry
    87. I would never manage to create anything like a masterpiece.
    88. He writes like someone taking dictation.
    89. his old man’s neck, like the neck of a turkey or a plucked rooster
    90. his gray temples like a stormy sea
    91. 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.
    92. a kind of crepuscular lethargy crept from under the doors like poison gas
    93. Mickey, like the mouse
    94. Everything is burning. It looks more like the moon than Normandy.
    95. like the living dead, zombies, cemetery dwellers, soldiers without eyes or mouths, but with penises
    96. 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
    97. not dirty or like shit or urine, nor like rot or worm meat
    98. like Ali Baba’s cave
    99. 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.
    100. like something out of a fairy tale
    101. Then he began to talk, still pacing, about Europe, Greek mythology, and something
      vaguely like a police investigation
    102. like something out of a PreRaphaelite painting
    103. 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
    104. all human beings are obliged to bear until their deaths, like the rock of Sisyphus
    105. throbbed like the ripped-out heart of an Aztec victim
    106. typewriter was like a heart, a giant heart beating in the middle of the fog and chaos
    107. the stain of blood was like a giant rose in full bloom
    108. and the mountains multiplying in the night, all white, like nuns with no worldly ambitions.
    109. a laugh that sounded to Archimboldi like a cascade of ice
    110. she didn’t weigh a thing anymore, it was like climbing up with a bundle of sticks
    111. like a couple of vagabonds
    112. 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
    113. Like the final surroundings of Sisyphus
    114. like a phantom
    115. He smiled like a father
    116. the place looked like a graveyard
    117. 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
    118. a sweet and chirping voice, like the water of a brook that runs over a bed of flat stones
    119. The essayist looked like a cigarette covered with a handkerchief.
    120. arm in arm like two ex-lovers who no longer have many secrets to tell
    121. a car like a hearse awaited her
    122. the days were like nights and the nights like days
    123. sometimes the days and nights were unlike anything, everything was a continuum of blinding brightness and explosions
    124. Mouths like carrots, with peeling lips, and noses like wet potatoes
    125. like women who haven’t yet begun to menstruate
    126. he preferred someone decent and hardworking, who wouldn’t suck his blood like a
      vampire
    127. 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.
    128. like looking for a needle in a haystack
    129. slept like a baby
    130. 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.

A giant plume of dust, like the tail of a hallucinogenic coyote, and ninety-nine other similes from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

  1. The knife sharpener’s eyes narrowed until they looked like two lines drawn with charcoal.
  2. music like water tumbling over smooth stones
  3. like a child trying not to vomit
  4. he looked like a madman
  5. Like a child on the verge of tears.
  6. children scattering through the countryside like defeated soldiers
  7. a giant plume of dust, like the tail of a hallucinogenic coyote
  8. The sidewalk was gray but the sun coming through the branches of the trees made it look bluish, like a river.
  9. like a pig staring into the sun
  10. the tops of trees were visible like a green-black carpet
  11. he drifted like a ghost
  12. eyes were a brown so light they looked yellow like the desert
  13. letting the buckle dangle like a bell
  14. 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
  15. She fucks like someone on the brink of death
  16. like a hummingbird
  17. mazelike mountains
  18. like a gold nugget in a trash heap
  19. like a doll lost and found in a heap of somebody else’s trash
  20. like a procession of penitents with their purple or fabulous vermilion or checkered hoods
  21. Reinaldo felt a shiver descend his spine like an elevator, or maybe rise, or both at once
  22. A goddamn gash, like the crack in the earth’s crust they’ve got in California, the San Bernardino fault
  23. like a melon-colored pyramid, its sacrificial altar hidden behind smokestacks and two enormous hangar doors though which workers and trucks entered
  24. the world was like a creaky coffin
  25. like the stars
  26. corpselike pallor
  27. like dogs
  28. like extraterrestrials
  29. On the rare occasions when he laughed he sounded like a donkey and only then did his face seem bearable.
  30. Lying there with his ass in the air, Farfan looked like a sow, but Gomez fucked him regardless and they resumed their friendship.
  31. his eyes like a hawk’s as he strode that labyrinth of snores and nightmares
  32. 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.
  33. It’s like a noise you hear in a dream. The dream, like everything dreamed in enclosed spaces, is contagious.
  34. like a mosquito around a campfire
  35. paths off the highway that melted away like dreams, without rhyme or reason
  36. like a skull
  37. There were Cessna planes flying low over the desert like the spirits of Catholic Indians ready to slit everyone’s throats.
  38. like a madman
  39. He carried the amphetamines everywhere, like a tiny talisman that would protect him from evil.
  40. like commandos lost on a toxic island on another planet
  41. Gomez scooped the balls off the floor and remarked that they looked like turtle eggs. Nice and tender, he said.
  42. what it was like to be in purgatory
  43. like a flock of vultures
  44. the policemen, moving wearily, like soldiers trapped in a time warp who march over and over again to the same defeat, got to work
  45. like a free man
  46. she would go everywhere wrapped in bandages, like a mummy, not an Egyptian mummy but a Mexican mummy
  47. like an archaeologist who has just discovered an incredible bone
  48. like a girl who carefully unwraps, bit by bit, a present that she wants to make last, forever
  49. 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
  50. they talked about freedom and evil, about the highways of freedom where evil is like a Ferrari
  51. like a troupe of gypsies heading into the unknown
  52. like a worm or an insomniac mole
  53. like a baby bird
  54. the steam was tinted green, an intense green, like a tropical forest, and when Garibay saw it he invariably said: fuck, that’s pretty
  55. they slunk out like vultures
  56. a long coffee shop like a coffin, with few windows
  57. like a squash ball
  58. women are like laws
  59. the slope of a hill that looked like a dinosaur or a Gila monster
  60. witchlike language and manner
  61. Living in this desert, thought Lalo Cura as the car, with Epifanio at the wheel, left the field behind, is like living at sea.
  62. like a fast-acting tranquilizer
  63. Sometimes he felt like a shepherd misunderstood by the very stones.
  64. like children hearing the same story for the thousandth time
  65. like somebody talking about medieval history or politics
  66. the night like a glove over the hotel
  67. that toadlike creature, that dumb, helpless greasy illegal, that lump of coal who in some other reincarnation could have been a diamond
  68. like someone talking in his sleep
  69. He could feel the Sonora night brushing his back like a ghost.
  70. And most surprising of all: tied around her head, like a strange but not entirely implausible hat, was an expensive black bra.
  71. like looking for a phantom
  72. Being a criminologist in this country is like being a cryptographer at the North Pole.
  73. It’s like being a child in a cell block of pedophiles.
  74. It’s like being a beggar in the country of the deaf.
  75. It’s like being a condom in the realm of the Amazons
  76. his neck long like a turkey’s
  77. we got out of there like a bomb was about to go off
  78. sinking like crocodiles in the swamp
  79. they spend money like water
  80. like a queen
  81. night crept like a cripple toward the east
  82. like a giant chapel
  83. like two whores allowed for the first time to dress their pimp
  84. like boiled fruit
  85. like a plaster cast
  86. like a statue
  87. ranches empty like shoe boxes
  88. like a puzzle repeatedly assembled and disassembled
  89. like a gift
  90. like a double spinal cord
  91. The truth is like a strung-out pimp.
  92. The truth is like a strung-out pimp in the middle of a storm, said the congresswoman.
  93. smiling and sniveling like a lap dog
  94. like an eternity
  95. trading puns like a couple of zombies
  96. like someone in a trance
  97. like a rat
  98. like Satan’s helpers
  99. like a mirror image
  100. 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.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 | Rambling notes around a very long audiobook

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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.)

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As for the actual novel, the story, the prose, whatever—it’s great. Just amazing. These are poor adjectives for a giant work. This was my fourth full trip through 2666, and it only confirms my impression that the novel is a labyrinthine masterpiece, sinister, brave, lurid, abject, often very funny, and stuffed with so much life and experience. I’ve written several “reviews” of the novel on this site over the years, if you want to be persuaded in greater detail. Probably the better of these riffs was a piece on intertextuality in the novel. There’s also my first review in early 2009 and one from my reread it in late 2009. I wrote about abjection and horror in 2666. At some point I wrote about werewolves and 2666 and argued that Dracula is a secret character in the book.

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.

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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.

I love the mountain, the forest, the Nightingale.

My poor father. I was a writer, I was a writer, but my indolent, voracious brain gnawed at my own entrails | From Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

“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 novel, so unanimously acclaimed, was called Twilight | From Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

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.

Fifty similes, really more than fifty similes, from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

  1. She looks like a nun, thought Quincy, or like she belongs to a dangerous cult.
  2. the movie in the dream was like a negative of the real movie
  3. 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
  4. like the work of a lunatic
  5. like a miniature Russian Orthodox church
  6. what it was most like was an enchanted island
  7. like the lilies that bloom and die in a single day
  8. a dream that breaks away from another dream like one drop of water breaking away from a bigger drop of water
  9. a metaphor is like a life jacket
  10. there are life jackets that float and others that sink to the bottom like lead
  11. I went through books like they were barbecue.
  12. friendly words that sounded like obscenities to my ear and that, thinking about it now, might actually have been obscene
  13. 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.
  14. gestured and bobbed like a rapper
  15. Hollows in the ground, like World War I bomb craters
  16. 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.
  17. smiling a catlike smile
  18. everyone, I mean everyone, is like the ancient Christians in the Roman circus
  19. 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
  20. 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.
  21. like butterflies summoned by his prayers
  22. something like happiness
  23. stood to attention like a soldier
  24. 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
  25. The fucking killings are like a strike, amigo, a brutal fucking strike.
  26. “It’s like a dream,” said Guadalupe Roncal. “It looks like something alive.”
  27. 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.”
  28. two Mexican reporters who stared at him like dying men
  29. the knowledge slipped like water through his fingers
  30. she smiled like a goddess
  31. This place is like hell
  32. A black sky like the bottom of the sea.
  33. like fucking a man who isn’t exactly a man
  34. like becoming a little girl again
  35. like being fucked by a rock. A mountain.
  36. it’s like you’re fucking a mountain but you’re fucking inside a cave
  37. In other words it’s like being fucked by a mountain in a cave inside the mountain itself
  38. Well, it feels like being fucked by the air. That’s exactly how it feels.
  39. So fucking a policeman is like being fucked by a mountain and fucking a narco is like being fucked by the air.
  40. like a tour guide with an eye for local color
  41. he treated her like his slave
  42. like a joke
  43. like the title of a David Lynch film
  44. narrow room like a monk’s cell
  45. the shadows dispersed by the flashes of car lights like comet tails in the dark
  46. It’s odd that someone would hang a book out like a shirt
  47. like a huge hearse
  48. She looked like an athlete from the 1940s.
  49. All of this is like somebody else’s dream
  50. 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.

A metaphor is like a life jacket | From Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

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.

47 or so similes from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

These similes are from “The Part About Amalfitano,” the second part of 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño, in English translation by Natasha Wimmer.

  1. It’s like a fetus
  2. he held the letter in his two hands like a life raft of reeds and grasses
  3. a doglike fervor
  4. 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
  5. standing there like a tiny and infinitely patient Amazon
  6. like pilgrims
  7. like mendicants or child prophets
  8. like someone who’s burned himself
  9. like sucking a small to medium dick
  10. like shooting a Zen arrow with a Zen bow into a Zen pavilion
  11. The lunatic, who was sitting down again, took it in the chest and dropped like a little bird.
  12. those days were like a prolonged parachute landing after a long space flight
  13. back and forth like a sleepwalker
  14. marched from the west like a ragtag army whose only strength was its numbers
  15. dropped down from the Pyrenees like the ghosts of dead beasts
  16. the floor waxer like a cross between a mastiff and a pig sitting next to a plant
  17. like a trick photograph that isn’t a trick, floating, floating pensively in the skies of Paris, weary
  18. like a memory rising up from glacial seas
  19. The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery that suddenly begins to think, in vain.
  20. It also was like an empty dance club.
  21. like a feudal lord riding out on horseback to survey his lands
  22. like provincial intellectuals
  23. like deeply self-sufficient men
  24. like a zombie
  25. like a medieval squire
  26. like a medieval princess
  27. Her hand was like a blind woman’s hand.
  28. like a cloud cemetery
  29. like a thick chili whose last simmer was fading in the west
  30. the coffinlike shadow
  31. purple like the skin of an Indian woman beaten to death
  32. laughing in a whisper, like a fly
  33. like an endoscopy, but painless
  34. slept like a baby
  35. I feel like a nightingale, he thought happily.
  36. 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
  37. very tan, like a singer or a Puerto Rican playboy
  38. A confident, mocking smile, like the smile of a cocksure sniper.
  39. like a joke
  40. something like laughter but also something like sorrow
  41. like the Greek state
  42. like an arrowhead
  43. burst out from a corner like someone playing a bad joke or about to attack him
  44. the slight shadow, like a hastily dug pit that gives off an alarming stench
  45. Something like the smoke signals
  46. 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
  47. You’re like me and I’m like you. We aren’t happy.

A list of 81 (or more) similes from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

  1. a horrible and notably unhygienic bathroom that was more like a latrine or cesspit
  2. 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)
  3. the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness
  4. their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings
  5. went on the attack like Napoleon at Jena
  6. demolished the counterattack like a Desaix, like a Lannes
  7. old Hanseatic buildings, some of which looked like abandoned Nazi offices
  8. like people endlessly analyzing a favorite movie
  9. the parade of immigrants like ants loading the flesh of thousands of dead cattle into the ships’ holds
  10. the little gaucho sounded like the moon, like the passage of clouds across the moon,
    like a slow storm
  11. his eyes shining with a strange intensity, like the eyes of a clumsy young butcher
  12. the lady would begin to howl like a Fury
  13. like an ice queen
  14. news spreading like wildfire, like a nuclear conflagration
  15. a rock jutting from the pool, like a dark and iridescent reef
  16. like a painting by Gustave Moreau or Odilon Redon
  17. I suffered like a dog
  18. now the fucking mugs are like samurais armed with those fucking samurai swords
  19. the appearance of the park, which looked to him like a film of the jungle, the colors wrong, terribly sad, exalted
  20. The words old man and German he waved like magic wands to uncover a secret
  21. like drudge work, like the lowest of menial tasks
  22. that abyss like hour
  23. Like the machine celibataire.
  24. 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.
  25. like a howling Indian witch doctor
  26. like talking to a stranger
  27. like a whisper that he later understood was a kind of laugh
  28. like a hula-hooping motion
  29. you’re behaving like stupid children
  30. they attended like sleepwalkers or drugged detectives
  31. like missionaries ready to instill faith in God, even if to do so meant signing a pact with the devil
  32. they behaved not like youths but like nouveaux youths
  33. drifted through Bologna like two ghosts
  34. who once said London was like a labyrinth
  35. he could soar over the beach like a seagull
  36. which circled in their guilty consciences like a ghost or an electric charge
  37. they were so happy they began to sing like children in the pouring rain
  38. Their remorse vanished like laughter on a spring night.
  39. smiling like squirrels
  40. like a fifteenth-century fortress
  41. circles that faded like mute explosions
  42. Coincidence, if you’ll permit me the simile, is like the manifestation of God at every moment on our planet.
  43. 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
  44. like the dripping of a basalt fountain
  45. he and the room were mirrored like ghostly figures in a performance that prudence and fear would keep anyone from staging
  46. Aztec ruins springing like lilacs from wasteland
  47. like a river that stops being a river or a tree that burns on the horizon, not knowing that it’s burning
  48. the city looked to them like an enormous camp of gypsies or refugees ready to pick up and move at the slightest prompting
  49. the missing piece suddenly leaped into sight, almost like a bark
  50. It’s like hearing a child cry
  51. 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
  52. brief moans shooting like meteorites over the desert
  53. The words tunneled through the rarefied air of the room like virulent roots through dead flesh
  54. The word freedom sounded to Espinoza like the crack of a whip in an empty classroom.
  55. The light in the room was dim and uncertain, like the light of an English dusk.
  56. Literature in Mexico is like a nursery school, a kindergarten, a playground, a kiddie club
  57. the movement of something like subterranean tanks of pain
  58. 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
  59. like a bad joke on the part of the mayor or city planner
  60. like pure crystal
  61. like the legs of an adolescent near death
  62. his eyes were just like the eyes of the blind
  63. clung to the Chilean professor like a limpet
  64. grimaced like a madman
  65. like a reflection of what happened in the west but jumbled up
  66. The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower.
  67. 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
  68. 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
  69. long roots like snakes or the locks of a Gorgon
  70. like a shirt left out to dry
  71. reality for Pelletier and Espinoza seemed to tear like paper scenery
  72. lectures that were more like massacres
  73. feeling less like butchers than like gutters or disembowellers
  74. the boy on top of the heap of rugs like a bird, scanning the horizon
  75. She was like a princess or an ambassadress
  76. cry like a fool
  77. I felt like a derelict dazzled by the sudden lights of a theater.
  78. drew me like a magnet
  79. a cement box with two tiny windows like the portholes of a sunken ship
  80. a very soft voice, like the breeze that was blowing just then, suffusing everything with the scent of flowers
  81. 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.

Talk to me about your family history, said the bastards | Roberto Bolaño

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”

We’ve gotten used to death | from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

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.

“Silvio Salvático” — Roberto Bolaño

“Silvio Salvático”

by

Roberto Bolaño

translated by Chris Andrews

from Nazi Literature in the Americas


SILVIO SALVÁTICO

Buenos Aires, 1901–Buenos Aires, 1994

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.

Wherein I suggest Dracula is a character in Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

The Self Seers (Death and Man), Egon Schiele

I. Here’s my thesis:

Dracula is a character in Roberto Bolaño’s dark opus 2666.

Specifically, I’m suggesting that Dracula (like, the Count Dracula) is the unnamed SS officer in “The Part About Archimboldi” who hosts a strange party in a Romanian castle.

II.  I’m willing to concede that my idea is probably full of holes and more than a little silly, but I think there’s some textual support for such a claim.

III. I’ve already suggested on this blog that 2666 is full of lycanthropic transformations, and in that earlier essay, I linked werewolves to vampires (using the work of mythologist Sabine Baring-Gould).

I also suggested on this blog that 2666 is a dark ventriloquist act, full of forced possessions and psychic hauntings.

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).

The Knight of Death, Salvador Dali

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).

(I’m also suggesting, again, that 2666 be read intertextaully).

Riding with Death, Jean-Michel Basquiat

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!]

Blog about some recent reading (Bolaño/Cain/Calvino/Dara/Johnson)

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 CitiesIf 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.

Roberto Bolaño Bingo

Let me recommend Antonio di Benedetto’s overlooked novel Zama

Let me recommend a novel for you.

The novel is Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama.

Zama was first published in Argentina in 1956.

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.

These lifelike moments of “unplotted inevitability” are enthralling. Di Benedetto doesn’t just show us Zama seeing, he shows us Zama seeing what he is seeing. He shows us consciousness at work—or rather, consciousness in distress. In a representative passage which can stand alone as a bizarre parable in search of a moral, Zama, having lost all his money betting on horses, awakes from a drunken stupor to witness a spider crawling on a fellow drunkard: 

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: 17901794, 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.]

An interview with Margaret Carson about translating Remedios Varo’s Letters, Dreams & Other Writings

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As a huge fan of Remedios Varo’s art, I was thrilled last year when Wakefield Press published Margaret Carson’s Letters, Dreams and Other Writings. I reached out to Margaret, who was kind enough to talk to me about her translation in detail over a series of emails. 

In addition to Letters, Dreams and Other Writings Margaret Carson’s translations include Sergio Chejfec’s Baroni, A Journey and My Two Worlds. She is Assistant Professor in the Modern Languages Department at Borough of Manhattan Community College, The City University of New York.

Margaret Carson
Margaret Carson


Biblioklept: When did you first see Remedios Varo’s art? 

Margaret Carson: I first heard of Remedios Varo in the mid-80s, when I was living in Madrid. But it was by reading Janet Kaplan’s biography, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, that I learned more about her life and first saw many images of her paintings. That was in the 90s. On a trip to Mexico City at that same time, I was surprised to find in a bookstore a small collection of her writings, Cartas, sueños y otros textos, and I brought it home with me. I started translating parts of it and later heard about an exhibit of her paintings at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., in 2000: The Magic of Remedios Varo. That was my first experience seeing her paintings up close, and it blew me away. Nothing compares to  standing in front of one of her paintings to see the meticulous details, the true color, and the actual scale (her artworks can be much smaller than you imagine). Since then, I’ve seen other paintings, including Mimetismo/Mimicry and La creación de las aves/The Creation of the Birds, at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, which has over thirty of her paintings—the largest collection in the world. 

Creation of the Birds, 1957

Exciting news for Varo fans in the New York area: MoMA has acquired one of her most extraordinary works, The Juggler, which will be put on display when the museum re-opens in October 2019. Can’t wait to see it!

Biblioklept: I’ve yet to see one of Varo’s pieces in a museum, unfortunately—just reproductions in books and online. But I love them. I think the first time I saw one of her works was in Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick, sometime in the late 1990s. There’s a tiny black and white reproduction of Celestial Pablum in there, next to a reproduction of a Dorothea Tanning painting. Leonor Fini also gets a black and white reproduction in that chapter, while Leonora Carrington’s Self-Portrait gets a larger, full-color reproduction. All of these painters, with the notable exception of Varo, also show up in another of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series that was important to me when I was younger, Sarane Alexandrian’s Surrealist Art. While internet archives have made images of Varo’s works easily available to those who search for them, she is still something of a comparatively obscure figure, at least next to other Mexican artists like Frida Kahlo or Leonora Carrington. Have you noticed any change in her prominence as an artist since you first encountered her work?

MC: You brought up Whitney Chadwick, which reminds me of her essential book, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, first published in 1985 and still in print. If you don’t know it, take a look. That’s where many readers have had their first encounter with women surrealists. Chadwick devotes several pages  to Varo and includes three color reproductions and many black and white images of her work. As to how well known Varo is, it’s hard to tell what causes an artist to move up or down in the fame game. Varo seems to have a solid core of admirers who had an encounter with her work, almost always in reproduction, and the images stick. Why is that? What is it about her paintings? Their inherent narrative quality, their mystical elements, their humor? The simple pleasure of looking at her meticulously composed scenes? I think she’s still fairly unknown, but did you know that in the first chapter of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 there’s a fascinating description of Varo’s Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle? I just met a young bookseller who told me that that’s how she first heard of Varo. And did you know that in chapter 9 of Amulet, Roberto Bolaño imagines that the main character, Auxilio Lacouture, visits Remedios Varo in her house? So Varo has already popped up in ways that go beyond her artwork.

Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, 1961

Biblioklept: I’m a huge fan of Bolaño, and I read Amulet eight or nine years ago, but I’d honestly forgotten about the Varo episode! I just went back and reread the chapter, and there’s this wonderful strange moment where Varo shows Auxilio a landscape painting, the “last one,” or maybe the “second-to-last one” she’ll paint, and the painting causes an anxiety in Auxilio that manifests in the vision of “a man made of ice cubes, who will come and kiss” her on the mouth. I love the line because it’s so strange; it shows a kind of poetic rivalry on Bolaño’s part with Varo’s own imagery. 

I’m also a huge Pynchon fan. I remember that I wasn’t able to find a reproduction of Embroidering the first time I read The Crying of Lot 49—like in the late nineties—but when I reread it a few years ago it was as easy as a simple internet search. So I think the internet is making her work more accessible. Pynchon apparently actually got to see Emboidering at a retrospective of Varo’s work in Mexico City in 1964, and, as Bill Brown notes, Pynchon essentially reinterprets the painting’s details from memory. He probably didn’t have a reproduction of it. Again, the author enters into a kind of rivalry with the poet. 

Letters, Dreams & Other Writings contains a section that features Varo’s own descriptions of her paintings, comments intended for her family back in Spain. She describes Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle like this: “Under the orders of the Great Master, they’re embroidering the earth’s mantle, seas, mountains, and living things. Only the girl has woven a ruse in which she is seen beside her beloved.”

I’m curious about your translation here, particularly of the word “Only,” and the singular “girl,” which seems to contrast the “they” referenced in the previous sentence. Varo seems to describe two parts of the triptych, the second and the third panels. Can you talk a little bit about translating this description?

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Toward the Tower, 1960

MC: Varo has a description for each of the paintings in the triptych (her descriptions, of course, shouldn’t close off other interpretations). That singular “girl” is introduced in the first painting, Toward the Tower, which shows a group of convent school girls riding fanciful bicycles made in part from their capes. Varo writes that while the eyes of the other girls are “as if hypnotized,” only the girl in front “resists the hypnosis.” (Sólo la muchacha del primer término se resiste a la hipnosis.) The girl clearly has a mind of her own. Varo follows her into the second painting, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle. The original is: “Bajo las órdenes del Gran Maestro, bordan el manto terrestre, mares, montañas y seres vivos. Sólo la muchacha ha tejido una trampa en la que se le ve junto a su bienamado.” There’s a repetition in the Spanish, “Sólo la muchacha….” that I picked up in the translation “Only the girl has woven a ruse….” She’s the exception—she stands out from the other girls (“they”) who are under the influence and control of the Great Master and are embroidering what he commands. I could have said “Except that the girl has woven a ruse in which she is seen beside her beloved.” to underscore her act of rebellion more clearly, but then the parallelism would have been lost.

Getting back to the Bolaño, I’d like to re-read Amulet and think about how he works Varo into the narrative and whether he’s referencing any of her paintings or making them up — from your description, I suspect the latter. But more importantly, what did Varo represent to Bolaño? How did he come to know about her work? Did she have some sort of underground fame in Mexico City while he was living there?

I’m also fascinated by the fact that Auxilio visits Varo at her house, which I always make a point of passing by when I’m in Mexico City. (Again, Bolaño’s description is not based on reality.) Varo lived in Colonia Roma on Avenida Álvaro Obregón in a four-story building that’s now boarded up—someone told me it was damaged in an earthquake. But lights are on at night behind windows covered with newspapers, so someone’s living there. Is there any memory in the neighborhood that Varo lived there? It’s where she painted her most famous works. To me, it has a special aura, even in its dilapidated and boarded-up state.  

Biblioklept: I’m pretty sure Bolaño made the painting up, although I did spend quite a bit of time looking for a real-world corollary for it. He definitely had a penchant for invention, often taking cult or outsider artists and then attributing works to them that don’t always exist. It seems possible that he could’ve been aware of the location of her house, but I’m guessing he was living in Spain and had been away from Mexico for ages when he wrote Amulet.

On of my favorite pieces in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is “On Homo rodans,” a Borgesian send-up of scientific monographs. (Varo attributes the monograph to one “Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt”). While its style isn’t a huge departure from that of the letters or even fragments in the collection, it stands out a bit. Can you tell us a bit about translating “On Homo rodans,” and a bit about the piece itself? 

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Facsimile manuscript of “On Homo radans

MC: Homo rodans is one of Varo’s oddest creations. It has two parts: first, the “fossil find” of the humanoid figure with one big wheel instead of legs, which she crafted out of chicken and turkey neck bones and fish vertebrae. The second part is a pseudo-scientific treatise she wrote to accompany the “fossil,” which purports to explain its origin and the great significance it has—it’s basically a missing chapter in human evolution, a predecessor to Homo sapiens that depicts a road not taken: before evolving into a biped, humans were creatures on a monowheel. (That sort of figure is a recurring leitmotiv in her work—see Transmisión ciclista con cristales from 1943, Caminos tortuosos from 1957.)  I’d now like to clear up a misunderstanding that’s arisen with the English translation. To an English-speaking reader, “rodans” might look like a corrupted version of “rodents.” It’s a similarity that exists only in English. To Varo, rodans was a creative spin on rota, the Latin word for wheel, from which the Spanish rueda descends (in English we have rotate, rotary, rodeo). Varo wasn’t suggesting humankind descended from rats; she was imagining a wheeled ancestor and giving it a suitably Latinate name.

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The “fossil” in question

Varo wrote “On Homo rodans” by hand, in the style of an old illuminated manuscript (see attached photo), and gave its narrator the farfetched but seemingly authoritative name of Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt, an anthropologist who sets out to correct a colleague’s error about bones discovered on the southern slopes of the Carpathians. I think this was all for the sake of fun, like a lot of her writings. She probably never imagined that anyone would be interested in buying the sculpture and the treatise. It was just by accident, apparently, that someone happened to see it when she was showing it at a bookstore and acquired it for his boss, who was none other than the President of the Republic, Adolfo López Mateos. That was in 1959.

On an investigative level, I’d love to find out who owns Homo rodans now—the sculpture and original manuscript (does the López Mateos family still own it?). I’d also like to do some sleuthing to discover how it was that a small facsimile edition of the treatise was published a few years after Varo’s death. What called that into existence? Who read it? Was it reviewed? It’s because of that edition that we have the text in Spanish.

As to the translation itself, something that helped me catch the antiquated tones of the pedantic von Fuhrängschmidt were nineteenth-century bulletins on scientific expeditions and fossil excavations you can easily find using Google Books. But on the whole it was a wild ride. You’ll notice that the Homo rodans itself only comes up once, toward the end of the piece, after countless disquisitions on unrelated subjects (Babylonian wet nurses, the universal tendency toward hardening and softening (wink-wink), the transcendence of canes, the pterodactyl-turned-first-umbrella…), interspersed with quotes by ancient sages in nonsense Latin. Before I translated it, I thought “On Homo rodans” would mostly be about the one-wheeled fossil. It was only after I got into the translation that I realized the fossil find was just one stop on an extended absurdist romp.

Biblioklept: It’s interesting to me that you used old pieces of science writing as reference points. Was this to help convey the flavor of Varo’s prose, and to give an aural sense of what she’s parodying? Did you use similar techniques elsewhere in this translation, or in other translations of yours? 

MC: The Edinburgh Encylopaedia, published in 1832, was an excellent resource to mine for old-fashioned scientific prose. Some of it rubbed off on the translation. “Osseous,” for example, referring to bones, was a word that peaked in the nineteenth century, according to Google Ngram, and it fit in perfectly.

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Varo’s manuscript notebook recipe “To Induce Erotic Dreams”

For Varo’s recipes “To Induce Erotic Dreams” and “To Dream You Are King of England,” I consulted cookbooks such as Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to see how the instructions were worded. As strange as the recipes are, I had to keep to the conventions of the cookbook genre: “Set hens to boil.” “Reserve feathers.” “Take the four kilos of honey and with a spatula spread on the bedsheets.” It’s one example of how translators often look at companion texts in the language they’re translating into—some text that shares some stylistic feature with whatever is being translated, or that treats a similar topic. In a previous translation I did, Sergio Chejfec’s Baroni, a Journey, there’s a scene in which a cockfight takes place. Knowing nothing about cockfighting, I looked at Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, where there’s a play-by-play of a cockfight in progress. I pilfered some of the language and phrasing there to help make the translation ring true in English.

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The Lovers, 1963

Biblioklept: Varo’s “recipes” are a great example the tension between a conventional form and a kind of, I don’t know, absurd pivot in the language that creates a surreal image. Her letters, too, are infused with vivid and surreal images. She describes raising a “supernatural puppy,” details enclosing a “small volcano” and turning it into a kitchen, and tells one unidentified painter that he may be interested in her “residence in a piece of quartz.” Can you tell us a little bit about translating the letters? Were there letters of Varo’s that were perhaps more conventional that aren’t collected in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings?

MC: The original Cartas, sueños y otros textos contains only eight letters, but I’m sure Varo wrote many more. She had a genius for letter-writing, too—it was simply another medium she excelled at. As you say, the letters are infused with all sorts of surreal images and absurd scenarios, such as the “small volcano” that begins to rise on its own in the courtyard of someone’s house, throwing off lava that her friend Leonor Carrington is allergic to. That’s in my favorite letter, no. 7, “To Mr. Gardner,” i.e. Gerald Gardner, the great British popularizer of Wicca in the 1950s. It’s completely over-the-top! The most notorious is Letter 5, a kind of Surrealist prank, in which she picks a person’s name from the phone book and invites him to a New Year’s Eve party. (See Varo’s “Letter to a Stranger”). What comes next is left to your imagination: did the stranger show up, and if so, what happened?

As to other letters being published elsewhere, I’m aware of a few additional ones, to her mother and to some friends from her schooldays back in Spain, which were included in a personal memoir written by her niece, Beatriz Varo. I suppose you could call those letters more conventional, but they’re equally amusing to read, even when she’s telling her friends about her arduous ocean journey to Mexico in 1941, when she sailed from Europe on the Serpa Pinta with many other refugees who had been granted asylum in Mexico.

I was enchanted by all the letters and I’m hoping more of her correspondence turns up. I’d be especially interested in her side of the correspondence with Benjamin Péret after he returned to France in 1948. His letters to Varo are collected in his Oeuvres complètes, but no one seems to know where hers are…

Biblioklept: It’s a shame that we don’t have Varo’s letters to Péret. It seems like a lot of the work by the women surrealists of the twentieth century was perhaps at the time not seen as important as the work by the men. (I think of The New York Times’s obituary for Frida Kahlo, which opened with this line: “Frida Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera, the noted painter, was found dead in her home today”). I think that your work, the work of Wakefield Press in general, and the work of other independent publishers is helping to bring the work of people like Varo, Leonora Carrington, Gisèle Prassinos, Unica Zürn and others to a wider audience though. What other women writers and artists would you like to see gain a wider audience? 

MC: What writings are out there, out of print, or unknown, hidden in archives, uncatalogued, untranslated? The French poet and artist Alice Rahon, who also lived in Mexico City and moved in the same artistic circles as Varo, should be better known. She published a few books of poetry during her lifetime, and there’s an archive of unpublished work in Mexico City in both French and Spanish to be explored. A few poems in translation appear in Mary Ann Caws’s The Milk Bowl of Feathers, an anthology of surrealist writing published last year by New Directions, and I believe Mary Ann has been translating more of Rahon’s work. The Spanish artist Maruja Mallo, who was slightly older than Remedios Varo, also deserves more attention. Like Varo, she graduated from the prestigious Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid and also lived in exile, in her case in Uruguay and Argentina, before returning to Spain in the 1960s. They both spent time in Paris in the 1930s, and I’m fairly sure they knew one another. Mallo has gotten some renewed interest lately—there was a recent gallery show in New York—and she has a short text “Surrealism as Manifest in My Work” in Penelope Rosemont’s Surrealist Women: An International Anthology. The artworks clearly take the lead for all three women, but their writings give a window into their strange art (and vice-versa), or maybe, can even stand independently, as do Leonora Carrington’s writings.

Biblioklept: Thanks for that list! I’m curious if you know how much of Carrington’s fiction Varo might have read. Was Carrington a stylistic influence? I’m also curious about other influences you detect in her writing, which seems so strange and original. “On Homo rodans” is definitely Borgesian, and Varo mentions reading Borges’s story “Deutsches Requiem” in one of the “Dreams” in the collection…who and what was Varo reading? How might it have influenced her writing?

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The Street of Hidden Presences, 1956

MC: It’s hard to talk about influence because there must have always been a back-and-forth between Varo and Carrington and an intense sharing of mutual passions. They collaborated on a play, El santo cuerpo grasoso (“The Holy Oily Body”), written in the late 1940s and as far as I know, never performed for the general public. The original manuscript shows that they composed it in alternating lines, one hand followed by the other and back again, somewhat like a cadaver exquisit. They appear to have written it as a private amusement, to be performed by a small circle of friends. Carrington has a Varo-like character in The Hearing Trumpet, Carmella Velazquez, who, just as Varo did in the letter mentioned above, wrote letters to complete strangers she picked out of the phone book. She was the one who introduced Varo to Gerald Gardner, the Wicca popularizer. She may also have introduced her friend to Frank Sherwood Taylor, the British author of The Alchemists. A Spanish translation of this book was in Varo’s library. The heroine of Varo’s story “Mistress Thrompston Discovers by Accident the Source of the Tremendous Humidity that Reigns in the County of Kent” seems to be modeled on Carrington. There are other appearances by Carrington in the translation. Varo’s Mimicry (Mimesismakes an obvious nod to Carrington’s Self-Portrait.

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Mimicry, 1960

About their writings, keep in mind that Varo, unlike Carrington, never published her work during her lifetime, and it’s not clear she would have done so if offered the chance. Most of the texts I translated were found in Varo’s notebooks after her death. And don’t forget her long relationship with Benjamin Péret. A comparison of Varo’s and Péret’s writings would also be interesting. Her automatic writings probably date back to the time they were together. In Letters, Dreams Péret appears in the Felina Caprino-Mandrágora story as Benjamin Pérez, an avid bicyclist and the owner of a carrier-pigeon business. It’s a funny little scene, perhaps Péret-like in how it unfolds. All speculation, because I don’t know his work that well.

At a recent exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City of items from Remedios Varo’s archive, there were a few shelves of books from her library. I saw titles (in the original French, Spanish or English or in translation) by Jean Ray, H. P. Lovecraft, Rodney Collin (a British writer influenced by the mystics Pyotr Ouspensky and Gurdjieff), Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, Simone Weil. That gives you an idea of other directions her reading took besides Borges. No way of knowing, though, all the books she read, or what her earliest reading was like growing up. 

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Some titles from Varo’s shelves

Biblioklept: Varo clearly read works of literature both in translation as well as in their original languages. In our own era, it’s very easy to quickly access all kinds of media from around the globe, including media that might not be as challenging to understand as literature might be. Why is reading literature in translation still important?

MC: You’re right—there’s more “content” than ever before and you can find it in a split second via Google. But if you’re asking, is there still a place for literature given the glut of writing, etc. on the Internet, I’d say yes, because it’s not an either/or. At the same time, I don’t think reading literature in translation is something meritorious in itself. It’s simply a natural consequence of being curious about what’s being written in other places: fiction, poetry, essays, plays, graphic novels, comics. It’s inevitable: a lot of it has to come to you in translation. 

Biblioklept: One of the longer pieces in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is titled “Project for a Theater Piece,” which you note was likely to be a collaboration with Leonora Carrington. For me, “Project for a Theater Piece” is simultaneously rich and frustrating. It opens with a character list that includes characters that we never get to meet (and omits characters we actually do meet), and has like a dozen plot openings that remain unresolved. This is what we might expect from a surrealist text: aporia, incongruity, dream logic (and some wonderful humor). At the same time, Varo’s writing strikes me as not bound to any kind of genre expectations. 

MC: “Project for a Theater Piece” is indeed fragmentary and puzzling. Leonora (Carrington) and Eva (Sulzer) are inspirations for the Ellen Ramsbottom character. Daphne Fitz is inspired by Edward James, the eccentric Scottish arts patron who was a close friend of Leonora Carrington’s. He also seems to be the inspiration for the Poltergeist, who appears in the story wearing a short plaid skirt, sneakers and ankle socks, and is mistaken at first for a woman. I have no idea why it’s called “Project for a Theater Piece,” since it’s basically a cast of characters followed by two unconnected short stories. I’m assuming the editor of the original book, Isabel Castells, gave it that name. All the texts are said to be from Varo’s notebooks, so everything needed to be transcribed: in her introduction, Castells says that Varo’s last partner, Walter Gruen, did the transcription. I’m not sure if Castells saw the original; she may have been working only with Gruen’s transcription. Did the order in the book follow the order of the texts in Varo’s notebooks? Or was there some editorial intervention by Gruen and/or Castells linking them together? I don’t know. Castells also suggests that Leonora Carrington may have written parts that are missing, in a kind of surrealist chain story. If that’s true, it would be interesting to read “Project for a Theater Piece” against the collaborative play I mentioned above, El santo cuerpo grasoso/The Holy Oily Body, for stylistic similarities. Whatever the case, I wouldn’t read it as a finished text. It’s open to all sorts of speculations about the context in which it was written and about the editorial interventions that occurred later on in preparing the original edition of Cartas, sueños y otros textos for publication.

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The Call, 1961

Biblioklept: I’m curious about the samples of automatic writing in the collection—specifically, I’m curious about how you approached translating them. Translating strikes me as a hyper-conscious art, a practice that involves a precision and command of tone, diction, rhythm, etc.—but automatic writing is, ostensibly, writing without consciousness. 

MC:  These texts seemed like prose poems to me, wonderful bizarre and disconnected, which led to some head scratching, and yes, a hyper-conscious translation. The text starts off with what seems to be a list of ingredients, like a recipe… or is it for some kind of magical spell? Each “ingredient” then becomes the lead word for a short sequence of images that often evoke Varo’s art: the egg, the crevice that widens (Harmony/Armonía), the raw silk being spun, which reminded me of the delicate lines crisscrossing Fellow Feeling/Simpatía). The sequences in themselves don’t make much sense, but the words themselves are very clear and simple. Sometimes there’s some wordplay, such as “trasto trastorno, torno” in Incense (literally, “dish upset/overturned, turned”) which I translated as “dish depraved, lathe” to get some of the sound effects of the original and suggest the spindle in the next line. We don’t, unfortunately, have Varo’s description of the conditions under which she wrote these texts, or anything that tells us how she understood “automatic writing.” (Also, remember that she didn’t label these writings as such— it was the book’s editor.) She may not have been a purist. Whatever the case, this section is one of my favorites in the book. I love her random scattering of images and the lack of narrative direction. For me, the more nonsensical, the better.

Biblioklept: The issue of the editor’s hand is of course interesting. The “Automatic Writings” do feel…I don’t know, more automatic than some of the project ideas and fragments, which have narrative properties. There’s something wildly imagistic about the “Automatic Writings,” something cinematic really, mental imagery that seems like it couldn’t be painted. But then you read Varo’s descriptions of her own paintings, and you realize that her imaginative vision could realize seemingly impossible images in both paint and words. 

MC: Yes, you wonder what her jumping-off points were. There are a couple of clues. In her “Unpublished Interview” at the beginning of the book, for example, she talks about how a painting develops: “I visualize it before I begin painting, and try to make it conform to the image I’ve already fashioned” (“lo visualizo antes de comenzar a pintar y trato de ajustarlo a la imagen que me he formado”). That’s about as close as she comes to describing her process explicitly. (By the way, it’s very possible that she created this interview herself. It was in one of her notebooks, undated, with both the questions and answers in her handwriting. A published version has never been found.)

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Varo’s manuscript notebook

I read the comments she made on her paintings a bit differently, though. She wrote these on the back of photos she sent to family in Spain after the paintings were finished, so she had her brother, mother and other family members in mind as she wrote. The wild creative impulses that went into the act of painting them have calmed down now. Still, she’s not giving away any of their secrets. Of course, when you’re reading the descriptions, you should also be looking at the images, just as her family was. She talks about things you notice in the paintings, but not about all of them. Her descriptions of Harmony and Talleur pour dames (p. 102) are little gems, in my opinion.

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Varo’s manuscript description of Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst

Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst, 1960

Biblioklept: Can you tell us anything about your next possible translation project?

MC: No projects at the moment and I’m not sure when I’ll pick up a new translation. Right now I’m doing some investigations around Remedios Varo and her circle of friends. I want to put her writings more in context, for example, that play she collaborated on with Leonora Carrington, or the Homo rodans piece. Or widen the lens to write about the “Surrealists of Calle Gabino Barreda,” the street in Mexico City where Varo and Péret lived in the 1940s. It seems to have been the center for a lot of creative and collaborative activity among the European surrealists in exile.   

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

MC: I’ve taken books people leave in laundry rooms or out on their front stoops, which happens a lot in brownstone neighborhoods in New York City. I also pass by a “Little Free Library” box on my way to work. I’m usually not tempted to take anything, but one day I saw a volume of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and grabbed it!