Saturday, September 20, 2008

Book Talk

In anticipation of the coming Bolaño fall/winter, I read the last of his translated novels that had not yet made it across my eyes, Distant Star. Having read Nazi Literature in the Americas— the last chapter of which being a 20 page acorn that sprang into the mighty oak of Distant Star— I knew the story already, knew the outcome, knew the significant details. I must admit that this encapsulation of the poet/aviator/murderer tale was not my favorite from Bolaño’s compendium of fictional fascist Americans. So I always put the larger version, Distant Star, on the shelf reserved for that nebulous place called “someday.” Someday is now, I decided, and devoted a couple of days to the story of Carlos Wieder and his many pseudonyms.

The book contains all of the quintessentially Bolaño traits: the characters are mostly writers (poets, to be specific), most of them obscure or merely self-proclaimed; there’s a reclusive artist at the heart of the tale, and the obsessive(s) who hunt for him, collecting fragments of his story and piecing it together for the reader; there’s murder, the coup that ousted Allende, and the aftermath of the Chilean diaspora; mostly there’s Bolaño’s aggrandizement and indictment of the art, politics, and collective horror that was experienced by, to paraphrase him, anyone alive in those turbulent times of Latin America in the 1970s.

Where Bolaño’s themes converge best is in his vision of art and politics as being inextricable. This was perhaps best exemplified in By Night in Chile, though Distant Star merges the two with equal skill. Carlos Wieder is a monster, to be sure, though his monstrosities are masked as art. That Wieder is not only a poet criminal but also a member (and hero) of the Chilean Air Force is perhaps the clearest link Bolaño draws between the artistic and the political, though the two run through Distant Star, and much of Bolaño’s work, without fail. Still, to Bolaño, there was only literature. That was his religion, his supreme cause, and in plunging headfirst into literature he discovered exactly how linked it is to damn near everything. Or I suppose that is how it seems when you spend so much time cooped up in your room reading, as did young Roberto.

The book is written with Bolaño’s Borges influence evident—the prose is lean, quick, artfully constructed and the story reads as if someone were reporting events rather than laying the foundation and flourishes of a typical potboiler. Like Borges, Bolaño devoured detective novels, and like Borges he synthesized these mysteries into his own brand of fiction, marrying it with history, myth, and his own literary obsessions. Unlike Borges, the reader is witness to a narration that is engrossing on more than an intellectual level. The last chapter of Distant Star is gripping and intense. The reader (I should say, this reader) feels every bead of nervous sweat running down the face of the narrator (presumably, Arturo Belano, the author's alter-ego).

Moving on a bit… I decided that summer would be devoted to G. Cabrera Infante, which meant reading his two major books, Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Trapped Tigers) and La Habana para un Infante Difunto (Infante’s Inferno). Finishing those, I dipped into a few interviews. Cabrera Infante said something about how he doesn’t see the need for him to write political books, and that art and politics are best left separate. This is evident from his linguistic wordplay, puns, and alliteration, as well as from the fact that each of these books focuses on certain ideas (friendship, sex, Havana) and conspicuously avoids the revolution. Then again, the arm-chair critic in me would speculate that by avoiding the revolution as a topic in his fiction, the books are that much more political, as most readers come to them knowing about Cuba, Batista, Castro, and the events of the late 1950s. Avoiding the subject is de facto commentary.

Anyway, these are two of my heroes. If I could find a way to fuse the two very different styles I would. Dare to dream.

Anyway, I am more than a little bit fucking jazzed for 2666 and my winter of Bolaño, though I think I’m fill the time before it comes out with a few short, satisfying reads. Next up, Hell Has No Limits by Jose Donoso, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine.

Keep happy, bitches.