April 2011

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Bolaño in “Popsterity”

Maristain: What does the word “posthumous” mean to you?

Bolaño: Sounds like a Roman gladiator.

Two kinds of readers: hedgehogs and foxes. While the hedgehog devours whole oeuvres, wrestles time periods, and ingests genres, the fox stalks a dynamo of unassociated pages, leaving the half-eaten carcasses of books spine-up like papyral banana peels.

I am of the vulpine persuasion, perhaps too much for much for own good. Next to my bed I’ve got books drowning face-down in my carpet -- The Next American Essay, A Drifting Life, Ugh Ugh Ocean, Coleridge: Early Visions, Historia de poesía de siglo XX, La frontera más distante. And so I decided to write about a book I already read, then re-read, then re-read again, once a sentinel on my bookshelf like a dictionary, my favorite pages dog-eared somewhere in my head, Between Parentheses by Roberto Bolaño.

No, it's not just me. Bolaño is vindictive in these essays, embittered, polemic. He gleefully knocks down the Isabela Allendes of the world, with the cool authority of, well, his master -- Jorge Luis Borges (who famously said “The problem with bad writers is that they don´t realize they're bad”). Some of the essays, like “Literature + Sickness” show touches of Joan Didion and the nonfiction nonchalance of, say, Susan Sontag (perhaps Bolaño's first gringo fan). Revering Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, separating Borges from the rest of his contemporaries, listing literary suicides, Bolaño knows everything. He´s been there. He was the man and he read -- a little of everything.

Alcibiades, Victor Hugo, D. H. Lawrence, Cormac McCarthy, Longinus, Edgar Lee Master, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez , Phillip K. Dick, Luis Cernuda, Stefan Zweig, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Juan Rulfo, Manuel Puig, Vargas Llosa, José  Donoso, Augusto Monterroso, Borges, Borges (and he tells us read Borges again), Macedonio Fernández, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Pére Gimferrer, Rafael Alberti, Luis García Montero (I think), César Vallejo, Nicanor Parra, Enrique Lihn, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Javier Cercas, Enrique Vila-Matas, Fernando Vallejo, Gonzalo Rojas; not to mention the obscure figures like Pezoa Véliz and Gabriel Ferrater.

Bolaño is like the Library of Babylon. He said in an interview in 2002, “The truth is, reading is always more important than writing.” In these essays we are behind the scenes, so to speak, and yet the gravity of his fiction writing weighs on nearly every word. And yet, at the same time, despite our access to what could be his backstage, it doesn't feel that way. His other “I” hardly reveals itself, saying all types of ambiguously goading things. There are still the familiar style tics, like his persistence on uncertainty (or perhaps that´s his integrity). The reader will also recognize Bolaño’s ironization of almost everything. His is a strange but sincere sort of sardonism.

Anglophone readers will be interested in Bolaño's gusto in North American authors, a review of Blood Meridian, for example. Or his discourse after having won the Romulo Gallegos -- an esteemed award for novelists in Spanish -- when he says that he used to think he could read English. Funny, no one ever says that or admits that. It's not false modesty either. No, this brutal, even masochistic honesty seeps through these essays. He also makes proclamations -- again like his master Borges -- that Mark Twain and Herman Melville are the greatest America authors of the 19th century (in a few reviews, critics in the U.S. cited the master of Moby-Dick as Bolaño's stylistic father, as if Melville had invented barroco -- please see Alejo Carpentier with questions).

Come to think of it, Bolaño is a hedgehog. When he reads Alcibiades, the Greek poet-warrior, he does so through the eyes of Mexican intellectual Alfonso Reyes. His Verlaine is read through the filter of his great influence in Latin American literature. After all, Bolaño is the literary equivalent of the first to go to college after generations of wily autodidact parents. What I mean is, when he mentions Victor Hugo in passing -- to say that one doesn't need to re-read Les Miserables after watching the film -- he does so because Victor Hugo was one of the greatest literary influences on hispanophone literature ever. What on the surface is eclecticism is simply another tradition with its own reference points in disguise.

And this tradition could be the closest to World Literature you can get despite being considered -- until recently -- a periphery. Bolaño's wide open reading comes from a tradition of wide open readers, perhaps the world's greatest. The Latin American intellectuals of the beginning of the 20th century used literature as a symbol of their prestige. Many had subscriptions to several magazines in French, German and English. Pedro Herníquez Ureña, a savage detective himself, would be Borges's teacher, and Borges would be a teacher for the generations after him. The forefathers, however, suffered in great part because they all had the same answer to following question: When you think of world literature, where is your center? This book of essays may change that. For example, Bolaño reverses the inaccurate label Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez got when they called him the Cuban Charles Bukowski. He even says given the fact that Gutiérrez is Cuban it could have been meant with “disdain.” The reader is left to infer what they like from that.

Garett Caples’ recent pamphlet Quintessence of the Minor -- one of the few works I've actually finished recently, partly because it´s like 80 pages -- argues that minor poets are often the most interesting. Perhaps what makes Between Parentheses most interesting is that these are major writers being discussed by someone who had still not been reached “popsterity” -- to use the Argentine author Rodrigo Fresán’s phrase -- a minor figure to some extent. And really, why is José Camilo Cela (who Bolaño derides in a few places) an important writer in the twentieth century? Does it even matter? It reminds me of those pointless talks of who is the best band of the 1990s, and when you name a dozen fantastic absolutely unsuccessful bands, that sort of calls into doubt the idea of a “best of” list. We know there are hundreds, if not thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of great writers. When can we ever read them all?

While the center writes the story of important literary scenes -- the mega-narrative -- the periphery follows, mostly invisible to its center. Or maybe a double mirror is a better metaphor: those on the other side can see you but you can’t see them. Here we find Bolaño who is able to read “important” American writers, while most of his favorites, the ones you would presumably want to read, you won't be able to find. While he can cite anything in Susan Sontag’s nonfiction, most will struggle to get a hold of Pére Gimferrer’s poetry in translation (from Catalonian).

But despite the allusions and necessary footnotes and second-guessing the reader might have to do to read these literary essays, they have huge universal appeal in that each of these attempts to answer the question, Why bother? Why literature? Why not not?

I avoid writing about Bolaño when I can. Not because he isn’t cool anymore or maybe he is, but because someone else will write about him and they will claim some sort of special relationship with him, and I, like a jealous boyfriend, will disagree. How could they? Why do these essays feel so personal? When I look at the copy of this book I smell black tobacco -- back when everyone still smoked there -- and that reminds me of waking up and drinking, and the possibility of chance insight when surrounded by drunken erudition. It reminds me of looking for answers, it reminds me of being lost and it reminds me that no one will really care.

If Bolaño hates one thing -- and in fact he hates many things -- it´s artifice. Bolaño´s honesty, one that almost enters the confessional -- traits perhaps he snagged after years of writing poetry -- and the authentically banal. For example, in “Literature + Sickness = Sickness,” a documentary about an artist he happens to catch on TV -- the sort of thing that always seems to be on in Spain late at night -- the sort of banal everyday thing we all do, is juxtaposed with terminal illness, an anecdote from the like of Kafka, and Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking. Everything fits and never seems forced. Sean Penn is to Kafka is to the artist is to the gay man in a Mexican prison. In short, they are all fucked and therefore want to fuck.

Among my favorite literary tirades in the book -- much like the conversation about the gayest poet in the Spanish language in The Savage Detectives -- is that of the most morbid suicide, already taking into account the long tradition of homosexual suicide in Latin America (although unfortunately it continues to happen everywhere), and wryly describes the way in which each of the poets gruesomely ended their life faced with appalling repression. This is Bolaño unfettered by narrative tropes like writing a novel in first person entries, or describing thousands of murders of woman -- honestly, the moments when he seems most stale. Bolaño most succeeds when he -- as he recognizes Nicanor Parra doing -- defies his own manifestos.

Chris Andrews told the New Yorker blog (another thing I read, and that never ends) that Between Parentheses would introduce Anglophone readers to a slew of new writers, like Argentine Andres Neúman, (who by the way has just come out with another travel book/novel that has gotten great reviews). Who knows? Maybe this is the beginning of a shift. Maybe the dream of the original savage detectives, by which I mean the vagabond bohemian Modernists like Rubén Darío, Porforio Jacob -- who were never to be recognized by the writers they so admired.

If there were an addendum to this volume (I haven’t seen the New Directions edition, so maybe there is), it should be Mexican author Jorge Volpi’s essay about his late friend. He describes watching Bolaño at one of his last lectures, when he had already established a cult following of youth mostly. Bolaño starts talking about the craziest shit you can imagine and all the kids are sitting there and nodding their heads like it’s gospel. Volpi uses this as a sort of metaphor for Bolaño’s work. There are many books that in his opinion -- and I agree -- don't make the cut. For example, his very first novel written with A. G. Porta, also on my bookshelf -- although, unlike Between Parentheses, is ready for sale to the next highest bidder -- or Monsieur Pain, that I agree is okay, but mostly because it’s about Cesar Vallejo. (I should also say that Volpi recently announced the end of Latin American literature as we know it after Bolaño; needless to say, not everyone agrees.)

Multiculturalism proposes that all cultures are equal. No culture is intrinsically better than any other culture and this includes literature. However, the Spanish language is not like other languages, nor is its literature. Literature has played a major role in the Latin America and Iberia's journey in modernity. These are the republics of letters. What I mean is that there aren't a few top authors there are hundreds of public intellectuals that write literature (who actually reads them is another story). Open any daily from El Pais in Spain, to El Universal in Mexico, to El Clarin in Argentina and you will see the writers chiming in on their favorite themes, writing about artists (OMG! In a newspaper!), discussing politics. Imagine Paul Krugman replaced by Dave Eggers, or Edward P. Jones instead of Stanley Crouch. Bolaño may say that all writers are in exile, but it seems that for his country, that he called the Spanish language, romanticism for literature, as Borges writes, “Imagining a paradise / in the form of a library.”

Let´s be clear that English has had no Roberto Bolaño -- in the sense of someone who aspires to write in all Englishes, has read each of those countries' literary traditions, and after having done so, made a profound contribution to them. Perhaps the closest we get is Peter Carey, or not.

Despite all the waves being made above the Río Bravo, this Bolaño fever has gone pretty ignored -- at least on the surface -- down here. Bolaño has become just another way for gringos to be lame, like wearing socks to the beach. And that’s a good thing. There's been enough literary genuflection on the part of this other land down under. As the late cultural critique Carlo Monsiváis has noted: for the last hundred years, Latin American writers have hoped to eclipse modernity and be admitted into the club of Weltliteratur; now that it is happening, it’s good to know no one here cares. I don’t either. I’ve already got plenty of shit to read.