Saturday, September 4, 2010

Peering into the Vase

I've heard that people who read for pleasure as adults very often had a parent who read to them as a child. What is it about settling oneself down into a relaxed position, in a bed or on a stair, and stilling all movement, inclining one's head to hear a story, that is so comforting? (Or it might be news, or a letter, or a poem.) Whatever the document and its intention, reading aloud - or being read to - is rare and rich.

Reading aloud last week led me to a rediscovery of a writer whose oeuvre I intended to read in its entirety (and haven't). I read Bolano's magnum opus 2666 (a collision of Europe and Latin America, of detectives, whores, murderers, victims, and literary critics) first. Challenged by its girth, lured by the enthusiastic reviews, and tempted by the dusky sunshine of Latin American literature, I sat myself in the corner of Allegro's on a melancholic November afternoon and began. And then I read The Savage Detectives, which I thought a better book, though less provocative and less bleak, and yet every bit as impassioned.

As Bolano's cult increases, New Directions has published translations of his earlier stories, novels, and essays for the unfortunate Anglophone public not able to digest him in his original language. (I've heard he reached his apotheosis in The Savage Detectives and 2666, so these others will be only desert or cheese and crackers after the feast.) It was the beginning of Amulet (1998) that I heard read aloud. Those first two chapters convinced me again of his talent - raw, romantic, enraged, faulty, and endlessly propagating. His narratives - both the overarching and the minute - and connections are like rabbits which breed so frequently and yet still surprise the child owners who marvel at the magic of their duplication.

Here's a passage from Amulet which caught my attention:

"...I imagined books sitting quietly on shelves and the dust of the world creeping into libraries, slowly, persistently, unstoppably, and then I came to realize that books are easy prey for dust (I understood this but refused to accept it), I saw clouds of dust gathering over a plain somewhere deep in my memory, and the clouds advanced until they reached Mexico City, the clouds that had come from my own private plain, which belonged to everyone although many refused to admit it, and those clouds covered everything with dust, the books I have read and those I was planning to read, covered them irrevocably, there was nothing to be done: however heroic my efforts with broom and rag, the dust was never going to go away, since it was an integral part of the books, their way of living or of mimicking something like life."

And also:

"And I saw my hand move forward, way from my body, and rise and hover over the vase's dark mouth, approaching its enameled lip...my arm froze and my hand hung limp like a dead ballerina's, a few inches from that Hell-mouth...Then I thought: Does Pedrito Garfias know what's hidden in his vase? Do poets have any idea what lurks in the bottomless maws of their vases? And if they know, why don't they take it upon themselves to destroy them?"


Is it the image, or the book's melancholy atmosphere? Or is it the charming nature of the narrator who states and retracts endlessly, as though one is shuffling down a path, and choosing and re-choosing and rejecting each presented bend in the way. All so Bolanoan.

On recommendation from C I've just finished Bolano: The Last Interview, a quartet of interviews with the author, the finale completed just before his death. The reader of these interviews can enjoy like a fly on the wall (a position Bolano very well may have despised) the careless and heady weary revolutionary persona he projects: his carelessness for his novels and his fervor for reading, for poetry and for essential visceral living. Unlike many authors, who write but do not read, Bolano values his library far more than his own productions. (Or at least, he affects to.)

With a surprising idealism, Bolano (in the Borgesian vein) says "A library is a metaphor for human beings, or what is best about human beings, the same way a concentration is a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity."

This man is a Beat with political blood in his veins, an empirical, anarchist who is both a poseur who seeks to live the romanticized life of that which he is, and the real thing.

Beyond the gratifying answers to the usual questions writers are asked (How autobiographical is your writing? Who are your influences? etc.), the interviews feature an aloof but alert wit. Upon being asked if he should have cut pages from The Savage Detectives, Bolano says "In order to cut pages, I would have to reread it and my religion prohibits me that."

In his pessimistic but strangely (apocalyptically?) beautiful opinion: "The world is alive and no living thing has any remedy. That's our fortune." A sentence which deserves an entire essay. It is devastating that such an essay will never come from Bolano's pen.

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