NYRB published Esther Allen’s English translation in 2016. It is excellent.
What is Zama about?
Zama tells the brutally funny and often sad story of Don Diego de Zama, a bored and horny americano wasting away in the provincial backwaters of Paraguay. It’s the end of the world at the end of the 18th century, and there’s not a lot to do. Zama fills his time with schemes of lust and petty pride, shirking his job as a nominal governmental authority. He longs to be reunited with his wife and family in Buenos Aires, but seems to sabotage every opportunity to get back to them. He also longs for his glory days as a corregidor, putting down “the native rebellion” in the service of Spain’s imperial project. Zama is a confusing and confused character, frequently frustrating but also oddly sympathetic. He is a loser who does not seem to see that he is a loser, although life gives him every opportunity to come to this conclusion. As South African novelist J.M. Coetzee’s puts it in his excellent in-depth review of the novel:
[Zama] is vain, maladroit, narcissistic, and morbidly suspicious; he is prone to accesses of lust and fits of violence, and endowed with an endless capacity for self-deception.
He is also the author of himself, in a double sense. First, everything we hear about him comes from his own mouth, including such derogatory epithets as “swaggering” and “dogslayer,” which suggest a certain ironic self-awareness. Second, his day-to-day actions are dictated by the promptings of his unconscious, or at least his inner self, over which he makes no effort to assert conscious control. His narcissistic pleasure in himself includes the pleasure of never knowing what he will get up to next, and thus of being free to invent himself as he goes along.
Coetzee captures the joy of reading Zama in those last few lines: It’s the joy in watching a first-person perspective invent itself in shambling picaresque adventures born of sheer boredom. It’s the pleasure of seeing an asshole who refuses to acknowledge that he is an asshole try to pretend that he is not an asshole—all in a kind of language that is simultaneously romantic and flat.
Let me give you a taste of that language, reader. Here are the opening bars of the novel:
I left the city and made my way downriver alone, to meet the ship I awaited without knowing when it would come.
I reached the old wharf, that inexplicable structure. The city and its harbor have always been where they are, a quarter-league farther upriver.
I observed, among its pilings, the writhing patch of water that ebbs between them.
A dead monkey, still whole, still undecomposed, drifted back and forth with a certain precision upon those ripples and eddies without exit. All his life the water at forest’s edge had beckoned him to a journey, a journey he did not take until he was no longer a monkey but only a monkey’s corpse. The water that bore him up tried to bear him away, but he was caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf and there he was, ready to go and not going. And there we were.
There we were: Ready to go and not going.
The ship that won’t come in, the floating dead monkey, the state of unknowing—these abject and negative motifs are the paradoxical genesis of the novel. The clipped repetitions, culminating in “Ready to go and not going” recall Samuel Beckett, whom translator Esther Allen acknowledges as “a perfect counterpoint to the prose voice of Zama” in her introduction.
In addition to Beckett, easy points of comparison are Dostoevsky, Camus, Borges, and especially Kafka. In his perceptive analysis of Zama, critic Benjamin Kunkel points out the novel’s existential core, absurdist peripheries, and realistic contours:
As with novels by Kafka, Camus, Sartre, and Beckett, the story’s preoccupation is the tension between human freedom and constraining circumstance. Zama, a man as impetuous as he is stuck, resembles other existentialist antiheroes as he swings between spellbound passivity and sudden lunges into action. But Don Diego never seems like a figure in an allegory, like K. in The Castle; or an ambulatory philosophical argument, like Roquentin in Nausea. Zama induces a rare feeling—to put it as naïvely as possible—of the main character’s realness. Don Diego is consistently surprised by his own behavior, but not as much as he would like. His abrupt acts and swerving meditations have an air of unplotted inevitability about them. He is a character more convincing than coherent, and more persuasive than intelligible.
The spider approached the drunk. From a quarter vara away, these spiders can leap and bite so that if taken by surprise, even a man who’s awake has no time to defend himself. I had no wish to move. I could crush it with my boot but would postpone until the last.
The spider moved toward the sleeping head and I watched to see whether anything out of the ordinary would transpire. Would the man—obedient to some mysterious warning instinct—suddenly awaken and kill it? He did not. Now the insect was crawling in his hair. I didn’t see it climb up; I saw it there on him and then I was quite certain I should do nothing.
The episode continues in this way, building in tension as the large spider crawls over the man’s face while Zama remains inert and fascinated by his own inertia—until the drunken man absently bats the spider from his face. Zama is paradoxically stunned by this anticlimax:
I reviewed the episode. At no point had I felt any emotion, except when I imagined the man had wakened and was about to deliver himself of an entirely justified diatribe against me.
The passage is representative of Di Benedetto’s rhetorical skill—he gives us a deceptively lucid first-person narrator who articulately elides key information, both from the reader and himself. Zama refuses to name his intense desire to see the spider bite the man. Additionally, his emotional identification is bound to righteous anger, the righteous anger appropriate to the would-be-bitten drunkard. Instead of genuine pathos, Zama would usurp this man’s self-righteous anger, the anger that he feels all the time at his (literal and figurative) position in life. But the spider bite that would license self-righteousness never comes. Basically, Zama just wants something to happen.
And that’s the plot of Zama, more or less.Our (anti-)hero’s picaresque jabs at adventure and romance are sent awry or thwarted, usually by his own loutish passions. Zama’s would-be escapades unravel, that is, until the book’s final section, 1799—
–Okay, let me digress momentarily: Zama, a slim 200 pages, is structured into three sections: 1790, 1794, and 1799. The connective tissue between these sections hangs transparent, nearly invisible, but nevertheless accessible via small clues, motifs, scant threads. Di Benedetto gives us modernism in the last decade of the 18th century, boredom that tiptoes around the abyss of insanity. Rereading the three sections is a joy. But let me return to the central thread—
Zama’s would-be adventures unravel or collapse until the book’s final section, 1799, when Di Benedetto puts our hero in genuine harm’s way (and cunningly exfiltrates any opportunity for overt heroism on Zama’s part). The novel earns its drive toward what I take to be its central question: “Do you want to live?”
Di Benedetto hides his answer to this question not so much in the central figure Zama, but rather in Zama’s put-upon secretary, his mozo Manuel Fernández. Fernández is, at least for me, the secret star of the novel. When we first meet Fernández, Zama joins in gently mocking him at the lead of their boss, the governor. They tease Fernández when he tells them that he is writing a novel. “Make sons, Manuel, not books,” admonishes the governor, but the clerk replies: “I want to realize myself in myself…Children realize themselves, but whether for good or ill we don’t know. Books are made only for truth and beauty.” Later, Zama, in more of a ruse than in good faith, asks Fernández to read some of his book. He finds the “entangled” prose “incomprehensible,” to which Fernández replies: “the first man and the first lizard were each incomprehensible, as well, to all those who surrounded them.” Fernández declares that he writes for “no master.” If he has no audience today, his pages will be understood by his “grandchildren’s grandchildren…Things will be different then.” Later, Fernández reveals that he’s given away his manuscript to an old man, a stranger suffering boredom while waiting for a delayed ship to take him somewhere other than the end of the world.
Fernández sees himself as an author doomed to obscurity in the present, an author who awaits a future that will catch up to his originary vision. Perhaps it’s a bit much to suggest he’s a stand-in for Di Benedetto, but there are traces here. Above, I cited Benjamin Kunkel’s essay on Zama, “A Neglected South American Masterpiece,” and J.M. Coetzee’s review, “A Great Writer We Should Know.” Those titles point to the novel’s obscurity, an obscurity which I sense is now being (if in increments) reversed. Esther Allen’s English translation obviously opens Zama to an even wider audience, and Argentine director Lucrecia Martel is apparently adapting the novel to film. But it’s perhaps Roberto Bolaño, a writer who time caught up to, however too late, who helped guide new readers—however obscurely—to Zama. In Bolaño’s 1997 short story “Sensini,” the titular character is a clear transposition of Di Benedetto, a cult author, a writer’s writer:
The novel was the kind of book that circulates by word of mouth. Entitled Ugarte, it was about a series of moments in the life of Juan de Ugarte, a bureaucrat in the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata at the end of the eighteenth century. Some (mainly Spanish) critics had dismissed it as Kafka in the colonies, but gradually the novel had made its way, and by the time I came across Sensini’s name in the Alcoy anthology, Ugarte had recruited a small group of devoted readers, scattered around Latin America and Spain, most of whom knew each other, either as friends or as gratuitously bitter enemies.
Thank goodness, or thank evil, or thank boredom: thanks for word of mouth, for friends and enemies alike (as long as they have good taste); thanks for writer’s writers (and writer’s writer’s writers) and the cult books they transmit to us—like Zama.
Zama is a cult novel that deserves a larger cult. After two false starts (I admit I misread the voice, missing the humor), I read Di Benedetto’s novel in a kind of hunger. Then I read it again. Then I wrote this thing, to tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran this review in April, 2017.]
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.
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, includingMimetismo/Mimicry andLa creación de las aves/The Creation of the Birds, at theMuseo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, which has over thirty of her paintings—the largest collection in the world.
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.
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?
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?
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—seeTransmisión 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.
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.
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.
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’sSurrealist 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?
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’sMimicry (Mimesis) makes an obvious nod to Carrington’sSelf-Portrait.
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.
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.
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 crisscrossingFellow 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.)
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.
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!
There’s an interesting review of Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous novel The Spirit of Science Fiction in the The New Yorker The review’s author, editor and translator Valerie Miles, read Bolaño’s novel through/against the work of the American Beats—William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, specifically. From Miles’ review:
From 2008 to 2014, during the charged emergence of Bolaño in translation, I worked behind the scenes with the writer’s estate, reading through roughly fourteen thousand six hundred papers in his archive and helping to prepare his posthumous work. Bolaño, it should be said, saved everything. His archive includes notebooks, diaries, letters, magazines, war games, postcards, photos, typescripts, newspaper clippings, and an extensive library. (“I even found one of those paper napkins from a bar in Mexico,” his widow, Carolina López, has said, at a press conference.) The wealth of material makes it easy to locate Bolaño’s fixations at a given time, and much of my efforts involved establishing a chronology of when his work was written—a chronology that became a central part of the first exhibition dedicated to his papers, which I curated together with the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, in 2013.
That chronology also shed light on just how much “The Spirit of Science Fiction” was informed by poetry, and specifically by Bolaño’s reading of the Beats. In 1978, around the time Bolaño first began writing fiction in earnest, he wrote in his diary, “I write verses, dream of a novel.” During that time, he read William S. Burroughs daily and often commented on the writer’s work. (Burroughs was the “ice shard that would never melt,” he writes in his essay collection “Between Parentheses,” “the eye that never closes.”) In an early version of “The Spirit of Science Fiction,” Burroughs was the contact person for the young Chileans. Bolaño was also influenced by Burroughs’s approach to structure; he was fascinated by “Naked Lunch” and by the collage-like experimentation of “Nova Express.” He even borrowed some of Burroughs’s methods, riffing on Burroughs’s “cut-up” technique in his own verse.
Roberto Bolaño died at the young age of 50 in 2003, just as his work was beginning to gain a wider audience and broader critical acclaim. It wasn’t until after his death that his work was published in English. Just a few months after Bolaño died, New Directions published By Night in Chile in translation by Chris Andrews. A year later, they published Andrews’ translation of Distant Star, and completed the loose trilogy of these short novels with the publication of Amulet in early 2007. A few months after the publication of Amulet, FS&G published Natasha Wimmer’s translation of The Savage Detectives, which had been originally published in Spain a decade earlier. By the time Wimmer’s translation of 2666 hit the shelves in 2008, Bolaño had become a literary sensation in the U.S., only half a decade after his death.
2666 is arguably Bolaño’s masterpiece, and certainly one of the defining books of the first decade of the 21st century. I read the book in a fevered rush, and then read it again, and then again. As far as I can tell, there are more essays and reviews about 2666 on Biblioklept than any other book. It was the second book I read by Bolaño—admittedly, a first reading of The Savage Detectives left me a perplexed and cold, but I’ve since returned to that novel with a broader understanding and appreciation of Bolaño’s project, a project that seemed to expand yearly after Bolaño’s demise.
Indeed, it became something of a joke in literary circles, What, another Bolaño? He drops books from beyond the grave like Tupac drops albums! There are the short story collections (translated by Andrews) that trickled out between 2007 and 2012, along with harder to classify collections, like The Secret of Evil (Andrews, 2012) and Nazi Literature in the Americas(Andrews, 2008), a jangling set of keys to the Bolañoverse. Another set of keys came in the wonderful collection The Unknown University, a compendium of Bolaño’s poetry in translation by Laura Healy published by New Directions in 2013.
Then there are the novels that seemed to arrive every year or so: The Skating Rink(Andrews, 2009), Monsieur Pain (Andrews, 2010), Antwerp (Wimmer, 2010), The Third Reich (Wimmer, 2011), A Little Lumpen Novelita (Wimmer, 2014). Bolaño composed these pieces primarily in the 1980s, when he still thought of himself as a poet. These novels lack the vitality and vibrancy of his later work—the short story collections, the trilogy of short novels that began with Distant Star, and his big books, The Savage Detectives and 2666.
Indeed, for many Bolaño fans, reading these early novels feels like its own project—winnowing for seeds, pulling at the threads that will cohere into something grander in the Bolaño’s future (which, from a readerly perspective, is the past). So when FS&G published Wimmer’s translation of Woes of the True Policeman in 2012, it was hard for many readers to see the novel as anything but ancillary materials for 2666—it was hard to read the novel as a discrete work, on its own. Instead, the question Woes asked Bolaño fans was, Where does this fit in the Bolañoverse?
The same question is in play for the latest posthumous Bolaño release, The Spirit of Science Fiction (Penguin, Wimmer). A simple read, and one that is not incorrect, is that The Spirit of Science Fiction feels like a trial run at The Savage Detectives. In particular, Spirit blueprints the first and third sections of The Savage Detectives, sections that revolve around the immature adventures of two would-be poets in Mexico City in the 1970s. Instead of Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima though, we get Jan Schrella (“alias Roberto Bolaño”) and Remo. These two heroes divide Bolaño’s literary ambitions into poetry and prose, posterity and potboiler pulp fiction. In The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano and Ulisses Lima will synthesize these ambitions more grandly in their literary quest.
Jan and Remo’s questing in Spirit isn’t quite as grand. Remo wants to figure out why there are so many literary magazines in Mexico City; Jan spends his days writing to American science fiction writers. They manage to get mixed up with a set of sisters and their friend—poets of course. (Everyone in the novel is a poet, even—especially—a skinny motorcycle mechanic). The sisters prefigure the Font sisters of The Savage Detectives, and much of their plot feels like a sketch for that richer work.
Their friend Laura is a more interesting figure—a bit sinister, a cipher really, an iteration of the Lisas and Lupes that we find elsewhere in Bolaño’s fiction—in particular in some of the poetry collected in The Unknown Univeristy. Indeed, the final section of The Spirit of Science Fiction, “Mexican Manifesto,” was originally published in a different form in that collection. Some of the best parts of Spirit feel like failed poems, poems that want to be prose, unpoetical, mad, howling, jolly poems. Like 2666 or The Savage Detectives, the plot of Spirit careens, splinters, dares the reader to put the fragments together.
There is structure though: The main of the novel is told in first-person perspective by Remo. He’s seventeen, and has come from Chile to Mexico City with his friend Jan to live destitute in a garret and write bad articles under a pseudonym while he pursues his poetry. He gets sidetrack by love and other matters.
A third strand runs throughout Spirit. In a series of segments set in some presumable future, a female journalist interviews Jan in the middle of a bizarre drunken party somewhere in the dark woods. Jan has won a prize for a sci-fi novel that he summarizes for the journalist who listens, downing vodka after vodka. Jan’s prize-winning sci-fi novel meshes elements that will be familiar to Bolaño’s readers—apocalyptic desolation, failed communication, esoteric histories of Latin America, mystery authors. Etc. It’s even partially set in the Unknown University. The interview segments seem perched on the edge of their own sinister apocalypse, a typically-Bolañoesque move, as if a seemingly-normal situation might topple over into malevolence at any moment. Unfortunately though, these sections seem to have been abandoned.
Indeed, much of Spirit reads like a patchwork of abandoned drafts, riddled with material and ideas that will pop up in later novels—the tabletop gaming of The Third Reich, the fascination of Nazi iconography we see in Nazi Literature in the Americas, the reckoning of post-colonialism which belongs to The Savage Detectives in particular, as well as the Bolañoverse as a whole. Too, Spirit shares the ominous swells and sinister reverberations that we identify with both Bolaño’s prose and poetry—the book shows the joyful optimism of youth poised on the cusp of unnameable disaster.
In short, there’s a lot of great writing in The Spirit of Science Fiction—plenty of moments that satisfy, if only temporarily, our cravings for more Bolaño. And yet the novel is clearly unfinished, which, if you’ve read Bolaño—and I’m assuming if you’ve hung out this far into this review, you’ve read Bolaño, and like, if you haven’t read Bolaño, I think he’s great, and a great starting point for reading him would be Distant Star or the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth—and, where was I? Okay: The Spirit of Science Fiction is clearly an unfinished piece, which, if you’ve read Bolaño, may seem like a Bolañoesque feature—his works point to an indeterminancy, an oblique, inconclusive, resolutely unfinishedness. (Think of the final lines/images of The Savage Detectives, for example).
And yet Spirit’s unfinishedness is not of a piece with the general aporia that belongs to Bolaño’s finished unfinished works—it seems, rather, an abandoned project, a draft to be repurposed later. Which, of course, it was—we already got the material that Spirit helped inspirit—in The Savage Detectives, in Nazi Literature, in 2666—in Bolaño’s best materials.
Paradoxically then, The Spirit of Science Fiction leaves the reader—by which I mean the Bolaño fan—by which I mean, let’s be honest, this Bolaño fan—Spirit leaves this reader hungry for more, for the pages to gallop on and on, to careen into more dread and manic joy and bad poetry and good poetry and pilfered stories and excessive metaphors. More: More Bolaño.
And then how could this review be a complaint? Well it isn’t. I enjoyed The Spirit of Science Fiction, was hungry for it before I even touched it, and then left hungry, wanting more: More Bolaño.
Wars can be ended with sex or religion. Everything seems to indicate that there are no other citizen alternatives; these are dark days, heaven knows. We can set aside religion for now. That leaves sex. Let’s try to put it to good use. First question: what can you in particular and American science fiction writers in general do about it? I propose the immediate creation of a committee to centralize and coordinate all efforts. As a first step—call it preparing the terrain—the committee must select ten or twenty authors for inclusion in an anthology, choosing those who have written most radically and enthusiastically about carnal relations and the future. (The committee should be free to select who they like, but I would presume to suggest the indispensable inclusion of entries by Joanna Russ and Anne McCaffrey; maybe later I’ll explain why, in another letter.) This anthology, to be titled something like American Orgasms in Space or A Radiant Future, should focus the reader’s attention on pleasure and make frequent use of flashbacks—to our times, I mean—to chart the path of hard work and peace that it has been necessary to travel to reach this no-man’s-land of love. In each story, there should be at least one sexual act (or, lacking that, one episode of ardent and devoted camaraderie) between Latin Americans and North Americans. For example: legendary space pilot Jack Higgins, commander of the Fidel Castro, participates in interesting physical and spiritual encounters with Gloria Díaz, a navigation engineer from Colombia. Or: shipwrecked on Asteroid BM101, Demetrio Aguilar and Jennifer Brown spend ten years practicing the Kama Sutra. Stories with a happy ending. Desperate socialist realism in the service of alluring, mind-blowing happiness. Every ship with a mixed crew and every ship with its requisite overdose of amatory activity! At the same time, the committee should establish contact with the rest of American science fiction writers, those who’re left cold by sex or who won’t touch it for reasons of style, ethics, market appeal, personal preference, plot, aesthetics, philosophy, etc. They must be taught to see the importance of writing about the orgies that future citizens of Latin America and the U.S. can take part in if we take action now. If they flatly refuse, they must be convinced, at the very least, to write to the White House to ask for a cease in hostilities. Or to pray along with the bishops of Washington. To pray for peace. But that’s our backup plan, and we’ll keep it in under wraps for now. In closing, let me tell you how much I admire your work. I don’t read your novels; I devour them. I’m seventeen, and maybe someday I’ll write decent science fiction stories. A week ago, I lost my virginity.
Jan Schrella, alias Roberto Bolaño
From Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction. English translation by Natasha Wimmer.
“Yesterday I dreamed about Thea von Harbou. . . . It woke me right up. . . . But then, thinking about it, I realized that I dreamed about her because of a novel I read recently. . . . It’s not that it was such a strange book, but I got the idea that the author was hiding something. . . . And after the dream, I figured it out . . .”
“Silhouette, by Gene Wolfe.”
“. . .”
“Want me to tell you what it’s about?”
“All right, while I’m making breakfast.”
“I had some tea before, when you were asleep.”
“I’ve got a headache. Are you going to want another cup of tea?”
“Go on. I’m listening, even if my back is turned.”
“It’s the story of a spaceship that for a long time has been looking for a planet habitable by the human race. At last they find one, but it’s been many years since they set off on the voyage, and the crew has changed; they’ve all gotten older, but you have to realize that they were very young when they set off. . . . What’s changed are their beliefs: sects, secret societies, covens have sprung up. . . . The ship has also fallen into disrepair—there are computers that don’t work, blown-out lights that no one bothers to fix, wrecked sleeping compartments. . . . Then, when they find the new planet, the mission is completed and they’re supposed to return to Earth with the news, but no one wants to go back. . . . The voyage will consume the rest of their youth, and they’ll return to an unknown world, because meanwhile several centuries have gone by on Earth, since they’ve been traveling at close to light speed. . . . It’s just a starving, overpopulated planet. . . . And there are even those who believe that there is no life left on Earth. . . . Among them is Johann, the protagonist. . . . Johann is a quiet man, one of the few who love the ship. . . . He’s of average height. . . . There’s a hierarchy of height; the woman who’s captain of the ship, for example, is the tallest, and the privates are the shortest. . . . Johann is a lieutenant; he goes about his duties without making too many friends. Like nearly everyone, he’s set in his ways; he’s bored . . . until they reach the strange planet. . . . Then Johann discovers that his shadow has grown darker. . . . Black as outer space and dense . . . As you probably guessed, it’s not his shadow but a separate being that’s taken over there, mimicking the movements of his shadow. . . . Where has it come from? The planet? Space? We’ll never know, and it doesn’t really matter. . . . The Shadow is powerful, as we’ll see, but as silent as Johann. . . . Meanwhile the sects are preparing to mutiny. . . . A group tries to convince Johann to join them; they tell him that he’s one of the chosen, that their common fate is to create something new on this planet. . . . Some seem pretty loony, others dangerous. . . . Johann commits to nothing. . . . Then the Shadow transports him to the planet. . . . It’s a vast jungle, a vast desert, a vast beach. . . . Johann, dressed only in shorts and sandals, almost like a Tyrolean, walks through the undergrowth. . . . He moves his right leg when he feels the Shadow push against his right leg, then the left, slowly, waiting. . . . The darkness is total. . . . But the Shadow looks after him as if he’s a child. . . . When he returns, rebellion breaks out. . . . It’s total chaos. . . . Johann, as a precaution, takes off his officer’s stripes. . . . Suddenly he runs into Helmuth, the captain’s favorite and one of the heads of the rebellion, who tries to kill him, but the Shadow overpowers him, choking him to death. . . . Johann realizes what’s happening and makes his way to the bridge; the captain and some of the other officers are there, and on the screens of the central computer they see Helmuth and the mutineers readying a laser cannon. . . . Johann convinces them that all is lost, that they must flee to the planet. . . . But at the last minute, he stays behind. . . . He returns to the bridge, disconnects the fake video feed that the computer operators have manipulated, and sends an ultimatum to the rebels. . . . Whoever lays down arms this very instant will be pardoned; the rest will die. . . . Johann is well acquainted with the tools of falsehood and propaganda. . . . Then, too, he has the police and the marines on his side, who’ve spent the voyage in hibernation, and he knows that no one can snatch victory from him. . . . He finishes his communiqué with the announcement that he is the new captain. . . . Then he plots another route and abandons the planet. . . . And that’s all. . . . But then I dreamed about Thea von Harbou, and I realized that it was a Millennial Reich ship. . . . They were all Germans . . . all trapped in entropy. . . . Though there are a few weird things, strange things. . . . Under the effects of some drug, one of the girls—the one who sleeps most often with Johann—remembers something painful, and, weeping, she says that her name is Joan. . . . The girl’s real name is Grit, and Johann thinks that maybe her mother called her Joan when she was a baby. . . . Old-fangled and unfashionable names, banned by the psychologists, too . . .”
“Maybe the girl was trying to say that her name was Johann.”
“Possibly. The truth is, Johann is a serious fucking opportunist.”
“So why doesn’t he stay on the planet?”
“I don’t know. Leaving the planet, and not going back to Earth, is like choosing death, isn’t it? Or maybe the Shadow convinced him that he shouldn’t colonize the planet. Either way, the captain and a bunch of people are stuck there. Listen, read the novel, it’s really good. . . . And now I think the swastika came from the dream, not Gene Wolfe. . . . Though who knows . . . ?”
“So you dreamed about Thea von Harbou . . .”
“Yes, it was a blond girl.”
“But have you ever seen a picture of her?”
“How did you know it was Thea von Harbou?”
“I don’t know, I guessed it. She was like Marlene Dietrich singing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ the Dylan song, you know? Weird stuff, spooky, but very up-close and personal—it’s hard to explain, but personal.”
“So the Nazis take over the Earth and send ships in search of new worlds.”
“Yes. In Thea von Harbou’s version.”
“And they find the Shadow. Isn’t that a German story?”
“The story of the Shadow or the man who loses his shadow? I don’t know.”
“And it was Thea von Harbou who told yo all this?”
“Johann believes that inhabited planets, or habitable planets, are the exception in the universe. . . . As he tells it, Guderian’s tanks lay waste to Moscow . . .”
From Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction. English translation by Natasha Wimmer.
Gene Wolfe’s 1975 novella Silhouette was originally published in The New Atlantis, an anthology of sci-fi edited by Robert Silverberg, and later collected in Endangered Species (1989). Silhouette begins with an epigraph culled from Ambrose Bierce’s short story “A Psychological Shipwreck” (1879):
To sundry it is given to be drawn away, and to be apart from the body for a season; for, as concerning rills which would flow across each other the weaker is borne along by the stronger, so there be certain of kin whose paths intersecting, their souls do bear company, the while their bodies go foreappointed ways, unknowing.
In Bierce’s story, this passage is itself quoted from “that rare and curious work, Denneker’s Meditations.”
Thea von Harbou wrote many novels and screenplays, including numerous screenplays for her husband director Fritz Lang, including the classic sci-fi film Metropolis. After its ascendance to power, von Harbou remained loyal to the Nazi party.
My expectations for The Spirit of Science Fiction, Roberto Bolaño’s latest the posthumous novel are somewhat measured, but I’m excited to read it nonetheless. It’s new in English translation by Natasha Wimmer, who of course translated Bolaño’s other big novels, including 2666 and The Savage Detectives. My intuition is that The Spirit of Science Fiction will read like a dress rehearsal for The Savage Detectives, much in the same way that Woes of the True Policeman (also translated by Wimmer) felt like a dry run for 2666. My guess is that Spirit will simply make me want to reread 2666.
While I was at the bookstore, I couldn’t help but pick up a copy of Joy Williams’ debut story collection Taking Care. I found it completely misshelved, or not really shelved at all, just sort of laying on a stack of unrelated books. I have a soft spot for these eighties Vintage Contemporaries editions, and after finishing Lucia Berlin’s Evening in Paradise, I have a hankering for something in a similar vein.
Roberto Bolaño’s short story “The Return” is so good that it has two perfect opening paragraphs:
I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.
That’s a hell of a way to start a story! Bolaño lays out his two themes—the afterlife and necrophilia—in a jovial, almost cavalier, but dare I say sweet, even charming way. And then this paragraph:
Death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning. My doctor had warned me, but some things are stronger than reason. I was convinced, mistakenly (and even now it’s something I regret), that drinking and dancing were not the most hazardous of my passions. Another reason I kept going out every night to the fashionable places in Paris was my routine as a middle manager at Fracsa; I was after what I couldn’t find at work or in what people call the inner life: the buzz that you get from a certain excess.
Those are the first two paragraphs, and maybe they’ll entice you to read the story. However, the following riff includes what some people might consider spoilers; my hope is that if you’ve never read it before, you’ll take it on faith that “The Return” is a great, great story and you’ll go read it and stop reading this riff now. (Maybe come back later though after you’ve read it).
“The Return” is a ghost story that transmutes the horror of death and the abjection of the corpse into love, empathy, and communication—and art. It’s a beautiful ghost tale in the Romantic, Gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, from whom Bolaño drew heavily. However, while Poe’s tales of necrophilia (like the poem “Annabel Lee,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Berenice” to name just a few) obsess over repression, loss, burial, and imperfect and violent attempts at restoration, Bolaño’s “The Return” offers its readers a peaceful reconciliation with death. It’s collected in The Return (New Directions, English translation by Chris Andrews), which is a perfect introduction to Bolaño—so many great stories there (“Buba,” “Clara,” “William Burns,” etc.). So go read it.
So but and anyway: a close reading continued for those inclined.
Our narrator is a ghost, a man who died on the dance floor. Bolaño’s next move is so ridiculous that it almost seems unbelievable at first:
Like just about everyone else, I went to see Ghost, I don’t know if you remember it, a box office hit, with Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, the one where Patrick Swayze gets killed and his body is left lying on a Manhattan street, or in an alley, maybe, on a dirty pavement anyway, while in a special-effects extravaganza (they were special for the time, anyway) his soul comes out of his body and stares at it in astonishment. Well, apart from the special effects, I thought it was idiotic. A typical Hollywood cop-out, inane and unbelievable.
But when my turn came, that’s exactly what happened.
The narrator is quick to accept the conceit—he’s quick to accept a lot in this story. He concedes of Hollywood artifice that there’s “more to American naiveté than meets the eye; it can hide something that we Europeans can’t or don’t want to understand.” This acceptance quickly turns into a new affect: strange joy: “Once I was dead, I felt like bursting out laughing.” (Forgive me, but it’s impossible for me not to note that “The Return” was composed very late in Bolaño’s too-short life, that its composition strikes me as a kind of love letter to his audience, more than a consolation prize: a gift).
Our ghost-narrator, not quite sure what to do, follows his corpse to the morgue: “What a paltry thing it seemed, my body or my ex-body (I’m not sure how to put it), confronted with the labyrinthine bureaucracy of death.” The labyrinthine bureaucracy of death!
The (metaphysical) narrator then starts to reflect on metaphysical matters:
The feeling of dizziness gradually abated, although at one point I got to thinking about heaven and hell, reward and punishment, and I had a panic attack, but that bout of irrational fear was soon over. And, in fact, I was starting to feel better.
Bolaño’s narrator quickly overcomes a religious tradition of “irrational fear” and guilt; here, death–by which I mean ghosthood—is life anew. In his new life|death, the narrator comes to understand the “insomnia and pervasive insecurity” (note here the language of Poe) he once felt over his “being a toy (or less than a toy) for [his lover] Cécile.” The ghost-narrator can find a certain grace in his one-time desire to be desired, his desire for solidity.
So. The plot, yes? Well, Bolaño’s already announced his theme of necrophilia, yes? How do we get there?
Two orderlies from the morgue sneak the body away, transporting it to the most beautiful house (mansion!) that the narrator has ever seen. The orderlies are described variously as hipsters, poseurs, and (significantly) “pseudo-artists.” Despite employing these terms, the narrator is ultimately sympathetic to the orderlies. (As an aside, I can’t help reading the two as figurations of those romantic dogs Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, strivers, would-be greats, youth).
The orderlies deliver the body to a famous fashion designer, Jean-Claude Villeneuve. And:
I didn’t know what his intentions were—I’ve always been an innocent. If I’d known, I would have been nervous. But I didn’t, so I sat down in one of the comfortable leather armchairs in the room and waited.
Our narrator is again identified with innocence and naïveté (one senses that it preceded his rebirth)—but Bolaño lets his tale play out in an unexpected way. The abjection that follows doesn’t corrupt innocence; rather, it allows for empathetic communication.
But, reader, thou art forewarned—Bolaño literalizes the necrophilia that is merely metaphorical in Poe:
…after a quarter of an hour of cuddling in the semi-darkness I noticed that he had an erection. My god, I thought, now he’s going to sodomize me. But that’s not what happened. To my surprise, the designer rubbed himself against one of my thighs till he came. I would have liked to shut my eyes at that point but I couldn’t. My reactions were contradictory; I felt disgusted by what I was seeing, grateful for not having been sodomized, surprised to discover Villeneuve’s secret, angry at the orderlies for having rented out my body, and even flattered to have served, unwillingly, as an object of desire for one of the most famous men in France.
What a paragraph!—shocking, humorous, human.
Our narrator immediately judges the taboo-breaking that has occurred as abject: “You should be ashamed, I said.”
But then something supernatural happens—the designer responds to the ghost.
I knew at once that he had heard me. It seemed like a miracle. Suddenly I felt so happy that I forgave him his act of depravity.
Human recognition—contact—becomes a “miracle” here (recalling the word “grace” from before), transmuting abject depravity into radical forgiveness. And then the narrator declares aloud:
It’s not a problem, I said in a conciliatory tone, You’re forgiven.
These are the words so many of us long to hear—but maybe most of all we wish to hear them when we are most wrapped up in our private abject sins. It’s as if Bolaño here absolves all the mad aesthetes of the Gothic tradition in one empathetic quip.
But of course, our necrophiliac-designer must worry that he’s going mad, mustn’t he? He searches for speakers, bugs—any physical explanation for that metaphysical voice. Again, our narrator is empathetic; again the language here points to Poe, but also to a reversal of Poe’s abject pain:
From experience I know that trying to wrench yourself out of a nightmare is futile and simply adds pain to pain or terror to terror.
The narrator then sets about proving that he’s real (or if not “real,” then at least that the narrator isn’t insane) by describing the various beautiful objects in the designer’s home. Aesthetic sensation confirms shared perception.
This tour of proof concludes in the style of Poe, in a tomb-space, all aesthetic objects removed, like something from “Usher”:
…we came to a little room, covered inside with a layer of cement, in which there was nothing, not one piece of furniture, not a single light, and we shut ourselves in that room, in the dark. An embarrassing situation, on the face of it, but for me it was like a second or a third birth; that is, it was like hope beginning and with it the desperate awareness of hope.
The abject embarrassment of the human body in close contact with a stranger is converted into rebirth and hope.
As the story ends, the fake-artist orderlies arrive in the morning to retrieve the narrator’s corpse. He realizes that he could continue haunting his body, but makes the choice to let it go:
But I mustn’t give in to sentimentality, I thought, and when the orderlies’ car left the garden and vanished down that elegant, tree-lined street, I didn’t feel the slightest twinge of nostalgia or sadness or melancholy.
In accepting the loss of his body without “nostalgia or sadness or melancholy,” our narrator affirms his new life.
The tale concludes with the narrator returning to the designer’s living room to discover that the man has been talking aloud—to the narrator, whom he believed was still with him. The story ends with this beautiful line:
I let him go on talking as long as he liked.
Reconciliation and acceptance rule in the end. Bolaño turns Gothic horror and abject pain into human empathy here.
Am I reading too much into the tale if I find in it a declaration of Bolaño’s acceptance of his own impending death? Perhaps. In any case, those who’ve formed an opinion of the man’s work based solely on the grisly reputation of 2666 would do well to check out “The Return.”
[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally ran this review in October of 2015].
I ended up reading the last two chapters of William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothica few times, trying to figure out exactly what happened. I then read Steven Moore’s excellent essay on the novel, “Carpenter’s Gothic or, The Ambiguities.” (If you have library access to the Infobase database Bloom’s Literature, you can find the essay there; if not, here’s a .pdf version). Moore offers a tidy summary of Carpenter’s Gothic—a summary which should be avoided by anyone who wants to read the novel. Because Carpenter’s Gothic isn’t so much about what happens but how it happens. Moore writes:
As is the case with any summary of a Gaddis novel, this one not only fails to do justice to the novel’s complex tapestry of events but also subverts the manner in which these events are conveyed. Opening Carpenter’s Gothic is like opening the lid of a jigsaw puzzle: all the pieces seem to be there, but it is up to the reader to fit those pieces together. …Even after multiple readings, several events remain ambiguous, sometimes because too little information is given, sometimes because there are two conflicting accounts and no way to confirm either.
Moore then lays out the novel’s theme in clear, precise language:
Such narrative strategies are designed not to baffle or frustrate the reader but to dramatize the novel’s central philosophic conflict, that between revealed truth versus acquired knowledge. Nothing is “revealed” by a godlike omniscient narrator in this novel; the reader learns “what really happens” only through study, attention, and the application of intelligence.
Quite frankly, Moore has written an essay that I wish I had written myself. I had been sketching parallels between Carpenter’s Gothic and Leslie Fiedler’s classic study Love and Death in the American Novel all throughout my reading; Moore ends up citing Fiedler a few times in his essay, in particularly working from Fiedler’s idea of how Gothicism manifests in American writing. (Moore does not bring up Fiedler’s critique of masculinity though, which opens up an occasion for me to write—once I’ve reread the puzzle though).
Anyway—I loved loved loved Carpenter’s Gothic, and I read it at just about the right time: It’s a Halloween novel. Great stuff.
In line with the Halloween theme: I had been working on a post about horror, about how I love scary films, grotesque literature, and weird art, because fantasy evocations of terror offer a reprieve from anxiety, from true dread, etc. Like, you know, a climate change report—I mean, that’s genuinely horrifying. But scary films and scary stories almost never really scare me. So I was thinking about literature that does produce dread in me, anxiety in me, and listing out examples in my draft, and so well anyway I reread Roberto Bolaño’s short story “Last Evenings on Earth.” I wrote about the collection named for the story almost a decade ago on this blog, focusing on the “ebb and flow between dread and release, fear and humor, ironic detachment and romantic idealism” in the tales:
In “Last Evenings on Earth,” B takes a vacation to Acapulco with his father. Bolaño’s rhetoric in this tale is masterful: he draws each scene with a reportorial, even terse distance, noting the smallest of actions, but leaving the analytical connections up to his reader. Even though B sees his holiday with his dad heading toward “disaster,” toward “the price they must pay for existing,” he cannot process what this disaster is, or what paying this price means. The story builds to a thick, nervous dread, made all the more anxious by the strange suspicion that no, things are actually fine, we’re all just being paranoid here. (Not true!)
I’m not sure if I’ll get the essay I was planning together any time soon, but I’m glad I reread “Last Evenings.”
There’s a strange background plot in “Last Evenings” in which Bolaño’s stand-in “B” dwells over a book of French surrealist poets, one of whom disappears mysteriously. Jindřich Štyrský isn’t French—he’s Czech—but he was a surrealist poet (and artist and essayist and etc.), so I couldn’t help inserting him into Bolaño’s story. I’ve been reading Dreamverse, which ripples with sensual horror. I wrote about it here. Here’s one of Štyrský’s poems (in English translation by Jed Slast); I think you can get the flavor from this one:
And here’s a detail from his 1937 painting Transformation:
I’ve finished the first section of David Bunch’s Moderan, which is a kind of post-nuke dystopia satire on toxic masculinity. While many of the tropes for these stories (most of which were written in the 1960s and ’70s) might seem familiar—cyborgs and dome homes, caste systems and ultraviolence, a world of made and not born ruled by manunkind (to steal from E.E. Cummings)—it’s the way that Bunch conveys this world that is so astounding. Moderan is told in its own idiom; the voice of our narrator Stronghold-10 booms with a bravado that’s ultimately undercut by the authorial irony that lurks under its surface. I will eventually write a proper review of Moderan, but the book seems equal to the task of satirizing the trajectory of our zeitgeist.
I started Angela Carter’s novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman last night and the first chapter is amazing.
Finally, I got a hard copy of Paul Kirchner’s new collection, Hieronymus & Bosch which finds humor in the horror of hell. The collection is lovely—I should have a post about it here later this week and hopefully a review at The Comics Journal later this month. For now though, a sample strip:
Pynchon’s zany/sinister tonal axis, comic bravado, and genre-shifting modes rarely result in what folks narrowly think of as literary realism. His characters can be elastic, cartoonish even—allegorical sometimes (and even grotesque). Mason & Dixon takes two historically real (and historically famous) characters as its subject, and, in a wonderfully hyperbolic 18th-century style, takes the duo on a fantastic journey to measure the world. How does one measure the world though? Pynchon takes on seemingly every subject under the sun in Mason & Dixon, and the novel is very much about the problems and limitations of measuring (and describing, and knowing) itself. But what comes through most strongly in all of Pynchon’s fantasia is the weight of Mason and Dixon’s friendship. It’s the most real thing in a wonderfully unreal novel.
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
A bit of a cheat maybe to put short stories on this list, but I’d love to set aside time to go through all of them at once.
So far, my favorite character in Middlemarch is Dorothea Brooke. In part my allegiance to her is simply a matter of the fact that she initially appears to be the novel’s central character—until Eliot swerves into new narratives near the end of Book I (Book I of VIII, by the way). But beyond traditional formal sympathies, it’s the way that Eliot harnesses Dorothea’s consciousness that I find so appealing. Eliot gives us in Dorothea an incredibly intelligent yet palpably naive young woman who feels the world around her a smidge too intensely. Dorothea is brilliant but a bit blind, and so far Middlemarch most interests me in the way that Eliot evokes this heroine’s life as a series of intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic revelations. We see Dorothea seeing—and then, most remarkably, we see Dorothea seeing what she could not previously see.
The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara
I read Dara’s cult debut in a dizzy rush about five years ago, and have meant to reread it again since then. Like Middlemarch, Dara’s novel is very much about consciousness and how consciousness operates. From a blog post a few years back:
I am really loving this book so far, this novel that moves through consciousnesses in a (yes, I’ll use that cliché that book reviewers so often grab for) dazzling performance, shifting through minds, monologues, dialogues, always a few steps (or more) ahead of its reader, beckoning though, inviting, calling its reader to participate in discussions (or performances) of art, science, politics, psychology, education, loneliness, ecology, family, fireflies, radio plays, alienation, voting trends, Chomskyian linguistics, Eisensteinian montage, theft, Walkman Personal Stereos, semiotics, one-man shows, drum sets, being ventriloquized—a novel that takes ventriloquism as not just a theme (as we can see in the citation above) but also as a rhetorical device, a novel that ventriloquizes its reader, throws its reader into a metaphorical deep end and then dramatically shifts the currents as soon as the reader has learned to swim, a novel of othernesses, a novel that offers content through conduits, patterns that coalesce through waves, a novel composed in transfer points, each transfer point announcing the limitations of first-person perspective, the perspective that the reader is logically and spiritually and psychologically beholden to—and then, perhaps, transcending (or at least producing the affective illusion of transcendence of) first-person perspective, and this (illusion of) transcendence, oh my, what a gift, what a gift . . .
The Recognitionsby William Gaddis
I had a false start with The Recognitions maybe 10 years ago, and then made it through a few years after that. I’ve since read Gaddis’s novel J R twice, and I think it’s the superior novel—but I’d like to revisit The Recognitions to see how accurate that assessment is. In my review I wrote:
The Recognitions is the work of a young man (“I think first it was that towering kind of confidence of being quite young, that one can do anything,” Gaddis says in his Paris Review interview), and often the novel reveals a cockiness, a self-assurance that tips over into didactic essaying or a sharpness toward its subjects that neglects to account for any kind of humanity behind what Gaddis attacks. The Recognitions likes to remind you that its erudition is likely beyond yours, that it’s smarter than you, even as it scathingly satirizes this position.
I think that JR, a more mature work, does a finer job in its critique of contemporary America, or at least in its characterization of contemporary Americans (I find more spirit or authentic humanity in Bast and Gibbs and JR than in Otto or Wyatt or Stanley). This is not meant to be a knock on The Recognitions; I just found JR more balanced and less showy; it seems to me to be the work of an author at the height of his powers, if you’ll forgive the cliché.
Trying to write about every film I watched what was exhausting and I’m not really sure what I got out of it, if anything. Here are the other films that I remember watching and not writing about:
All eight of the Star Wars films, again, sort of, with my kids.
Samsara (dir. Ron Fricke, 2011)—bought a new TV for the first time in eleven years and used this film to test the screen. Ended up watching it twice.
Thor: Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)—another one I watched with the kids, although I’m not sure it was for them. It wasn’t for me. A lot of wasted potential in this one.
The Company of Wolves (dir. Neil Jordan, 1984)—I think this one holds up well. I remember renting it for 99 cents from the Hollywood Video next to my apartment in Gainesville, FL in 1997 and thinking it was a work of genius.
But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.
Toward the end of the 130 page monologue that is Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile, narrator Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix claims that “An individual is no match for history.” His statement neatly encapsulates (what might be) the dominant theme of By Night in Chile, namely an individual person’s capacity and ability to correctly–and sanely–somehow measure, attest to, confront, and witness the horror and brutality of history. In this case, Bolaño’s narrator, a Catholic priest–and conservative literary critic (and, of course, failed poet)–Father Urrutia, via a sweeping deathbed confession of sorts, recounts his life story, leading inexorably to Pinochet’s coup and its attendant subsequent draconian reforms and abuses. While it would be a mistake to reduce Bolaño’s rich novella to one conflict, I think the root of Urrutia’s struggle emanates from his inability to come to terms with his role as an intellectual (let alone an artist, critic, or priest) complicit somehow in Pinochet’s crimes. Throughout the book, from the very beginning, Urrutia blames his inner turmoil on a “wizened youth” (I don’t want to spoil this antagonist’s identity, but puzzling out that paradoxical appellation provides a major clue), a kind of idealist who stands apart from the dying priest, mocking and taunting him. After his claim that “An individual is no match for history,” Urrutia avers that “The wizened youth has always been alone, and I have always been on history’s side.” For Urrutia, this is of paramount importance, not just as a Catholic priest (which, it must be pointed out, is a role he doesn’t seem particularly suited for) but also as a literary critic and intellectual: Urrutia wants to systematize and critique history, to be “on the right side of history,” to quote Barack Obama. And yet his own attempt to narrativize his own life ironizes and critiques this very possibility at every turn–he is a sham, a charlatan, motivated and prompted by fear and even hate.
And on that attempt to narrativize a life: I would call By Night in Chile an anti-bildungsroman. Although Urrutia relates a life story, the free flow of psychic impressions that characterizes his telling slip and sail and rock and crash throughout years and over decades, often flowing backwards and forwards, sometimes spending pages on what could only be considered inconsequential minutiae, while at times glossing over the profoundest events with little more than a word or two. It is often what Urrutia does not remark upon that characterizes what is of the greatest importance in this work, and this is a testament to the power of Bolaño’s writing, to his command of voice. In one of the greatest performances of the novel, Urrutia describes the time right before, during, and after Pinochet’s coup. The passage is less than four pages, and for every contemporary action of immediate consequence, Urrutia seems to provide twice as many examples of his retreat into the past: ” . . . the first anti-Allende march was organized, with people banging pots and pans, and I read Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides, all the tragedies, and Alkaios of Mytilene and Aesop and Hesiod and Herodotus . . . .” Urrutia doesn’t bother to scrutinize or analyze the visceral reality of history in the making around him, regressing instead to the comfort of established philosophical tradition–the history of Herodotus in favor of the chaos, anarchy, and brutality happening around him. He’s really quite a terrible priest, and as an intellectual he refuses to be engaged. Confident that he will always be “on history’s side,” he refuses to actively even try come to terms with history until he’s dying. And thus we get the narrative of By Night in Chile.
This reckoning with the past takes the form of a long monologue but, as those familiar with Bolaño will attest, there are plenty of other voices here, stories nested within stories like Russian dolls. The force and vitality of Urrutia’s speech is astonishing; one envisions the monologue as a single immediate and discrete exhalation, a stream of memory, the living wail of a dying man. Bolaño’s rhetorical style here conveys this ironic energy. He employs long (very, very long) sentences, sometimes going on for several pages, and often uses little or no transitions between what should be major shifts of space and time. There are plenty of references to writers, of course, many obscure, and more motifs and leitmotifs than I can work out here (or elsewhere, to be honest). I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the book is probably even more intense in the original Spanish, although I think Chris Andrews has done a brilliant job translating here, just as he did in Last Evenings on Earth. And since I’ve brought up that book, I’m going to make another suggestion: if you’ve yet to read Bolaño, you should, and Last Evenings of Earth (or 2666 if nearly a thousand pages doesn’t seem too daunting)is probably the best place to start–which is kind of another way of saying that By Night in Chile is not the best entry point to Bolaño–at least not for anyone intimately familiar with Latin American history. It’s not that By Night is particularly challenging or hard to read. However, I think that this particular book will probably be better enjoyed with more context. As Rodrigo Fresán points out in his essay “The Savage Detective,” (published in the March 2007 issue of The Believer), By Night in Chile could be (should be?) read as part of one cohesive book along with Amulet and Distant Star. Indeed, as many critics have pointed out, Bolaño’s works seem to coalesce into one great work, a secret universe parallel to Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Urrutia’s voice enriches this universe, but one must have something of a foothold on Bolaño’s themes in order to appreciate the complex ironies of By Night in Chile. Or maybe not. Maybe this is a great entry point to Bolaño. Either way, great book. Highly recommended.
Editorial note: Biblioklept ran the original version of this review in July of 2010. I saw the new cover for By Night in Chile today in a bookstore I was visiting in a town that I do not live in, and the new cover—the picture of which is the only new “content” for this review—is the occasion for republishing this Bolaño review.
Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Spirit of Science Fiction will be published in English translation next year. The translation is by Natasha Wimmer (who translated 2666 and The Savage Detectives, among other Bolaño works). Bolaño began The Spirit of Science Fiction in 1984 but apparently never finished it. The novel was first published in 2016 by the Spanish publishing house Alfaguara. Based on the blurb, The Spirit of Science Fiction sounds like a prototype for The Savage Detectives (much as Woes of the True Policeman is a prototype of 2666).
Here is the blurb from the publisher, Penguin Random House—
Two young poets, Jan and Remo, find themselves adrift in Mexico City. Obsessed with poetry, and, above all, with science fiction, they are eager to forge a life in the literary world–or sacrifice themselves to it. Roberto Bolaño’s The Spirit of Science Fiction is a story of youth hungry for revolution, notoriety, and sexual adventure, as they work to construct a reality out of the fragments of their dreams.
But as close as these friends are, the city tugs them in opposite directions. Jan withdraws from the world, shutting himself in their shared rooftop apartment where he feverishly composes fan letters to the stars of science fiction and dreams of cosmonauts and Nazis. Meanwhile, Remo runs headfirst into the future, spending his days and nights with a circle of wild young writers, seeking pleasure in the city’s labyrinthine streets, rundown cafés, and murky bathhouses.
This kaleidoscopic work of strange and tender beauty is a fitting introduction for readers uninitiated into the thrills of Roberto Bolaño’s fiction, and an indispensable addition to an ecstatic and transgressive body of work.
July has been a strange month. The other day I went to the beach and I saw a woman of about thirty, pretty, wearing a black bikini, who was reading standing up. At first I thought she was about to lie down on her towel, but when I looked again she was still standing, and after that I didn’t take my eyes off her. For two hours, more or less, she read standing up, walked over to the water, didn’t go in, let the waves lap her shins, went back to her spot, kept reading, occasionally put the book down while still standing, leaned over a few times and took a big bottle of Pepsi out of a bag and drank, then picked up the book again, and, finally, without ever bending a knee, put her things away and left. Earlier the same day, I saw three girls, all in thongs, gorgeous, one of them had a tattoo on one buttock, they were having a lively conversation, and every once in a while they got in the water and swam and then they would lie down again on their mats, basically a completely normal scene, until all of a sudden, a cell phone rang, I heard it and thought it was mine until I realized it had been a while since I had a cell phone, and then I knew the phone belonged to one of them. I heard them talking. All I can say is that they weren’t speaking Catalan or Spanish. But they sounded deadly serious. Then I watched two of them get up, like zombies, and walk toward some rocks. I got up too and pretended to brush the sand off my trunks. On the rocks, I watched them talk to a huge, hideously ugly man covered in hair, in fact one of the hairiest men I’ve ever seen in my life. They knelt before him and listened attentively without saying a word, and then they went back to where their friend was waiting for them and everything went on as before, as if nothing had happened. Who are these women? I asked myself once it was dark and I had showered and dressed. One drank Pepsi. The others bowed down to a bear. I know who they are. But I don’t really know.
Antoine Volodine’s collection of loosely-connected stories Writers (2010; English translation by Katina Rogers, Dalkey Archive, 2014) is 108 pages. I have read the first four of the seven stories here—the first 54 pages. This is the first book by Volodine that I have read. Antoine Volodine is in fact a pseudonym, I know, but I don’t know much else about the writer. I’ve been meaning to read him for a few years, after some good folks suggested I do so, but I’ve never come across any of his books in the wild until this weekend. After I finish Writers I will read more about Volodine, but for now I am enjoying (?) how and what this book teaches me about the bigger project Volodine seems to be working towards.
That bigger project evinces in the first story in the collection, “Mathias Olbane,” which centers on the titular character, a writer who tries to hypnotize himself into a suicide attempt. Poor Mathias goes to prison for twenty-six years — “He had assassinated assassins.” Like most of the figures in Writers (so far anyway—you see by the title of this post that I am reporting from half way through, yes?) — like most of the figures in Writers, Mathias is a revolutionary spirit, resisting capitalist power and conformist order through radical violence. Before prison, Mathias wrote two books. The first, An Autumn at the Boyols’ “consisted of eight short texts, inspired by fantasy or the bizarre, composed in a lusterless but impeccable style. Let’s say that it was a collection that maintained a certain kinship with post-exoticism…” The description of the book approximates a description of Writers itself; notably, Volodine identifies his own genre as post-exoticism. Autumn at the Boyols’ doesn’t sell at all, and its sequel, Splendor of the Skiff (which “recounted a police investigation, several episodes of a global revolution, and traumatizing incursions into dream worlds”) somehow fares even worse. Mathias begins a new kind of writing in prison:
…after twenty-six years in captivity, he had forged approximately a hundred thousand words, divided as follows:
sixty thousand first and last names of victims of unhappineess
twenty thousand names of imaginary plants, mushrooms, and herbs
ten thousand names of places, rivers, and localities
and ten thousand various words that do not belong to any language, but have a certain phonetic logic that makes them sound familiar
I love the mix of tones here: Mathias Olbane’s grand work is useless and strange and sad and ultimately unknowable, and Volodine conveys this with both sinister humor and dark pathos. Once released from prison, our hero immediately becomes afflicted with a rare and incurable and painful disease. Hence, the suicide urge. But let’s move on.
The second tale in Writers, “Speech to the Nomads and the Dead,” offers another iteration of post-exotic writing, both in form and content. The story plays out like a weird nightmare. Linda Woo, isolated and going mad in a prison cell, conjures up an audience of burn victims, an obese dead man, Mongolian nomads, and several crows. She delivers a “lesson” to her auditors (a “lesson,” we learn, is one of post-exoticism’s several genres). The lesson is about the post-exotic writers themselves. She names a few of these post-exotic writers (Volodine is addicted to names, especially strange names), and delivers an invective against the modern powers that the post-exotic writers write against:
Post-exoticism’s writers…have in their memory, without exception, the wars and the ethnic and social exterminations that were carried out from one end of the 20th century to the other, they forget none and pardon none, they also keep permanently in mind the savageries and the inequalities that are exacerbated among men…
The above excerpt is a small taste of Woo’s bitter rant, which goes on for long sentence after long sentence (Volodine is addicted to long sentences). Like Mathias Olbane, Linda Woo writes in the face of futility, creating the “post-exotic word,” a word that creates an “absurd magic” that allows the post-exotic writers to “speak the world.”
Linda Woo’s name appears in the next story in Writers, “Begin-ing,” if only in passing. This story belongs to an unnamed writer, yet another prisoner. Wheelchair-bound, he is interrogated and tortured by two insane inmates who have taken over their prison, having killed their captors. The pair, Greta and Bruno Khatchatourian, are thoroughly horrific, spouting abject insanities that evoke Hieronymus Boschs’s hell. They are terrifying, and I had a nightmare the night that I read “Begin-ing.” It’s never quite clear if Greta and Bruno Khatchatourian are themselves post-exotic writers gone mad or just violent lunatics on the brink of total breakdown. In any case, Volodine affords them dialogue that veers close to a kind of horror-poetry. “We can also spew out the apocalypse,” Greta defiantly sneers. They torture the poor writer. Why?
They would like it, in the end, if he came around to their side, whether by admitting that he’s been, for a thousand years, a clandestine leader of dark forces, or by tracing for them a strategy that could lead them to final victory. … They would like above all for him to help them to drive the dark forces out from the asylum, to prepare a list of spies, they want him to rid the world of the last nurses, of Martians, of colonialists, and of capitalists in general.
The poor writer these lunatics torture turns inward to his own formative memories of first writings, of begin-ing, when he created his own worlds/words in ungrammatical misspelled scrawlings, filling notebook after notebook. Volodine unspools these memories in sentences that carry on for pages, mostly centering on the writer’s strange childhood in an abject classroom where he engages in depravities that evoke Pasolini’s Salò. And yet these memories are the writer’s comfort—or at least resistance—to the lunatics’ violence. Volodine’s prose in “Begin-ing” conjures Goya’s various lunatics, witches, demons, and dogs. It’s all very upsetting stuff.
After the depravity of “Begin-ings,” the caustic comedy of the next story “Acknowledgements” is a welcome palate cleanser. In this story’s twelve pages (I wish there were more!) Volodine simultaneously ridicules and exults the “Acknowledgements” page that often appends a novel, elevating the commonplace gesture to its own mock-heroic genre. The story begins with the the hero-writer thanking “Marta and Boris Bielouguine, who plucked me from the swamp that I had unhappily fallen into along with the bag containing my manuscript.” The “swamp” here is not a metaphor, but a literal bog the writer nearly drowned in. And the manuscript? A Meeting at the Boyols’, a title that recalls poor Mathias Olbane’s first book An Autumn at the Boyols’. Each paragraph of “Acknowledgments” is its own vignette, a miniature adventure in the form of a thank-you note to certain parties. Most of the vignettes end in sex or death, or an escape from one of the two. “Grad Litrif and his companion Lioudmila” as well as “the head of the Marbachvili archives” (oh the names in this story!) are thanked for allowing the writer
…to access the notebooks of Vulcain Marbachvili, from which I was able, for my story Long Ago to Bed Early, to copy several sentences before the earthquake struck that engulfed the archives. My thanks to these three people, and apologies to the archivist, as I was sadly unable to locate either her name or her body in the rubble.
“Acknowledgments” is littered with such bodies—sometimes victims of disasters and plagues, and elsewhere the bodies of the married or boyfriended women the writer copulates with before escaping into some new strange circumstances (he often thanks the husbands and the boyfriends, and in one inspired moment, thanks a gardener “who one day had the presence of mind to detain Bernardo Balsamian in the orchard while Grigoria and I showered and got dressed again”). He thanks a couple who shows him their collection of 88 stuffed guinea pigs; he thanks “the leader of the Muslim Bang cell” who, during his “incarceration in Yogyakarta…forbid the prisoners on the floor from sodomizing” him; he thanks the “Happy Days” theater troupe who “had the courage” to perform his play Djann’s Awakening three times “before a rigorously empty room.” Most of the acknowledgments connect the writer’s thank-you to a specific book he’s written. I’m tempted to list them all (oh the names!), but just a few—Tomorrow the Otters, Eve of Pandemic, Journal of Pandemonium, Goodbye Clouds, Goodbye Romeo, Mlatelpopec in Paradise, Macbeth in Paradise, Hell in Paradise…Without exaggeration: “Acknowledgements” is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read.
With its evocations of mad and obscure writers, Volodine’s books strongly reminds me of Roberto Bolaño’s work. And yet reading it is not like reading an attempt to copy another writer—which Volodine is in no way doing—but rather like reading a writer who has filtered much of the same material of the 20th century through himself, and has come to some of the same tonal and thematic viewpoints—Volodine’s labyrinth is dark and weird and sinister and abject, but also slightly zany and terribly funny. More to come.
In Roberto Bolaño’s sprawling opus 2666 (specifically, in “The Part About Fate”), founding member of the Black Panthers/cookbook author Barry Seaman offers the following recipe during a lecture at a Detroit church–
The name of the recipe is: Brussels Sprouts with Lemon. Take note, please. Four servings calls for: two pounds of brussels sprouts, juice and zest of one lemon, one onion, one sprig of parsley, three tablespoons of butter, black pepper, and salt. You make it like so. One: Clean sprouts well and remove outer leaves. Finely chop onion and parsley. Two: In a pot of salted boiling water, cook sprouts for twenty minutes, or until tender. Then drain well and set aside. Three: Melt butter in frying pan and lightly sauté onion, add zest and juice of lemon and salt and pepper to taste. Four: Add brussels sprouts, toss with sauce, reheat for a few minutes, sprinkle with parsley, and serve with lemon wedges on the side. So good you’ll be licking your fingers, said Seaman. No cholesterol, good for the liver, good for the blood pressure, very healthy.