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Roberto Bolaño — 2666

Unfortunately, it’s been a while. It’s not that I’ve been lax on updating, but a variety of upheavals in my life have prevented a lot of reading time. Two weeks ago I ended up spending the remainder of my vacation at home for a family crisis, and when I got home it was all I could do to catch up on email, let alone tackle the beast that is 2666. I kept picking it up, putting it down… slowly, gradually making my way through it… and then I hit the fourth part which, if you have read this book, you will know is difficult to get through under normal circumstances, let alone when death is on your mind anyway…

In any event, re-reading it was a rewarding experience, and a good culmination to re-reading him in general–this was the last book of his I had on my shelf, soon it will be on to other things. And as his last, posthumous novel, it is a sort of bizarre culmination of everything he had been trying to say and accomplish in his other novels, as well. Fitting to read it last. The problem with reading Bolaño is that you really have to read all of his books to pick up on themes and tangents throughout, for example, the title word of 2666 is not actually mentioned in the book itself, but in another of his books: a road is referred to as looking like a cemetery from the year 2666. To read something by Bolaño is to some extent be forced to read his entire oeuvre. not that this is necessarily a bad thing.

In one of his last interviews he stated that had he not been a writer, he would have liked to have been a homicide detective. And you can see it—some of his central themes are bizarre mysteries, violence, death. How we process them. What they mean. A critic described the events of 2666 as something terrible, cosmic, and horrible centering around Santa Teresa… the uncanny moments where the world seems wrong.

The book itself is concerned with a series of murders of women in a place that can only have been modeled on the Ciudad Juárez. It also features different sections, in which four literary critics discuss a semi-mythical author whose life and work absorb them; this author himself is part of other leading strands of the novel. In other sections, a professor goes mad, various people try to figure out what is happening in Santa Teresa, and the life of Archimboldi himself is illuminated. It is hard to read: one book is clinical descriptions of the murders of hundreds of young women. The cumulative effect of all of this violence, terror, mystery, is breathtaking. and terrifying. The book is a bit like a punch in the gut. Several punches in the gut.

Re-reading it felt like reading it again for the first time. As I said, I read it slowly, trying to absorb. As with many of his other works, there were passages of lyrical beauty that stuck out considering the clinical language used to describe the violent deaths and sexual assaults in part four. Some paragraphs that really struck me as lovely, for example:

And there’s verbophobia, fear of words. Which must mean that it’s best not to speak, said Juan de Dios Martínez. There’s more to it than that, because words are everywhere, even in silence, which is never complete silence, is it?

There were the usual deaths, yes, those to be expected, people who started off celebrating and ended up killing each other, uncinematic deaths, deaths from the realm of folklore, not modernity: deaths that didn’t scare anybody.

…only the black woods in the middle of a yellow sea, under a bright blue sky, and suddenly, without warning, as if they were in a great theater of wheat and the wood was the stage and proscenium of that theater in the round, the all-devouring, beautiful fire.

To really appreciate it you would need to start reading for yourself. It’s a strange book, an absorbing book. A difficult book. A confusing book. I rarely don’t know exactly what’s going on in a story but this one is full of mysteries that are never quite resolved. But as with Monsieur Pain, it’s the journey that’s important, the people, how their lives are impacted by the senseless violence of the world… Bolaño without a doubt deserves all of the accolades that have been heaped upon him.

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Roberto Bolaño — The Savage Detectives

This is certainly a doozy of a book, that’s really the only way to describe it–I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it would take a while for me to get through it.

This giant is a semi-autobiographical work and centers around two poets, Arturo Belano (the obvious Bolaño stand-in) and Ulises Lima (Santiago), and their poetry movement, visceral realism. The first part of the book is narrated by García Madero, a young convert to the visceral realist movement and the events of 1976 leading up to the visceral realists running away to Sonora; the second is narrated by a cacophony of voices, many of whom are poets themselves (the characters often represent cameos by real poets; apparently it was a bit of an honor to be given such an appearance by Bolaño), during a 20 year time frame from ’75 to ’95; the third is narrated, again by García Madero as the poets travel through the desert on a Quixotic quest in search of a long-lost poet, the mother of the visceral realist movement.

To say that this book is quite an achievement is to make a gigantic understatement. It’s exhausting to read, the sheer amount of voices that Bolaño unleashes is incredible. So many people, so many different ideas about poetry, life, loss, madness. It’s vulgar, raunchy, and also very funny. Some of the humor is obvious; some of it more subtle. Some of it is so wry that it’s easy to miss it: all of García Madero’s first journal entries are cringe-worthy in their earnestness, as he discovers writing poetry and also sex, meticulously cataloging how many orgasms that his partner has during sex, then calculating the rate of orgasms per hour and wondering, “Are we in a rut already?” Similarly, he catalogs his poetry, and you end up wondering whether he’s ever really going to figure it out. Some of the other moments just draw a laugh-aloud:

You can woo a girl with a poem, but you can’t hold onto her with a poem. Not even with a poetry movement.

Oh, that ridiculous humor– when Belano and Lima begin conducting “purges” of the visceral realist movement, where many of those purged have no idea they’ve even been expelled from the group, I had to pause to laugh again. So absurd in their pronouncements that one can’t help but giggle.

Woven throughout various’ characters’ searches, quests, and relationships (broken or otherwise–nothing ever lasts long in the tumultuous world that Bolaño’s characters inhabit) are Bolaño’s musings on literature and poetry especially. One character, in an insane asylum, muses:

There are books for when you’re bored. Plenty of them. There are books for when you’re calm. The best kind, in my opinion. There are also books for when you’re sad. And there are books for when you’re happy. There are books for when you’re thirsty for knowledge. And there are books for when you’re desperate…

Also as a last note before closing, I wish I had more knowledge of the Mexican poetry scene in the ’70s; you can get by on without any knowledge of it, of course, but the fun of being able to pick out the in-jokes must have been pretty awesome for those in the know.

So, The Savage Detectives comes highly recommended. I’m sure that other reviewers have thought about this book far more eloquently than I. It may be a bit of a time investment, because although it’s only around 700 pages, there is a LOT shoved into that amount, but it’s totally, totally worth it. This is one of those books that switches homes with me wherever I go.

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Roberto Bolaño — Nazi Literature in the Americas

Bolaño week continues at A Study of Reading Habits, with the fantastic Nazi Literature in the Americas. This is both Bolaño’s oddest and most Borges-ian book, an encyclopaedia of fictional right-wing Spanish-speaking authors of the Americas. It can be read in order, or one can skip around reading entries at random. Though it has the structure of Borges, with detailed descriptions of the works and lives of the various authors, all told with the same bland, yet savagely satirical tone. It’s really quite an accomplishment; as always, the indictment is not always solely focused on the monstrous characters that traipse along Bolaño’s pages, but on the literature and society of the period as well–and the period ranges from the early 1900s into our future–one of the authors doesn’t die until 2021.

The book is separated into sections by the authors’ characteristics. For example, there is one section devoted to the Mendiluce family, a sort of precursor to the rest of what is to come; another section is devoted to several horrific works of nightmareish science fiction. Taken as a whole, sometimes it’s hard to absorb. The sad, hopeless, occasionally tragic lives of these literary figures come in waves, along with the ridiculous novels, poetry, and criticism they’ve written, slightly overwhelming.

One of the reviews of Nazi Literature in the Americas that I read faulted Bolaño for not writing down any of the literature that his subjects supposedly produced. Really, though, the lack of any concrete examples is a strength of the book; you have an idea of what it’s like, but it’s all up to the imagination. Besides, some of the work is too horrendous to really want to see; it’s enough to know that, in this fictional universe, it existed. I don’t think I need to read anything contributed to a magazine entitled The Fourth Reich in Argentina. It’s enough to know that these flawed characters created it, enough to know of their madnesses, their foibles, their illnesses, all related in that calm, almost clinical term, interspersed with strangely poetic drops of phrase. For example:

Conversations among indistinct characters and chaotic descriptions of an endless welter of rivers and seas.

Or even:

She remained lucid (or “furious,” as she liked to say) until the end.

And:

Death found him composing the posthumous works of his heteronyms.

Yes, the influence of Borges is clearly felt in these passages, especially in the kinds of imaginary labyrinths that Bolaño creates from his fictional authors. Nazi Literature in the Americas is not a pleasant book, but it is a fascinating book, one that is possible to dip one’s toes into for a little bit at a time, or to plow through it in an uninterrupted read. Pretty damn impressive.

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Roberto Bolaño — Last Evenings on Earth

I’m not generally a huge fan of short stories, for some reason–they’re harder to do properly; with so little space it seems as though authors sometimes have trouble saying everything that needs to be said. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And ugh, again with the gushing. Bolaño makes it work. The short stories contained within Last Evenings on Earth are thematically linked: most are about artists, most on some kind of failed quest. As with many of his other works, characters that appear there occasionally crop up; for example The Savage Detectives’ Arturo Belano makes several appearances. The stories have the dark humor and sense of muddling along that characterizes most of his work. As a cohesive grouping, they work very well, but each story is also entertaining on its own.

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Roberto Bolaño — By Night in Chile

This is going to start quite a bit of Bolaño reading over the next few days, as I’ve finished my library books and have gotten up to his place on the shelf. Hopefully all of the gushing won’t get tiring; I just really enjoy all of his work and admire him as a writer. Anyway, this is the first of those re-reads, and coincidentally, the first of his books to be translated into English, By Night in Chile.

The book takes the form of one long paragraph (yes, the entire book) the deathbed rant or confession of a failed priest named Urrutia. In this hallucinatory spiel, in which Urrutia descends into a kind of madness, his memories faulty and suspect, you can see, again, how Bolaño so completely inhabits the voices of his characters, at once recognizably the author, but unmistakeably these mad creations that flow from his pen.

Urrutia’s complicity in Pinochet’s regime, the scathing take-down of a man who completely escapes into art in order to avoid the horrors surrounding him, can be seen as a bit of a castigation of the author himself. The night in Chile is a nightmare-filled night, and at the end, when you emerge from Urrutia’s rant, you feel drained and unsure quite what happened, the implacable effect of that flow of words like the literary equivalent of a death gasp.

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Roberto Bolaño — The Skating Rink

The very first thing that really caught my eye in The Skating Rink was the following passage, which simply made me laugh aloud:

To tell you the truth I often think it was a mistake to enroll in law school. Why am I pushing myself through this? It’s more and more of a drag as the years go by. Which doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. I never give up. sometimes I’m slow and sometimes I’m quick—part tortoise, part Achilles—but I never give up.

Another of Bolaño’s books that is a first-read for me. It’s a strange process to get them; they’re not translated in the order of publication, but after the success of The Savage Detectives and 2666 in the English-language markets, it seems as though all of his books, no matter how minor, are in for translation, which is great… but still sad to think that it’s all posthumous, and that he died so young with so many stories still to write. It’s also a little like living his life in reverse; reading 2666, his last book, and then a steady trickle of older works. Either way, I’m always pleased when another one is translated, and The Skating Rink is no exception.

Bolaño’s preoccupation with mysteries, murders, and detectives is again on display here; one of the characters even says that in another life, he would have liked to have been a detective. The story is told from three voices, three different men living in Z, a small Catalan coastal town. Gaspar Heredia, a poet; Remo Morán, a Chilean owner of tourist businesses, and Enric Rosquelles, a heavy, awkward bureaucrat. Morán and Rosquelles are both in love with Nuria, a pretty young ice skater who used to be a part of the Spanish Olympic team. It is Rosquelles’ obsession with her that leads to the secret construction of the Palacio Benvingut, a skating rink housed inside old, abandoned mansion ruins. The story is told from those three perspectives, almost as if each are answering the questions of a detective, building the tension up in the story, gradually. Though Rosquelles’ affection for Nuria, though a little creepy, mostly seems to come from a lonely, good heart, she has affairs with a few men, including Morán… and eventually, events end in murder, though the revelation of the murderer comes as a bit of surprise at the very last minute of the story.

This book, written in his colloquial way of writing (each characters has very distinctive voices, and the effect of someone narrating events while talking to you, the reader, is really well done here) is a tightly wound spring waiting to snap. You know something terrible is going to happen; you just don’t know who, what, why. The mystery is what keeps the interest, along with the curiously strange, flawed characters, and the labyrinth of an ice skating rink at the heart of it all. Again, not in the league of The Savage Detectives or 2666 but a pretty fantastic book anyway, always a treat to read.

We all have to die a bit every now and then and usually it’s so gradual that we end up more alive than ever. Infinitely old and infinitely alive.

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Roberto Bolaño — Monsieur Pain

It is a small book, only 134 pages. Certainly not anything that would take any great amount of time, normally, but it took me two days to finish because I was busy attempting to digest it. It’s a mystery novel where you have no idea what the mystery is, let alone the solution to it, and a pastiche of surrealism or expressionism. It’s a disconcerting book but you’re never quite sure why.

Most of the characters in the book did exist in real life: the main character, the occult mesmerist Pierre Pain, the poet Vallejo; the Curies also make an appearance. However, from there, Bolaño weaves his own mysteries around the events of the novel. Pain, a middle-aged gentleman mesmerist, is shyly in love with the widow Madame Reynaud, a beautiful woman several years his junior, and he is unable to let her know his feelings. When she comes to him with a request to help her friend, the wife of Vallejo, he is unable to refuse. The poet is dying of incurable hiccups, and Reynaud and Mme. Vallejo wish Pain to use his occult abilities to cure him. Pain only sees his patient once in that nightmareish hospital before being ejected from it, then is stalked by two mysterious Spaniards, and then embarks on a series of surreal adventures while he guiltily attempts to see Vallejo again, despite having been bribed by the Spaniards not to see him. Eventually, he becomes convinced that there is some sinister plot against the Peruvian poet, but is never quite able to find out what it is.

The charm of the book is not, of course, in the plot, or in the resolution of the plot. Half of what happens makes no sense at all, it merely flows on, like a slightly nonsensical river. The charm of the novel is in the Borgesian labyrinth that Pain finds himself thrust into–mysteries on top of mysteries, stairs that go on endlessly, questions that multiply without answers as Pain attempts to absorb everything that has happened to him in such a short period of time. Bolaño’s prose is lyrical but uncomplicated; eventually, you can just give up trying to figure out what’s going on and absorb it all, instead. Definitely a precursor and not as well-structured as some of his later works (this was published in 1999 but remained untranslated until recently), but also definitely worth reading.

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