Sunday, April 27, 2008

Bolaño's Dark Night

By Night in Chile (2000) is one of Roberto Bolaño's last works, but it is the first of his novels to be translated into English (by Chris Andrews in 2003). His novel The Savage Detectives (1998), widely regarded as a masterpiece, has been published in an English translation by Natasha Wimmer in 2007 and I can tell you that it is going into the Stack as soon as Amazon sends me my copy.

When people talk about "Latin American literature" of course the first thing people think of is the "magical realism" of the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Guatemalan Miguel Asturias, etc., but Bolano is closer to the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa (Conversation in the Cathedral, 1969) or the Mexican Carlos Fuentes (Terra Nostra, 1975), a political writer whose canvas is modern intellectual life in the Spanish-speaking world (and a Chilean hybrid of these forms that is worth reading is House of the Spirits (1982) by Allende's niece Isabel Allende). His prose style certainly is exceptional, dreamy and impressionistic but highly literate and allusive, the easy fluency with high culture that the best Spanish artists make to look easy (one thinks of the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, the paradigm, or the contemporary Spaniard Javier Marias).

It's hard to imagine a more politically engaged novel than By Night in Chile. The protagonist, a dying priest named Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, relates a deathbed confession of horrific tragedy, but a tragedy that unfolds across his adult life, culminating in his complicity with murder and torture under the Pinochet regime. The blandly sinister agents of Opus Dei who suborn him send him off on a junket to Europe, ostensibly to research methods for preserving cathedrals. His findings are a bit more than just allegorical, as the priests there are using falcons to kill off the pigeons who defile the church. At one point a priest's falcon kills the dove who has been symbolically released at the beginning of a charity race. The priests are a bit chagrined in the face of the angry townspeople, but not too much. They apologize and serenely go on their way.

This episode foreshadows Father Urrutia's attending the legendary funeral of Pablo Neruda, just days after the military takeover of Chile following the death of Allende. There are hostile mutterings and even some shouting as Father Urrutia and his companion, a well-known conservative critic, are spotted in the throng, but the two men barely notice that these demonstrations of anger may be directed at them, and proceed along in their self-absorbed way. After all, they were on personal terms with Neruda, who used to spend weekends with them in the country.

Father Urrutia remembers Neruda as part of his literary life, his other acquaintance with greatness being Ernst Junger, famous for his glorification of war and rejection of democracy, although he also famously declined to participate in the Third Reich. Father Urrutia, who sees himself as a conservative, nonetheless has the intellectual gifts to see the corruption of Chilean society (he is recruited to teach a short course in Marxism to the Junta itself, only vaguely sensing that by assigning a Chilean woman's textbook on the subject he is condemning her to death. "Is she good-looking?" one of the officers asks. "Yes."), if only he could tear himself away from his fixation on high literature and see through his own privileged status as a conservative priest.

With this novel Bolano, who died in 2003 at the age of 50, fulfills the highest function of the novelist: no Chilean writer (no writer) who reads this novel will ever be able to look away from the historical crimes of his own time, his own bourgeoisie.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dolores Pessl

I put Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics in the Stack on the basis of rave reviews, and that it sounded like my kind of thing. And so it is, including literally scores of references to books literary and otherwise. The 36 chapter headings are names of canonical literary works, only one of which is fictitious (The Nocturnal Conspiracy, by Smoke Wyannoch Harvey), while the text is liberally sprinkled, Borges-style, with references to scholarly works (L. L. MacCauley's 750-page Intelligensia [1991]), B-list novels (Circe Kensington, The Crown Jewels of Rochester de Wheeling [1990]), and arcana running to the True Crime genre (Paul D. Russell's terrifying What You Don't Know About White Slavery [1996]), generally fictitious. The novel is crackling with the passion of brilliant young minds infatuated with learning, a celebration of the intoxication of liberal arts education - I loved it.

It also has a large debt to Nabokov, one can think of it as a kind of Lolita written from the point of view of the nymph, although Blue Van Meer the teenage heroine, like the tough guy shamus who never takes money, never has sex with anybody, something that can not be said of a single one of her friends and acquaintances, adult or otherwise. The real theme of Lolita, like all of Nabokov's novels (there are also prominent references to Ada, or Ardor, Nabokov's most ambitious novel, and the supremely disturbing Laughter in the Dark), is callous injustice, as Humbert Humbert steals Lolita's future along with her innocence (I was pleased to find this interpretation also in Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, another great story about young women empowering themselves through books).

The first fifty pages of Special Topics is the (slightly slow-moving) account of Blue's childhood with her peripatetic, widowed academic father, a scholar of revolution and revolt, who drags her across a Lolitian landscape of malled middle America to an endless series of obscure branch campuses (the University of New Mexico at Okush). If there is a serious side to what is a fun and funny novel, it is the theme of coming to realize that your father isn't Superman, a fact one has to grieve, and that one is going to have to move on to other things and other men. In this case we have a full-blown, grandiose, self-pitying teenage fantasy along those lines, as Dad slowly emerges as an essentially angry character, not what he seems, and even something of a monster, and Blue's transition to college and adulthood is literally his abandonment of her.

Along about the middle of this 514-page novel we also find ourselves in the middle of a fine, page-turning murder mystery, on which frame we are treated to a big helping of idiomatic, post-ironic, slacker teenage culture critique, commuting between CSI:Miami and Moliere, between K-Mart and La Scala.

I have to mention here another novel with uncanny similarities (no, not that uncanny!), and also well worth reading, Donna Tartt's The Secret History (1992). Both novels are written by young Southern women who have gone up North for exceptionally fancy educations, Quentin Compson-style, both are centered on tight-knit groups of highly charismatic and transgressive student friends (Tartt's is the dangerously precocious Ancient Greek class at a Bennington College stand-in), both use the plot devices of murder and suspicion thereof, both are ultimately moralistic Bildungsromans, both are very hip and funny, both are very, very good. I pray for nothing but success for both of these writers in the future (Tartt has written a well-received second novel).