Week 4: Clueless

by Maria Bustillos

Oscar Amalfitano is a bewildered man. He’s got no idea how he even wound up in this horribly dangerous town. Young girls are getting abducted and killed here, hospital all the time, viagra and he has got the sole care of a young daughter. My own daughter is about the same age as Rosa Amalfitano, information pills and if we were living in Santa Teresa, you can bet your sweet bippy that that kid would not be just blithely waltzing around to the movies, not unless she were under armed guard. What is he thinking?!

Notice, though, how Amalfitano has consistently been at the total mercy of these women. So Lola wants to go off with some poet, Oscar peels off some cash for her. Rosa wants to go to a movie, hey okay, see you later. Part of the trouble with Amalfitano is, he’s like Hamlet, kind of. He’s stuck, largely because he has no faith in the significance of his own actions, so it’s like he just can’t move. He is outside all these games everyone else is playing; he can’t understand them. For example, he is neither macho, nor is he gay. He likes Archimboldi just fine, but his head wasn’t turned by Archimboldi as the heads of the critics were. He’s not doing any of that stuff; he’s just a human being, just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Professor Pérez’s attempt at romancing him meets with near-total bafflement. Unlike the other men we’ve seen so far (with the possible exception of Morini,) Amalfitano’s basic interface with the world is not sexual (or gender-derived, I should maybe say.) Plus he is nice. He won’t say to anybody such phrases as, the hell you will! Over my dead body! etc.

So he’s not really equipped to deal with this reality.

Amalfitano loved Lola, and he loves Rosa; is this the weakness that makes him incapable of protecting them? You love them, so you can’t say no to them?  But they’re putting themselves in such danger. (As I read this all my mom-feelings were going absolutely wild. Go after her! I’m inwardly shrieking.) I have to say, I completely part company with the author, here, if he’s trying to tell me that love weakens men, makes them incapable of protecting, as in, love means never having to prevent a crazy woman from hitchhiking out of a town full of murderers. (?)  Then scan the paper with your heart in your throat for some kind of horrible news the next day (echoing the faux-plane crash of Espinoza, remember? Another horror that failed to materialize.)

Because there are all these women getting killed in Santa Teresa. How do you deal with this? Maybe it is, in fact, impossible. You’re up against it, and you have to keep on and hope for the best. About eighteen years ago, my own city, Los Angeles, was basically going up in flames. As in, on fire. It’s hard to believe now, but in fact we really did all behave as if it were a minor inconvenience, tried to get on with our lives, and quite a lot of that meant ignoring the enormity of the smoke in the air, guys with guns on the roof, the burnt shell of what had been a shopping mall. The place I’m thinking of (on Pico, near La Brea) is a tidy supermarket now, it has got a Bank of America in front just as if nothing had happened. There’s not the smallest sign. You let the elements have their way with you, and hope for the best. At some point, though, for some people, the reality won’t let you do that.

In this way, I think the volume of Dieste is a symbol for Amalfitano himself. A rational book, a book about geometry, to serve for a rational man, the Unhappy Readymade: http://www.toutfait.com/unmaking_the_museum/Unhappy%20Readymade.html

The book, like the man, is the plaything of the elements. That’s why Amalfitano is in such a panic about the book’s fate, every time he comes home. There is horror and dread kind of circling him, inexorably, and circling the book, and maybe that is what is driving him mad. How he can be spending even one moment making these incomprehensible diagrams of philosophers when he ought to be locking his daughter in her room while he buys them a pair of plane tickets out of there is beyond me. I have not been able to make head or tail of these diagrams, at least not yet, but I hope someone else here has worked on them, and will enlighten us. It really irritates me, though, that Plato should be below Aristotle in the first diagram, when clearly Plato is always above Aristotle, always the in higher, more rarefied, more ethereal air.  I guess that is the one diagram that kind of makes sense, because Heraclitus really kind of gave birth to both Aristotle and Plato, you could say?

Now, Lola. I’ll be coming back to her but for the moment, I will say that Lola is another person who has been driven straight off her trolley by literature. She’s the flip side of the critics. Her fangirlhood has literally made her lose contact with reality completely. Just like them. More on that tomorrow.

The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Affect

by Maria Bustillos

Quite early in these proceedings, information pills Terrell Williamson wrote in a comment:

In reading the portions about Edwin Johns, stuff it occurred to me that Johns’s cutting off the hand with which he painted “for the money” is akin to Bolaño’s giving up writing poetry to focus on fiction “for the money” to support his family.

I’ve been wondering about that ever since, increasingly, as we’ve come to know something more about the sad case of Edwin Johns, and also about the sad case of Roberto Bolaño. Difficult though it is to believe, this book is the work of a gravely ill man. He was waiting for a liver transplant. Accounts differ as to the source of Bolaño’s illness: Benjamin Kunkel (of all people) stated quite flatly (in a highly MFA-flavored 2007 piece in LRB) that Bolaño’s liver had been damaged as the result of addiction to heroin; Bolaño’s family disputes this account. There is doubt, it looks like. Bolaño was very young, certainly, to have been suffering from liver disease.

Loads of interesting details are available in this recent NYT article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/books/28bola.html (Highly recommended.)

It’s clear from a piece that appeared in El Mundo right after his death that Bolaño had been hopeful about getting through the transplant surgery okay. I’ve translated the relevant bits below. Spanish readers will find a number of interesting links on the page.

El escritor chileno Roberto Bolaño fallece en Barcelona a los 50 años

El escritor chileno Roberto Bolaño, de 50 años, ha muerto a las 2.30 horas en Barcelona tras sufrir complicaciones en una enfermedad hepática que padecía y para la que se preparaba para un trasplante, según ha informado el diario chileno ‘La Tercera’ y han confirmado fuentes cercanas a la familia.

Precisamente por esta operación -un trasplante de hígado-, Bolaño, una de las plumas chilenas más brillantes de la última década, pospuso su próxima novela, titulada ‘2666’, de la que él mismo dijo que sería su obra más ambiciosa.

“No estoy para hacer el trabajo que exige la novela. Son más de mil páginas que tengo que corregir, es un trabajo como de minero del siglo XIX”, dijo el escritor al diario La Tercera a mediados de junio.

“Procuro ahora hacer un trabajo más reposado. Voy a corregir la novela sólo después de la operación”, había señalado al matutino chileno.

En la entrevista, Bolaño se refirió a la esperada operación de trasplante: “El doctor dice que me va a avisar cinco horas antes y en ese tiempo tengo que pedir perdón, hacer mi testamento y poner mi alma en funciones. Estoy tercero en una lista para recibir el trasplante”.

Tras residir en Chile, México y Estados Unidos, Bolaño se trasladó a España en 1977. Pasó sus últimos años en la localidad gerundense de Blanes, donde vivía con su mujer Carolina López y sus dos hijos. En los comienzos se vio obligado a realizar diversos trabajos eventuales, desde comerciante hasta vigilante nocturno.

The Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño succumbs at age 50

The writer Roberto Bolaño, aged 50, died at 2:30a.m. in Barcelona after suffering complications of an illness of the liver, for which he was preparing for a transplant, according to the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, and confirmed by sources close to the family.

Precisely because of this operation, a liver transplant, Bolaño, one of the most brilliant literary lights of the last decade, postponed his next novel, entitled ‘2666’ which he himself said would be his most ambitious work.

“I’m in no shape to do the work the novel requires. There are over a thousand pages that I have to correct, it’s a job akin to being a miner of the 19th century,” said the author to La Tercera in mid-June.

“I’m looking to do more restful work. I’m going to correct the novel after the operation.”

In the interview, Bolaño referred repeatedly to the expected transplant.  “The doctor says that he’s going to let me know five hours beforehand, and in that time I must ask pardon [for my sins,] make my will and activate my soul.* I am the third on a transplant list.”

After living in Chile, Mexico and the United States, Bolaño relocated to Spain in 1977.  He spent his last years in the area around Blanes, where he lived with his wife Carolina López and their two children. At first he found himself obligated to do odd jobs, from trader to night watchman.


Returning now to Edwin Johns. The four critics are joined in a certain way over the painter, but in a manner different from their communion over Benno von Archimboldi. Norton introduces the other three to his work; to Morini directly, and to Pelletier and Espinoza through Morini. Morini is fascinated by the story, so much so that he makes a pilgrimage to the insane asylum to question the weirdly intimidating Johns. “I’m not an artist,” he tells Johns, who replies, “I’m not an artist either. Do you think you’re like me?”

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Morini replies.

One thing is certain: Bolaño depicts a substantial divide between artists and others. I suspect that this is an authentic conviction for him, that is, he himself believes this, rather than observing it to be a commonly-held or noteworthy belief. But what is he saying constitutes an “artist”?

One way of looking at this is, Johns is considered an artist simply because he lopped his own hand off. Absolutely, this act created, for him, a succès de scandale. The world outside the novel does not lack for parallel examples, the most obvious being the performance artist Chris Burden, who in 1971 staged his own shooting as a sort of art-happening (admittedly, one with less permanent consequences.) For Johns to mutilate himself, not in a performance but “for money” as he claims, focused the world’s attention on both himself and his painting. Can we assume that he cared deeply enough about the latter to relearn how to do it with his remaining hand? Was his self-mutilation really just cynical, mercenary? Self-loathing? Just a show? Or was it the final existential shriek that brought public attention to something of genuine value, something that he was so committed to, so much that he was ready to make any sacrifice in order to get that attention?

A simpler, really kind of banal reading is: the hand symbolizes the artist’s talent. In order to find fame the artist has to betray his own gift. In this reading, we’re looking at shorthand for pandering.

A third reading is that it really is a heroic act to cut off your own hand. It requires balls, people will be scared shitless of you forever, and you wind up in a comfortable Swiss chalet with nobody to bother or hassle you, attended by charming women, surrounded by a gorgeous landscape.  So which is it?

* the phrase is “poner mi alma en funciones,” a phrase you would ordinarily use not of a soul but more like, say you are president, and you’ve hired someone to do an important job but they haven’t really started working yet. So you say, “I’m going to put this guy in the game.”  As in, crank it up.

Week 3: What a Trip

by Maria Bustillos

We’re parting company with the critics at the moment where Norton has made her choice: she’s in bed with Morini. I certainly did not see that one coming! For all the bed-hopping that goes on in this section, medications it isn’t even entirely clear to me that the relationship between Norton and Morini is in fact sexual, though I suspect it might be (?) The author has been pretty silent on the subject of Morini’s personal habits, capacities etc., in contrast to those of Espinoza and Pelletier, but he’s presented as something of a sensualist, all the same.

When the three critics dashed to Mexico to find their hero, I thought we might come to learn more about Archimboldi himself, but we really don’t. They don’t even really seem to put their backs into finding the man. They don’t visit any libraries or bookshops, which would be the first place I’d try. If he’d spent any time there at all, he would have gone to both for sure. The critics don’t make what I would consider a concerted attempt to enter into the intellectual life of this place in order to identify possible contacts—to the point where they’re introduced to all the local luminaries and promptly forget all their names. In short, I didn’t get the feeling they wanted to find Archimboldi very badly at all.

What we know of Archimboldi’s actual books doesn’t amount to much, we haven’t heard much about the plots or characters, we don’t know how long they are, or in what style they are written, or what effect they were intended to make. We know tangential things, distanced things, for example that the critics are scandalized to hear that Amalfitano finds Archimboldi no more talented than Günter Grass. (How bad would that be?) By this time maybe the reader feels more comfortable with Amalfitano’s literary judgements than with those of the critics, and we can sympathize with that—after all, we’ve only just heard of Archimboldi ourselves! (plus in Europe, I guess, you don’t get to be a distinguished professor of literature without feeling scandalized on behalf of your subject at the drop of a hat.)

In any case, Amalfitano’s glorious allegory of the cave and the stage has a strangely cathartic effect on these three. After having been dismissive and even contemptuous of this hick littérateur, they come to like him—admire him, even. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that even though Norton is confused by the allegory of the cave, the meaning of this passage has kind of sunk into the three of them by osmosis. The world has come nearer to them; they see the mouth of the mine. There’s been this lack of contact between the critics and the world outside, a theme repeated over and over in the section. This might seem weird, but I submit that hanging around in Mexico (and even more so, Africa) has itself the effect of bringing reality inexorably, excitingly, and sometimes even frighteningly closer to a person.

So contact with Mexico and/or with Amalfitano begins to thaw the three of them out, a certain amount. They respond to the relative nearness of the world in very different ways, though. Pelletier just sits around reading Archimboldi, the same books over and over, when the author himself could very well be nearby. This seems to me somewhat to symbolize the futility of European academic life. Pelletier withdraws into his intellect, becomes more insular than ever before, rereading, reinforcing his old idea of himself, locking himself up in his mind with Archimboldi, only more so; Espinoza goes quite the other way, headlong into pure carnality; he forgets all about Archimboldi and engages in a blindly lustful sexual escapade, one that is really pretty sordid, I think, because he himself seems to know that it is going nowhere, he’s mindlessly buying rugs and lingerie and obsessing on this poor kid (that beautiful, terrible line about how she’s nothing more than “a tremor in his arms” by the time he’s done with her … and it’s no accident how no mention is made of how she feels about him, about what they’re doing together … how come he doesn’t make some moves to ensure that she can go to nursing school? It’s like he sees her only in relation to himself, his own needs. No chance is he thinking about marrying her, not really. I reckon that’s just not his nature.)

And finally, Norton weirdly flees the premises, rejecting both Pelletier and Espinoza, whose curious, bizarrely shared attachment to Norton is just so strange and difficult for me to understand. I finally came to the conclusion that the two of them were just sugarcoating their real feeling for Norton which is really your basic bestial attraction, pretending to “love” her and want to marry her and whatnot, telling her to choose between them. If a man wants to marry a woman, are we to believe that he would have sex with her, in the same room with his rival? Impossible, surely–? Plus, what the heck is she thinking?! Maybe she has been reading these wacky magazine articles about “polyamory” or whatever? I will welcome everyone’s views on this point.

By the way, I take Norton’s dream of the two mirrors this way: one mirror is Espinoza, the other is Pelletier. The woman reflected therein is both herself, and not herself. She panics and thinks how she’s got to get the hell out of there, which she does. The real Norton is in there, at least, and struggling to get out.

The three dreams after Amalfitano’s allegory are prophetic. Pelletier dreams of reading the same page over and over, which he does; Espinoza dreams of visiting the rug seller and mindlessly buying rugs, ditto; Norton, of scrambling around trying to find a place for the English oak, herself, for she sees herself as both traditionally English, and rootless (or the roots are Medusa’s locks, and she’s already been compared to that dreadful figure.) Which she finally does, as well, go off scrambling to the next place, and planting her roots with Morini.

I can’t tell whether Morini can really help her, though. Is their attachment real, will the roots sink down, or is it just another series of poses, like what she went through with Pelletier and Espinoza?

Week 3: Institutionalized

by Maria Bustillos

After getting a sense of the rhythms of Bolaño’s sly humor, medications you can tell that something is up right away when he describes the critics’ first impression of Amalfitano:

[…] a castaway, a carelessly dressed man, a nonexistent professor at a nonexistent university, the unknown soldier in a doomed battle against barbarism, or, less melodramatically, as what he ultimately was, a melancholy literature professor put out to pasture in his own field …

Since the critics are generally (but not always) depicted as a pretty oafish crew, we can begin by assuming that there will be more to this character than meets the eye.  As indeed there proves to be.  The first serious conversation between the four scholars concerns the possible whereabouts and motives of Archimboldi.  Has he come to Mexico to visit a friend?  What if Almendro lied to them?

Almendro who?  Héctor Enrique Almendro? said Amalfitano, who goes on to say that he wouldn’t bet much on a tip from that guy.  Why not?

Well, because he’s a typical Mexican intellectual, his main concern is getting by.

Now Amalfitano launches into the most extraordinary flight of fancy: a series of volcanic, wild, beautiful, splendid lamentations on the subject of the intellectual milieu in Mexico.

“Literature in Mexico is like a kindergarten,” he begins.  (Bolaño slips from “they” to “you” in this passage, indicating that Amalfitano to some extent reckons himself to have been a member of this fraternity.)

You sit in a park and read Valéry (not by accident a big “establishment” figure, protégé of Mallarmé, member of the Académie française, correspondent of Gide and of Einstein,) and then you go hang out with friends.

«Ayant consacré ces heures à la vie de l’esprit, je me sens le droit d’être bête le reste de la journée.» Paul Valéry.

(“Having devoted [some] hours to the life of the mind, I feel I have the right to be stupid for the rest of the day.”)

“And yet your shadow isn’t following you anymore.”

This surprising shadowlessness is getting at the loss of some essentially human component, something lost by contact with the conventions of intellectual life, with institutions.  But it’s more than that.  The whole passage is full of poetic conceits, none of them arbitrary.  In the case of the lost shadow, we’re looking at the loss of an ability to matter.  A loss of realness, yes, but recall that one writer may live in the shadow of another, that a writer may cast a long shadow; in short, the shadow represents the chance to leave one’s mark.  (And is there a suggestion of vampirism, as well?)

In any case, dude is just getting warmed up, here!!  I could go line by line and show you some startling new insight or beauty in this passage, which consists, mind-blowingly, of a single paragraph.  But let us get on to the main event:  a complete recasting of the tale of Plato’s cave, adding a whole new level of deafness, blindness and powerlessness to the proceedings.

The intellectual (“you”) arrives on a kind of stage, without his shadow, and starts to “translate reality, or reinterpret it or sing it.”  The intellectual is facing outward, toward an audience, and behind him is a tube which leads to a mine.  “Let’s call it a cave.” (!!)  That is to say, intellectuals could be looking into the cave, even bringing people out of there, maybe; at the very least they should be investigating the cave, mining the reality of the human condition and then showing the results to their audience.  If you can get even partway out, that is what you are supposed to be doing!  But no!  These shadowless intellectuals can’t grasp anything from the cave but “unintelligible noises.”  They’re quite cut off from the reality of what it is to be human, even though the occupants of the cave are making a big racket, “syllables of rage or of seduction  or of seductive rage or maybe just murmurs and whispers and  moans.”  The intellectuals don’t really understand a bit of it; they’re just enjoying the spotlight.  “They employ rhetoric where they sense a hurricane.”  They make animal noises because they can’t begin to conceive of the enormity of the beast within.

The stage on which the intellectuals ply their trade is comfortable and pretty, but it’s shrinking, which is to say, less and less people in Mexico care about literature because these guys are not saying anything of true interest; they’re not really interpreting correctly what is going on in the cave.  The audience for TV, by contrast, is enormous.  They don’t know what the hell is going on in there, either, but no matter, the audience grows and grows.  Once in a while they let a shadowless intellectual on there.

Man, Mexico is not the only place where this is happening.  I mean, WHOA.  Utterly, wiglet-blastingly brilliant.

There’s so much here, but the predominant message is that artists, writers, could be connecting people with reality, could be articulating for us what it means to be human, could be leading us out of the cave, and yet they do not.  The intellectuals themselves know that there is something missing.  At night one may “wander off course” and drink mezcal and he thinks:

[…] what would happen if one day he.  But no.

Naturally, our own European intellectuals can make neither head nor tail of this blazing fusillade.

“I don’t understand a word you’ve said,” says Norton.

“Really I’ve just been talking nonsense,” said Amalfitano.

Bolaño’s retelling of this story presents an underlying call to arms, not at all unlike what I remember of Plato’s original one.  In his own sad, funny, clever way he’s saying that aware, thinking people have a real responsibility to engage with the world, and to improve it if they can.

Week 2: Mucho Macho

by Maria Bustillos

Unfortunately, help the reaction of Espinoza and Pelletier to the Pakistani cab driver’s insults came as no surprise to me. The admirable Anglo technique of dealing with insults from other men by means of contempt, viagra ridicule or boredom (q.v. The Scarlet Pimpernel) requires a certain detachment uncommon among those of the hotter blood. And in this case, the offense was huge, manifold: the cab driver insulted the woman under their protection,* as well as each man’s own moral character, and then, that of his friend. My first thought as I read was, oh no no, yikes, I wonder if this cab driver would have said such stuff if he’d had the faintest clue about that difference. Did American readers know, as I did, that there was going to be a fight as soon as the word “whore” was spoken? It was inevitable, any of the men in my own family would have done exactly the same thing, though they’re not alike in much else. This is about the worst thing you could say to a Latin guy, crazy as that may sound, and it is no surprise whatsoever that the first blows administered (predictably, by Espinoza) are described as “Iberian.”

That complex of characteristics both admirable and deplorable, composed of pride, sensitivity, insecurity, potency and belligerence, that is called machismo in Spanish–this exists in every culture, of course, but the Spanish flavor is very pronounced. I think that Bolaño is saying, here, that machismo is a literally uncontrollable source of violence; that no matter how “civilized” a man is, he will always be in some danger of a catastrophe like Espinoza’s (pencil ‘v. true’ in the margin on that one, I reckon.)

The dry, sardonic humor in this passage really is a torment, in kind of a Solondzian way. Why the hell didn’t they stop kicking the guy?! Oh god, why bring Salman Rushdie into it?! The thing that made me really nuts was Espinoza’s subsequent rationalization of the whole thing. The Pakistani guy “had it coming.” If we had a nickel for every time we’ve heard that one!

What a wonderful passage though, 100% insane and 100% credible, funny, terrible, sad. It’s a very deft thing to show us these guys, clownish and absurd and even unhinged and dangerous as they are, and yet evoke sympathy. That to me is the mark of the most skilled novelist: Dostoevsky territory.

* You bet that is how these two think of it, no matter how ‘modern’ they are.

Week 2: Bolaño and the Academy

by Maria Bustillos

The academy in 2666 is very meticulously observed, viagra sale and yet I cannot find much detail out there about Bolaño’s own formal education. Nobody online seems to mention any specific institutions where he worked, capsule taught, visit web or wrote. It seems almost inevitable that if there were any such institutions, their representatives would have been very keen to claim such an association. So it appears that we are looking at an autodidact? A very, very learned autodidact, who lived all over the world, and who was superconnected in Spanish and Latin American literary and political circles. (Please comment, if you know more on this point!)

I’d like to know more about the apparent difference between the American literary world and the European/Latin American one that Bolaño was part of. “Serious” writers in the US seem in general to be more closely tied to the academy, though “establishment” figures like the Nobel-winning Octavio Paz taught at a whole lot of fancy schools. But Bolaño was a socialist, in some sense a revolutionary, and I think we can extrapolate beyond that to conjecture that he saw his contribution to literature (as to the world at large) as subversive, anti-authoritarian—as, generally, the work of an outsider.

So, as I was saying … despite the fact that Bolaño was not of the academy, he seems to have understood its workings very well indeed. The critics of 2666 are very like real academics in all their ambition and their weird intellectual competitiveness, shot through with a real and passionate desire to read, and understand, and to write, and be understood.

With all this in mind, let’s have a look at the following mind-blowing, virtuoso passage from the novel, quite possibly my favorite so far. It speaks clearly to Bolaño’s rejection of the academic life, and of institutions generally. This rejection comes on all fronts: societal, cultural, political and intellectual.

(And at this point it must be said that there’s truth to the saying make your name, then sleep and reap fame, because Espinoza’s and Pelletier’s participation in the conference “Reflecting the Twentieth Century: The Work of Benno von Archimboldi,” not to mention their contribution to it, was at best null, at worst catatonic, as if they were suddenly spent or absent, prematurely aged or in a state of shock, a fact that didn’t pass unnoticed by the attendees used to Espinoza’s and Pelletier’s displays of energy [sometimes brazen] at this sort of event, nor did it go unnoticed by the latest litter of Archimboldians, recent graduates, boys and girls, their doctorates tucked still warm under their arms, who planned, by any means necessary, to impose their particular readings of Archimboldi, like missionaries ready to instill faith in God, even if to do so meant signing a pact with the devil, for most were what you might call rationalists, not in the philosophical sense but in the pejorative literal sense, denoting people less interested in literature than in literary criticism, the one field, according to them—some of them, anyway—where revolution was still possible, and in some way they behaved not like youths but like nouveaux youths, in the sense that there are the rich and the nouveaux riches, all of them generally rational thinkers, let us repeat, although often incapable of telling their asses from their elbows, and although they noticed a there and a not-there, an absence-presence in the fleeting passage of Pelletier and Espinoza through Bologna, they were incapable of seeing what was really important: Pelletier’s and Espinoza’s absolute boredom regarding everything said there about Archimboldi or their negligent disregard for the gaze of others, as if the two were so much cannibal fodder, a disregard lost on the young conferencegoers, those eager and insatiable cannibals, their thirtysomething faces bloated with success, their expressions shifting from boredom to madness, their coded stutterings speaking only two words: love me, or maybe two words and a phrase: love me, let me love you, though obviously no one understood.)

Despite his fire-breathing (and hilarious) condemnation of these conventional representatives of the Life of the Mind, I don’t mistake Bolaño for any kind of “art for art’s sake” idealist, or for a sniffy or superior “radical,” either. He distinguishes between those who love criticism more than literature in a manner that suggests very clearly that there is a right side of that question to be on, but he doesn’t really tear these guys down in order to put himself above, in the manner, say, of Henry Miller, or Harold Bloom, or James Wood, even. There’s compassion in it, as well as a smackdown, and the ego quotient is not high. Indeed I have formed the impression that there was not one self-regarding bone in this guy’s bod. Just as an aside, because I know that there are so many admirers of David Foster Wallace here: it’s no surprise to me that so many Wallace fans are drawn to Bolaño, because of this pre-eminent quality of intellectual humility, plus low bullshit-tolerance.

(So I had written the above, and then I happened across the most beautiful illustration of this!)

Rodrigo Fresán’s eulogy of Bolaño (http://www.letraslibres.com/index.php?art=8981) is a lovely, gentle, rather elaborately worded remembrance of his friend. He paints Bolaño as a passionate and lively companion, but most of all, as a writer through and through; a man completely dedicated to and steeped in the literary life.

Toward the end, Fresán’ quotes a remarkable email that he received from Bolaño:

Yo no sé cómo hay escritores que aún creen en la inmortalidad literaria. Entiendo que haya quienes creen en la inmortalidad del alma, incluso puedo entender a los que creen en el Paraíso y el Infierno y en esa estación intermedia y sobrecogedora que es el Purgatorio, pero cuando escucho a un escritor hablar de la inmortalidad de determinadas obras literarias me dan ganas de abofetearlo. No estoy hablando de pegarle sino de darle una sola bofetada y después, probablemente, abrazarlo y confortarlo. En esto yo sé que no estarás de acuerdo conmigo, Rodrigo, porque tú eres una persona básicamente no violenta. Yo también lo soy. Cuando digo darle una bofetada estoy más bien pensando en el carácter lenitivo de ciertas bofetadas, como aquellas que en el cine se les da a los histéricos o a las histéricas para que reaccionen y dejen de gritar y salven su vida.

(This is my own translation … please let me know if I’ve botched anything.)

I don’t know how there can be writers who still believe in literary immortality. I understand that there might be those who believe in the immortality of the soul, and I can even believe there are those who believe in Paradise and Hell and in that freaky intermediate station that is Purgatory, but when I hear a writer speak of the immortality of definite works of literature I feel like slapping him. I’m not talking about really belting, so much as just one slap, and afterwards, probably, hugging and comforting him. In this I know that you won’t be in agreement with me, Rodrigo, because you are basically a non-violent person. As am I. When I say, deliver a slap, I’m more thinking of the palliative character of certain slappings, like those in the movies that are administered to hysterics so that they will react, stop screaming, and save their own lives.

Week 2: The White Hind

by Maria Bustillos

So this morning I came across my loveliest find in the book so far. Pelletier and Espinoza are finally forced to discuss their joint and several loss of Norton at the symposium in Mainz. Everybody has left the bar, cure and Pelletier finally brings up the subject of Norton. How is she? Espinoza confesses that he does not know. The white phone in her apartment “floated in their conversation.” Then:

Oh white hind, little hind, white hind, murmured Espinoza.

(What a strange, pretty phrase!)

“Pelletier assumed he was quoting a classic […]”

Since I am attuned to the subject of quotation/rewriting in this book (see my earlier post,) I made haste to source this quote. My first instinct was to look up what I remembered of the phrase, “the white hind,” in English. On a Wiccan site I read that “According to Celtic myth, Otherworld deities sent a white hind or stag to guide chosen humans into their realm.” (http://paganismwicca.suite101.com/article.cfm/deer_pagan_symbol_of_gentleness)

And then, the White Hind is an old image of purity and immortality; an image of the pursued beast, eternally pursued, as in Dryden’s “The Hind and the Panther” (okay so the Hind also symbolizes the Catholic church, here, but still):

A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchang’d,

Fed on the lawns, and in the forest rang’d;

Without unspotted, innocent within,

She fear’d no danger, for she knew no sin.

Yet had she oft been chas’d with horns and hounds

And Scythian shafts; and many winged wounds

Aim’d at her heart; was often forc’d to fly,

And doom’d to death, though fated not to die.

Then I thought I’d better check the Spanish for this phrase, and it turns out that “La Cierva Blanca” is a freaking beautiful poem by Borges—a poem that came to him in a dream! A poem transcribed from the dream of a beautiful, fleeting, “one-sided” English hind. No, seriously. I am so blown away by beauty and complexity of this book, for I could quite easily have swept past this phrase without pausing; what else am I missing? (I haven’t even begun to unpack the Borges poem, really. What is the Persian reference, here?)

Here is the poem, in the original and in translation, and I promise you that it will knock your socks off.


¿De qué agreste balada de la verde Inglaterra,
De qué lámina persa, de qué región arcana
De las noches y días que nuestro ayer encierra,
Vino la cierva blanca que soñé esta mañana?
Duraría un segundo. La vi cruzar el prado
Y perderse en el oro de una tarde ilusoria,
Leve criatura hecha de un poco de memoria
Y de un poco de olvido, cierva de un solo lado.
Los númenes que rigen este curioso mundo
Me dejaron soñarte pero no ser tu dueño;
Tal vez en un recodo del porvenir profundo
Te encontraré de nuevo, cierva blanca de un sueño.
Yo también soy un sueño fugitivo que dura
unos días más que el sueño del prado y la blancura.

In English:


From what rustic ballad out of green England,
from what Persian picture, from what secret zone
of nights and days that our yesterday encloses,
came the white hind I dreamed this morning?
It lasted only a second. I saw it cross the meadow
and lose itself in the gold of an illusive evening,
a slight creature made from a pinch of memory
and a pinch of forgetfulness, a one-sided hind.
The gods that govern this peculiar world
let me dream you but not be your master;
perhaps at a bend in the deep time to come
I’ll find you again, white hind of a dream.
I too am a fleeting dream that lasts
a few days longer than dreams of meadows and whiteness.

[Via http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com]

The Fictional Intelligentsia

by Maria Bustillos

The first thing that struck me about this narrative is the wonderful layering-up of fictional intellectuals over the historical ones. We are introduced to the tenebrous character of Archimboldi, unhealthy the fictional German fictionalist; the scholars who study him, visit themselves fictions; the gentle, sardonic narrator, at least somewhat fictional, who points out all their little flaws and dodges. But when Morini sits down to read in a London park, he’s reading a real book: Il Libro di Cucina di Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, by Angelo Morino (1999). The subject of this book, Sor Juana, is a classic 17th-c. Mexican poet whom Bolaño claimed as an influence, and whom educated readers of Spanish would be expected to recognize at once. Sor Juana was an extremely undeceived writer, a sensualist, a feminist, a nun, a prodigy, an altogether intense character; Morino’s book is apparently an extremely cool transcription of recipes that the poet copied down in the convent where she lived for 27 years, together with her thoughts on the philosophy of cuisine, which are decidedly non-trivial. There’s a suggestion that she conceived of a correspondence between food and knowledge: between sabor and saber. She also said that if Aristotle had cooked, he would have written a great deal more (to which I could not help inwardly responding jeeps, how much more do you want? But I digress.)

I saw the mention of this book as another instance of the literary recursiveness that seems to be developing in 2666: copying and recopying, studying, going back over, the re-re-combination of ideas, words, names into this huge literary palimpsest that the book itself is re(re-re-re)-reproducing, and hilariously we are also most of us reading it in translation. In this way the realm of the imagination folds outward into the “real” world, which is also the literary world, itself imaginary (taking place in the mind,) one that’s already been so much written-over before we ever happened on it ourselves; in the real/imaginary world of the novel, the story also folds back into itself and the mysterious world of Archimboldi. (Where the hell is that guy?)

The warmth, friendliness and humor of the book have been a very pleasant surprise, so far. I suppose I had been expecting something a little more forbidding from an author so widely celebrated. Certainly one can’t help but respond to Bolaño’s overwhelming love of and dedication to literature. He said: “In one way or another, we’re all anchored to the book. A library is a metaphor for human beings or what’s best about human beings, the same way a concentration camp can be a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity.”

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