Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bolano on a planet around a Distant Star

One of the most interesting things about Roberto Bolano is that, as one excavates and uncovers his reimagined history of violence in the 20th century, the novels keep being written earlier. That is, the first Bolano novel I read (and posted on) was By Night in Chile which was published in 2000, one of the last works of this novelist who died in 2003. After that I read The Savage Detectives, published in 1998 but translated into English only in 2007. Then I went for the masterpiece 2666, "released" in 2004 and translated into English in 2008. At this point a complete devotee, I then read Nazi Literature in the Americas and was impressed to learn that it was published early, in 1996, although Chris Andrews' English translation appeared in 2008. The reason that this is impressive is that it appears that Bolano had generated his alternative world, not that different from this none, early: he always had a vision of what he wanted to do.

Even so it is fascinating to read Distant Star, published 1996 and translated by Chris Andrews 2004, and exhilarating (I can't think of any other word) to see the scarey, radical coherence of his vision from very early in his novelistic project (Bolano was criticized for straying from the purity of his early obscure-poet vision and for writing popular novels). In Distant Star he fleshes out an idea that is presented in the end of Nazi Literature in the Americas, but the publication dates lead us to think that Bolano saw all of his arch-satirical narrative very early on.

The last Borgian "entry" in Nazi Literature in the Americas is the story of Carlos Ramirez Hoffman, young Pinochet loyalist who stages a party in his apartment where his bedroom is decorated with pictures of his victims; in addition to being a poet he sees himself as an artist of the existential arts of political torture and murder. Central to this is his seduction of the Venegas sisters, scions of a wealthy and liberal family.

Dark Star elaborates the story of this character, here known as Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, who changes his name to Carlos Wieder and who stages the party (his victims include the Garmendias sisters, now frankly murdered by Weider). The hapless protagonist of Dark Star is drawn in to a plan to track Weider down and kill him. Killing him is something of an act of exorcism here, but it is unsuccessful: there will be no freedom from the history of violence that is washing over the world.

Weider was a poet who worked in the medium of sky-writing, perfect for the ephemeral, willfully-obscure presentation that Bolano thinks is essential for honest poetry. Weider is a fascist assassin and a poet: tracking down obscure poems and obscure murders are similar obsessions. Most people will just forget both the poems and the killings as they fade into the air.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Half of a Yellow Sun

When I posted not long ago on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (2003) I found that novel to be well-constructed and a persuasive account of bourgeois Igbo life in contemporary Nigeria. It was impressive as an homage to Chinua Achebe and explored the same elemental themes of Nigerian conflictedness. Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) is much more ambitious and positions C.N.A. (at a level that Purple Hibiscus, for all its merits, did not) as potentially a novelist of historic importance and not just a Very Good Writer, of which Nigeria currently has quite a few.

It is an historical novel of the Biafran War (1967-1970) when the Igbo nation, tired of violent reactionary pogroms against the culturally strong Igbos from Hausas and other less dominant groups, tried to secede from Nigeria, declaring their southeastern homelands "Biafra." As anyone who lived through those years will recall, Biafra's almost total lack of international support (both the West and the USSR supported oil-rich Nigeria) resulted in a fearsome famine that was perhaps the first major famine to be widely televised across the developed world (not that that helped Biafra). The iconic famished infant with distended stomach, stick-like limbs and glassy eyes first became part of our collective conscience then.

C.N.A. writes again from the point of view of the Igbo bourgeoisie: Odenigbo is an Igbo nationalist professor at the university town of Nsukka. His lover is the beautiful sociology professor Olanna, the daughter of well-off parents. His houseboy is Ukwu, of humble origins but with good potential. Olanna's sister, Nainene, is harder and more cynical than Olanna, the businesswoman their parents wanted. Nainene's lover is Richard Churchill, expat Englishman who has come to see himself as a Biafran partisan and citizen.

The narrative circles around this core group of people as the war emerges and runs its course. The structure is a spiral: these comfortable people slowly and then precipitously see their lives deteriorate as the Biafran cause unravels. The author has compassion for her characters and doesn't take us to a horrorshow (although a novel of this time and place would be well-justified in taking that course), but the death, debasement and destruction are presented starkly enough to serve as the document the novel is written to be.

Several reviewers have mentioned Tolstoy, C.N.A. merits that, I think, by virtue of her erudition in the actual nature of the fighting, the politics and the neighborhood lifestyle of several classes of Nigerians. War and Peace is admirable in the sure handling of war and battle, and C.N.A. also gives careful attention to this material. The 543 pages kept me coming back during an otherwise very busy week, both emotionally and intellectually absorbing. We do indeed have a major talent on our hands.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The real Saint Patrick

This is the first time I've posted on two books together. They are a new edition of John Bagnell Bury's 1905 The Life of Saint Patrick and His Place in History republished in 2008 by Paraclete Press with excellent annotations, including boxes with explanatory and background material and quotations, by Jon Sweeney under the title Ireland's Saint: The Essential Biography of St. Patrick, and a 1998 Image/Doubleday edition of Patrick's Confession and the Letter to Coroticus, Patrick's only known writings, translated by John Skinner with a forward by John O'Donohue.

The real Patrick had very little to do with either snakes or drinking, but what is known about his life is positively cinematic and I'm surprised more novelists and film-makers haven't taken a crack at it. The son of a Latin-speaking, provincial Roman magistrate in western England, he was carried off by Irish (most likely Pict) slavers sometime around 405 AD, aged seventeen, and spent the next six years in Connaught, in the northwest (then as now with a reputation for natural isolation), mostly herding sheep. He then, by his own account, made his toilsome way by foot back to the east coast of Ireland (presumably having walked away from his servitude, although what his servitude amounted to is uncertain), where he took ship (after an initial rejection: a distinctly dramatic touch) and sailed, apparently, to Gaul (modern day France) and there had even more adventures as he and the vaguely threatening crew found themselves in the middle of a desolate wilderness, where Patrick performed a little magic involving a heaven-sent herd of pigs, before Patrick could, apparently, flee from the sailors. Finally making his way to the appropriate Church fathers, he obtains leave to proselytize the faith in Ireland, and begins the long trip back to his ancestral home and the preparations to return to Ireland.

All of that, mind you, is mere prelude to his return to Ireland and his role as self-appointed point man for the church (with quite a few more miraculous acts of magic along the way) for 12 years until his death circa 440, having firmly established the Roman church in Ireland. Late in his tenure as Bishop of Ireland he fell out of favor with the ecclesiastical authorities in England (it may have been a turf fight)and wrote for them the Confession, the basic source for the story of his life. It is more of an apologia than a confession as most would understand those terms: Patrick is at pains to convey all of the hardship and sacrifice he has endured in the service of the Church. He presents himself as someone with no interest in worldly power or things.

Bury points out that Patrick was relatively unlettered for a man of his rank owing to the exigencies of his life and probably insisted on speaking the local language. This may explain why his only two extant writings are Latin documents, written for official purposes to possibly unsympathetic readers, and why both are chronicles of hardships and injustices borne by Patrick and his followers. That is, the man may not have been as self-promoting as these writings make him appear. He wasn't a fluent writer of Latin, probably he rarely wrote anything at all unless forced to put pen to paper. The Letter to Coroticus was written after some of Coroticus' men had raided one of Patrick's ordination ceremonies where young men and women pledged chastity and service to God. Apparently the young men were killed and the young women sold into slavery. Patrick wrote the letter to denounce Coroticus (a Christian himself) and sent it back to England where he hoped it would be widely read. There is no record of its effectiveness.

Bury is at pains to show that, while Ireland was never formally part of the Roman Empire, Roman influence was certainly felt there by the fourth and fifth centuries. In fact people who lived on the other side of the Roman frontier were keenly aware of the great power, both hard and soft, that dominated their world. It would be a mistake to imagine a serenely pagan Ireland insulated from Latin influence, a temptation as Irish history tends to be romanticized. As to the pagans, local kings were sophisticated in dealing with Patrick and the Church, making deals and compromises; several of Patrick's monasteries were built on land provided by pagan kings, and any number of his converts were connected to ruling clans. The Druids, legendary pagan shamans, are said to have battled with Patrick in contests of magic (and the occasional assassination attempt). Patrick meets magic with magic, putting spells and hexes on his antagonists (he never shies from cursing his foes). We will never know what all that actually amounted to (movie directors: help yourselves!), but no doubt these episodes involved politics as much as potions.

In the end Patrick must be seen as an essentially conservative figure. He built up a system of monasteries and ministry that was within the catechistical bounds and under the ultimate control of the Roman Church (although the early Irish Church has a greater monastic component than is found in other regions, no doubt because there was a local culture that was already congenial to such behavior). He was an excellent organizer, a tireless trouper and with the visionary's single-mindedness. Part of his motivation had its origins in his early years as a slave; he probably didn't understand completely his own feelings towards the Irish (who were ethnically divided, in any case, between the Scottish Celts in the north and the Picts in the south). It is ironic that the actual life story of this very serious man is more fantastic than the facile legends that have grown around his name.

I strongly recommend Sweeney's annotated edition of Bury which is loaded with good information. Skinner's translation of the Confession and the Letter is clear, but there is almost no critical apparatus and John O'Donohue, who wrote the very brief forward, has a spacey Jungian vibe which is pleasant but uninformative.

Related topics of earlier posts include Thomas Cahill's essential How the Irish Saved Civilization, Ciaran Carson's recent translation of the Tain Bo Cualnge, and Philip Freeman's entertaining 2006 The Philosopher and the Druids (Freeman has also written a biography of Patrick).