A Little Lumpen Novelita

I reviewed A Little Lumpen Novelita for the Dublin Review of Books and also considered its role in Bolaño’s fictional universe.

http://www.drb.ie/essays/a-leap-into-darkness

The myth of Bolaño then is that it was supposedly created by book marketers and the media. The myth is that there is only one way for an American (or English-speaking) idea of a “Latin American author” to exist. If an author’s story or works do not neatly fit into that mould, then the reality will be twisted into the desired shape. But that logic creates a counter-myth if the myth itself is easier to comprehend than the reality at stake.

Part of what makes Bolaño so appealing and so confounding is his wide interest in various subjects and themes. His work operates on a hyper-realistic model of everything-all-at-once. A Little Lumpen Novelita is unique in his fictional universe because it is set in Rome (and features a Libyan character), capsule but throughout his many novels and stories he explores the history and literature of dozens of countries, the politics of Europe, Mexico, Central and South America. His books examine religion and Catholicism, the nature of death, drama, academia, games, World War II, the lives of the poets, drinking, sex, the police, oceans, disappearances, murder, sports and film, just to name a few. His literary styles and techniques are equally varied diverse. And yet he manages to return to several key motifs and characters throughout his four decades of writing.

 

The Third Reich: Udo the German

Why is Bolaño so obsessed with Germany? Maybe this is naive (and US-centric) question, but throughout his work, Bolaño displays an interest in Europe as the center of culture, with the U.S. playing much more of a supportive role. We see this in 2666 wherein the three critics are European and travel to Mexico. Oscar Fate represents the only significant American character—and he is an outsider. In The Third Reich, Udo Berger plays the board game “The Third Reich” and as a model of World War II, the focus is not on the Pacific Theater or the US, but on Europe. One of the benefits of reading a lot of contemporary Latin American fiction is gaining a different perspective on the world—especially one that does not countenance the United States of America very much. Bolaño and Enrique Vila-Matas (among others) share a fascination with Paris. Bolaño moved from Chile to Mexico to the Costa Brava, Spain—the setting of The Third Reich.

The Third Reich is the story of a man who goes to Spain on vacation and can’t bring himself to leave. This is sort of what happened to Roberto Bolaño. So, it’s easy to see how the novel is a love letter to Spain, La Costa Brava, the Mediterranean Coast, and Blanes. Even though this is a novel about the interplay of games, I would argue that one of Bolaño’s main interests here is geography. Geography and history.

“History in general is a bloody thing, you have to admit.”—Udo

The game (The Third Reich) appears to be a more intricate and detailed version of Risk or Axis & Allies: Europe. But as a realistic reflection of World War II, a better parallel would probably be the game Europa. [Note the large gameboard, complex documentation, rulebooks, calculators, tweezers (!!), and hex units:]

EUROPA

http://www.zoi.wordherders.net/?page_id=22

At first glance, Bolaño doesn’t seem too interested in making the details of the game known. It’s not until late in the book that he reveals how the game is actually played (with dice) and at first, it seems more like a chess game (which requires no apparatus beyond the game pieces). But as the game between Udo and El Quemado evolves, we see more details emerge relating to how the game is actually played. Also, Bolaño initially ties up the “game” sections of the novel into standalone set pieces (which can be skipped over cleanly), but once the balance of power begins to shift from Udo to El Quemado (and Ingeborg and Hanna leave, and Udo is alone), the “game” sections become more intertwined into the main narrative.

Historically, obviously, Germany is a losing position. Yet, Udo is a national champion gamesman, from Germany, playing the German side. Until he actually loses to El Quemado, he remains convinced that he can always prevail with the German side. But he believes this is more of a strategic declaration than sympathy for the Nazis. Udo even says “I’m a kind of anti-Nazi.” It’s El Quemado whose ambiguous heritage represents the Other, the victim and enemy of the Germans. Udo is trying to re-write history in the name of geographical strategy.

Udo finds himself in a real-world game. The other game pieces are trapping him on multiple fronts and, like his match with El Quemado, the balance of power begins to shift and he finds his control over the situation slipping away. “The Wolf” and “The Lamb” seem less people than game pieces. When they corner the maid, Clarita, in Udo’s hotel room, Udo notes “she took possession of a strategic spot next to the bed.” Udo sees everything as a game, a contest, the people merely players.

Like many other novels, and many other games, there is a lot of setup without a lot of action. Like a lot of wars and a lot of summer vacations, there is monotony, a hurry-up-and-wait mentality. The allure of The Third Reich is all about setting and geography and atmosphere and scenarios. And yet, the characters, the world Bolaño creates here, comes to life as much as The Savage Detectives or 2666.

 

Week 15: Dreams

by Daryl L.L. Houston

851: Popescu listens to Romanian intellectuals who are asking him for loans as if he’s asleep or in a dream.

864: As a child, ailment after Reiter goes off to war, Lotte hears him in her dreams, stepping like a giant homeward. Other times she dreams that she too is at war and finds Reiter’s body on the battlefield, riddled with bullets. Lotte’s father asks what the faces of the dead soldiers in her dreams look like, whether they look as if they’re asleep. He says that the faces of dead soldiers are always dirty. Reiter’s face is always clean in Lotte’s dreams, “as if despite being dead he was still capable of many things.”

868: Lotte dreams that Reiter appears outside her bedroom window and asks why their mother is going to get married. He then tells Lotte (in the dream) never to marry.

869: In the country, Lotte dreams about dead animals. Once she dreams of seeing a wild boar in its death throes in the bushes, surrounded by hundreds of dead baby boars. (Her strange response to this dream is to consider becoming a vegetarian but to take up smoking instead.)

870: Lotte’s nightmares have stopped. In fact, she never dreams at all. She suggests that she must dream like everybody else but is lucky enough not to remember the dreams when she wakes up. I think this is a close echo to Kessler’s reported experience of dreams.

875: Lotte dreams that her expatriate son has married and lives a normal domestic American life, but his wife has no face. Lotte sees her only from behind. When she dreams of him with children, she knows the children are around but never actually sees them. There are echoes of two prior dreams here, the first of Norton’s dream in which she sees the back of a head in the mirror and one in which Pelletier is living a domestic life with Norton and is aware that she’s around but never actually seems to see her. Also on this page, Lotte dreams that Klaus’s wife is cooking Indian food. She (Lotte) is sitting at a table with a pitcher, an empty plate, a plastic cup, and a fork, but she doesn’t know who let her in, and it troubles her. This becomes for her what she and her husband call “the Klaus nightmare” for its recurrence.

878: Lotte dreams (her first in a long time) of Archimboldi walking in the desert, wearing shorts and a straw hat. The landscape is all sand. She shouts to him to stop, but he keeps moving farther away “as if he wanted to lose himself forever in that unfathomable and hostile land.” She tells him it’s unfathomable and hostile, realizing that in the dream she’s a small girl again, and he whispers in her ear (sort of a god voice from afar, I guess) that it’s “boring, boring, boring.” Cue here a look back at the book’s epigraph.

880: Lotte is in Mexico and falls asleep with the TV on. She dreams of Archimboldi sitting on a huge volcanic slab, dressed in rags and holding an ax, looking sad. In the dream, she thinks that maybe her brother is dead, but her son is alive. She tells Klaus that she’s been dreaming about her brother, and he confesses that he’s been having bad dreams about his uncle too. When she admits that her dreams aren’t good ones, his reaction is to smile, and they move on to talk about other things.

882: Lotte dreams (back in Germany now) that a warm, loving voice whispers in her ear the possibility that her son really was the Santa Teresa killer. (Recall the dream a few pages back in which her brother is whispering in her ear from the desert.)

883: Klaus tells Lotte (having called from an illicit cell phone) that he had had a dream. She asks what it’s about, and he asks whether or not she knows what it was about. She doesn’t, and he says he’d better not tell her and hangs up.

884: Klaus’s trial passes as if in a dream.

889: Lotte is trying to reach Mrs. Bubis while in Mexico. She goes to sleep with the TV on but muted and dreams of a cemetery and the tomb of a giant. The gravestone splits and the giant begins to emerge. The head is crowned with long blond hair. She wakes up.

890: Archimboldi visits Lotte in Germany, and she tells him of Klaus’s dream that he’ll be rescued from prison by a giant. She tells Archimboldi that he doesn’t look like a giant anymore, and he says he never was one.

Week 14: Dreams

by Daryl L.L. Houston

779: The old fortune-teller from whom Reiter gets his distinctive black coat tells Reiter that the coat belonged to a spy. Sometimes, viagra 100mg she declines to say or hear anything about the spy, viagra buy though, chalking the story of the spy up to dreams, fantasies, foolish visions.

780: The doctor who admires Reiter’s coat and goes on and on about its origins even as Reiter sits there heartbroken at the bad news he’s just been given about Ingeborg’s prospects for a long life finally comes around with something of a reasonable beside manner after what the narrator descries as his dream of leather coats.

782: While Ingeborg’s mother and sister’s are visiting, Reiter and Ingeborg go through something of a dry spell in the cramped boudoir. At last they break the drought, and as Reiter sees five pairs of what he calls cat eyes floating in the dark paying attention to their sex, he takes the eye count to be a sign that he’s dreaming, since there should be only three pairs of eyes (one per sister plus one for the mother).

804: Mr. Bubis’s loyal employee, whom it seems may have been something of a Moneypenny, is described as having had her share of nightmarish times.

Week 13: Dreams

by Daryl L.L. Houston

706: Reiter has (unspecific) nightmares his first night in the village in which he discovers Ansky’s house.

717: Ansky dreams (in 1929) of the white coat of a doctor his lover, hospital Mary Zamyatina, link is also sleeping with. She describes the doctor “as if he were Jesus Christ reincarnated, medicine minus the beard and plus a white coat” (the white coat in question).

722: Ivanov, having become successful, sometimes pinches himself to make sure he’s not dreaming.

729: As Reiter reads Ansky’s papers, he reads “Names, names, names. Those who made revolution and those who were devoured by that same revolution, though it wasn’t the same but another, not the dream but the nightmare that hides behind the eyelids of the dream.”

736: Ansky dreams that they sky is a great ocean of blood.

737: Reiter dreams of Ansky’s mother being herded off with the other Jews toward death, and he dreams of Ansky walking across country at night, nameless and felled by gunfire. Reiter thinks he was the one who shot Ansky and has nightmares that wake him up and make him weep.

738: Reiter dreams he’s back in Crimea. He shoots his gun amid the smoke of war, then keeps walking and comes upon a dead Red Army soldier. He turns the soldier over to see the face, which he fears (with great dread) is Ansky’s. It turns out to be his own face, which relieves him. When he wakes from the dream, his lost voice has returned, and the first thing he says is “Thank God, it wasn’t me.”

741: Thinking of semblances and of his sister, Reiter considers Ansky, falls asleep, and (explicitly) doesn’t dream.

743: Reiter dreams that he escapes from the Russians into the Dnieper river, where he swims and floats for days and over some distance, into the Black Sea. When he finally emerges from the water to safety, he discovers that Ansky’s notebook has been ruined by the water. Upon waking up, he returns the notebook to its chimney hiding place.

760: Sammer, having been ordered to dispose of the Greek Jews he’s been sent and having begun creating the sweeping and gardening brigades, has a big sense of boredom over the next couple of days. He plays dice and listens with half-comprehension to peasant jokes. The days of inactivity pass, dreamlike.

763: Sammer is riding around in the back seat of his car after the purge has begun, and he falls asleep and dreams that his dead son is shouting “onward! ever onward!”

764: The drunken, soccer-playing boys whom Sammer has enlisted to dig a huge grave can be found huddled in the town square asleep, dreaming (he imagines) about liquor-fueled soccer matches.

766: Contemplating how many Jews he has left to exterminate, Sammer describes the weight of the task, suggesting that fifteen or even thirty wasn’t an insurmountable number, but once you reach fifty, “the stomach turns and the head spins and the restless nights and nightmares begin.”

Week 12: Dreams

by Daryl L.L. Houston

641: Hans Reiter often dreams of Leathesia difformis, a seaweed plant that grows on rocks and other seaweed and that he has never seen in person.

652: Hans Reiter’s father, speaking with a member of the visiting National Socialist party committee who has come to Reiter’s house to visit, becomes somewhat confrontational but eventually cowers and wonders if he ought not to throw himself at the feet of the man, whom he describes as a dreamer. Afterward, he “shook his head at each word the other uttered, as if he wasn’t convinced (in fact he was terrified), as if it were difficult for him to understand the full scope of the other mans’ dreams.”

675: A soldier who has gotten lost in the tunnels of the Maginot line on the western front dreams of God in human form. In the dream, he’s sleeping under an apple tree and is awakened by a country squire. The squire turns out to be god, and he offers to get the soldier out of the tunnels in exchange for the purchase of the soldier’s soul. The soldier asks to go back to sleep, and God says that he already owns the soldier’s soul, so the soldier ought not to be a fool and ought to take the deal. The soldier agrees and signs in blood a contract written in some other language (not German or English or French). Then God leaves and the soldier decides to say a prayer. He notices that the apples on the tree have dried up like raisins or prunes, and he hears a metallic noise. He sees long plumes of smoke in the valley, and suddenly a hand grabs him by the shoulder; it turns out to be a real rescuing hand in real life waking him up.

680: Reiter is stationed at Castle Dracula in Romania and dreams about the inside of the crypt. The dignitaries and artsy folk who are visiting the castle (outside the dream) are (inside the dream) in an amphitheater and are laughing, except for one officer, who weeps and looks for a place to hide. One of the men reads a poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach (author of the Parzifal poem that Reiter earlier reads and delights in) and then spits blood. The men have agreed to eat the Baroness Von Zumpe, who was one of the visitors and also happened to be the niece of the owner of the estate Reiter worked on when younger.

684: General Entrescu pontificates about art and compares cubism (to its detriment) to “the dream of a single illiterate Romanian peasant.” Baroness Von Zumpe asks what he figures the peasants of Romania dream and how he knows.

692: Reiter and companions, having navigated the secret passages in the walls of Castle Dracula to witness Baroness Von Zump and General Entrescu having what seems to be porn-quality sex (complete with porn-quality penis), begin to masturbate. Comrade Wilke “seemed to be dreaming, or, more accurately, momentarily breaking through the massive black walls that separate waking from sleep.”

694: Reiter returns to his home and to the baroness’s uncle’s estate while on leave. He asks the gamekeeper at the estate about the baroness, and he shrugs. The shrugs, we’re told, “could mean he didn’t know or that reality was increasingly vague, more like a dream.”

Week 11: Dreams

by Daryl L.L. Houston

571: This isn’t a dream, page but as Florita tells Sergio about her visions of the killings, adiposity she explains that an ordinary murder (in her visions) ends with an image of liquid, as of a lake or a well being disturbed, while the serial killings have a heavy image, metallic, mineral, or smoldering. These images resonate with some of the critics’ dreams. The killers in her visions speak a mixed-up (made-up) language, another thread that ran through the critics’ dreams.

581: We learn that Kessler almost never dreams about killers and seldom remembers his dreams. He’s described as lucky for forgetting them. His wife dreams frequently, usually about dead relatives or friends they haven’t seen in a long time.

594: Kessler dreams of a man pacing around a crater and figures the man is probably himself before deciding it’s not important and losing the image.

605: Congresswoman Azucena Esquivel Plata, telling the story of her friend Kelly Parker, states a belief that when her friend began going by Kelly Parker rather than by Luz Maria Rivera, “she somehow took the first step into invisibility, into a nightmare.”

621: While in Santa Teresa investigating the case of her missing friend, the congresswoman finds herself pacing her hotel room, and she notices two mirrors — one at the end of the room and the other by the door — that didn’t reflect one another unless you stood in a certain place. Yet she couldn’t see herself in the mirrors from that place. She experimented wit positions as she tried to go to sleep. While this is not put forward as a dream, it bears an eerie resemblance to Norton’s dream about the mirrors in her hotel room. It’s almost as if Norton was dreaming the congresswoman’s experience somehow. I wonder if their hotel room was the same one, and I wonder how the timing of the two occurrences works out.

624: Reporter Mary Sue Bravo dreams that a woman was sitting at the foot of her bed. She could feel the weight of the body on her mattress but could feel nothing when she stretched her legs out to touch the body.

626: The following passage from the point of view of the congresswoman isn’t really described as a dream or a vision, but it must be one or the other, or something like it: “Those voices I heard (voices, never faces or shapes) came from the desert. In the desert, I roamed with a knife in my hand. My face was reflected in the blade. I had white hair and sunken cheeks covered with tiny scars. Each scar was a little story that I tried and failed to recall.”

Week 10: Dreams

by Daryl L.L. Houston

521: Thinking of the Caciques, capsule Haas considers them lost in a dream.

534: Elvira Campos dreams of selling her properties and belongings to get enough money to fly to Paris and having plastic surgery to turn back the clock to her early 40s. When the bandages are removed, approved they fall to the floor and slither not like snakes “but rather like the guardian angels of snakes.” She approves of the surgery’s results, price and with a nod, “she rediscovers the sovereignty of childhood, the love of her father and mother” and steps back out into Paris.

542: The cameraman for the original snuff film thinks he’s lost in a nightmare as they make their way to the ranch at which they’ll film.

554: It’s not presented as a dream, but as Lalo Cura thinks about his lineage, he’s “half asleep, drifting between sleep and wakefulness,” and he hears or remembers voices telling him the stories of his family tree.

561: Sergio Gonzales visits Michele Sanchez’s mother, and she tells him of a dream in which her dead daughter — not her youngest in fact — was the youngest of her daughters, a baby of two or three years who was there and then suddenly not there.

562: Haas contemplates, “as if in a dream,” some of the Bisontes moving around in the prison yard as if grazing. Some of the inmates seemed, he thought, to move in slow motion. This resonates with some other mentions in past dreams about time being somehow slowed down or sped up.

Week 9: Dreams

by Daryl L.L. Houston

471: This one’s not a dream proper, website but it’s sure dream-like, ask and it seems to point back to his dreams of her in a domestic setting described on page 422. Juan de Dios Martinez daydreams of Elvira Campos in her apartment. Sometimes she’s naked in bed leaning toward him, and other times she’s on the terrace, surrounded by metallic, phallic telescopes. In these latter imaginings, she’s taking notes, and when he comes up behind her and looks at her notes, he sees only phone numbers.

488: Haas dreams of walking the corridors of the prison with eyes as keen as a hawk’s. The corridors are described as a labyrinth of snores and nightmares. He’s aware of what’s happening in each cell. Suddenly he finds himself at the edge of an abyss. He lifts his arms and tries to say something to a legion of tiny Klaus Haases, but he has the impression that someone has sewn his lips shut. He feels something alien in his mouth and rips out the threads to find that the foreign body was a penis (not his own). Then (in the dream) he curls up and falls asleep on the edge of the abyss. More dreams usually followed.

490: Not a dream here, but mention of one, as Haas tries to describe how his fellow prisoners know he’s innocent: “It’s like a noise you hear in a dream. The dream, like everything dreamed in enclosed spaces, is contagious. Suddenly someone dreams it and after a while half the prisoners dream it. But the noise you hear isn’t part of the dream, it’s real. The noise belongs to a separate order of things. Do you understand? First someone and then everyone hears a noise in a dream, but the noise is from real life, not the dream.”

506: Upon receiving a call from Reinaldo, Florita claims to have been dreaming about him. In the dream, she sees a meteor shower and a boy who looks like Reinaldo watching the falling stars. I’m reminded here of Seaman’s assertion on 252 that stars are semblances in the way that dreams are semblances. Given certain other parallels between Seaman and Florita, the echo can hardly be accidental.

Week 8: Dreams

by Daryl L.L. Houston

422: In spite of a keen awareness of their differences, order Juan de Dios Martinez has peaceful, sildenafil happy dreams of Elvira Campos and himself living together in a rustic cabin in the mountains. They slept on a bearskin with a wolfskin covering them, and she sometimes laughed and ran into the woods. I’m reminded of Pelletier’s domestic dreams of Norton, in which she too is on the periphery. At least in Martinez’s dream, he has interactions with Campos that precede her receding to the margins.

434: Here and elsewhere, La Santa has visions. They’re not strictly speaking dreams, but it seems a similar type of experience.

447: Harry Magaña dreams of a street in Huntsville pounded by a sandstorm. He ignores pleas for help rescuing some girls at a bead factory and keeps his nose in a file containing photocopied documents written in “a language not of this world.” There are several similar things among the critics’ dreams.

456: La Santa sometimes dreams she’s a country schoolteacher at a hilltop school from which she watches girls on their way to class. Beyond, peasants make fruitful agrarian use of the land. Though they’re in the distance, she can hear their words clearly, and the words are unchanging from day to day. Here I’m reminded of Espinoza’s dream of the painting in his hotel room. Then: “There were dreams in which everything fit together and other dreams in which nothing fit and the world was like a creaky coffin.”

459: La Santa equates her visions with dreams. They keep her awake. In actual dreams, she sees the crimes as if they’re an exploded television set, and she sees various horrible scenes in the shards scattered around her bedroom.

Here’s a question: Is Florita something of a narrator of this section? It is a fragmented portion of the book, many of the murders ghastly reflections or maybe refractions of others. Paired with the ventriloquist as she is in this week’s reading, perhaps we’re to take her as an adopted voice or instrument through which many of the scenes unfold. Maybe we’re seeing the scenes as she sees them in her visions. I doubt this is the intention, really, as the stories are told mostly from a pretty straightforward, detached-narrative point of view (I also happen to know what Bolaño said about who narrates the book), but it’s an interesting thing to ponder.




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