In the John with the Mother of Mexican Poetry
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.