Though I’ve heard great things about Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari was the first by him that I’ve read – well, listened to actually. Thanks to our current location in Chicago and the locations of our respective families, the holidays involve a lot of driving for Mrs. Millions and me – 36 hours worth this year if my math is correct. One of the best ways to pass the time is with audiobooks and even though Mrs. Millions got me XM Radio this year, Dark Star Safari was so engaging that we spent a lot of our trip listening to it. It’s a shame that the audio version appears to be unavailable (we got ours from the library) because it was very well done. Norman Deitz, as narrator, is very much in character as Theroux, and he gamely contorts his voice when relating the dialog of the many men and women of various nationalities that Theroux meets on his way from Cairo to Capetown. Though Africa is the centerpiece of this book, Theroux shares top billing. As he explains, this trip, very much a solo journey, was a return to the continent where he lived 40 years ago as a young Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. He soon finds that a lot of Africa has changed and not for the better. Much of the book is devoted to finding out why. We learn a lot about Africa’s history and geography and we meet dozens of fascinating people along the way from Nobel Laureates to prostitutes. But Theroux, writing in his 60s and having earned the right to hold forth on such things, dwells most upon his likes and dislikes. He does not like most of the aid workers in Africa and he explains, rather convincingly, why the aid system is broken. He does not like proselytizing missionaries, with whom he gleefully argues theology. He does not like Africa’s sprawling, destitute, dangerous cities. Theroux, however, likes the “bush,” the great trackless stretches of Africa where people still live simply, uncorrupted by foreign aid and oppressive governments. Of the people he meets, Theroux likes the straight-talkers, the honest people who care about Africa and aren’t trying to get something from him. Though Theroux spends a lot of time analyzing the current state of Africa in his own engaging, non-technical way, the enormity of his journey was what made the book so enjoyable for me. He travels by every method imaginable in a meandering path from Egypt to South Africa. Along the way he is shot at by bandits, harassed by border guards and harangued by Africa’s urban predators. Theroux acknowledges the similarities of his travels with those of many Westerners before him, but he does not slip into romanticism or despair. He loves Africa for its chaos.
Jon Lee Anderson is a top-tier foreign correspondent. Writing for the New Yorker, he has spent much of the current decade reporting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike many of his “embedded” colleagues, however, Anderson strays far from the relative safety of American protection into the homes and offices of people on the ground, talking to people from all walks of life, all the way up to heads of state.But Anderson is at his best when he talks to the little guys who toil in the shadow of war, whether as participants or bystanders. His book Guerrillas is about those little guys. In Guerrillas, Anderson takes an almost anthropological view of five insurgent movements that simmered and raged in far flung corners of the globe: the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the FMLN of El Salvador, the Karen of Burma, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The book covers a three year period, December 1988 to January 1992, that Anderson spent traveling around the world, putting time in with those groups. The book is not divided up by geography, as I had expected it would be, but instead Anderson finds themes that are common among guerrilla movements and spends a chapter on each one, beginning with “Creation Myths” and moving on to “Earning a Living” and “Making War,” among others.His point of view is steadfastly observant and unbiased. He chronicles in the same tone the atrocities committed by insurgents and their oppressors. Anderson’s viewpoint is an interesting one, though. He portrays these movements as being in the grip of a sort of madness, for example:In the refugee camps of Gaza, the desert of Western Sahara, the hills of Chalatenago, and the teak forests of Kawthoolei, revolutions are under way, and the guerrillas dwell in separate realities, parallel to those they are rebelling against.This madness, brought on by oppression or at the very least the deprivation of life’s comforts and a sense of safety, drive whole societies to embrace violence and killing as the only answer.But Guerrillas is not merely a checklist of battles and conflicts, the book brims with bright characters, from mujahedin commanders in Afghanistan who slyly let their men blare outlawed music to bards among the compas in El Salvador who promote revolution through verse. Though Anderson does not share Ryszard Kapuscinski’s tone of wonder and eye for quirky detail when enveloped in a foreign culture, his observations have considerable depth and provide the necessary context to shine a light on these often misunderstood conflicts.Originally published in 1992, Guerrillas is improved in a 2004 paperback edition by an introduction and an afterword. The introduction dwells mostly on the then burgeoning insurgency in Iraq, drawing parallels to the insurgencies Anderson covered 15 years prior. In his view, what happened in Iraq was utterly predictable when viewed against the backdrops of earlier conflicts. The afterword, meanwhile, gives a “where are they now” update of the five guerrilla movements covered in the book. Some have fizzled or become legitimate political movements, while two have had far reaching consequences. The Palestinian and Israeli conflict has provided an ever worsening backdrop of violence in the region, while the Afgan insurgency against communist invaders metastasized into a haven for al Qaeda, and ultimately changed the world. This last point underscores the importance of Anderson’s book. Upon original publication, the book must have seemed like a travelogue of dangerous places, but Anderson was really exploring the seeds of conflict that would grow to a global scale a decade hence.
It must have appealed to Roberto Bolaño’s sense of irony that novels, rather than poems, won him his place in the contemporary pantheon. For Bolaño’s protagonists, (and, we can imagine, for Bolaño himself) poetry is the art that endures. Still, to read Amulet or By Night in Chile is to find oneself immersed in verse – not because the prose is self-consciously lyrical (not in translation, anyway), but because all of the major characters are poets. Were these characters merely unheralded virtuosos, like Kerouac’s Subterraneans, the novels might take on an air of wish fulfillment. As it stands, however, Bolaño’s fictionalized Lives of the Poets are an inversion, or complication, of Kerouac’s: He seems more interested in the bad poets, the failed poets, than he is in the angelic ones.For this reason, and for several others, the recently published English edition of Nazi Literature in the Americas is an ideal introduction to the Bolaño oeuvre. The book comprises 30 short portraits of imaginary right-wing poets. The form of the fictional reference work (a subgenre close to my heart) allows for accessibility, while playing to several of Bolaño’s great strengths.The book begins in Argentina “at the dawn of the twentieth century,” with the Mendiluce clan. The matriarch, Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce, has a long and busy life, writing books of poetry (Argentinean Hours) and autobiography (The Century as I Have Lived It) and a libretto for opera (Ana, the Peasant Redeemed), and, most significantly, founding magazines: Modern Argentina, American Letters, and The Fourth Reich in Argentina (“and, subsequently, the publishing house of the same name.”) As these inflated titles indicate, Bolaño has a lot of fun inventing his poets, and the dry humor seems to play to Chris Andrews’ strengths as a translator. One paragraph ends: “By the end of the audience Edelmira and Carozzone were committed Hitlerites.” The next begins: “1930 was a year of voyages and adventures.”After droll biographies of Edelmira’s progeny – “throughout her life, [Luz Mendiluce Thompson] treasured the famous photo of her baby self in Hitler’s arms” – the book will gradually work its way north, to the pop-inflected poets of the United States, and then south again, to end up in Bolaño’s native Chile, at the lightless dawn of the Pinochet years. Here as elsewhere, Bolaño excels in the art of ekphrasis – describing the fruits of one medium with the techniques of another. Rarely do we see an actual excerpt from the poems in question; instead, we are treated to summaries such as this one (concerning the works of Luz Mendiluce Thompson):In 1953…she published the collection Tangos of Buenos Aires, which, as well as a revised version of “I Was Happy with Hitler,” contained some of her finest poems: “Stalin,” a chaotic fable set among bottles of vodka and incomprehensible shrieks; “Self Portrait,” one of the cruelest poems written in Argentina during the fifties, which is no mean claim; “Luz Mendiluce and Love,” in the same vein as her self-portrait, but with doses of irony and black humor, which make it somewhat less grueling; and “Apocalypse at Fifty,” a promise to kill herself when she reached that age, which those who knew her regarded as optimistic.Even when Bolaño does quote from the poems in question – “[they] were free of political allusions,” we are told, “except for the odd unfortunate metaphor (such as ‘in my heart I am the last Nazi’)” – he relies on the reader to flesh out the fictional world, in Borgesian fashion.The form of the vignette means, inevitably, that certain entries are stronger than others; some, like “Luiz Fontaine da Souza,” are merely a single, extended joke. In general, though, Nazi Literature in the Americas gathers momentum as it goes on, which is perhaps a way of saying that it teaches the reader how to read it. The science-fictional leanings of several of the U.S. poets allow Bolaño to indulge in the same sort of hallucinatory symbolism that animates his finest short stories, and the final three entries, covering “The Fabulous Schiaffino Boys” and “The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman,” swell to the amplitude of bravura short stories themselves. (Indeed, Bolaño would rework the latter piece into the novel Distant Star, which is probably the next book to tackle if you’re looking to ease your way into the longer works.)It is as a whole, however, that Nazi Literature in the Americas makes its strongest statement. Beyond the humor, and the game-like pleasure of tracing the chain of influence and patronage among the various poets (abetted by an “Epilogue for Monsters”), the book offers a subtle analysis of the constituent parts of fascism: humorlessness, a longing for an imagined past, a persecution complex. They are often, Bolaño suggests, the same things that drive us to create art, and though the poems described in the book are often bad, they are not uniformly so. By the end of the book, we come to see poetry as a symbol of the broader moral universe (whereas in Kerouac’s novels it tends to represent some form of redemption from it). Bolaño muse, like the muse that spoke to Ezra Pound and Ernst Jünger, is morally and politically indiscriminate. The lives that surround the poems are where the greatest triumphs, and greatest failures, occur.Bonus link: An excerpt from Nazi Literature in the Americas, courtesy of Bookforum