Monday, May 31, 2010


When G. bought me Farrar, Straus and Giroux's edition of Natasha Wimmer's 2008 English translation of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, I hesitated to dive into it. Not because I didn't want to read it, but the opposite: it was a book that I wanted to read with care (Bolaño's last work and his self-described magnum opus), and it is gargantuan: this very nice, even loving, edition comes as three volumes in a box, and runs to 893 pages. But G. knew how much I'd loved By Night in Chile (2000) and The Savage Detectives (1998) and asked what was I waiting for? Then I thought that I'd read it one volume at a time, putting the next volume in the Stack as I finished the first one (like I'm doing with Beckett's Trilogy right now). But when I finished the first volume I just kept going, actually I couldn't put it down until I had devoured the whole thing, and I think that that is the right way to read it and probably the way Bolaño would have wanted it to be read. Certainly each section is meant to be appreciated in relation to the others, and above all to the central section about the (actual and ongoing) murders of women in Ciudad Juarez, which Bolaño here calls Santa Teresa.

Saint Theresa of Avila is a 15th century Spanish Catholic mystic who writes about her ecstatic experiences of being penetrated by Jesus's shafts of light. Bolaño gives us the endless litany of murders of women, mostly young (as young as 10 and 12 in fact), mostly workers in the maquiladoras (factories) run by multinationals in and around Ciudad Juarez, located near the US border in the Sonora Desert. They are usually raped. They are very often strangled, and there are patterns of mutilation that suggest a serial killer, but the serial killer or killers is mixed in among a larger group of murderers, including the usual run of homicidally possessive boyfriends, violent gangs of narcotraficantes, etc. The police detectives occasionally pick off the perpetrator without much trouble, at other times they hang murder charges on suspects in order to appear to be making progress (they beat suspects for days during "interrogations"). Even so half or more of the hundreds of murders go unsolved.

Obscene violence of this magnitude must indicate, Bolaño thinks, "the secret of the universe." Perhaps better to say the secret of our moral and spiritual condition. The meaning of our lives, or at least the potential for our lives to have meaning, confronts us in the form of our in-"humanity." Bolaño wants to limn the connection between ordinary citizens and those who actually transgress the farthest boundaries of compassion. The man raping, torturing and murdering a 12-year-old girl (or anyone) approaches the meaning of life at the other extreme, and the victims, like Saint Theresa, can also be seen to be experiencing the extremity of being. The writer too can pursue true being (true meaningfulness) as a writer by going to this place. The only possible absolution can only be real action resulting from recognition of collective guilt.

This gets to Bolaño's obsession with the Nazis and the Holocaust. This preoccupation of his can seem almost quaint 65 years after WWII, in these anti-American days, and I am only speculating about the psychological dynamic Bolaño had with the Nazis. But I think he identified Hitler's National Socialist movement, more than colonialism's feral capitalism, with the right-wing ideology he saw in Latin America: totalizing and yet nihilistic, a vehicle for impunity, something driven more by passion than expediency. Bolaño suggests that the violence in Ciudad Juarez is the identical wave of violence surging through the world as the one that swamped Europe in the 1940s, still sloshing across Mexico now by way of the guerras sucias in Patagonia in the 1970s and the escuadrillas de muerte of Central America in the 1980s.

The devil, for Bolaño, comes from within. He presents a straightforward diagnosis of the Ciudad Juarez murders: endemically corrupt local police and politicians work for money, and the wealthy and the dangerous are protected by an attitude that accepts no responsibility for actually confronting injustice. The situation is to be maintained. In fact, the murdered women are part of the "raw material" of the place: they are used by the maquiladoras and then used by local predators and even the police, lawyers, journalists and others make a living to some degree from their victimization. A homicidal system, in short.

The novel is also Bolaño's ultimate statement about the role of the writer in society, another of his grand obsessions. For one thing, he rejects the ideal of the writer as a kind of little god, setting up a self-contained world with a definite "message," and he challenges the conventional reader who expects this tidily finished product. Maybe, after all, there is no god, and maybe the world doesn't make sense. The most valuable insight of existentialist philosophy (Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) is that true morality is only possible against the background of a purely amoral universe, with its profusion of coincidence, absurdity, randomness and, yes, cruelty and heartlessness. Everything in Bolaños's universe ties together, but in the most capricious, absurd, tragic and really funny ways. One of the things I like most about Bolaño is his insistence on showing us the universe as it really is. Bless me if the son of a bitch isn't bringing the Enlightenment to Latin American literature, an achievement that puts him in league with Borges (no one is in league with Cervantes).

Which brings me to the title, 2666. It is a date, a year. A year when things will happen, things as outrageous as what is happening now (there are characters in Bolaño's writings who don't care to stay up drinking all night, who aren't potentially available for sex. It's just that Bolaño has no interest in such people). The mind boggles and can't place a value on this date, 656 years from my writing these words, imagine the world of 1354, some of you can do that better than others: what significance does it have for us? Bolaño is addressing the beat of the butterfly's wings that ultimately causes a universe to disintegrate. Yes, there is causation, yes, there is holism: but the cosmic joke is that it is all well outside of control, and wisdom is the realization that that is a source of humor, and a further level of wisdom is that that does not divest anything of its moral significance. Quite the contrary. When I die and go to the gates of heaven Saint Peter is going to let me in, and you know why? Because I think it's funny! I think that all of that suffering is funny - that is, I can see the humor in it. So God thinks that she might have a beer with me. And that is it. That's the secret of existence.

There is a young detective in 2666, Lalo Cura (la locura: the crazy thing, the craziness, the crazy circumstance). A boy of 19 or 20, chosen by the chief of the bottomlessly corrupt police by virtue of the toughness of his origins, he reads textbooks on police forensics and wants to know what has really happened, unlike most of his colleagues. If you blink you might miss the fact that he is the bastard son of one of the two protagonists of The Savage Detectives (almost certainly Arturo Belano, Belaño's alter ego). The Savage Detectives is to 2666 what V. is to Gravity's Rainbow, an experiment and exploration. The other similarity between the two writers is a paranoia, or a priceless evocation of paranoia, that is supremely provocative by virtue of being burlesque.

The great writer, like the great detective, is the person who can confront the sordid reality of our condition, protected by no god, absent of any justice in the metaphysical sense, and bring the facts back from an impossibly difficult expedition and lay them before us. Thus we are presented with the opportunity for our own redemption.

One last observation: Bolaño achieves his cosmopolitan texture honestly. Mexico, Italy, Spain, Great Britain, the US: his evocation of place appears effortless but is the opposite. With just a word or two about a street or a quick meal he somehow summons whole cultures, great depths of variety evoked with tiny details. In The Savage Detectives there was a sense that his persuasive conveying of place was a result of his own vagabondage, and I think that's true; in 2666 we can see that a tremendous amount of research went into the production of the manuscript. This is yet another expression of Bolaño's humility in the face of reality: reality, something a thousand times more bizarre, compelling, obscene and important than anything that anyone could make up. This is the lesson of history.

What a blessing to have this funny earnest writer who gives and gives and gives.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure

Cheikh Hamidou Kane's L'aventure ambigue (1961; Grand Prix Litterature d'Afrique Noire, 1962) is another volume from Heinemann's historic African Writers Series. It is Kane's first novel and his most significant work (he spent much of his later life as an administrator for the Senegalese government), written while he was a philosophy student in Paris in the 1950s. It is autobiographical at a deep level, as the protagonist Samba Diallo is born of a high-status family (the "Diallobe"; Kane is of a Fulani political family), receives a traditional Koranic education (i.e. memorizing the Koran) as a child and is then sent to receive a "Western" education in Paris for the anticipated benefit of his society: all in common with Kane himself.

The novel is highly didactic, consisting mostly of dialogues between Samba Diallo and his elders, teachers, and a family of African acquaintances in Paris. The language is elevated and elegant (my Heineman edition is an English translation by Katherine Woods), and the movement from childhood through college and final return to Africa is artfully handled with a sometimes dream-like atmosphere and some nice descriptions of the African sky. Having said that, it is patently a vehicle for a sustained discussion of the relationship of the materialist "West" and traditional religious philosophy. In this case that religion is Islam, which makes the book timely for contemporary readers but also separates it from much of the African literature of the time in that it lacks some of the specificity of place (and ethnicity) one finds in other period works.

There is a psychological undercurrent here that I have not seen mentioned in any of the few scanty discussions of the book I can find by Googling around: the fact that the young man is sent by his elders to a faraway place where he loses his cultural bearings must have been a source of resentment. This after years at the Koranic school where his beloved teacher is very free with corporal punishment which here as in other African novels is presented in graphic detail but not obviously censured. Thus the reader must wonder if some of the internal conflict which is the subject of the book is displaced anger about the denial of self-determination experienced by a tribal scion. I note too that the narrative is coolly controlled and there is never any direct expression of anger, even as the book ends with the young protagonist's apparent death.

Meanwhile the overt message is that the loss of godliness, both in terms of religious dogma and personal spirituality, is too high a price to pay for the worldly advances of Western technological materialism. Of course this is an entirely conservative message. It is also a problem specific to sophisticated, educated elites in the post-colonial world - it is the problem of the college student. Thus the novel does not appear, from my attenuated, strange perspective, as progressive as it must have to African and French readers of the 50s and 60s.

If the status of religion in modern society is a serious interest, this book is an intelligent discussion of that. It also is written at a fine, elegant level. But it is ultimately an evangelical tract and a bit idiosyncratic compared to most of the novels in the African Writers Series.