17 December 2008

The Ubiquitous Bolaño

I find it mildly embarrassing to be so enamored of Bolaño these days. I picked up By Night in Chile and Distant Star back when they were the only Bolaño books available in English -- back in the dusty old days of, what, 2005? -- and they both perplexed me and impressed me; then when Last Evenings on Earth came out, I picked it up and was blown away -- something really felt like it exploded in my head, and I went back and reread parts of By Night in Chile and Distant Star and they felt so much richer than they had before. I had, in some ways, been teaching myself how to read Bolaño.

There was great praise of Bolaño from the moment the first translations appeared, but the praise and admiration for Bolaño back then felt restrained and quiet compared to what would happen when The Savage Detectives came out -- suddenly it seemed like Bolaño had been made the saint of all literature. I was excited, yes, but also a bit fearful, and I resisted Savage Detectives for a while, partly, I think, because praise of Bolaño seemed ubiquitous, and I just couldn't believe -- didn't want to believe -- that here was a writer who could be so universally popular. Sure, I loved him, but how could everybody else? It was disturbing. I particularly didn't think it possible that a writer like Bolaño could be so truly adored, because he is a writer whose work seldom has much of a linear plotline (if it has a plotline at all), likeable characters, or lyrical prose, the things that so much of the world seems to want fiction to have.

I started to distrust even my own response to the books -- did I really like them, or did I just want to avoid upsetting the overflowing bandwagon? I suffered angst and self-distrust. I didn't leave the house for days. I abjured my very basic knowledge of Spanish and tried to remember some German. (Ach, German! I said to myself, remembering that earlier sensation in translation, W.G. Sebald, a writer I have much admired but not yet learned to love.)

And then came 2666 in two gorgeous editions from FSG (I bought the 3-volume slipcased paperback, since the hardcover seemed a bit unweildy) and the praise just continued, like kudzu or a deadly bender. Of course, at some point it will stop. Won't it? People will pick up the books and be bewildered by them and decide it's all just hype and they will turn, backlashing, against we who praise -- we who must, they think, be full of horse effluent: "How," they will say, "can you really and truly think that is any great shakes?"

The phenomenon of Bolaño's success in translation (a separate sort of success, I think, from success in one's own language -- and his translators, each excellent, deserve much praise as well, particularly in as translation-averse a country as the U.S.) is itself beginning to become a topic. The new issue of The Chronicle Review contains an interesting, though not particularly probing, essay by Ilan Stavans about the sudden rise of Bolaño's popularity and, in particular, about 2666, a book he has some reservations about (the article is only online to subscribers or people who have access via various institutions, alas):
Alas, Bolaño's work is rapidly becoming a factory for scholarly platitudes. More than a year ago, I had a student who wrote his senior thesis on the author. My student started early in his junior year with a handful of resources at his disposal. By the time he had finished, the plethora of tenure-granting studies was dumbfounding: Bolaño and illness, Bolaño and the whodunit, Bolaño and the beatniks, Bolaño and eschatology, etc. Since then, interviews, photographs, e-mail messages — everything by or about him — are perceived as discoveries (even though most of the material was never lost to a Spanish-language audience).

The rapture must have been the same when Borges, long a commodity among a small cadre of followers in Argentina, shared with Samuel Beckett the International Publishers' Prize in 1961. Suddenly he became an overnight sensation in translation around the world. Such instant celebrity occurs when writers are able to prove that the local is universal: They exist in their corners of the world but are able to recreate the world entire. For Borges, that happened because after World War II readers were eager to look at Latin America, and the so-called third world in general, as a cradle of a worldview that was both different and refreshing.
Stavans goes on to ask an important question: What does Bolaño offer that was so quickly attractive to such a broad swath of the U.S. literati? (I'll leave it to others to ruminate on his popularity elsewhere.) Stavans suggests that it is because the fiction offered to us by "mainstream publishers" has grown "complacent", that the genres offered are "suffocating", that we want somebody to shake it up, a prophet, and that Bolaño is the one who has been annointed.

There's something to this, but I don't buy it completely (I might have been more persuaded if Stavans had had more space to expand upon his ideas). There is, indeed, an energy in Bolaño that is not available in most mainstream U.S. writers, a blithe disregard for the strictures of fictional form as they have ossified over the years into the current cant about "what a novel is", a willingness on Bolaño's part to make his own forms as he sees fit, and to have fun with those forms, a playfulness seen in only a few U.S. writers whose work is published by mainstream publishers, though it's much less absent from the books published by many small presses. Most of the U.S. writers who have a sense of playfulness in their fiction get chastised for thinking fiction is a "game", but I haven't yet seen Bolaño get criticized for this.

Perhaps we expect people from south of us to be a little ... odd like that. They speak a funny language, they write weird books, so it's all just fine. It's kind of cute, actually.

No, there's something more to it -- I think Bolaño escapes being criticized for gaming the system because he also writes about Big Stuff: dictatorships and mass murder and evil and stuff. He does it in a weird way, yes, because he doesn't have magical things happen to his dictators the way the other people who write in his funny language do, but that's part of his appeal -- we've got shelves of the other sorts of books about dictators and mass murder and stuff. The roundabout way he does it, it's kind of fun. Even though books should not be fun if they're Serious, well ... we like this kind of funlike Serious. Don't we? Yes?

Oh, I don't know. I don't understand the mass mind, so why am I trying to explain?

At least I've found one person who isn't buying into the hype: Nick Antosca. Having just finished reading 2666, he says that though he often found it enthralling, he also found it just as often tedious (and, by the way, he thinks Jonathan Lethem's NY Times review is insane):
The fourth book, "The Part About the Crimes," is the one everyone talks about. It is a list of murder scenes. It is a desert of boredom containing sites of interest. Once in a while, things happen--certain characters reappear (a suspect, a few detectives). Young women are being killed in a Mexican city. We don't see the crimes, we just get a detached third person voice describing the bodies. Always, "the hyoid bone was fractured." Occasionally there are scenes of horrific prison torture and murder. (These scenes are much more disturbing than the murders, which we never "see.") I found this section the most problematic--it is generally tedious, for one thing, but worse, I think it's exploitative. I haven't heard anyone else say this about 2666, but I really felt like Bolaño was using the murders for literary capital--using the dead women as props, as flavor, and illuminating nothing. (Remember, these are based on real murders--hundreds of women dumped in the desert outside Juárez.) Describing horrific crime scenes in a politely repetitive tone for 300 pages isn't interesting, productive, compelling... it's wasteful and it's boring, and after a while I became angry at Bolaño for building his novel around this litany in what seems a very arbitrary way. Certainly a powerful novel involving the Juárez murders (which do feel apocalyptic and unreal) could have been written. This isn't it.
I found Nick's post (and the comments from Bolaño haters after it) liberating -- I'm not as embarrassed to love Bolaño as much as I do anymore, because finally I know of at least a few people out there who don't share my feeling. This is comforting.

Meanwhile, Wyatt Mason (who doesn't love Savage Detectives as much as I do, bless him!) is more enamored of 2666 than Nick, and uses a paragraph from it to explain why he admires this particular bit of writing and not the first sentence to A Canticle for Leibowitz:
To those who have written me to say that can’t imagine why I dislike so violently the first sentence of A Canticle for Leibowitz, I offer these sentences as exemple of what I do like, very much. They leave something to the imagination, while, at the same time, present quite an imagination at work.
And now, for Bolaño lovers and hater alike, a new translation of a short story, "Meeting with Enrique Lihn", translated by Chris Andrews. Here are the first sentences:
In 1999, after returning from Venezuela, I dreamed that I was being taken to Enrique Lihn’s apartment, in a country that could well have been Chile, in a city that could well have been Santiago, bearing in mind that Chile and Santiago once resembled Hell, a resemblance that, in some subterranean layer of the real city and the imaginary city, will forever remain. Of course, I knew that Lihn was dead, but when the people I was with offered to take me to meet him I accepted without hesitation. Maybe I thought that they were playing a joke, or that a miracle might be possible. But probably I just wasn’t thinking, or had misunderstood the invitation. In any case, we came to a seven-story building with a façade painted a faded yellow and a bar on the ground floor, a bar of considerable dimensions, with a long counter and several booths, and my friends (although it seems odd to describe them that way; let’s just say the enthusiasts who had offered to take me to meet the poet) led me to a booth, and there was Lihn.

1 comment:

  1. Really glad to have read this, largely because I'm still occasionally guilty of that adolescent urge to disparage whatever becomes popular, regardless of how much I like it. With Bolano, though, I'm happy to see as many people as possible fall in love with his work, even if it means we'll eventually see a film version of The Savage Detectives starring Zac Efron and Adam Brody.

    Antosca's is only the second negative review I've seen of 2666, and while I don't mind hearing a dissenting view, he seems to focus too much on the reputation rather than the book. I understand it not working for everyone, but that doesn't prove that this is a case of the emperor's new clothes. Sam Sacks countered Bolanomania much more effectively, I think.

    Antosca was right about the tone of the Lethem review, however. It wasn't wrong, but it was a mite overheated. For my money, Francine Prose's review in Harper's is the best response yet to 2666.

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