viernes, 28 de febrero de 2014

The 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong: February Links

Although our 2666 group read will be officially over in just over an hour, look for more high octane Bolaño posts here and elsewhere in March as Miguel from St. Orberose was the only group reader with enough gas in the tank to complete the novel and finish his posts on time--despite being the last to get started!  Anyway, a round of applause for Miguel and the rest of you who contributed or dropped by during the group read; it's been great rereading the novel in such fine company, and I look forward to getting back to "The Part About Archimboldi" tomorrow.  As a reminder, all 2666 posts produced for the group read can be found here.

In related news, I'm happy to report that even though I decided to postpone rereading Andalusian Ibn Hazm's The Ring of the Dove earlier in the month, many friends of the blog joined me in writing about a number of Spanish- and Portuguese-language authors in February.  I've included links to some of those reviews below and will be happy to add any more that you've written that I've missed if you get in touch with me.  In the meantime, March's group read choice will be José Saramago's O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis [The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis] (details coming soon).

Frances, Nonsuch Book

Miguel, St. Orberose

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
Authorial Voice(s) in the First Half of 2666 #2
Por los tiempos de Clemente Colling by Felisberto Hernández
"El balcón" by Felisberto Hernández
El viaje by Sergio Pitol
"La dimensión desconocida" by Sergio González Rodríguez
Three Readers in "The Part About the Crimes"

Scott, seraillon
2666: The Part About the Critics
2666: The Part About Amalfitano
2666: The Part About Fate

Tony, Tony's Reading List
The Happy City by Elvira Navarro
Calling All Heroes by Paco Ignacio Taibo II
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman

Three Readers in "The Part About the Crimes"

2666 (Anagrama, 2007, original; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008, translation)
by Roberto Bolaño
Spain, 2004

Should I feel guilty about enjoying "La parte de los crímenes" ["The Part About the Crimes"]?  For me, it's by far the most powerful, the most riveting, and maybe even the most intrinsically page-turning of all five of 2666's individual parts and yet both its subject matter--the mostly unsolved murders of hundreds of raped and/or otherwise tortured women as well as the murders that are solved but go unpunished for one reason or another--and its signature stylistic approach to the subject matter--the pairing of a forensic close-up of dozens of the dead bodies discovered in the desert between 1993 and 1997 with a Decameron-like storytelling machine dedicated to spitting out jagged biographical chunks of the lives of a host of characters either touched by or actively involved in the crimes--lead me to the uncomfortable conclusion that the text inspires me aesthetically at the same time as it arouses indignation in me thematically.  Is this what Bolaño intended?  Did he want me to be "entertained" by his fictionalization of hundreds of real life tragedies?  Or, to borrow the question posed by Theodor Adorno and apply it to the case of Ciudad Juárez, Can One Live after Auschwitz?

Put more simply, what was Bolaño's end game as far as what lessons readers should take away from his novel?  To help answer this, let's back up a bit in acknowledgement of the fact that it's become a commonplace in 2666 blog criticism for readers to assert that Professor Amalfitano's observation about the bookish Barcelona pharmacist who chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, Bartleby over Moby-Dick, A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers, and--presumably--Breakfast at Tiffany's over In Cold Blood reveals Bolaño speaking about himself and what's taking place in 2666.  Fans would argue that Bolaño does this with a wink to the readers, haters that Bolaño does it with a pat on the back and hubris.  In either case, the concluding part of the passage runs as follows (289-290 in the original, 227 in Natasha Wimmer's translation):

Qué triste paradoja, pensó Amalfitano.  Ya ni los farmacéuticos ilustrados se atreven con las grandes obras, imperfectas, torrenciales, las que abren camino en lo desconocido.  Escogen los ejercicios perfectos de los grandes maestros.  O lo que es lo mismo: quieren ver a los grandes maestros en sesisones de esgrima de entrenamiento, pero no quieren saber nada de los combates de verdad, en donde los grandes maestros luchan contra aquello, ese aquello que nos atemoriza a todos, ese aquello que acoquina y encacha, y hay sangre y heridas mortales y fetidez.

[What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano.  Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.  They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters.  Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.]

Whatever your take on how Bolaño intended this, it's clear that Amalfitano's observation in this passage--supposedly inspired by another character's declaration that the Austrian poet (and onetime pharmacy worker!) Georg Trakl was one of his favorite writers--offers up one possible interpretation for what readers might take away from 2666: the specter of a great writer engaging in "real combat" on the printed page.  Whether the author is successful or not is a related but secondary question in that every reader will have a scorecard of their own.  However, I think it's important to point out a second interpretation of sorts: just as Amalfitano's observation deals with a "sad paradox" about an enthusiastic but very limited class of readers, 2666 is complex enough in its message that it's neither pro- nor anti-reading as a whole in the sense of pretending to offer up a solution to "that something" which "the great masters" struggle against in Amalfitano's wording.  Bolaño's end game, i.e. what he wants his readers to take away from the novel when the book is closed, would seem to be similarly open-ended--as it should be with one fifth of the novel remaining.

If these two seemingly irreconcilable interpretations only seem to lead to a dead end, let's not forget that there are any numbers of other scenes dedicated to readers and reading (and bad readers and misreading) throughout 2666 that might point us to another way out of the exegetical labyrinth.  In "The Part About the Crimes" alone, for example, some of the more notable readers include the seer Florita Almada, a voracious reader who like Barry Seaman in "La parte de Fate" ["The Part About Fate"] reads for both utility and pleasure, the young cop Lalo Cura, who reads mostly for utility but sometimes for pleasure, and the veteran inspector Juan de Dios Martínez, who wishes he read more cultured works so he could discuss them with his love interest Elvira Campos--the well-read director of the Santa Teresa psychiatric center whose reading tastes tend toward "los libros que leía a él ni le sonaban" ["books he had never heard of"] (527 in the original, 421 in the translation).  If you were to add to this list the minor characters like the priest in the Penitent scenes said to enjoy liberation theology and the occasional detective novel, I think you'd agree that the presence of a good cross-section of "normal" readers could be found without difficulty.  Beyond that, though, there are three other more or less average readers in "The Part About the Crimes" who hold a special interest in that they seem to represent a rather contradictory lesson for how readers can expect to profit from a novel.  Who are they and what can their stories possibly tell us about Bolaño's end game?

The first of the three is Perla Beatriz Ochoterena, a twenty-eight year old poetry and essay fancier, poet, and teacher, found hanged in her room with a suicide note attributing the despondency of her final act on earth to "todas esas niñas muertas" ["all those dead girls"] turning up in Santa Teresa (646 in the original, 517 in the translation).  An extreme case and an outlier, you say, to which Juan de Dios Martínez might agree, characterizing the suicide note as "sentida" ["heartfelt"] but "también un poco cursi" ["also slightly sappy"] (Ibid.).  However, remember that Elvira Campos, who remarks that Ochoterena was probably clinically depressed, had herself entertained similar thoughts while thinking of the crimes: "A veces Elvira Campos pensaba que lo mejor sería irse de México.  O suicidarse antes de cumplir los cincuentaicinco.  ¿Tal vez los ciencuentaiséis?" ["Sometimes Elvira Campos thought it would be best to leave Mexico.  Or kill herself before she turned fifty-five.  Maybe fifty-six?"] (641 in the original, 513 in the translation).  In any event, the dead woman's home library gets a kinder review from the mental health specialist than her suicide note does from the judicial: good books, hard to find in Santa Teresa, we are told.  The second and third of the three readers are forensic scientists who split their time between police work and teaching at the local university and med school.  We learn about their reading habits when they are joined by a third medical examiner, a non-reader partial to TV watching, spending time with his family, and travel, at a work-related breakfast.  Emilio Garibay, it turns out, is an atheist, which is important insofar as "desde hacía años ya no leía ningún libro, pese en que a su casa atesoraba una biblioteca más que decente sobre temas de su especialidad, amén de algunos libros de filosofía, historia de México, y una que otra novela.  A veces pensaba que ya no leía precisamente por ser ateo.  Digamos que la no lectura era el escalón más alto del ateísmo o al menos del ateísmo tal cuál él lo concebía.  Si no crees en Dios, ¿cómo creer en un pinche libro?, pensaba" ["it had been years since he'd read a book, despite the fact that he had amassed a more than decent library of works in his specialty, as well as volumes of philosophy and Mexican history and a novel or two.  Sometimes he thought it was precisely because he was an atheist that he didn't read anymore.  Not reading, it might be said, was the highest expression of atheism or at least of atheism as he conceived of it.  If you don't believe in God, how do you believe in a fucking book? he asked himself?" (687 in the original, 550 in the translation).  Rigoberto Frías, on the other hand, is described simply as a man who "tenía muchos libros y casi ningún amigo" ["had many books and almost no friends"] (688 in the original, 550-551 in the translation].  What does this tell us about looking for meaning in reading in "The Part About the Crimes"?  You tell me!  However, in my next post on the novel, I'll introduce you to a critic, Butler University Associate Professor Gabriela Muniz, who sees 2666 as "una obsesiva búsqueda de las causas de la maldad" ["an obsessive search for the root causes of evil"] and Bolaño's "estética del cuerpo mutilado" ["aesthetic of the mutilated corpse"] as the conceptual response of "una literatura del trauma" ["a literature of trauma"] practiced by a generation of Southern Cone writers who were witness to the "tristemente famosas desapariciones de cuerpos en la época de gobiernos militares" ["sadly famous disappearances of bodies in the era of the military governments"].  These last quotes come from pages 44 and 35 respectively of Muniz's "El discurso de la crueldad: 2666 de Roberto Bolaño" ["Discourse of Cruelty: Roberto Bolaño's 2666"] (Revista Hispánica Moderna, Año 63, No. 1 [June 2010], 35-49): great, seriously eye-opening stuff.

Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003)

miércoles, 26 de febrero de 2014

Vienna 1900

"Vienna 1900"
by Edward Timms
England, 1986

If the rest of Karl Kraus, Apocalyptic Satirist: Culture and Catastrophe in Habsburg Vienna (Yale University Press, 1986) is even half as rewarding as its first chapter, I'll have to buy the book instead of just keeping it out on semi-permanent loan from the library.  That'd make it much, much easier for me to get through the following 21 posts on Kraus that I know you'll be eagerly waiting for before I take on Timms's 2005 follow-up.  In the meantime, let's take a closer look at "Vienna 1900."  Timms, Research Professor and Director of the Centre of German Studies at the University of Sussex according to Wikipedia, gets things off to a fine start by pointing out that "the silhouette of Vienna, darkly illuminated on the cover of Die Fackel, marks out the horizon of Kraus's world...  It was here that he wrote, edited and published the 922 numbers of Die Fackel which contain his life's work" (3, ellipses added).  What's so fine about that?  The answer comes in the following paragraph where Timms explains that "this lifelong attachment to the city he reviled is one of the paradoxes of Kraus's career.  It also defines the nature of his achievement.  It is not the great world of European politics but the local affairs of Vienna that provide his theme...  Even when his theme is the breakdown of western civilization, it is still in the Kärntnerstrasse that he finds the motifs for his satire" (Ibid., ellipses added).

After declaring that Kraus's "passionate parochialism" is one of "the primary fascination[s]" of his writings (Ibid.), Timms turns his sights on fin-de-siècle Vienna to explain why the city and the satirist who reviled it were so well suited to each other.  In between three separate anecdotes about Kraus either being assaulted by different victims of his satire or having to call the police to stop his first play from being "wrecked by enraged spectators" (6), Timms sketches a portrait of Vienna in which an audience particularly receptive to satire, a lively literary coffeehouse culture in which various intellectual circles intermingled, and tensions between the city's avant-garde and conservative cultural factions all uneasily coexisted: "Conflict rather than conciliation was the keynote," we are told, "not only for Kraus but for his whole generation of Austrian iconoclasts" (Ibid.).  According to his biographer, Kraus's circle, which met at a place called the Café Central, "was at the centre of the system" based on its "decisive influence" on the other groups (9).  This leads us to two Walter Benjamin-like telling insights about Kraus the man which help us better understand Kraus the writer (both also from page 9): 1) "Although he adopts in Die Fackel a stance of embattled isolation, he was in truth a convivial person who by 1910 had gathered around him an amazingly gifted circle of writers and artists"; 2) "His position is paradoxically poised between the exclusivity of this élite and the appeal of Die Fackel to a wider audience.  In insistent declarations he claims for his writings an artistic autonomy which transcends the mundane concerns of his readers.  But if he was writing his magazine for posterity, he was selling it to his contemporaries."  Selling it indeed: the first issue of Die Fackel sold nearly 30,000 copies!

For somebody with only the most rudimentary grasp on the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Q: Who was Franz Ferdinand?  A: The name of both the assassinated archduke and that of a crappy Scottish rock band), I was happy to see Timms spend some time contextualizing Vienna's role within the empire next.  Citing Kraus's 1914 "prophetic phrase" that Austria-Hungary was and would remain an "experimental station for the end of the world" (10), Timms fast forwards through several decades of history to make the case that the Habsburg state, riven by rapid population growth, antisemitism, and the difficulty of maintaining unity in a land recognizing fifteen official languages among other stresses, was "essentially medieval in character" (12).  The architect Adolf Loos, a Kraus ally whose "threateningly modernist building on the Michaelerplatz" provoked Vienna's City Council into taking out an "injunction" against it in protest (6), is elsewhere reported as remarking that "while he was living in the year 1908 his neighbour was living in 1880, while there were peasants in the Austrian provinces still living in the twelfth century" (19).   Although I won't go into all the details since they're too complex to summarize in a limited amount of time, here are two good thumbnails of Timms's writing style and critical acumen.  The first has to do with the main capital (Budapest was the site of the other capital):  "The unified city culture was essentially a myth, concocted by writers encapsulated in their coffee-houses.  The reality of working-class experience hardly impinged on their pages, although it is clearly enough recorded in the memoirs of less privileged contemporaries.  Kraus, like other members of the intellectual élite, had no contact with the cultural aspirations of the working class, until he swung his support behind the socialist cause after the collapse of the Empire" (16).  The second has to do with the nation: "Since the two decisive intellectual movements of modern Europe--the Reformation  and the Enlightenment--had left the Habsburg Empire intact, a multinational state based on anachronistic principles survived into a century which was fundamentally hostile to them" (12).  The importance of this decline in regard to Kraus's writing?  According to the critic, "Kraus's satire is the expression of a civilization inwardly disintegrating."  Mentioning the high suicide rate in the Austrian army and among intellectuals, he adds: "It is hardly surprising that in Kraus's writings (as we shall see) suicide becomes a recurrent symbolic motif" (18).  Perhaps that's a good place to pause for now.

Professor Edward Timms

"Vienna 1900" is the first of three chapters from Part One (City, Masks and Torch) of Edward Timms's Karl Kraus, Apocalyptic Satirist: Culture and Catastrophe in Habsburg Vienna (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986, 3-29).  A teaser for the rest of the work: "The spheres of activity on which this book focuses - journalism, the theatre, prostitution and the enforcement of morals, theories of the unconscious, architectural design, advertising, technology, the problems of language, and the role of the artist - are only apparently 'unpolitical'.  Each of these spheres contributed to the masquerade of Austrian public life, which reached its climax during the First World War in the 'Tragic Carnival'" (28).

lunes, 24 de febrero de 2014

La dimensión desconocida

"La dimensión desconocida"
by Sergio González Rodríguez
Mexico, 2002

One of the recurring characters in 2666's "La parte de los crímenes" ["The Part About the Crimes"] is a Mexico City city arts reporter turned crime reporter named Sergio González who's first sent to Santa Teresa in 1993 to investigate the desecration of churches in the city by what's thought to be a lone whack job of a vandal.  The narrator blandly introduces the reporter as follows--"Por aquellos días el periódico La Razón, del DF, envió a Sergio González a hacer un reportaje sobre el Penitente" ["Around this time the Mexico City newspaper La Razón sent Sergio González to write a story on the Penitent"] (470 in the original, 376 in the translation)--before briefing us on his age and a few other particulars about his personal circumstances.  An ironic swipe at the newspaperman's work or readership--"Hacía reseñas de libros de filosofía, que por otra parte nadie leía, ni los libros ni sus reseñas, y de vez en cuando escribía sobre música y sobre exposiciones de pintura" ["He wrote reviews of philosophy books that no one read, not the books or his reviews, and sometimes he wrote about art shows or music"] (Ibid.)--could almost be construed as condescending save for the fact that Sergio González will be one of the first outsiders in this part of the novel to take the real Santa Teresa crimes, the mass murders of hundreds of poor women, seriously.  On that note, I guess it's only fitting that the real life model for the character, a Mexico City arts reporter turned crime reporter named...Sergio González Rodríguez (photo above) did much the same thing outside the pages of Bolaño's book.

Not having read Huesos en el desierto [Bones in the Desert, unfortunately still not available in translation], Sergio González Rodríguez's 2002 collection of essays on the Ciudad Juárez killings, in many years, I thought it might be instructive to revisit the work in order to compare the author's own voice with that of his fictionalized double--as a literary matter in part but also as an entrée into the historical backdrop to "the part about the crimes."  Rereading chapter 1 of the book, "La dimensión desconocida" ["The Twilight Zone"], probably the first thing I was immediately reminded of was how personal in tone the flesh and blood author's work is.  Here's his jeremiad-like opening (13):

     Hubo en el origen un deslizamiento fuera de los límites.
     Entre 1993 y 1995, los cadáveres de 30 mujeres víctimas de homicidios dolosos en Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, formaban parte de una trama compleja de violencia sexual, cantinas, bares, bandas delincuenciales e inculpaciones mutuas entre diversos protagonistas de la vida colectiva.
     Era el núcleo de una sociedad desgarrada que comenzaba a confrontar sus flaquezas culturales.  Y hacía del espacio público la arena de sus diferencias y contrastes extremos.  La sobrepoblación, la penuria urbana, la violencia externa o intrafamiliar, las inercias de género --presentes en muchas otras partes de la República mexicana-- transformaban lo cotidiano en una pesadilla singular.  Sobre todo para las mujeres, la mitad de la población, poco más de 400.000 de ellas.

     [There was, in the beginning, a sliding completely out of control.
     Between 1993 and 1995, the cadavers of 30 female victims of premeditated murder in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, formed part of a complex web of sexual violence, cantinas, bars, criminal gangs, and mutual accusations between diverse protagonists of the collective life in the city.
     It was the nucleus of a society in tatters that was beginning to confront its cultural failings.  And it was converting public spaces into the arena of its extreme contrasts and differences.  Overpopulation, urban poverty, domestic violence or external violence, inertia of that kind--present in many other parts of the Mexican Republic--were transforming daily life into a singular nightmare.  Above all for women, half the population, a little more than 400,000 of them.]

In translating this opening, I was struck by how much the line "transformaban lo cotidiano en una pesadilla singular," which I've rendered as "transforming daily life into a singular nightmare," seems to be echoed by Roberto Bolaño in "The Part About the Crimes" when a forensic scientist leaves a Santa Teresa parking lot in his Grand Marquis "y las calles se lo tragaban como una pesadumbre cotidiana" ["and the streets swallowed it up like a commonplace lament"] (689 in the original, 551 in the translation).  The similarity between the combination of SGR's "pesadilla singular" ["singular nightmare"] and "lo cotidiano" ["daily life, quotidian"] and Bolaño's simile about the "pesadumbre cotidiana" [literally: "quotidian affliction, sorrow" but which Wimmer more legibly translates as "commonplace lament"] may not seem self-evident in English, but it's only one play on words apart in Spanish from being an apparent homage to the Mexican writer's descriptive power (side notes: Bolaño and González Rodríguez exchanged correspondence about Ciudad Juárez for years, and Sergio also appeared as a "character" in Javier Marías' 1998 Negra espalda del tiempo [Dark Back of Time]).

Elsewhere in "La dimensión desconocida," Sergio González Rodríguez mentions at least two other people related to the Juárez crimes who would wind up in Bolaño's 2666 in varyingly fictionalized fashion.  The first is former high profile FBI agent and serial killer profiler Robert K. Ressler (a/k/a Albert Kessler in 2666), who was interviewed by SGR colleague Rossana Fuentes Berain for the Mexico City newspaper Reforma in April 1996 after Ciudad Juárez experienced a 35% increase in violent crime (and in particular the murders of women) from the year before which "ya causaban alarma en México y comenzaban a trascender al exterior del país" ["was already causing alarm in Mexico and was beginning to spread outside the country"] (14).  Ressler, then famous for being the technical advisor for the film The Silence of the Lambs, which SGR claims helped put the serial killer on the map of the popular imagination worldwide as "el emblema de la criminalidad contemporánea" ["the emblem of contemporary criminality"] and the aesthetic purveyor of murder as just "una más de las bellas artes" ["one more of the fine arts"], opines that the frontier between Mexico and the U.S. is "una zona que por su naturaleza misma, por el tráfico de personas y de drogas, se convierte en una dimensión desconocida" ["a zone which, by its very nature, through the trafficking of drugs and people, has turned into a twilight zone"].  He then adds that he expects the Juárez murders will continue (Ibid.).  The second later-to-be-fictionalized by Bolaño person mentioned in the chapter is the Egyptian-born U.S. immigrant Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif, who allegedly fled to Mexico to avoid rape charges in the U.S.  Accused of being the author of at least some of the Juárez killings, Sharif Sharif--like the German-born Klaus Haas in 2666, who is modeled after the Egyptian in some respects--proclaims his innocence via a rambling press conference held while he's in jail and blames the murders of over 50 of the Juárez women--murders which continue while he's behind bars--on figures known to frequent the city's dive bars where "se reúnen los policías con los narcotraficantes" ["the cops and the drug dealers get together"] (21-22).  Was Sharif Sharif framed for the murders?  Possibly.  However, what's chilling in regard to this unsavory character is that SGR reports that other murders blamed on eight people from the gang known as "Los Rebeldes" ["The Rebels"] get called into question amid claims of police brutality (beatings and torture) and an adolescent witness' recanted claim that she was forced to testify against the gang by a cop who put a gun to her head.  In other words, there's a pattern in which the police and other state authorities seem to be more interested in perpetuating the crimes rather than ending them.

Sergio González Rodríguez's partisan reaction to this state of affairs, while dramatically different in tone from the "forensic" narrative register that would be employed by Bolaño throughout much of "The Part About the Crimes," makes for a great counterpoint to the latter for anybody interested in comparing the nonfiction and the fiction approaches to the crimes in the two texts.  Here's just one passage from "La dimensión desconocida" which continues to haunt me (23-24):

Susana Domínguez, la denunciante de abusos policiacos, una adolescente esbelta, morena, de ojos grandes y cabello largo, representaba la imagen promedio de la muchacha juarense.  Vestía pantalones vaqueros y llevaba una playera.  Como todas las muchachas que pululan en los malls de ambos lados de la frontera, como las que abundan en las escuelas, como las que trabajan en oficinas.  Como las que sostienen a sus hijos --casadas, madres solteras-- y sobreviven al margen de lo funesto.  Como las que salen por centenares de las fábricas para irse a su casa o a los bares cada viernes en autobuses suburbanos al concluir su turno.  O como las que terminan con su cuerpo torturado en el desierto.

[Susana Domínguez, the denouncer of police abuses, a slender, brown-skinned adolescent with big eyes and long hair, looked like an average Juárez girl.  She wore jeans and a t-shirt.  Like all the girls who swarm to the malls on both sides of the frontier, like those that abound in the schools, like those that work in offices.  Like those who support their children--married women, single mothers--and survive by the skin of their teeth.  Like those who leave the factories by the hundreds to go home or to the bars in suburban buses each Friday night at the end of their shift.  Or like those who end up with their body tortured in the desert.]

And here's another passage, from the preface, in which Sergio González Rodríguez boldly assigns blame for the crimes.  This one might be even more sobering in its implications (11-12):

     Este libro entrecruza documentos y testimonios múltiples de un suceso que se ubica en el límite de lo delincuencial y el femicidio: entre aquellos crímenes, está detectada la existencia de un centenar de asesinatos en serie.
     Una orgía sacrificial de cariz misógino propiciada por las autoridades: los responsables estarían libres, a la sombra de una pirámide corrupta que tiene su base en la ineficacia policiaca y los delitos impunes en un índice de casi ciento por ciento en la República mexicana.
     Más alla de las cifras, semejantes crímenes dejan traslucir dos hechos de análoga gravedad ahora y hacia el futuro: la inadvertencia o amnesia global ante un fenómeno extremo de signo anárquico; y el impulso de normalizar la barbarie en las sociedades contemporáneas.

[This book interweaves multiple testimonies and documents about an event which is situated on the extreme limits of criminality and femicide: among those crimes, the existence of a hundred serial killings can be detected.
     A sacrificial orgy misogynistic in nature aided by the authorities: those responsible need remain free in the shadow of a corrupt pyramid which has its base in police inefficiency and unpunished crimes at a rate of almost 100% in the Mexican Republic.
     Beyond the numbers, similar crimes suggest two facts of analagous gravity now and for the future: the global overlooking of, or amnesia in the face of, an extreme phenomenon marked by anarchic tendencies, and the impulse of normalizing barbarity in contemporary societies.]

"La dimensión desconocida," chapter 1 of 18 of Huesos en el desierto, appears on pp. 13-26 of the third edition of the work (Barcelona: Anagrama, 2005).  References to Roberto Bolaño's 2666 refer to pages in the Spanish language original (Barcelona: Anagrama, 2007) or in Natasha Wimmer's English language translation (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008).
A 2012 Bookforum chat with Sergio González Rodríguez, in English, can be found here.

viernes, 21 de febrero de 2014

The Girls of Slender Means

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie/The Girls of Slender Means/The Driver's Seat/The Only Problem (Everyman's Library, 2004)
by Muriel Spark
Scotland, 1963

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.  The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity.  Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind's eye.  All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.
(The Girls of Slender Means, 129)

As I hope you can tell from all that rich descriptive detail packed into the opening paragraph of Muriel Spark's autobiographical novella, The Girls of Slender Means is a sly, eminently quotable, and carefully written affair that was a pleasure to read despite also seeming a little workmanlike in spirit when compared with the godlike The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Fortunately for all concerned, we don't punish people for releasing the book version of Give 'Em Enough Rope after they've already gifted us with The Clash.  In any event, much of Spark's focus in this love letter to postwar disillusion has to do with a group of young women of modest means rooming at the May of Teck Club in London at the close of World War II (just as Spark herself did at the Helena Club in 1944-45).  How will their wartime lives, along with those of the non-May of Teck Club men and women who enter their lives, change once the war has finally ended and adulthood beckons?  Spark gives one answer, an arch one, while describing the night when virtually all of London took to the streets to celebrate the victory against Germany: "Many liaisons, some permanent, were formed in the night, and numerous infants of experimental variety, delightful in hue of skin and racial structure, were born to the world in the due cycle of nine months after" (137).  And she gives another answer, a harrowing one, near the end of the novel, while describing two tragedies that befall May of Teck Club members and their friends and an unrelated act of random violence witnessed among the crowds taking to the streets to mark VJ night.  In between, art and romantic love and religion are held up to the light for scrutiny in a way that makes me wonder whether I might be holding The Girls of Slender Means to an impossibly high standard; at the very least, it's hard not to admire a writer of faith who can slam an insensitive country clergyman as being "this shepherd of the best prime mutton" (231) or a writer of any sort who can smack down the healing powers of young love with such a coldblooded dig as follows: "Joanna pressed down her feelings for the second curate and worked them off in tennis and the war effort" (141).  Muriel Spark, a writer with ice in her veins.

lunes, 17 de febrero de 2014

El viaje

El arte de la fuga/El viaje/El mago de Viena (Anagrama, 2007)
por Sergio Pitol
México, 2001

Hay que leer a Pitol.  Un día de estos, voy a leer o una novela o un libro de cuentos suyos.  Mientras tanto, sigo con sus textos ensayísticos --en este caso, el segundo tomo de la llamada Trilogía de la Memoria-- sin queja alguna.  El viaje, de 2001, es una especie de crónica literaria que tiene que ver con un viaje a la URSS que hizo Pitol en 1986 junto con un recorrido sentimental de su residencia en Praga, donde pasó seis años en los ochenta con un cargo diplomático.  Como de costumbre con el mexicano, los recuerdos triviales tipo "hice un recorrido de los cafés y museos de la ciudad" provocan un sinnúmero de otros dedicados con entusiasmo a sus autores y artistas predilectos.  De un sueño sobre "los senderos inextricables que componen la Praga medieval y el antiguo barrio judío", por ejemplo, surge un recuerdo particular sobre la experiencia de caminar aquellas mismas calles:

De todas las ciencias que en Praga tienen cabida la de más prestigio es la alquimia. Por algo Ripellino tituló Praga mágica al mejor de sus libros.  Durante seis años visité sus santuarios, los que conoce todo el mundo, pero también otros, los secretos; recorrí avenidas espléndidas que son parques y se vuelven bosques, y también callejuelas escuálidas, pasajes ramplones, sin forma ni sentido.  Caminé acompasadamente una y otra vez sobre losas que conocieron las pisadas del Golem, de Joseph K. y de Gregorio Samsa, de Elena Marti-Makropulos, del soldado Schveijk, del rabino Levy, con coro de ocultistas, de salamandras, de robots y de algunos miembros más de la variopinta familia literaria de Bohemia.  Praga: observatorio y compendio del universo: Imago mundi absoluto: Praga (330-331).

Además de su entusiasmo contagioso, me gusta leer Pitol a causa de su erudición asombrosa.  Lo siguiente, tomado de una página de su diario de 1986 sobre un día pasado en el viejo Leningrado, es un buen ejemplo de cómo el autor hubiera sido un excelente profesor de literatura comparada:

Se me ha vuelto una necesidad inaplazable releer Petersburgo, de Andréi Bély, tal vez la novela rusa más importante de este siglo.  Mann la leyó en su juventud y esa lectura lo marcó para siempre.  Detestaba entonces que la novela no se hubiera quedado en Stendhal, Tolstói o Fontane.  Eran extraordinarios, quién podía dudarlo, pero en Bély encontraba una forma paródica, casi secreta.  Las escenas cumbres, los clímax violentos en que abunda el relato están bañados de una suave sorna que casi nadie percibió en su tiempo.  Él sí, y comenzó a estudiar la construcción de situaciones que pudieran combinar el pathos con la caricatura.  Las manchas de la tuberculosis en los pulmones de Mme. Chauchat contempladas en una radiografía por Hans Castorp y el espasmo verbal, la riquísima retórica con que ese joven nos pone al tanto de su pasión amorosa a través de esas manchas, son un ejemplo.  Me gustaría leer las otras novelas de Bély: Las palomas de plata y Kótik Letáev, la más experimental, un monólogo intrauterino que lucha, a través de balbuceos, por alcanzar algún sentido, y más aún, empaparme de la literatura asombrosa de principio de siglo al final de los diez y los viente: Ajmátova, Rózanov, Kuzmín, Tsvietáieva, Mandelstam, Tiniánov, Pasternak, Platónov y Jlébnikov, para algunos este último es el poeta formalmente más radical de la época.  Tanto Shklovski como Ripellino, que lo han estudiado a conciencia, están acordes en que es el auténtico transformador de la lírica rusa, que la libera del simbolismo y la dirige a la vanguardia, al futurismo concretamente (381-382).

Qué lista de nombres para enumerar, ¿no?  ¡Es casi como el catálago de naves en el canto II de la Ilíada!  Lo chistoso es que Pitol empieza la entrada como sigue: "Amanecí con un mal humor del carajo" (381).  Al pensar en el sentido de humor de nuestro erudito amigo, debo añadir que dos otras anécdotas suyas, tal vez más característicamente turísticas en algún modo, tienen que ver con un malentido acerca de "dos revistas pornográficas finlandesas" (398) y su visita, acompañado por un escritor local, a un "mingitorio colectivo, lo que jamás habría imaginado que existiera, fuera de las instalaciones penales, si acaso" durante una noche marcada "por los hectolitros de vino tinto ingerido" (420).  Dado el respeto que Pitol dice tener por Nikolái Gógol, voy a concluir esta entrada compartiendo el desenlace pitoliano tan eminentemente gogoliano:

El pudor colectivo era inexistente.  Se oían carcajadas al mismo tiempo que ruidos de vientre.  La pestilencia del antro era intolerable.  Temí desmayarme.  Busqué a aquel loco Virgilio cacarizo que me había conducido a ese círculo fecal del infierno para pedirle que me sacara inmediatamente de allí, y lo vi feliz, como si hubiera llegado al ágora en el momento cenital, conversando alegremente con unos muchachos y saludando a otros, mientras se desabrochaba los pantalones y se dirigía a uno de los agujeros para defecar.  Salí como pude, llegué al restaurante, pedí a la guía que me llevara en un taxi al hotel y caí como una piedra en la cama (421).

Afortunadamente para todos, el gran Pitol sobrevivió para contarlo.  Hay que leer a él.

Sergio Pitol

viernes, 14 de febrero de 2014

El balcón

"El balcón"
by Felisberto Hernández
Uruguay, 1945

Impromptu Felisberto Hernández Week continues with two stories--or rather a short story and an anecdote.  Do I know how to work a crowd or what?  In "El balcón" ["The Balcony," readily available to non-Spanish speaking hipsters in the anthology Piano Stories], the usual Felisberto-style narrator--an unnamed piano player on tour in the provinces--gets into the usual Felisberto-style scrape--he charms a lonely, bad poetry-reciting shut-in who then has to choose between the piano player and her beloved balcony, with whom she seems to share an, ahem, unnaturally close relationship--with the usual improbably entertaining results.  How do you say "WTF" in Spanish, you ask?  Good question.  However, for our purposes, the more salient question is this: how could Felisberto have ever managed to pull off such a preposterous premise?  Three possible answers: Moxie.  A fine sense of humor.  More moxie.  I mean, it certainly doesn't hurt that Felisberto's unusual way of regarding inanimate objects as if they were endowed with life ("Contra la pared que recibía menos luz había recostado un pequeño piano abierto, su gran sonrisa amarillenta parecía ingenua" ["Backed against the darkest wall of the room was a small open piano.  Its big yellowish smile looked innocent"]) (97 in Spanish, 56 in Luis Harss' English translation) seems so natural, seems so right in context.  Still, how can I logically explain the childish delight of a story whose emotional payoff transports me back to the days when I was a seven- or an eight-year old kid happily placing coins into an organ-grinder's monkey's tiny, greedy, and last but not least nattily-attired hands?  It's almost illogical, I tell you!  On the anecdotal front, Norah Giraldi de Dei Cas, whose slender 1975 critical biography of the author (Felisberto Hernández: del creador al hombre) promises to help me extend Impromptu Felisberto Hernández Week indefinitely should I only choose to, shares an interesting tidbit about Felisberto's autobiographical novella Por los tiempos de Clemente Colling [Around the Time of Clemente Colling in its English incarnation].  At the beginning of this work, the narrator--another piano player but this time an undisguised version of Felisberto himself--makes reference to a house in his childhood neighborhood in which a madman lived.  The madman, while a minor character in the grand scheme of things, is a memorable one: he'd go down into a well to read when he didn't want to be disturbed, he lived in a room that had a "window" painted on to the wall of the house instead of having a regular glass window, etc.  As Giraldi de Dei Cas explains it, this character was based on a real person from Felisberto's childhood whose sisters (also mentioned in the novella) had dug him a well so that he could study in peace when he was in a better place in terms of his mental illness.  Not sure whether the painted-on window was a factual or an artistic touch, but it tickles me to learn that some elements of Felisberto's real life were just as fantastic or at least out of the ordinary as the ones that figure prominently in his stories.

"El balcón," often anthologized in both Spanish and English, appears on pp. 95-110 of FH's Las Hortensias y otros relatos (Buenos Aires: El cuenco de plata, 2009).  "The Balcony," as translated by Luis Harss, appears on pp. 53-68 of FH's Piano Stories (New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1993).  The Norah Giraldi de Dei Cas anecdote comes from p. 33 of her study, Felisberto Hernández: del creador al hombre (Montevideo: Ediciones de la Banda Oriental, 1975).

domingo, 9 de febrero de 2014

Por los tiempos de Clemente Colling

Por los tiempos de Clemente Colling (Eterna Cadencia Editora, 2009)
por Felisberto Hernández
Uruguay, 1942

Poco a poco (o mejor dicho, novela corta tras novela corta), estoy enamorándome de la obra genial e idiosyncrásica de Felisberto Hernández.  A diferencia de la divertidamente demente Las Hortensias de 1949, la más temprana Por los tiempos de Clemente Colling es una íntima obra autobiográfica que es lijeramente proustiana y matizada de nostalgia por la Montevideo de la infancia del escritor.  En aquél entonces (o sea de los años 1915-1925), el narrador, como el Felisberto de carne y hueso, estudiaba piano y armonía con un tal Clemente Colling, un maestro de piano francés que era ciego y tuerto además de ser, al parecer, todo un personaje: un hombre de "grandes virtudes y poca higiene" como se dice en algún momento (81).  En todo caso, la memoria de Colling en su turno provoca la reaparición de otros recuerdos vinculados a  la niñez del narrador, recuerdos que, algunos cargados de tristeza, "empiezan a bajar lentamente, de las telas que han hecho en los rincones predilectos de la infancia" (25).  ¿Ligeramente proustiana?  Sí, pero en vez de un parlanchín llamado Marcel hablando de la aristocracia parisiense, se trata de un parlanchín llamado Felisberto hablando de la gente que pertenece a su barrio montevideano humilde.  Aquí hay de todo para todos.  Hay una serie de anécdotas, narradas con evidente ternura y gracia, sobre los vecinos y los familiares.  Por ejemplo: la de las tres "longevas" que tenían un loro disecado, muy querido en su vida, en su casa, "a quien ellas hablaban como si estuviera vivo.  La que cocinaba imitaba su voz, como lo haría un ventrílocuo y contestaba por él" (33).  O: la de la tía Petrona, una persona generosa sino burlona con "cierto matiz brutal", que "tomaba con dos dedos un sapo y lo levantaba hasta mostrar la barriga blanca.  Yo tenía miedo porque ella misma me había dicho que soltaban un fuerte chorro de orín, que daba en los ojos y que dejaba ciego" (38).  O: la de la niña vidente que, al visitar al Instituto de Ciegos "y que viendo a las niñas ciegas", decidió que "ella también quería ser ciega" y se echó jabón en los ojos a las risas de los demás (51).  Hay lindas descripciones "auténticas" de la época: "El lazarillo esperaba con tanta inmovilidad como el perro de los discos Víctor que escuchaba la voz del amo" (88-89).  Hay otras descripciones inesperadamente desconcertantes:  "Mirando al escenario, sentí de pronto aquel silencio como si fuera el de un velorio.  El gran piano era todo blanco.  Los pianos negros nunca me sugirieron nada fúnebre; pero aquel piano blanco tenía algo de velorio infantil" (45).  Por supuesto, hay muchas reflexiones sobre la vida artística y algunas sobre cómo narrar el pasado también.  En cuanto a Colling, un tipo raro que no se bañaba con frecuencia, dormía con los zapatos puestos, y tenía que mudarse de conventillo a conventillo cada cuando a causa de su penuria extrema, me gustó cómo el retrato de él que emergió de las sombras era tan cariñosamente esbozado e incluso fidedigno a la vez: como si, en las palabras del narrador cuando menciona una anécdota del ciego, era escrito "de manera que tenía posibilidades de ser cierta" (73).

Por los tiempos de Clemente Colling, una novela corta publicada en Uruguay en 1942, aparece en los Cuentos reunidos de Felisberto Hernández con prólogo de Elvio E. Gandolfo (Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia Editora, 2009, 17-93).

viernes, 7 de febrero de 2014

Authorial Voice(s) in the First Half of 2666 #2

2666 (Anagrama, 2007, original; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, translation)
by Roberto Bolaño
Spain, 2004

     Por aquellos días Pelletier y Espinoza, preocupados por el estado actual de su común amante, mantuvieron dos largas conversaciones telefónicas.
     La primera la hizo el francés y duró una hora y quince minutos.  La segunda la realizó Espinoza, tres días después, y duró dos horas y quince minutos.  Cuando ya llevaban hablando una hora y media Pelletier le dijo que colgara, que la llamada le iba a salir muy cara, y que él lo llamaría de inmediato, a lo que el español se opuso rotundamente.
     La primera conversación telefónica, la que hizo Pelletier, empezó de manera difícil, aunque Espinoza esperaba esa llamada, como si a ambos les costara decirse lo que tarde o temprano iban a tenir que decirse.  Los veinte minutos iniciales tuvieron un tono trágico en donde la palabra destino se empleó diez veces y la palabra amistad veinticuatro.  El nombvre de Liz Norton se pronunció cincuenta veces, nueve de ellas en vano.  La palabra París se dijo en siete ocasiones.  Madrid, en ocho.  La palabra amor se pronunció dos veces, una cada uno.  La palabra horror se pronunció en seis ocasiones y la palabra felicidad en una (la empleó Espinoza).  La palabra resolución se dijo en doce ocasiones.  La palabra solipsismo en siete.  La palabra eufemismo en diez.  La palabra categoría, en singular y en plural, en nueve.  La palabra estructuralismo en una (Pelletier).  El término literatura norteamericana en tres.  Las palabras cena y cenamos y desayuno y sándwich en diecinueve.  La palabra ojos y manos y cabellera en catorce.  Después la conversación se hizo más fluida.  Pelletier le contó un chiste en alemán a Espinoza y éste se rió.  Espinoza le contó un chiste en alemán a Pelletier y éste también se rió.  De hecho, ambos se reían envueltos en las ondas o lo que fuera que unía sus voces y sus oídos a través de los campos oscuros y del viento y de las nieves pirenaicas y ríos y carreteras solitarias y los respectivos e interminables suburbios que rodeaban París y Madrid.

[Around this time, Pelletier and Espinoza, worried about the current state of their mutual lover, had two long conversations on the phone.
     Pelletier made the first call, which lasted an hour and fifteen minutes.  The second was made three days later by Espinoza and lasted two hours and fifteen minutes.  After they'd been talking for an hour and a half, Pelletier told Espinoza to hang up, the call would be expensive and he'd call right back, but Espinoza firmly refused.
     The first conversation began awkwardly, although Espinoza had been expecting Pelletier's call, as if both men found it difficult to say what sooner or later they would have to say.  The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship twenty-four times.  Liz Norton's name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain.  The word Paris was said seven times, Madrid, eight.  The word love was spoken twice, once by each man.  The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza).  The word solution was said twelve times.  The word solipsism seven times.  The word euphemism ten times.  The word category, in the singular and the plural, nine times.  The word structuralism once (Pelletier).  The term American literature three times.  The words dinner or eating or breakfast or sandwich nineteen times.  The words eyes or hands or hair fourteen times.  Then the conversation proceeded more smoothly.  Pelletier told Espinoza a joke in German and Espinoza laughed.  In fact, they both laughed, wrapped up in the waves or whatever it was that linked their voices and ears across the dark fields and the wind and the snow of the Pyrenees and the rivers and the lonely roads and the separate and interminable suburbs surrounding Paris and Madrid.
(2666, Roberto Bolaño, 61-62; ditto, as translated by Natasha Wimmer, 40-41)

As luck would have it, that scene from part one of these two authorial voice(s) posts having to do with Amalfitano's dream and the animistic wind sweeping through Santa Teresa's back alleys and backyards is situated almost midway along the space/time continuum as it were between two others that I wanted to talk about.  And so even though today's sequences could not seem to be any more outwardly different in terms of style or tone, I'd like to take a quick look at some of the narrative parallels and divergences that they present.  In the passage above, approximately 50 pages into "La parte de los críticos" ["The Part About the Critics"], the unsuspecting reader can partake of a particularly saliva-rich example of Bolaño's exuberance, humor, and narrative mischievousness all delivered in one well-aimed spitball.  At first glance, what I feel obligated to refer to as "the part about the telephone call" offers up a lovely tearing down of the omniscient narrator conceit via the arch and over the top enumeration--by an omniscient narrator!--of how long the phone call lasted and how many references were made to specific words.  Internally, the joke is exploited by comparing how many times English critic Liz Norton gets mentioned by her two lovers (fifty) to how many times love gets mentioned (only twice, how sad)--not to mention how many times dinner or eating or breakfast or sandwich get mentioned (nineteen times!).  On a personal note, I also like the narrator's light comic touch in drawing attention to the fact that the Spanish critic Espinoza, who is sometimes portrayed as being maybe both a little more "emotional" and a little less "intellectual" than the French critic Pelletier, is the one who mentions "happiness" while the latter is the one who mentions "structuralism."  A good inside joke.  The Javier Marías-like poetic flourish at the end of the passage, captured so well in Natasha Wimmer's translation, makes for a nice exclamation point to the spare, bullet point realism of the sentences that precede it, but I want to hold off commenting on that for now until we get a chance to take a look at a complementary passage from "La parte de Fate" ["The Part About Fate"].  The set-up: Fate, a Harlem-based journalist, is spending the night in a Detroit hotel not long after having interviewed Barry Seaman and having just heard Seaman deliver an in-real-time speech at a church that runs over a dozen pages in my Spanish edition of the work (storytelling style points for that feat: off the charts):

Mientras Fate dormía dieron un reportaje sobre una norteamericana desaparecida en Santa Teresa, en el estado de Sonora, al norte de México.  El reportero era un chicano llamado Dick Medina y hablaba sobre la larga lista de mujeres asesinadas en Santa Teresa, muchas de las cuales iban a parar a la fosa común del cementerio pues nadie reclamaba sus cadáveres.  Medina hablaba en el desierto.  Detrás se veía una carretera y mucho más lejos un promontorio que Medina señalaba en algún momento de la emisión diciendo que aquello era Arizona.  El viento despeinaba el pelo negro y liso del reportero, que iba vestido con una camisa de manga corta.  Después aparecían algunas fábricas de montaje y la voz en off de Medina decía que el desempleo era prácticamente inexistente en aquella franja de la frontera.  Gente haciendo cola en una acera estrecha.  Camionetas cubiertas de polvo muy fino, de color marrón caca de niño.  Depresiones del terreno, como cráteres de la Primera Guerra Mundial, que poco a poco se convertían en vertederos.  El rostro sonriente de un tipo de no más de veinte años, flaco y moreno, de mandíbulas prominentes, a quien Medina identificaba en off como pollero o coyote o guía de ilegales de un lado a otro de la frontera.  Medina decía un nombre.  El nombre de una joven.  Después aparecían las calles de un pueblo de Arizona de donde la joven era originaria.  Casas con jardines raquíticos y cercas de alambre trenzado de color plata sucia.  El rostro compungido de la madre.  Cansada de llorar.  El rostro del padre, un tipo alto, de espaldas anchas, que miraba fíjamente a la cámara y no decía nada.  Detrás de estas dos figuras se perfilaban las sombras de tres adolescentes.  Nuestras otras tres hijas, decía la madre en un inglés con acento.  Las tres niñas, la mayor de no más de quince años, echaban a correr hacia la sombra de la casa.

[While Fate was sleeping, there was a report on an American who had disappeared in Santa Teresa, in the state of Sonora in the north of Mexico.  The reporter, Dick Medina, was a Chicano, and he talked about the long list of women killed in Santa Teresa, many of whom ended up in the common grave at the cementery because no one claimed their bodies.  Medina was talking in the desert.  Behind him was a highway and off in the distance was a rise that Medina gestured toward at some point in the broadcast, saying it was Arizona.  The wind ruffled the reporter's smooth black hair.  He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt.  Then came a shot of some assembly plants and Medina's voice-over saying that unemployment was almost nonexistent along that stretch of the border.  People standing in line on a narrow sidewalk.  Pickup trucks covered in a fine dust the brown color of baby shit.  Hollows in the ground, like World War I bomb craters, that gradually gave way to dumping sites.  The smiling face of some kid who couldn't have been more than twenty, thin and dark-skinned, with prominent cheekbones, whom Medina identified in a voice-over as a pollero or coyote or person who leads illegal immigrants over the border.  Medina said a name.  The name of a girl.  Then there was a shot of the streets of an Arizona town where the girl was from.  Houses with scorched yards and dirty silver-colored chicken-wire fences.  The sad face of the mother.  Exhausted with crying.  The face of the father, a tall man with broad shoulders who stared into the camera saying nothing.  Behind the two of them were the shadowy figures of three teenage girls.  Our other three daughters, said the mother in accented English.  The three girls, the oldest no more than fifteen, went running into the dark of the house.]
 (2666, Bolaño, 328; ditto, as translated by Wimmer, 258)

In this passage, approximately 30 pages into "La parte de Fate" ["The Part About Fate"], the exuberance, humor and narrative mischievousness of the phone call scene have been replaced by prose that feels and reads like something that's meant to suggest dry reportorial objectivity.  From a narrative standpoint, the flashiness--if there is any--is purely conceptual in the sense that the narrator, who had previously described the Archimboldi critics Espinoza, Morini, Norton, and Pelletier as "nuestros cuatro amigos" ["our four friends"] happily living a life that "siguió deslizándose o fluyendo por el plácido río de los departamentos de alemán de las universidades europeas ["proceeded smoothly, flowing along on the placid river of European university German departments"] (60 in the original, 40 in the translation), has abandoned his chumminess in favor of a studied neutrality to deliver a sobering bombshell anticipating "The Part About the Crimes."  On that note, I also admire how this scene touches on some of the larger themes in the work--the violence perpetrated against not just young women but young girls, the disproportionate percentage of poor people on both sides of the border affected by the crimes, the manner in which large-scale transnational human migration tends to reduce individuals into groups of predators and prey, and the anonymity of the victims--while subtly commenting on one of the reasons the real life crimes have gone unpunished: people's indifference to or unawareness of the problem.  How can Fate, for example, who like Huck and Jim is about to "light out for the territory" constituting the U.S./Mexico border, be expected to care about the latest nameless victim in Dick Medina's report when the transmission itself is broadcast while Fate is sleeping?  In terms of how this passage relates to both the phone call sequence and the one involving Amalfitano and the wind in terms of the smorgasboard of storytelling dished up in the novel, I think it's a great example of Bolaño's magical realism--not "magical realism," mind you, as practiced by García Marketing and his copycats, but magical...realism in the qualitative and maybe even in the Bioy Casares, Borges, and Cortázar senses.  Note that not only are we increasingly treated to accounts of things that take place in dreams but that things are also being divulged that are happening while the main characters are asleep that have nothing to do with dreams.  Much as in the Divine Comedy, where the three sections of the poem have a distinctive tone depending on whether you and Dante are journeying through Inferno, Purgatorio or Paradiso, the tonal axis of 2666 shifts as its trajectory moves away from the critics' safe European home and gets closer to the scene of the crime(s): Santa Teresa.  The authorial voice itself reflects that as evidenced from the disconnect between the last two lines in each passage above and the way that the second sentence in the fragment on Amalfitano in Wednesday's post seems to suggest that the wind has just as much agency as the expat Chilean professor.  In fact, I think it's clear that the narrator, or the narrative itself if you prefer to speak of it in more impersonal terms, increasingly fragments and even warps under the influence of Santa Teresa as the desert city and the enormity of the crimes come into focus.  Which shouldn't be a surprise, I guess: Santa Teresa, which elsewhere is described as having a sky which "al atardecer, parecía una flor carnívora" ["at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower"] (172 in the original, 129 in the translation) and which was "morado como la piel de una india muerta a palos" ["purple like the skin of an Indian woman beaten to death"] (269 in the original, 210 in the translation), seems to have been sending out bad vibes or releasing noxious fumes into the ether for quite some time.  Is that an SOS?  Or a siren song sung by killers?
Please visit my intro post on the novel if you have any interest in checking out the links to the really fine commentary that other 2666 group read members have contributed so far.  We're up to about a dozen posts already with many more in the works.  Updates will be added throughout the end of the month.  Also, I previously wrote about the first three parts of 2666 here, here and here nearly five years ago.  Although all but the last one on "La parte de Fate" ["The Part About Fate"] are pretty much embarrassing to me these days, I'll link to them here in case any gluttons for punishment care to pick over the verbal roadkill manifesting itself as my first impressions of the novel.
Natasha Wimmer's two translations above do a tremendous job of replicating the rhythm and the tone of Bolaño's prose.  People reading those passages in translation rather than in Bolaño's Spanish won't be missing out on much.  However, whether due to an oversight or a translation decision I couldn't say, Wimmer omits Bolaño's penultimate line from the first sequence--"Espinoza le contó un chiste en alemán a Pelletier y éste también se rió" [following Wimmer's lead: "Espinoza told Pelletier a joke in German and Pelletier also laughed"]--a minor thing, to be sure, but one that lessens the parallelism worked at elsewhere in the passage.  In the second sequence, people reading the novel in Spanish would have the advantage of deciding whether the third line from the end which mentions "las sombras de tres adolescentes" and which Wimmer justifiably translates as "the shadowy figures of three teenage girls" might mean that and that alone or might hint at something extra: sombra, in addition to meaning "shadow" in the sense that's probably intended here, can also refer to a "shade" or "ghost" as if hinting at the fate of the missing American girl who had disappeared in Santa Teresa, leaving her three sisters and her parents bereft.

miércoles, 5 de febrero de 2014

Authorial Voice(s) in the First Half of 2666 #1

2666 (Anagrama, 2007)
by Roberto Bolaño
Spain, 2004

2666 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
by Roberto Bolaño [translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer]
Spain, 2004

Aquella noche la voz no volvió a manifestarse y Amalfitano durmió muy mal, un sueño turbado por saltos y respingones, como si alguien le arañara los brazos y las piernas, con el cuerpo empapado en transpiración, aunque a las cinco de la mañana la angustia cesó y en el sueño apareció Lola que lo saludaba desde un parque de grandes rejas (él estaba al otro lado), y dos rostros de amigos a los que hacía años que no veía (y a quienes probablemente no volvería a ver jamás) y una habitación llena de libros de filosofía cubiertos de polvo, mas no por ello menos magníficos.  A esa misma hora la policía de Santa Teresa encontró el cadáver de otra adolescente, semienterrada en un lote baldío de un arrabal de la ciudad, y un viento fuerte, que venía del oeste, se fue a estrellar contra la falda de las montañas del este, levantando polvo y hojas de periódico y cartones tirados en la calle a su paso por Santa Teresa y moviendo la ropa que Rosa había colgado en el jardín trasero, como si el viento, ese viento joven y enérgico y de tan corta vida, se probara las camisas y pantalones de Amalfitano y se metiera dentro de las bragas de su hija y leyera algunas páginas del Testamento geométrico a ver si por allí había algo que le fuera a ser de utilidad, algo que le explicara el paisaje tan curioso de calles y casas a través de las cuales estaba galopando o que lo explicara a él mismo como viento.

[That night there were no further manifestations of the voice and Amalfitano slept very badly, his sleep plagued by jerks and starts, as if someone was scratching his arms and legs, his body drenched in sweat, although at five in the morning the torment ceased and Lola appeared in his sleep, waving to him from a park behind a tall fence (he was on the other side), along with the faces of two friends he hadn't seen for years (and would probably never see again), and a room full of philosophy books covered in dust but still magnificent.  At that same moment the Santa Teresa police found the body of another teenage girl, half buried in a vacant lot in one of the neighborhoods on the edge of the city, and a strong wind from the west hurled itself against the slope of the mountains to the east, raising dust and a litter of newspaper and cardboard on its way through Santa Teresa, moving the clothes that Rosa had hung in the backyard, as if the wind, young and energetic in its brief life, were trying on Amalfitano's shirts and pants and slipping into his daughter's underpants and reading a few pages of the Testamento geométrico to see whether there was anything in it that might be of use, anything that might explain the strange landscape of sreets and houses through which it was galloping, or that would explain it to itself as wind.]
(2666, by Roberto Bolaño, 260; ditto, as translated by Natasha Wimmer, 202-203)

A couple of people taking part in our January and February group read of 2666 have made comments to the effect that they think Bolaño is a cold or a distant narrator in the first half of the novel (question: what will they have to say about "The Part About the Crimes"?).  Although that reaction to Bolaño is so different from my own experience of his writing--in this novel and elsewhere, in first- and third-person narrations of his--for the sake of discussion, let's assume that that opinion represents an essentially unassailable viewpoint.  Given the circumstances, what can Bolaño's so-called cold and distant style tell us about the use of the authorial voice in the first half of 2666?  Tonight: a partial answer from "The Part About Amalfitano."  Later: related responses from "The Part About the Critics" and "The Part About Fate."
In the merely two sentence-long passage above, which comes about 30 pages from the end of "La parte de Amalfitano" ["The Part About Amalfitano"], the unnamed and seemingly omniscient narrator matter of factly describes the night after Amalfitano first began hearing voices and thought he was going crazy.  We are told that the professor's ex-wife Lola, who has died from AIDS, appears in his dream, as do two friends whom the professor hadn't seen in years.  There's nothing particularly memorable about the first sentence's description apart, perhaps, from the amusing editorial that Amalfitano's full room worth of philosophy books are still "magnificent" despite their accumulation of dust.  As if playing off of the burial service expression "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" [Spanish: "polvo eres y polvo serás"], however, the narrator stealthily takes advantage of this opportunity to link the rather pedestrian description of Amalfitano's dream in the first sentence with the jarring revelation in the second sentence that "at that same moment the Santa Teresa police found the body of another teenage girl, half buried in a vacant lot in one of the neighborhoods on the edge of the city."  Why the linkage between this information and Amalfitano's dream?  Does Lola's presence in the dream foreshadow the presence of the death of somebody else close to Amalfitano--such as their young daughter Rosa?  Is there any explanation at all?  Whatever the case may be, note that in the continuation of the sequence, the narrator goes on to describe an almost animistic "wind from the west" which is reported as being "young and energetic in its brief life" and maybe even curious enough as an entity to want to flip through the pages of Rafael Dieste's Testamento geométrico which has been hung out on the clothesline Marcel Duchamp style.  For me, on a purely technical level, the unexpected shift in perspective from Amalfitano's dream to the wind from the west is attention grabbing storytelling that rivals that great scene in Madame Bovary where Emma Bovary abandons herself to the cad Rodolfe and her interior world and the natural world seem to join forces to celebrate her orgasm.  On a thematic level, things are a little more distressing: Juan Rulfo fans, like Bolaño was, will remember that an evil wind also figures as a protagonist in Rulfo's short story "Luvina."  More immediately, the mention of the discovery of the dead teenage girl here and the description of the "young and energetic" wind "slipping into" Rosa's panties don't bode well for the future parts of the novel from what we know of the real life rapes and murders that inspired "The Part About the Crimes."  On that note, it probably won't ameliorate the almost perverse intimacy of this scene to explain that the Spanish word for dust, polvo, is also commonly used as slang for the noun form of the f-word.  Not bad for such a cold and distant narrator, eh?

Roberto Bolaño

sábado, 1 de febrero de 2014

Tawq al-Hamamah/El collar de la paloma/The Ring of the Dove Group Read

Although many of us will return to our discussion of the second half of Bolaño's 2666 during the last three days of the month, I'm happy to announce the other group read for the 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong that's slated to take place in February: Ibn Hazm de Córdoba's Tawq al-Hamamah [Spanish: El collar de la paloma; English: The Ring of the Dove].  If any of you are interested in reading this with me, just let me know and let's plan on a targeted discussion date of the weekend of Friday, 2/21, thru Sunday, 2/23.  So why might you want to read this book in the first place much less in February 2014?  First, because the work, interspersing prose with verse, is widely regarded as one of the jewels of Arabic literature ever produced in Al-Andalus by one of the most prominent Andalusians.  Second, because this so called "treatise on love and lovers" dated to the year 1022 offers us not only a unique window onto the Iberian Muslim culture of the time--José Ortega y Gassett, in his intro to my Spanish translation cited on the back of the book, calls it "el libro más ilustre sobre el tema del amor en la civilización musulmana" ["the most illustrious book on the theme of love in Muslim civilization"]--but a valuable comparative study for those interested in the theme of love and lovers as it relates to medieval European literature in the succeeding centuries.  Finally, having first read El collar de la paloma about ten years ago as part of a class on medieval Spanish literature, I can personally vouch for the work as an entertaining one chock full of strange reflections on haunting blonde slave girls, history, and yes love and lovers.  I hope I can count on some company for my reread.  As an added bonus for those pressed for time, the text clocks in at only somewhere around 200 pages.  Care to join me?