Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Latin American Literature Time

I’ll go ahead and say it: One Hundred Years of Solitude is a great book. And furthermore, Octavio Paz is a wonderful poet. But, Roberto Bolaño is, like it or love it, the new voice of Latin American literature. He established himself as such before his untimely death. The last decade of his life saw the writing and publication of an astounding amount of work from this Chilean exile and literary enfant terrible who, if you read anything about his youth (see link provided above) founded a small poetic movement in Mexico called infrarealism, a movement that rejected Garcia Marquez and the Boom members, so much so that the infrarealists would shout out their own poems while people like Paz were reading on stage.

What a little brat, this Bolaño was. It’s easy to think as much from the ivory tower of Gringolandia and Europe with established literary traditions that go back centuries, but Latin America has had a stranger literary history. Though there are significant literary periods there, the rest of the world knows only the Boom and the ever-expanding term “Magic Realism” and assumes that all writers south of the U.S. border write sweeping family histories with supernatural events, ghosts and desperate lovers eating rose petals. Not true. To Bolaño and many of his generation, this was upsetting. How to reconcile getting published, or even recognized, with kowtowing to trends and being pigeonholed? When Bolaño famously stated that Magic Realism “stinks” I don’t think he was saying that the entire style was inherently bad as much as he was doing what many generations do: rebel. And he was not avoiding politics in his assessment. It was not only Marquez’s writing that might have bothered Bolaño but also his friendship with Castro. Coming from Chile and witnessing the Pinochet coup, I’m sure human rights violations were often on Bolaño’s mind. They do appear, in a way, in his writing. What was his problem with Paz? I’m not sure yet. Aesthetically, and this is based on hearsay, Bolaño wrote poetry that sounds just as experimental and surreal as Paz. I doubt their styles match completely, but philosophically there seems to be a correlation, however tenuous. Obviously I need to do some serious investigation (and I hope to have the chance, though I don’t think Bolaño’s poems are in English as of yet) but I suspect the heckling of Paz has more to do with tearing down institutions in the hope of forging new ones than it does with truly disliking the great Mexican poet. Kind of the way the punks lambasted the hippies even if they secretly owned Led Zeppelin records. Kind of the way I understand the importance of Bob Dylan even if I long to smack him in the face with a pillowcase full of D batteries.

The sentimentality of folks like Neruda (still, in my assessment, THE poet) was largely rejected by the Bolaño generation, and I can accept that and still read Bolaño without feeling like I’m betraying anyone or choosing sides. And I’ve kept my collected Neruda close at hand all the while as I’ve been pouring over Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (and loving every moment!). Camus makes fun of Flaubert in The Plague, and it does nothing to tarnish the reputation of Madam Bovary. You can read it all, and why the hell shouldn’t you? This literary mudslinging is a symptom of generational differences, that’s all. Every generation should feel an equal measure of respect and disdain for that which preceded it. It’s the best way to get over Bloom’s “anxiety of influence.”

For the record: Bolaño is fantastic and deserves all the praise you’ll see if you Google his name. And Marquez is great when he’s great (I love One Hundred Years of Solitude, though Love in the Time of Cholera is rather a medicore book, but my reaction may be due to personal biases against it. In Evil Hour was really flat to me. Even Of Love and Other Demons was a bit of a disappointment. I think I need to read his other ambitious books, like The General in his Labyrinth). Borges and Cortazar (both heroes of Bolaño) are wonderful as well. I am itching to read Vargas Llosa. But never do I hear Arenas mentioned in these debates. I would be curious to discover what the erudite and opinionated Bolaño thought of his work. So everyone go out and read some Bolaño and then go back and take another look at the Boom generation. And what’s up with the Crack Generation from Mexico? Don't forget Jose Donoso and Manuel Puig either. And let’s still pay some attention to the pre-Boom figures of Borges, Cortazar, Rulfo and Bioy-Casares while we’re at it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A little bit from what I am reading

Friday, November 16, 2007

Borges and Bolaño

A killer article on Borges and Bolaño from Words Without Borders:

I’m reading a lot of Bolaño these days; I plan to focus on The Savage Detectives over my Xmas break. I think I need to go back and Borges as well.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Rock and Roll is a thing that needs to die"

Spend enough time near me and you’ll hear the words “Mr.” and “Bungle” used, as well as “greatest band ever.” Having popped Disco Volante back into my veins last week, I feel I am hearing the record for the first time, as little facets of the multi-tracked masterpiece re-reveal themselves to me while I drive through Chicago and many points nearby. To say they are (or were) my favorite band is an understatement.

I use the term “Mr. Bungle” as an umbrella to shelter the many, many spin-offs, side projects that became main projects, productions, compositions, live covers, rumors and other obscurities that mostly center around Mike Patton, Trey Spruance, and Trevor Dunn, the core of Bungle, if you will. (I wish I knew more about what Bär McKinnon is up to.) To list a few of the entities that fall under my catch-all term: Secret Chiefs 3, Fantomas, Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant, Tomahawk, Maldoror, Lovage, Faith No More . . . those are just a few, there are more, mostly spewing from the prolific Patton and his Ipecac label (most recently the disappointing Peeping Tom).

Now that we have that established, let’s move on to the reason for this post.

I was looking at some You Tube clips last night of Mr. Bungle, which led me to look up some interviews this morning. I found a few with Trey Spruance, one of which I found very interesting:

And another:

Maybe these are not so compelling to anyone else who stumbles on this here blog, but there are parts of these that made me realize a lot about my own pursuits and half-assed attempts at the whole creative thing. Mostly that a level of study is important but equally so is a level of experience and involvement, little of which can be found in academia, and that the necessary level of commitment comes from a passion that can never be manufactured. And so a tailspin occurred and I began to ask important questions none of which I’ll get into now, thank you very much. (This dovetails with my man DC who recently quoted Cormac McCarthy and a little bit about doing what you love or else.)

Before this devolves completely and becomes a silly elevation of an amateur’s ego manifesting in some quasi-spiritually connected bullshit, let me just state that I found the words of Mr. Spruance to be very inspiring today, as I long have.

This is part of why I think the Secret Chiefs 3 are the most interesting, dare I say important, band working today. The brainchild of Spruance—really it’s him covering or composing and arranging every song, not to mention producing them in the studio and then releasing it on his label, which employs no one but him—the Secret Chiefs 3 sprang from Mr. Bungle as a side project that has morphed into Spruance’s obsession. The band is not really a band but a rotating roster of musicians who help to interpret his vision. And what a vision. Aide from the music, and that is huge, there’s a philosophy, goddammit. The symbols and semiotics that accompany the records, most notably the latest and maybe greatest of their efforts, Book of Horizons, contributes greatly to the overall philosophical link between music and knowledge, or music and meditation, or, to be very fucking ethereal, music and pure energy—in short music and the essence of life. How’s that strike you? If it don’t, I pity you and ask that you remain in your cave and stay out of my way. [Back to the point, should one materialize.] The cerebral elements are in abundance on Book of Horizons, should anyone choose to decode them. I have not. The symbols are dense, my mind is finite. But I can speak about the music.

Or can I? What can I say that would intelligently relate what Spruance and Co. have done on this record or any? Not a goddamn thing. In the interviews, the man speaks of the tired compression of the critics that tend toward descriptions of Middle Eastern music meets Morricone meets surf meets this meets that, none of which is entirely wrong but all of which is very boring. To render their sound in such trite manners devalues the accomplishment. Stop, music critics, stop.

I will venture this: the thing about every post-Bungle band or record is that they contain some elements of what I loved about Bungle, but usually sacrifice one for another. Better put: Fantomas is endlessly entertaining and the Trio Convulsant is intellectually stimulating, but the Secret Chiefs 3 are both at once. And emotionally impacting, to boot. This was the case with Bungle, though this is not to say that the Chiefs and Bungle are necessarily the same in any way. Like a beautiful child that grew into a brilliant adult, Bungle died and the Chiefs live. Let’s hope it’s a long life.

The distillation of philosophy, passion, technical proficiency, fearless creativity and awe inspiring production leaves me with no other option than to proclaim the Secret Chiefs 3 the best of whatever and the what-have-you of everything. In short, I wish the rest of the world were as perfect as their cover of “Exodus.”

Monday, November 12, 2007

Ha ha

Apparently this is what my coworkers think of me since I’ve quit coffee (over a year strong, brothers and sisters):

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Blog Adultery

In my spare time (that’s a laugh) I work for the amazing, important and life-affirming online literature magazine, Words Without Borders. And now it seems I am a blogger for them as well:

Anything having to do with international literature in translation is apparently fair game for the blog, so if anyone out there is interested in stretching their blogging limbs, here’s the place to do it. Email me with any and all interests, assuming they exist, you apathetic philistines.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

My name again in lights

Borges by Spruance

I can’t help but go back again and again to this review of Borges on the Web of Mimicry. I still think it’s the most compelling review of the man’s work to date, written by a musician, not a literary critic.

Bolaño, Wimmer, Translation, all that

Brief interview with translator Natasha Wimmer on Roberto Bolaño, pulled from

Natasha Wimmer translated books by Mario Vargas Llosa and Bolaño's good friend Rodrigo Fresán, among others, before tackling Bolaño's two long novels, The Savage Detectives and the upcoming 2666, which have had an immeasurable impact on modern Latin American fiction (and perhaps now on Anglo American writing as well). We asked her a few questions about the process of bringing such a vast and vital book into English. How did you come to literary translation, and to translating a work of such prestige? Is the community of Spanish-to-English literary translators small, given Americans' famous lack of interest in translated work?

Wimmer: Luck, really. I lived in Spain when I was little, which is where I learned Spanish, and then I studied Spanish literature in college, but it was a job in publishing--at FSG, the publisher of The Savage Detectives--that made me realize that literary translation was something I could try. I’ve been translating now for eight years. My first project was a novel by the Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, Dirty Havana Trilogy, and since then I’ve worked on books by Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Zaid, Rodrigo Fresán, and Laura Restrepo. When I read The Savage Detectives, I thought it was one of the best novels I had read in any language in years, but I was sure there was no chance I would get to translate it. Bolaño already had a great translator--Chris Andrews. But Andrews couldn't do it, and I was the extremely fortunate runner-up.
The community of full-time translators is definitely small--it's hard to make a living. But there are many great occasional translators--professors, editors, writers. We're told that Bolaño towers over his generation of writers (and I can believe it). What did he do that was new? What has his influence been?

Wimmer: Bolaño was (is) the first to make a true break from the legacy of the Boom. Many other writers of his generation, and younger writers, too, have tried and are still trying to make a literature of their own, one that doesn’t languish in the long shadow of García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and the other novelists who exploded on the world scene in the 1960s. Bolaño made the leap seem effortless. The writers of the Boom put Latin America on the map. Bolaño creates a Latin America of the mind, a post-nationalist Latin America filtered through a rootless, restless, uncompromising literary sensibility. Could you describe Bolaño's style and his sentences? (I love his parentheses.) How did you handle the dozens of voices in The Savage Detectives?

Wimmer: Bolaño is both a maximalist and a classicist. He loves to play with excess, with the notion of reckless abandon, but beneath that there is a very careful sense of balance. He was a poet for many years before he became a novelist, and he is an endlessly inventive stylist. But--more rarely for a poet--he also has an unerring sense of character and a palpable fondness for his characters. The Savage Detectives could never have worked otherwise. There are very few writers who could write a novel from the perspective of fifty-odd characters and make each character's story seem urgent and intimate.

From the translator's perspective, some voices were definitely more difficult than others, but I rarely felt that I had to strain to make them distinct from each other. Mostly, it just involved following Bolaño's cues. The hardest thing, oddly enough, was getting the rhythm of his sentences right. There is something syncopated and unpredictable about them that would have been all too easy to smooth over as a translator, and I made a concerted effort not to do that. All of his books are full of references to, and appearances by, Latin American writers both fictional and real and I'm sure as a clueless American reader I'm missing hundreds of inside jokes. What's it like to read his work when you actually know the people he's referring to?

Wimmer: It adds a little something, but not as much as you might think. And many of his references are obscure even to Spanish-language readers. There is something cultish and purposefully arcane about the literary world that Bolaño's protagonist, García Madero, yearns to join, and like García Madero, the reader is entranced by authors' names and book titles without knowing exactly where they come from. You are working on translating his other giant masterpiece, 2666, the even larger novel that he completed just before his death. How is it going? What can we expect from 2666?

Wimmer: It's an extremely long novel (1100 pages in the Spanish edition ), so it's a test of stamina, but it's going very well. Like The Savage Detectives, it revolves around a lost writer (Cesárea Tinajero in TSD and Benno von Archimboldi in 2666), and the crucial episodes take place in the north of Mexico, but it is a darker book. The lurking sense of dread that many of the characters feel in TSD becomes something more palpable and sharply defined in 2666, and is linked to the killings of women in the Mexican city of Santa Teresa (modeled on Ciudad Juárez) and the legacy of the wars of the 20th century, particularly World War II.

Monday, November 05, 2007

National Identity

The new generation brought up under the influence of Putin's mythology is frightening. For me it is personified by the crowds of youth striding through the metro stations on May 9, Victory Day, the day marking the end of World War II, chanting "RUS-SIA! RUS-SIA!" They don't understand that they are behaving like fascists, but instead see themselves as the grandchildren of Hitler's conquerors; and the terrifying thing is that they are in fact grandchildren of the generation that fought Hitler, and are betraying that heritage.

From an interesting article taken off the New York Review of Books newsletter:

Moments of this observation piece eerily mirror my own country.

My newest pet peeve

When someone tells you a story and starts talking about people you don’t know as if you know them. “Oh and the other day Jackie and Bill were saying…” Who the fuck are Jackie and Bill? How hard is it to day, “my friend Jackie and her husband Bill” or “this woman I work with, Jackie, and her stock analyst, Bill” or, “this dame I met in a bar, Jackie, and her S&M slave in a dog collar, Bill”?

Thanks. I feel better.

Blade Runner, the Jason Vorhees of film

I never understood the hype about Blade Runner. I saw it as a kid and didn’t care for it (probably too young) and when I rented it again as a slightly older kid I was still far from impressed. I always found the voiceover to be stiff, so much so it ruined the film for me. (Let’s all come out and admit it: Harrison Ford is not much of an actor. There. Feels good, doesn’t it?)

I suppose I could have found something more redeeming in one of the many re-releases that eschewed the voice over and happy ending, but by the time the “director’s cut” was playing for a year straight at the midnight show I just didn’t give a damn. But now the final, perfect, true director’s cut, or something along those lines, is out in theaters and I can finally see this film the way it was supposed to be experienced. Perhaps I will and perhaps I will finally understand why throngs of geeks salivate over what I always found to be a poorly acted, nice looking mess.

More interesting to me is the idea this raises over directorial (or authorial, or artistic) intent versus outside influence and finished product. Or, is a piece of art ever finished? How do you know? They say that Elizabeth Bishop had a poem of hers taped on the wall by her desk for something like nine years. She knew there had to be another stanza between the penultimate and final, but it took her that long to write it. She just knew it was not done. (I would have just moved on. Wouldn’t you?) So if Blade Runner can keep coming back like a slasher from an ‘80s horror film then how can anyone be so certain their favorite film (or book, or paining, or song) is really the perfect vision of what the artist intended? Perhaps it was just rushed or re-cut by the studio, or god knows what. Something to ponder this Monday morning, y’all, if you’re of the mind. Hardly mind-blowing but what do you expect? It’s early.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Dead Punk

A good review from The Reader’s Fall Book Issue:

A subject close to my heart and forever frustrating, punk rock writing has always rubbed me six kinds of wrong ways. I loved punk as much as the next white suburban kid, but the hipper-than-thou bullshit and “it’s all about brotherhood and not selling out” illusion combine to piss me off quicker than anything punk ever claimed to rail against. Where is the line drawn between making a living off one’s art and selling out? Who gets to decide? The same mohawk wearing dullards I see on the Belmont el stop, sporting a tired look and unable to think of anything original? If so, then I’ll gladly say once and for all that punk is very fucking dead. It was killed in the most Nietzschean manner. And this book’s thesis that punk was intentionally unmarketable, while perhaps true a long time ago, is ridiculous. I’m hard pressed to think of a more enduring fashion.

The problem is that people want to romanticize trends, which is fine but let’s remember that punk, as beautiful a thing as it could be, had few innovations, and those were far between and endlessly copied. It’s dead. Call it death by emulation.

Going to dig up some 7 Seconds records and listen to them on the way to Starbucks and remember fondly how young I once was.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Iris Chang

From The Reader, regarding Iris Chang, a mysterious and sad case:

Chang’s The Rape of Nanking has haunted me since I read it. Her suicide struck me much the same way.

Rodolfo Fogwill

My favorite blog:

has a review for an Argentine writer's odd little war story of sorts:

which I would like to read, right around the time I finish Bolaño and start Cortazar. Mostly I am interested in Rodolfo Fogwill because of the photo on Three Percent. Check it out.

So old

Apparently all my friends are on something called Twitter, which is cute. (not Twitter itself but that fact that my friends are there being all funny and shit.) I can’t fathom what Twitter is or why people join, only that your cyber pals are referred to as “followers” and the site boasts that you can find someone to follow. Is this the next evolutionary step of Friendster to MySpace to Facebook? I’m confused by all this 21st ephemera, but what else is new?