Sunday, November 13, 2011

Weekend readings: part 2

It's no secret that Nanga Fakir is an avowed fan of Roberto Bolaño (see his fanboy review of 2666 here) and that he finds his books (in particular 2666 and The Savage Detectives) drop dead beautiful. The latest work of Bolaño to have passed through NF's hands is his collection of non-fiction writing - mostly reviews and literary essays - Between Parantheses.

The literary terrorist doesn't disappoint. (As a brief aside, let's note here that Bolaño was the bête noire of the Mexican lit establishment - a painfully bright poet gone rogue, terrorizing all the others who in his opinion were 'unworthy' of donning the mantle of a poet - in a manner not-so-dissimilar as that in which SatyaVrat (that rogue street-fighting philosopher who made people sit back and become self conscious) would terrorize those around him for not thinking things hard enough and thoroughly enough; for their bourgeois tastes and their intellectual timidity (q.v. his famous interrogation/grilling of that 'academic' philosopher Sundar Sarukkai of NIAS). Bolaño and his guerrilla style literary movement - infrarealistas (visceral realists) - would haunt the Mexican literary establishment by storming poetry reading sessions and hijacking events with their own avant garde poetry recital ceremonies. The writer Carmen Boullosa (who later became a good friend of Bolaño) spoke of her fear of approaching the lectern lest there should be visceral realists lurking around.) His accounts are full of brilliant observations - mostly on the nature of literature and the role of the writer/poet as (anti)hero and his reviews are direct, honest and interspersed with nuggets of deep insights. (His opinions, often very strong, on the current status of literature in the Spanish language and on the current writers' from Latin America's post boom phase were hard to evaluate independently though.)

Bolaño's genius is not just in his writing (which is obscenely pretty) but also in his stories of vagabond writers traveling across deserts and towns and cities; disappearing in the unknown, leaving behind vague memories of mercurial temperaments, to be recalled by lonely friends or old girlfriends during static, stationary, painfully long, never ending afternoons when wallowing in nostalgia is the least boring thing to do. His accounts of obsessive writers compulsively scrawling poems under the spell of an imperative creative burst, soaking in the pleasant smell of a decaying bookstore; his punk do-it-yourself attitude to avant garde literature (which literature, he famously declared “is the product of a strange rain of blood, sweat, semen, and tears. Especially sweat and tears, although I am sure Bertoni would add semen”); his championing of Mario Santiago - his blood brother on whom the lead character Ulises Lima of The Savage Detectives is based; his wonderful, though fanboyish reviews of the works of Borges, Nicanor Parra, Cortazar, Vila-Matas, Twain, Philip K Dick and Vargas Llosa; and excoriating, biting assaults on those who're not 'real' writers (he reserves the worst for Isabel Allende) makes you want to abandon everything you're supposed to be doing and plunge into the punk underground of literature.

If, however, you've not read him directly, you've not experience what's it like to've read Bolaño. So here's one of the many breathtaking passages from Between Parentheses (you're welcome!):

...A right wing young woman sets up a house with a right wing American, or marries him. The two of them aren't just young, they're good looking and proud. He's a DINA (National Intelligence Directorate) agent, possibly also a CIA agent. She loves literature and loves her man. They rent or buy a big house in the suburbs of Santiago. In the cellars of this house the American interrogates and tortures political prisoners who are later moved on to other detention centers or added to the list of disappeared. She writes and she attends writing workshops. In those days I suppose, there weren't as many workshops as there are today, but there were some. In Santiago people have become accustomed to the curfew. And at nights there aren't many places to go for fun, and the winters are long. So every weekend or every few nights she has a group of writers over to her house. It isn't a set group. The guests vary. Some come only once, others several times. At the house there's always whiskey, good wine, and sometimes the gatherings turn into dinners. One night a guest goes looking for the bathroom and gets lost. It's his first time there and he doesn't know the house. Probably he's a bit tipsy or maybe he's already lost in the alcoholic haze of the weekend. In any case, instead of turning right, he turns left and then he goes down a flight of stairs that he shouldn't have gone down and he opens a door at the end of a long hallway, long like Chile. The room is dark but even so he can make out a bound figure, in pain or possibly drugged. He knows what he's seeing. He closes the door and returns to the party. He isn't drunk anymore. He's terrified, but he doesn't say anything. "Surely the people who attended those post-coup culturally stilted soirées will remember the annoyance of the flickering current that made lamps blink and the music stop, interrupting the dancing. Just as surely, they knew nothing about another parallel dance, in which the jab of the prod tensed the tortured back of the knee in a voltaic arc. They might not have heard the cries over the blare of the disco, which was all the rage back then," says Pedro Lemebel. Whatever the case, the writers leave. But they come back for the next party. She, the hostess, even wins a short story or poetry prize from the only literary journal still in existence back then, a left-wing journal.

And this is how the literature of every country is built.

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