Friday, December 18, 2009

New books by or about Bolaño: Tracing the poet's progress and the emergence of the novelist

The events of
Monsieur Pain (New Directions, $28.50) orbit around the peculiar illness that would take the life of the Peruvian poet César Vallejo. He died, rather mysteriously, in Paris in 1938. He had been in Spain, had worked for the Republican cause, and it’s suggested that his heartbreak over Spain exacerbated his demise. Yet in Roberto Bolaño’s novel, Vallejo, who appears only briefly, and only as a warm body, in a scene that finds him examined by a practitioner of “the occult sciences,” seems primarily to be dying from some spiritual condition that manifests itself in chronic hiccups. All around him Europe is becoming swept up in waves of fascism, seeming to hiccup itself, choked by spasms, unable to breathe calmly in an increasingly stifling air. And, who knows, perhaps the poet is hiccupping on the continent’s behalf, one final, wordless poetic act.

(Vallejo isn't the only character in a newly released novel to suffer perilously from a persistent case of hiccups. In Jonathan Lethem’s
Chronic City [Doubleday $34], his busy but loose, sprawling, often hilarious tale of friendship set in an alternate Manhattan, a man is afflicted with incessant hiccups caught from a beloved dog.)

Monsieur Pain is the earliest novel we now have from Bolaño, whose body of work has been getting rapidly translated into English by a couple of different US houses in the wake of the tremendous critical acclaim that met The Savage Detectives and 2666, both of which were published in the last few years. In the book’s preface, Bolaño explains that the novel was written back in 1981 or 82, long before he appears to have made any significant commitment to being an author of fiction rather than a poet, which he always maintained was his real vocation. Yet Monsieur Pain feels somewhat less overly poetic in its prose or structure than the later work. Some of the characteristics that we associate with Bolaño—the enigmatic sinister, the collision of politics and ineffable psychological need—are present, and an epilogue of biographical sketches is something of a prelude to the structural device found in Nazi Literature in the Americas. But, even though Monsieur Pain is translated by Chris Andrews, who has deftly translated the bulk of the Bolaño available, we don’t yet hear the Bolaño voice. That will come in good time—in fact it’s positively vibrant in The Skating Rink (New Directions, $28.50), the early mystery novel released in English last summer—and it’s perfectly interesting to see the author develop his approach in this slim work dense with curiosities.

While it hardly follows a generic narrative thread, Monsieur Pain is imbued with much playful tropes lifted from thrillers, considerable intrigue, and bizarre detours. There is the hero’s unrequited love for a young widow. There are foreigners following our hero through the streets. Bribes are taken. There are inexplicable orders that must be adhered to. There is also a surprise meeting in a café with a pair of twins who design miniature scenes of deadly catastrophes to be displayed in aquariums (which subtly anticipates the deep sea imagery of 2666). There is a screening of a perplexing, semi-documentary movie with the sly title of Actualité. This Paris is a confluence of shadows, and Bolaño’s writing feels rather close to an open homage to Kafka. The hero is repressed and finally ineffectual, lovesick, lonely, dream-rattled, and consumed with guilt. Perhaps he’s losing his mind. Perhaps he’s being mesmerized. He wants to save the life of César Vallejo, but there are forces that will not let this transpire.

At one point a character speaks of the notion that “every death has a ritual function; death, indeed, was the only genuine rite left in the world.” For Bolaño himself, who died in 2003 at the age of 50, death seems to have functioned as a shroud of mystique that would posthumously envelope his writing, much in the same way that Bolaño’s imprisonment in Chile after the coup, which has over the years been exaggerated by certain commentators, had enveloped his writing with a certain heroism while he was still alive. So it’s that much more interesting to hear from Bolaño during the final part of his life in this excellent little collection entitled Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview & Other Conversations (Melville House, $18.95).

It opens with an essay by Marcela Valdes that pays tribute not only to Bolaño but also to the Mexican investigative journalist Sergio González Rodriguez, Bolaño’s friend and the author of
Huesos en el Desierto, an exposé on the murdered women of Ciudad Juarez. González Rodriguez's research was essential to developing the portrait of Bolaño’s Santa Teresa, his fictionalized Juarez, and the dark centre of 2666. Bolaño, who greatly admired American crime writers such as James Ellroy, once said he wanted to be a homicide detective, and his correspondence with González Rodriguez was perhaps the closest he came to vicariously fulfilling this urge. (A list of other things Bolaño might have liked to do with his life can be found later in the book: “Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick, and there’s no other choice but to write.”)

In the four interviews that follow, we’re able to read Bolaño’s sense of the shape of 20th century Spanish-language literature, with numerous illuminating comments on the authors who he felt remain important, and the book features a number of informative, concise, and nicely laid out side-notes that give the reader easy access to basic information on every figure mentioned. Bolaño, whose tongue is frequently in cheek but who is equally capable of sudden, surprising flights of sincerity, discusses the problems with reading prose from the perspective of a poet, the differences between Mexico, Chile and Spain, his tendencies toward radicalism and the solitude it brings with it, the literary marketing value of political imprisonment, and types of literary silence. Looming over this last topic is the sad fact that Bolaño’s silence was th
e kind imposed by death that comes far too young, and at the peak of a brilliant career.

No comments: