A cryptic monologue
Listen now. The hour is late. There are the writers we are. Then there are the writers we want to be.
There is an old obsession of mine, courtesy of the New York Times. Imagine a literary tea party. Of the writers you love, who would you invite?
You would be invited, of course, but I worry about you with the others, making your opinions known by shouting at them from the back of the room. I do think about writers and their relationships, and mostly I like to imagine this will be an evening of peace despite the evidence to the contrary. You didn’t think much of Uncle Gabo (too busy with popes and presidents). Your comments about Isabel Allende were scathing (at best) so you can imagine my relief at discovering you actually loved Borges.
Your Borges is different to my Borges. It is a strange experience to hear someone else’s reading of a writer you think you know so well. Is it even the same writer when you are detecting references that go over my head? At least our admiration is shared. Nazi Literature references his Universal History of Infamy,and you enjoyed his jokes at the establishment, carried out with his best friend.
Then there is the question of motivation. We are all poets at 22 but later in life we take the expansive view. Your turn to stories was obvious. There is the threat of a disease and you have a young family to feed. Your books are still being published and the time warp of translation makes it easy to believe you’re with us still.
You are the dead emperor now, up to your eyeballs in prizes and finery. The rebel has been canonised and they’re burrowing deep with their interpreting. I had long heard of you. Discovering a writer is the story of many writers but your true arrival was heralded by Patti Smith.
Notes in the margin
This is the excavation story, the detective story. This is tracing the bones of how the obsession really begins.
I have this habit of going to my favourite writers for recommendations and it was Patti Smith who gave your asteroid a little kick. You were in M Train, you made a cameo in Year of the Monkey, and there was Monsieur Pain waiting on the shelf ever so innocently.
Describing this book is the same as describing the books of Haruki Murakami. Vague, circular, descriptions that make little sense, and I long ago decided that if anyone asks about his books, I shall simply point them to the relevant blurb.
Monsieur Pain was only the beginning. The title of magnum opus belongs to 2666 but The Savage Detectives is the one that made the conversion complete. This is my favourite still, the story of Arturo Belano and the visceral realists of his youth. It is exuberant, it is alive, it is a call to follow our ideals even if we end up looking like fools. The Savage Detectives has been called the text for a future cult and it is an affirmation to hear I’m not the only one so struck by its spell.
I am a maker of lists and so far this is my reading list:
Monsieur Pain – The Savage Detectives – The Skating Rink – 2666 – Woes of the True Policeman – The Spirit of Science Fiction – Nazi Literature in the Americas – Between Parentheses
I am currently reading Cowboy Graves and I have saved Last Evenings on Earth for a rainy day or an apocalypse. I reread the smaller ones, a habit I repeat with other favourite books like The Outsider, Giovanni’s Room, Wide Sargasso Sea.
This is a humble approach to reading that is driven by love. It is devoid of attempts to locate symbols and other so-called writerly tricks.
Uncle Gabo was entertained by this act of reading as interpreting. I did not know that this was a symbol. I did not see how you could arrive at such a far-fetched meaning from one of my books.
The story is written and then it is flung out to whatever life it finds in the world. It is hard to predict what will change our lives. It is hard to predict what we will like based on what we write.
You had an issue with the old guard and I suppose there is something about the familiar that makes us turn away. I have little appetite for tales about suburbia and a virus story is the last thing that I currently want to read. That is also how I feel about Lebanon, and I am told that people wanted the westerns of Clint Eastwood over Rambo at the height of the civil war.
These days, the conversation revolves around identity and ownership. We are denied the ability to metabolise our experiences or the comfort of a mask. The modern world of literature confines the writer to their identity and we are meant to accept being put into our fictional place. You will be allowed this voice, you will be allowed this place but your preference was always the experiment. The world is your canvas and it is to make itself available for the building of a universe, and literature expands when we are allowed a freedom such as this.
Sustenance at all costs
Books are about survival. They are how I accessed the entire world. If there had been no libraries, from your non-fiction book, I would have taken the following page.
You’re sixteen, the pennies are scarce, your sustenance is stolen books. You build up a library this way and you say you’re not the same after encountering The Fall by Albert Camus.
There were many books during this time. There was feeding your love of poetry too. The day they finally caught you, they shook you to make your pockets rain their books, and unfortunately they betrayed you, thus ending your career as a thief.
This is the desperation of the reader, the understanding that the most important revolutions are internal and never seen. There is a reason that certain leaders have a penchant for banning books. Control the people by controlling what they read, control them by putting books and words out of their reach. Control them by convincing them that the life they lead is how a life in fact ought to be.
Some days I consider the other path. Some days I consider the alternatives. Suppose I am 12 and miraculously we own a TV when we return from overseas.
Would I have turned to reading with the enthusiasm that I did?
This is the alternate story, the chill story, the hurtling towards darkness story but there is comfort here. I have my stories, I have my books and I have exactly the world I need.
Screaming across the desert from the back of the room
Writing is performance with a little peculiarity. It includes the desperation to impose our ideas on another person’s privacy.
Some of us prefer life in its essence. Everything is stripped back and the flavour is subtlety.
Then there are others with a grand vision – the maximalists – and with each book, you are building up your universe.
You founded your universe upon two of your books: The Savage Detectives and 2666. Imagine you wrote nothing else, your place in the canon would have nonetheless been assured. There is no escaping the black hole of 2666. It is the vigil – you will pay attention to the horror – and those dead women are an indictment of our collective doom. Each woman in ‘The Part About the Crimes’ was cross-referenced to a real one by Chris Andrews in the appendix to his book. The truth has been given the barest facelift and you gave each woman in the fictional version a name and a story to put flesh on bones the world has pretended to believe did not actually exist.
I wondered if the violence was gratuitous, if the reader is meant to find a moral in the battery. Is this strangling the reader because you do not wish to allow them off the hook so easily? But even in the darkness, there is life and there remains the antidote of humour and absurdity so that the reading does not make us despair that the world is ultimately and incurably sick.
If 2666 is the dead, then The Savage Detectives is the living, and the other books were the rest of the universe properly coloured in.
Stars and interpreting
Who do you belong to now that it is the dead of night?
The mind grows pensive. Time unfurls. This is the mind in rewind.
You are the watchmen in the tower far removed.
The theories are being written, the theories about theories, sibling theories, theories with three generations of ancestry.
You are favoured in serious circles as the writer of very big books.
You are favoured in other circles for your freedom, for writing stories that are populated with people who are desperately alive.
Every person – writer or otherwise – is best understood by what they love. I love Patti Smith because of her love for books, I love Borges because of his love of literature. You loved him for his humour, his jokes – evident in your work – but these are not emphasised in the interpretation of your books.
Once the work is in the world, the writer is made to vanish beneath the magic act of interpreting.
The reader and writer meet. They converse across a written space. The reader is interpreting the work as it relates to herself. This is an individual act that builds up an entire universe.
The reader and writer meet in a temporary place. They speak for a while. Despite the debt, despite the effect, the book is shut, the conversation ends, and like that, the reader is forever changed.
Secret handshakes, little nods
A reference to one book is a reference to many books that are tangents in the Bolañoverse.
I took up reading Bolaño after reading Patti Smith. M Train and Year of the Monkey can spark reading odysseys.
I read his books in the order provided in my Bolaño reading list. Some have been read twice, others five times. This was written while referring to an upside-down copy of Between Parentheses. I am comforted that other books of his remain to be read, others are yet to arrive in the English-speaking room.
Chris Andrews is one of Bolaño’s translators and he has tag-teamed with Natasha Wimmer to translate the universe. His book Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe cross-references a real woman with each dead woman in 2666.
Then there is Jorge Luis Borges. Read his Collected Fictions. Read his Collected Poems. Don’t forget his non-fiction too.
Uncle Gabo makes his point about the symbolism in his stories in The Scandal of the Century.
Reading a universe lends itself to obsession and for the uncertain, ‘Posthumous Bolaño’ by Dustin Illingworth in the Paris Review is a good place to start. He is the one who called The Savage Detectives the book of a future cult.
All writing is a series of secret handshakes and little nods. Gabrielle Carey understands better than anyone the value of humour in writing and so this is dedicated to the underground writings of Gabrielle.