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28 April 2013

Bolaño's Birthday

Happy birthday, Roberto

Today, April 28th 2013, would have been Roberto Bolaño’s 60th birthday, and in his honor I am pouring through The Savage Detectives, the novel that thrust him into the higher echelons of contemporary literature.  Also, I’ve been doing some sleuthing, via other blogs, to find the best Bolaño sites on the internet.  But first, a quick Bolaño bio for the two people who might need it, out of the 5 or 6 who actually read this blog.

Roberto Bolaño was born on this day in Santiago, Chile, in 1953.  The dyslexic offspring of a truck driver and a teacher, Bolaño felt like an outcast and so took refuge in books.  His family moved to Mexico City in 1968, where he promptly dropped out of school and took up the life of a left-wing journalist and occasional vagabond.  He returned to Chile in 1973, where he was briefly imprisoned before being helped to escape by two of his childhood classmates.  Or so se says.  Bolaño wrote poetry and traveled in South and Central America until 1977, when he moved to Europe, settling eventually near Barcelona and working an assortment of odd jobs during the day and writing at night.  He eventually married and it was the birth of his first child, a son, that convinced him to pursue a marginally more lucrative career and write fiction, beginning in the early 1990s.  Around the same time, he was diagnosed with a fatal liver disease, and died of liver failure on July 15th, 2003.  Among his most well recieved works are 2666, The Savage Detectives, and The Insufferable Gaucho.

And now, here are, IMHO, the trinity of best Bolaño-centric sites I follow:

18 April 2013

Zambra's Ways

Whenever I hear someone speak of a “layered” novel, I am often guilty of translating that term as “convoluted” or “a gimmick.”  I’m happy to report that Alejandro Zambra’s new book, Ways of Going Home, is neither convoluted nor gimmicky.  And, even at a crisp 139 pages, written with an exactness and brevity reminiscent of poetry, it is satisfyingly “layered.”

This Chilean novel contains two narratives, broken down into four chapters.  We begin with the story of a 9 year-old boy whose crush on a teenage girl prompts him to spy on one of his neighbors for her.  The second chapter switches narratives to tell of a novelist struggling with the book he is writing and attempting to reconcile with the woman that loved him.  We learn quickly that the novel he is writing is actually the first chapter of this book, and that the story of the woman with whom he is trying to reconcile is very much like the story of the girl from his novel, just as the boy from his novel is very much like him.  The third chapter returns to the story of the “novel” he is working on, and describes the boy and girl as older and embarking on a fling, including a trip to the boy’s parents’ house.  The final chapter returns to “reality."

The ghost of the reign of Pinochet haunts the work, alluding to families broken apart, people forced to flee, bitter memories, hiding, and secrecy, but the narrative structure, the reframing of a few events - through a “novel” and a “reality” – call into question the very nature of relating any story at all.  Each event from the novelists life is recast in his novel, so that a sequence emerges and we watch as the past is reshaped, constantly revised, never dead.  Even seemingly trivial incidents offer enticing contemplation, such as a chat in the middle of the night between mother and son.  In the novelist’s life, the mother and son talk and the son convinces the mother to smoke – something she usually only does outside – in the kitchen, telling her his father will think it is him, not her.  She is persuaded.  In the novel, it is the mother who suggests smoking, much more defiant and self-controled than the ‘real’ mother.  And even within the same narrative, on the same page, constant revision and distortion of the past is happening.  After his estranged girlfriend tells him she has been with two men since they separated, he answers:

“’But I’ve been with two women,’ I told her.  The truth is it’s been only one.  I lied, maybe to even the score.”

Even the nature of the protagonist(s) is somewhat uncertain.  Inquiring about the nature of the novel on which the novelist is currently working, his estranged girlfriend asks him at one point: “Do they fall in love?  Is it a love story?” 

Beyond the rich narrative structure, the prose is beautiful, brief, and poetic.  I’ll leave you with two lines:

“My mother pretended to be scandalized.  The gesture looked beautiful on her.”


“To read is to cover one’s face.  And to write is to show it.”

15 April 2013

Infatuations complete

OK, I finished ‘The Infatuations’ and have a few things to say about it.  However, some of the people who read this blog won’t have access to the book until August, when it comes out in the US, so I’m going to talk about a few individual items so as not to spoil anything.  Let me start with a little advice to help with intertextuality. 

Brush up on Macbeth and The Three Musketeers, and if you haven’t read it, go out at once and get Balzac’s Colonel Chabert.  Don’t check it out from a library; you’re going to want to own this one.  Hesperus Press has a nice version, or you could go for the French original (I did both).  Are these books absolutely needed to appreciate Marías?  No, but then one can appreciate impressionism without any prior knowledge of art.  The prior knowledge, however, opens up the mind of the viewer and enhances the work under consideration in myriad ways.  So, if you need an excuse to go out and get a few more books or to add  few titles to that ever-growing book list, here it is.

Two passages:

But we lawyers!  We see forever the same evil feelings, never changed.  Our offices are cesspools which cannot be made clean.” - from Balzac’s ‘Colonel Chambert’ (Trans. Mine)
Though not exactly a major theme, I was intrigued by the notion brought up in the novel that the everyday crimes are far more awful to contemplate than are the horrors of war.  We can explain away the horrors of war as the work of a few madmen, but crimes like patricide, molestation, rape, theft, abuse, and a long litany of horrors pop up across time and place, indicating that there is something vicious and appalling in humanity itself.  A woman killing a legitimate heir for the favor of a love child might worse than the ordering of the firebombing of a city because the infanticide eternally recurs with countless mothers, whereas the bombing was concocted by a small gaggle of generals in a room who are strategizing to win, or at least end, a conflict.  And, by pointing this out, Marías is also touching on the basis for some of the most compelling works of literature.  Tolstoy uses war in his writing, as does Shakespeare, Dumas, Flaubert and others, but the true horrors – and delights – play themselves out in the individuals acting in ways entirely recognizable (and sometimes repellant) to us.

“...the force of habit is very strong and ends up replacing or even supplanting almost everything.  It can supplant love, for example, but not that state of being in love.” (Infatuations 261).
This is an interesting distinction, and covers two things very important in the novel.  One is that we eventually move on with things, things we once thought we would be unable to recover from, and that new people come into our lives and by the force of their being near us and wearing away the empty spot once occupied by someone else, by the sheer force of habit, they supplant the former love.  The second is that falling in love is a very different thing indeed from actually being in love.

In the end, I was right.  It was a ghost story.  It was a ghost story about being haunted by the past, being haunted by love, by the fallings in love, by infatuations, by past deeds, and it spoke eloquently of letting go of the past, of making peace with the past, of not being “an accursed fleur-de-lys on his shoulder, which betrays him and points the finger and prevents even the most ancient of crimes from disappearing” (345).  Given Spain’s history, and the history of Julian Marías, Javier’s father, this line has added weight.

Read this at all costs.  It is one of his best works, for me ranking just behind YFT and A Heart So White.  A wonderful book!

A new Bolaño story in the New Yorker

A little treat:  The New Yorker has published a new Roberto Bolaño story HERE.  Enjoy!

12 April 2013

Barcelona's Bolaño

Barcelona puts on a Roberto Bolaño exhibit.  HERE is the review from the New Statesman.

11 April 2013

Child's play

Here children re-enact a moment from the Spanish Civil War.  Thoughts?

(Thanks to Kristin for the image)

06 April 2013

Interview of obsession.

A recent interview on obsession involving one of my obsessions, Javier Marías.  The other interviewees were something of a chore to get through.  Follow the link HERE

04 April 2013

We'll see the movies

Roger Ebert 1942 - 2013

You'll be missed

halfway through JM


Halfway through The Infatuations (life always slows reading down), and these main thoughts are beginning to dominate. 

1.)   For the dead, the promises of the living made while the dead were alive are what matter, not the fulfillment of those promises.  What do the dead know of the world they have left behind?
2.)   A person’s existence can be reduced to its final act, if that act is absurd enough.  This was touched on in YFT as the Jayne Mansfield phenomenon.
3.)   Chance is not something that always exists, but is often nothing more than our failure to observe.  When we observe properly, we see things as inevitable. 
4.)   Those whom we still adore, and who are taken from us, are taken “a day too early,” and those we have come to despise or with whom we have become bored are taken “a day too late.”
5.)   This happens even though we have thought and proclaimed that it never could:

Now, back to it.

01 April 2013

Beginning 'The Infatuations'

What’s it all about?  In short: the finality of death.

Beginning with the type of verbal ambiguity I’ve come to expect and love from his work, Javier Marías begins his new novel, The Infatuations, with this line: “The last time I saw Miguel Desvern or Deverne was also the last time his wife, Luisa, saw him...”  And so, we already have some confusion over who this Miguel is, and within the same sentence we have the stock woman’s name - “Luisa” - that readers of Marías will come to recognize at once.  Uncertainty and ambiguity are sure to ensue, and in fact they do in myriad ways.  Digressive paths lead to thoughts about what a murdered man (Miguel) might have thought as he was being stabbed, what people think when they have lost someone dear, or even lost an acquaintance or even someone unimportant in their life.  There’s even a digression on the tedious nature of writers to their publishing houses, including a complaint against a writer who still turns in his work off of a typewriter and a writer who is constantly in contention for the Nobel prize, or at least is said to be by his publicists (both self-deprecating nods to Marías himself).  Above all, there is the uncertainty of knowledge of any kind.  Even though there are explorations of thoughts on grief, love, and life, and even though the characters are surprisingly able to fathom the thoughts and motivations of others (as most Marías characters tend to do), everything is covered in uncertainty.

Except death.  Not only is death a finality, it is explored and defined in the first few pages of this novel in a manor that illustrates the terrible and unalterable state of death in the world of the living.  Our dead dear ones are gone and “we can no longer count on them, not even for the most petty thing.”  Again and again, this idea comes back.  It is a striking certainty in the uncertain world of Javier Marias.  It is so certain that I doubt it will be all that certain by the end of the novel.  Marías loves the idea of the ghost, and beyond the surface of murder mystery this is billed to be, I sense a ghost story of the most honest kind: one where people are haunted by the memories of the dead, which are far more powerful than the actual presences of the dead.  As to certainty, our narrator says it best: “being certain of anything goes against our nature.”