May 26, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Savage Detectives.
My favorite section of this book so far is the monologue/testimony of Auxilio Lacouture, self-proclaimed “mother of Mexican poetry.” Like most of the characters, Auxilio is apparently based on a real person, and the remarkable event in the chapter also seems to be reality-based (if not “real,” exactly).
It’s the best illustration yet that DFW was right in thinking that bathrooms are “places of mortal drama.” (He was talking about men’s rooms, but presumably that’s all he knew, right? I think we’re justified in extending his aphorism to the ladies’.) Auxilio’s predilection for reading poetry in the ladies’ room in the Faculty of Literature at her Mexico City university leads to her being overlooked in the governmental massacre and takeover of the university; she spends ten days in the restroom, in a small but important act of protest — becoming “UNAM’s last redoubt of autonomy.”
Bolaño has told Auxilio’s story in more detail in Amulet. Here, she’s given a ten-page, one-paragraph monologue, as she revisits passages of her life by revisiting her residency on the ladies’ room floor. It’s full of fascinating things, including Auxilio’s relationship with Arturo Belano (Roberto B’s fictional alter ego), her status as both insider and outsider in Mexico, the drama of staying alive by eating toilet paper and drinking water (and writing poetry on toilet paper, and dreaming, and crying, and remembering). Here’s one of my favorite passages, when she realizes what has happened:
So I went over to the only window in the bathroom and looked out. I saw a soldier far off in the distance. I saw the outline of an armored troop carrier or the shadow of an armored troop carrier. Like the portico of Latin literature, the portico of Greek literature. Oh, I adore Greek literature, from Pindar to George Seferis. I saw the wind sweeping the university as if it was delighting in the last light of day. And I knew what I had to do. I knew. I knew I had to resist. So I sat on the tiled floor of the women’s bathroom and in the last rays of light I read three more poems by Pedro Garfias and then I closed the book and closed my eyes and said to myself: Auxilio Lacouture, citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, stand your ground. That was all.
This is a good passage to illustrate Bolano’s style: the deceptively straightforward sentences that suddenly drop into a kind of cryptic code (an “armored troop carrier” is like “the portico of Latin literature” how?), the boring factual monotone that suddenly spikes into moments of beautiful clarity and purpose, of perfect pacing (“citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, stand your ground. That was all.”), the emphasis on finding voice without idiosyncratic tics or tricks.
In fact, I think one of the most remarkable things about this book is how Bolaño dares you to be bored — perhaps dares himself, too. As a writer, it is remarkably hard to be content with a boring sentence; it is hard to move from sentence to sentence without trying to be beautiful or showy. Obvious but frequently overlooked: writing boring sentences is boring, and boring is not easy. Boring is hard. (Personally, I’ve always had the most trouble writing the most basic transitional elements; those utilitarian sentences to move characters from one place to another, from one scene to another. They’re just so damn boring to write! I always fall into the temptation of thinking that they must be boring for the reader, too.) Bolaño almost never succumbs to the temptation to be beautiful — when he does, it’s because the voice he’s taken on would see fit to do so, and he is, after all, talking about poets. He lets the thread of his narrative pull the reader along, slowly and intermittently letting insights dawn on the reader.
May 17, 2009 § 1 Comment
Now reading: The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.
Jaime warned me that she’d never read a book with more characters than this one. I’m starting to believe this wasn’t an exaggeration.
The first section of this book is an immersion in Latin American poetry and literary history; for someone like me, with little knowledge about Mexican or Latin American literary history, one of the challenges of this book is trying to sort out the real poets given fictional parts — the ones that are supposed to resonate in one way or another with educated readers — from the “purely” fictional poets, the ones created by Bolaño or at least not known to readers. Given how much of the book so far is made up of discussions and mentions and critiques of these poets real and imaginary, I am somewhat amazed that an American publisher had the courage to publish this book, to expect us, the notoriously insular and xenophobic (not to mention vanishing and subliterate) American Reading Public, to care about this flood of narrative about Latin American poetry.
And yet the gist of all of these names is fairly clear: this is the diary of a young man, a young Mexican poet, casting off the shackles of academia to read whatever he wants, to try to live the life he thinks a poet should lead, to talk about poetry and receive recommendations for poets to read, poets he thinks he should already know but does not, poets others seem to take for granted as major figures but whom he’s never heard of. Anyone who’s been in a literature class in college has had this experience, and anyone who’s actually been an English major has had it frequently.
But the names! My God, the names! Bolaño reminds me a lot of Melville at times, in his overindulgence in lists and names, although I’m sure Whitman is probably the more logical influence. The most obvious example is the exegesis delivered by Ernesto San Epifanio in Garcia Madero’s November 22 entry. This section reminds me a lot of the famous “Cetology” chapter of Moby-Dick, which divided whales into groups by size like books. Here, San Epifanio divides literature into sexuality by its form (novels are hetero, poetry homo), and subdivides poetry into many different subcultures: “faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes,” according to the intent and the effect of the poetry. (Whitman, if you’re wondering, is “a faggot poet.”)
Like “Cetology,” it is satirical; both works are attacking pedantry at some level. In both works you get the sense that the author is very much in on the joke, recognizes the absurdity of these semantic systems they’ve created. However, I’m not sure to what degree San Epifanio himself takes his labeling system seriously; he may be critiquing the splintering and ghettoization and mindless ideological following of the many schools of poetic practice, or he may be a part of that splintering and ghettoization. He may not even know about the satirical content of his classification system; as a homosexual in the macho Mexican 1970s, and a founder of the “Homosexual Communist Party of Mexico,” he may just be trying to queer his literary heritage.
Whatever the case may be, this passage points out the excellent, subtle touch Bolaño seemed to have at letting his book work on multiple levels. It is deceptively simple; it can also be deceptively boring at times. But there’s always a lot going on, even in lists of names I need to feed to Google for verification of identity.