Sage Words From Bolaño

Okay, a couple of weeks ago I promised some words of advice for writers from Roberto Bolaño. Okaay…maybe it isn’t exactly advice, but, well, you’ll see what I mean. Here ‘tis:

“Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces. Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. The poor man’s wife can testify to that, she’s seen him sitting at the table, bent over the blank pages, restless in his chair, his pen racing over the paper. The evidence would seem to be incontrovertible. But what she’s seen is only the outside…
“Our good craftsman writes. He’s absorbed in what takes shape well or badly on the page. His wife, though he doesn’t know it, is watching him. It really is he who is writing. But if the wife had X-ray vision she would see that instead of being present at an exercise of literary creation, she’s witnessing a session of hypnosis. There’s nothing inside the man who sits there writing. Nothing of himself, I mean. How much better off the poor man would be if he devoted himself to reading. Reading is pleasure and happiness to be alive or sadness to be alive and above all it’s knowledge and questions. Writing, meanwhile, is almost always empty. There’s nothing in the guts of the man who sits there writing. Nothing. I mean to say, that his wife, at a given moment, might recognize. He writes like someone taking dictation. His novel or book of poems, decent, adequate, arises not from an exercise of style or will, as the poor unfortunate believes, but as the result of an exercise of concealment. There must be many books, many lovely pines, to shield from hungry eyes the book that really matters, the wretched cave of our misfortune, the magic flower of winter!
“Excuse the metaphors. Sometimes in my excitement, I wax romantic. But listen. Every work that isn’t a masterpiece is, in a sense, a part of a vast camouflage. You’ve been a soldier, I imagine, and you know what I mean. Every book that isn’t a masterpiece is cannon fodder, a slogging foot soldier, a piece to be sacrificed, since in multiple ways it mimics the design of the masterpiece…
“By now I knew it was pointless to write. Or that it was worth it only if one was prepared to write a masterpiece. Most writers are deluded or playing. Perhaps delusion and play are the same thing, two sides of the same coin. The truth is we never stop being children, terrible children covered in sores and knotty veins and tumors and age spots, but ultimately children, in other word we never stop clinging to life because we are life. One might also say: we’re theater, we’re music. By the same token, few are the writers who give up. We play at believing ourselves in the appraisal of our own works and in our perpetual misappraisal of the works of others. See you at the Nobel, writers say, as one might say: see you in hell.”

There’s gallows humor here, and also a cautionary tale of personal deceit, of slogging unnoticed through the craft of writing while others drink the cheap stuff, expel vain writing.
Writers: hang in there. Work. Never quit in your search for what Hemingway called “our one good sentence.”


2666, by Roberto Bolaño – Part 2

In early reviews of the book, the reviewers—probably because of hasty readings—dwell on the obvious: Part 4 and the serial killings in Mexico. Also the title, that mysterious date, seems to draw similar attention. While these are worthy points of interest, I suspect they are part of Roberto Bolaño’s subterfuge.
If Part 4 and the murders is his reason for writing the book, why the four critics, why Amalfitano, why Mexico, why Archimboldi and his experience of the most brutal war in modern history? Surely something must tie these odd happenstances together.
For instance, what would tie Part 4 to Archimboldi’s story (other than the fact that he went there, probably to help out Klaus)? First, I think Bolaño, in depicting WWII’s eastern front akin to the brutal murders of women and the drug-related killings in Mexico, wants us to look at the role of violence in the human psyche. Germany, a heavily industrialized and technologically creative nation prior to WWII, committed its creative prowess to racial purity and war-fostered expansion, as did the Soviet Union.
Bolaño makes continual mention of Mexico’s maquiladoras, the import and assembly zones for products previously made (most often) in the U.S. These were supposed to be a commercial godsend to a society immobilized by class strictures and poverty. But Bolaño’s characters, while benefiting from these jobs, continually drift into crimes of various sorts, or are victims of such crimes. Whether he intended to expose Mexico’s population as remaining education-poor and barely living on low wages, or whether he believed that such jobs left Mexicans soul-poor is unclear. But he does depict that technology and economic well-being orchestrated for all the wrong reasons leaves humanity to wallow in their baser instincts.
And what to make of the sexual crimes, the constant references to his characters in the throes of copulation? This seems to Bolaño to be both a human escape from the ravages of poverty and war and a physical preoccupation to counter spiritual and intellectual poverty.
Amalfitano, in hanging his geometry treatise on the clothesline, seems to be saying that human efforts to raise itself up through intellectual and spiritual pursuits remain at the mercy of natural forces – violence and sex. In this, Bolaño’s thinking aligns itself with that depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s violence and sex-soaked stories.
Finally, Bolaño the writer wanted, I suspect, to pass on, as his death neared, his views of the writing life, literary fame and the value of literature itself. The irony of the four critics looking for Archimboldi in Mexico—while a few oblique references seem to mention him as a ragtag wanderer in Mexico’s outback—becomes poignant. They’re looking for an academic, a person of literary fame. Archimboldi, on the other hand is a man bearing the burdens of war and scratching out an existence through writing, a life that seems similar to the plight of modern Mexican workers. If one were to extend this as metaphor, we could see humans grappling for meaning in all the wrong places, much as the four critics continue to search for Archimboldi as something he is not nor ever will be. Archimboldi, through his persistence as a writer, gains a measure of literary fame, but this is a veneer the world has placed over him that in no way represents the person. As such Bolaño has created in Archimboldi the highest form of irony.
Next week, to end this examination of 2666 and Bolaño’s writing, I want to cite a passage in which he talks about such subjects.
As for 2666 – the date? I see nothing particularly significant about it, other than to say that Bolaño sees only a continuation of this state of affairs some 660 years into our future. But most good writers take the time to expose such aspects of the human condition in the hopes that awareness of them will allow the rest of us to cope with our foibles in a constructive manner, to turn our human swords into plowshares that will sustain us. One can hope that such a monumental task wasn’t beyond Bolaño’s vision—and isn’t beyond humanity’s capabilities.

2666, by Roberto Bolaño – Part 1

2666 is perhaps the most talked about book of 2008. It’s a 900-page challenge for the reader and, I suspect, a godsend for academic and journalistic literary critics. The book has been around for awhile in Spanish (published in 2004), only recently translated into English by Natasha Wimmer.
Incidentally, I must say something about the translation: I’m no more than an armchair linguist, but Wimmer seems to have given us a most transparent translation of Bolaño’s writing, allowing us to easily plumb this fine work’s story and writing style, as I believe Bolaño would have wished.
I will, in this first post on the book, synopsize its five sections, but something must first be said about its physical structure and the nature of its publication.
Bolaño wrote this piece during his final years, prior to his death of liver failure. He intended the five long “chapters” to be published separately, as five linked novellas, hoping they would provide for his heirs’ future. However, following his death, his executor, Ignacio Echevarría, and the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, agreed to publish the five as a whole piece, believing this would better provide for his family. However this intent plays out, the decision has given the literary world a magnificent addition.
Much has already been written about Bolaño’s intended “hidden center” for the book, this stir mainly concerned with the title’s significance, and his intent for the longest, keystone segment, “The Part About The Crimes”. I’ll dip my paddle into the books depths next week. Now the synopsis:
The book’s first section, “The Part About The Critics,” introduces us to four academic literary critics who become obsessed with the work of a German novelist, Benno von Archimboldi. First we meet Jean-Claude Pelletier, who contacts Archimboldi’s Hamburg publishing house, hoping to meet the novelist, but to no end. Pelletier soon encounters Piero Morini, Manuel Espinoza, and Liz Norton. Although living and working in different parts of Europe, the four—each unmarried—begin to pursue Archimboldi together.
Soon Pelletier and Norton become lovers. Then Norton adds Espinoza to her list of lovers, at first keeping Pelletier and Espinoza separate. Eventually, she admits to each the mutual love affair, and their friendship becomes a ménage a trois. She later adds Morini, who becomes her true love, and the other two begin to fall away.
In one episode, Norton, Pelletier, and Espinoza begin to argue literature and are interrupted by their Pakistani cabbie, who calls Norton a slut, a whore. Pelletier and Espinoza attack the cabbie. Norton first tells them to stop, then urges them on as they kick the hapless cabbie to pulp. This episode seem central to this section, and one senses some evil afoot with the three, Norton possibly the men’s femme fatale. But “Time,” says Bolaño, “erased the sense of guilt…instilled by the violent episode,” and the incident comes to nothing.
“Coincidence isn’t a luxury, it’s the flip side of fate.” With this statement, Bolaño’s literary detectives unearth a pair of Mexicans who say they have recently met Archimboldi, and they travel to Mexico—to the city of Santa Teresa—in search of their mysterious novelist. There, they meet an academic named Amalfitano, who also seems to have an interest in the novelist. Here, the city becomes more than setting, a limned emotional foreboding, if not an outright character of Bolaño’s.
Bolaño seems to be leading the reader toward something in this segment involving the relationship between the four literary critics but, as will happen occasionally in the detective novels Bolaño apparently loved, the suspense he builds in their relationship, and in and their search for Archimboldi, runs dry.
I dwell in length on this section because Bolaño makes crucial introductions—of characters and places—and sets the tone for both the ensuing books/parts and the ethos he seems to want to display in 2666.
In Part 2, “The Part About Amalfitano,” Amalfitano’s life story comes to the fore (Bolaño seems determined throughout the five pieces to leap into the lives of certain characters, seemingly without reason). Amalfitano, a Chilean, has a daughter named Rosa who is Mexican by birth and who lives with him. Wife Lola is bored with the professor and leaves him for a lover. Following this estrangement, Amalfitano becomes either mentally ill or extremely fey. He begins to hear a voice that cautions him about various things, and he becomes obsessed with a treatise on geometry by one Rafael Dieste. This sets the stage for his passing foray into mysticism. Thus he begins an obsession with Dieste similar to that of the four in Part 1 with Archimboldi.
One night Rosa returns home to discover that her father has hung the book on the clothesline. Why? “To see how it survives the assault of nature,” i.e., how it fares with real life, he tells her. He begins to use geometric figures in attempting to divine relationships between philosophers. Of course, this ends unsatisfactorily. The book hung in frustration over the clothesline seems to Amalfitano to symbolize something vaguely enduring, more so than life in Santa Teresa.
The voice begins to berate Amalfitano humorously here, calling him faggot, ho-mo-sex-u-al, claiming “it” is speaking figuratively—possibly an inner reaction to the ethereal nature of Amalfitano’s obsessions. But why the obsession with geometry and the voice? “We aren’t happy,” says a man, Guerra, whom Amalfitano encounters, “We pretend there’s nothing wrong, but there is. We’re being fucking stifled. You let off steam your own way. I beat the shit out of people or let them beat the shit out of me.”
Part 3, “The Part About Fate,” veers in another direction altogether—at least it seems so at first. Quincy Williams, or Oscar Fate, as he comes to be called, works for a newspaper. With the death of the paper’s chief boxing correspondent—as well as Fate’s mother—Fate heads to Mexico to sub for the deceased writer in reporting on a boxing match. But prior to that, Fate encounters a man named Barry Seaman, who expounds his life philosophy in terms of DANGER, MONEY, FOOD, STARS, and USEFULNESS.
Fate enters Mexico from Tucson, and talk with the locals leaves him with a picture of Mexico as a booming country, but rife with institutionalized violence, a la the Roman circus. Finally he comes to Santa Teresa and the fight he’s supposed to cover. The fight, of course, turns out to be incidental to Fate’s stay—and to Bolaño’s purpose—a city with an ongoing incidence of rape and ritual murder of women. This causes Fate to consider “What’s sacred to me?” The passing of his mother? An understanding of what can’t be fixed? The pang he feels when he looks at a woman? This then is the story of Santa Teresa: death loss, pain, commingled with the mystical sacredness of landscape and history.
Near this part’s end, Amalfitano makes a cameo appearance, through his daughter Rosa, who begins to date one of the story’s heavies, Chucho Flores. This comes predictably to nothing except Rosa’s new “friends” make light of Amalfitano’s obsession with the book he’d hung over the clothesline. To make coincidence even more prominent, Fate begins to see Rosa.
As the section ends, a journalist named Guadalupe Roncal, who says of the city’s accumulating killings, “No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” A giant man is to be executed at the local prison for these killings, a man who sings in German, “I’m a giant lost in the middle of a charred forest. And yet only I know where I’m going, only I know my destiny.” As the piece ends, Guadalupe Roncal is to interview him, but she’s too afraid of him to speak.
Part 4, “The Part About The Crimes,” is easy enough to synopsize. The larger part of Bolaño’s keystone piece moves from one case of rape and murder to another, as if one is reading a police blotter. Several police detectives dig into the multiple cases, searching for the killer or killers. One of these policemen, Juan de Dios Martínez, during his investigations, attempts to understand a notorious local Penitent, who defaces sacred objects. This leads him to a woman, Elvira Campos, a psychologist. They begin to have regular sex, but without the encumbrances of love. In one of their early conversations, Campos spins out a long list of phobia she’s come across in her work—including phobophobia, the fear of fear itself. During their copulations, Martínez notices that his bed partner “fucks like someone on the brink of death,” as if she’s trying to suck the life from him.
Another episode depicts a long, casual conversation between the local cops, who seem to have the same violent urges toward women as does the mysterious killer.
Then a woman, Florita Almada, appears. She’s something of a mystic, and she rails on local TV against the killer and the police’s seeming lack of interest in the miscreant. Following her tirade, Florita forgets having said anything of the kind. And the random killings continue. This part ends with no solution in sight.
Part 5, “The Part About Archimboldi,” details the mysterious writer’s life. He is, in the beginning, a tall German named Hans Reiter. An odd child, he becomes fascinated with the ocean, particularly its flora. This youth’s childhood takes place in the Germany of the 1930s, as National Socialism rears its ugly head. He becomes friends with a man of twenty, Hugo Halder, who turned Hans from science to literature.
Then war comes; Hans ends up in Germany’s Wehrmacht and, despite his size, survives Germany’s eastern front war. During the war, he meets a woman, the Baroness von Zumpe. The Baroness has a torrid affair with a brutish Romanian commander. During one episode Hans and a friend secretly watch their violent lovemaking. Later Hans finds the Romanian crucified by his own men.
After a long while, Hans returns to Germany, but not before he kills a fellow soldier, who has obeyed orders to execute a large number of Jews. Hans and Ingeborg, a girl he met in Germany years before, are reunited by fate. They become lovers, living in poverty in Germany’s bombed out ruins. Hans is haunted both by his wartime experiences and by killing the friend who executed Jews. To exorcise his past, he begins to write. His publisher, an older man, has now married the Countess, and she and Hans become occasional lovers. Finally, as Ingeborg dies, Hans—now living as Archimboldi—hits his emotional bottom. He continues to write and his publisher continues to put his books out there despite poor sales. But the books never die; they continue to sell and eventually gain the respect of critics. Archimboldi and the Baroness (now his publisher) cool their affair and become friends.
This part—and the book—end with the story of Hans’ sister, Lotte. She has a son, Klaus, from a deceased husband. The years of her story roll quickly by, and she discovers that Klaus is in jail in Mexico, in a town called Santa Teresa. He’s on trial as the city’s serial killer of women. After several years of trying to get Klaus out of jail, she seeks out Hans/Archimboldi and begs his help. The story ends with Archimboldi on his way to Mexico.
This will seem an overlong synopsis, but it barely skims the surface of a book with perhaps a couple hundred characters and enough plots and subplots to fill a library. Parenthetically, I should mention that with the various dramas going on in Mexico—from the four critics to the serial murders, Hans/Archimboldi’s presence in Mexico fails to be noticed by those seeking him.
Bolaño’s writing style here has an offhand, almost conversational tone, primarily because, I suppose, of the numerous frame stories told by his characters. But it’s a style that sits well with this reader.
And I don’t believe for a minute, as some reviewers have supposed, that Bolaño intended this book to be a high-level literary detective novel. He’s simply using the detective novel’s tone to obscure his real intent, to urge his readers to dig deeper. This, I think, is the skill of a most capable fiction writer.
Next week, a few thoughts on what the author wanted this project to accomplish.

The Pleasure Was Mine, by Tommy Hays

Imagine being assigned a creative paper to write by an English professor in which you’re given an aging pair as characters to depict. Of the two, one has a debilitating illness, the other trying to cope with it. You’re to write the paper as taking place over a summer, with no particularly dramatic events (i.e., no trainwrecks, no police chases, no grisly murders, no mano a mano fights). Yet you’re to write a compelling, emotional story. Quite a challenge, no?
If you were to look for a “go-by” as an example, you’d do well to pick up and read Tommy Hays' latest, “The Pleasure Was Mine.” Hays writes softly, with an almost delicate tone about his two characters, husband Prate Marshbanks and wife Irene, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. They’re something of an odd couple, but a loving one, and Prate must find the best way to cope with this disease. The story also adds seasoning through their son Newell and grandson Jackson.
Jackson comes to live with Prate over the summer while Newell, an artist, attends a summer art colony. Here, Prate must contend with both the sadness of failing age, the alienation of a son, and the subsequent promise of youth. How this plays out is the meat of Hays’ fine story.
The Marshbanks drama occurs in the South Carolina upcountry and the mountains of western North Carolina, and Hays gives us enough of a feel for this terrain and its heritage to claim geography as yet another character. This, of course, is the way of Southern literature.
I’ve always been drawn to writing that evokes mood – say Steinbeck, for instance, and in the South, the poetry of James Dickey – and Hays shows able writerly chops in this respect. He edges from scene to scene by nimble steps, some evoking humor, but a humor leavened with sadness – no small feat, that.
His depiction of Prate Marshbanks, in first person, dwells consistently on the character of a man finding it difficult to contend with change, a man determined to live self-sufficiently. His evocation of wife Irene is a tender one that captures both the debilitation of her disease and the strength of the human soul. And through Newell and Jackson, Hays allows Prate to find a solace his self-sufficiency urge couldn't have found room for.
If I have to be forced to fault-find here, it’s in the depiction of the boy, Jackson, who is sometimes mute, sometimes all-too-adult in his interaction with parent and grandparents. But here I’m somewhat grasping at straws in trying to be objective.
This is a fine addition to Southern literature’s canon, a story to both inform one’s thoughts and warm the heart.


Take this as something of a New Year’s resolution from yours truly. There is good news for new writers hoping to break into print:
The Wired Blog Network posted a piece recently claiming that a software developer had come to an agreement with several major publishing houses to publish e-books in a form compatible with iPods and iPhones.
While this isn’t the ideal platform for e-books, it indicates that the publishing industry has quit wringing its hands over paper sales and has sidled into a commitment to the electronic media. With the popularity of these Apple products, this can only bode well for writers desiring publication.
The Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Poets & Writers contains an interview with four your lit agents, who are asked questions we all want to have answered. Asked where they find their new fiction, they mention the following – in order:
• Slush. So keep on tossing those manuscripts over the transom.
• Referrals. Join a writer’s group – invite published writers and agents to speak, then schmooze a bit.
• The “better” MFA programs. I’ve said enough on that subject.
• Breadloaf. These summer writing courses are offered in round-robin fashion around the country, but they’re expensive. Still, they are noticed.