Amulet

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Why Bolaño Matters

I.Every so often, one feels the great gears of canonization creaking into motion. A long critical essay in The New Republic or the New York Review will direct our attention to an overlooked contemporary poet, or beg our reconsideration of a novelist too long out-of-print. A month later, another such essay will appear in another venue, along with a note announcing the imminent appearance of so-and-so’s collected verse, or the retranslation of the magnum opus of such-and-such. An excerpt follows in The New Yorker. The blogs are abuzz. And then, on the front page of the Sunday Book Review, the Times finally catches on.Okay, this feels a little unfair, a little dyspeptic…and a little too specific to the media centers of the East and West Coasts. Since my college years in the Midwest, I’ve admired the efforts undertaken by presses like Dalkey, New Directions, New York Review Books, and Archipelago on behalf of world literature. And without the coordinated advocacy of critics (Susan Sontag was a marvel in this respect, as in so many others) I might not have copped to Leonid Tspykin, Witold Gombrowicz, Leonard Michaels… The list goes on and on.But at a certain point, the law of diminishing returns sets in. If I made time for every overlooked author recommended in the back pages of Harper’s – lately a veritable house organ for the redoubtable FSG – I’d read little else. Among other things, literary greatness requires, as William H. Gass has argued, passing tests of time. I may have to wait a few more decades to see if posterity accords Orhan Pamuk’s work, for example, the high regard in which present critics hold it. Of if my misgivings about Snow hold water.All of which is to say that when I finished Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives this summer and walked out of my apartment onto the blazing street, humming as though zapped by business end of a live-wire, wanting to climb to the top of the nearest bridge and shout to passersby that they must stop everything and read this book, I felt, despite the relative frequency with which we (myself included) throw around terms like “genius” and “masterpiece,” that I had just been in the presence of the real thing. And that that was a rare and precious gift.II.In Bolaño’s work, emotions tango – terror and fascination go cheek by jowl, laughter rubs elbows with pathos – but an undercurrent of exuberance remains constant, a stylistic signature. Which is remarkable, given the sinister plots that entangle his characters. The Savage Detectives begins (and ends) as the diary of one Juan Garcia Madero, a seventeen-year-old aspiring poet living in Mexico City. Two slightly older poets maudits, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano adopt him as a kind of mascot for their literary circle, the “visceral realists.” Madero’s first diary entry reads, in its entirety: “I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.”No initiation ceremony? Two months and 150 pages later, Madero will find himself in the backseat of a Chevy Impala with a prostitute named Lupe, fleeing a murderous pimp. Up front, Ulises and Arturo set a course for the Sonora desert, where they seek a vanished poet of the 1930s, one Cesarea Tinajero. This is madness! Yet we feel, in the surging rhythms of the prose (translated by Natasha Wimmer), young Madero’s eager acceptance of his fate.”I saw that Lupe was looking at me from inside the car and that she was opening the door. I realized that I’d always wanted to leave. I got in and before I could close the door Ulises stepped on the gas. I heard a shot or something that sounded like a shot. They’re shooting at us, the bastards, said Lupe. I turned around and through the back window I saw a shadow in the middle of the street. All the sadness of the world was concentrated in that shadow, framed by the strict rectangle of the Impala’s window. It’s firecrackers, I heard Belano say as our car leaped forward and left behind the Fonts’ house, the thugs’ Camaro, Calle Colima, and in less than two seconds we were on Avenida Oaxaca, heading north out of the city.”In the space of a few sentences, Juan Garcia Madero has earned his wings. He has learned to see the sadness of the whoremonger, to find the gunfire in the fireworks and vice versa. He has become, in the fullest sense of the word, a poet.Bolaño’s preoccupation with poetry may strike the Norteamericano reader, circa 2007, as odd. Who even reads that stuff anymore? We are far more accustomed to authors who hang their narratives on nuclear war, crime syndicates, cattle drives… But the long middle section of The Savage Detectives, wherein 52 narrators track Arturo and Ulises through the 20 years that follow their fateful journey north, exposes academic definitions of poetry as far too narrow. For Bolaño, as for the Beats, the poem is a way of finding beauty even (or especially) in insalubrious circumstances. Poetry is a synonym for youth, for vitality, for faith in one’s own ability to change the world. Poetry is innocence hungering for experience, and vice versa. It is a way of being in the world.That is to say, poetry signifies as much to Bolaño as the whiteness of the whale did to Melville. It functions in The Savage Detectives as Moby-Dick did in the book that bore his name. In his aesthetic innovations – narrative fragmentation, riffs on real historical figures, enjambment of high and low culture – Bolaño resembles a number of other forward-looking novelists. But I can think of no other contemporary writer for whom symbolic preoccupations burn so brightly. Scenes, objects, and characters scintillate with political, ethical, and aesthetic significance. Poetic significance. It is the lunatic density of Bolaño’s symbolism that marks him as truly avant-garde… and also as a vital addition to the mainstream.For some time now, I’ve pictured the American avant-garde as a painter stuck in a corner, surrounded by its own slow-drying handiwork. When an artist strikes out in search of the new, she dreams of the rioting audience of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, of customs agents confiscating pallets of books deemed obscene. And yet, in a culture where dissonance and obscenity are the norm, how is the artist to provoke any reaction at all?The situation is seen most clearly in the world of visual art, where, with the regularity of changing hemlines, proclamations of the Rebirth of Painting alternate with controversies about religious icons rendered in various forms of bodily excretion. One can, Alex P. Keaton-like, react against the excesses of the father by turning toward the conservative. Or one can push farther, ever farther, celebrating the celebrity, marketing the market, outgrossing the gross-out. The most important work being done, at least theoretically, involves a compromise: some genetic splicing of Old Mastery with the shallow holography of mass culture. Think Jeff Wall. Think John Currin and Cindy Sherman.At least these folks are still considered leaders in their field. In American literature, experimentalism is kept like a domesticated animal. For twenty-two hours a day, it sleeps under the kitchen table. Occasionally, when we get bored, we trot it out and put it through its tricks to remind ourselves that, hey, we’re as hip as the next guy. But an avant-garde novel is never going to change the way we see the world.Well, The Savage Detectives blew my pessimism all to hell. Aiming to usurp the throne of literature from Octavio Paz (and, later, Gabriel Garcia Marquez), Roberto Bolaño produced something unselfconsciously yet distinctly his own.Nothing more or less than the sum of the stories told about them, Bolaño’s visceral realists come alive in a new way. Not only do we see Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano from every possible angle; we see them from impossible angles as well. Among the novel’s 52 + 1 voices, conflicting accounts proliferate: The visceral realists are geniuses. They are hacks. They are liars. They are saints. The author refuses to render a verdict. And yet his narrators aren’t wholly unreliable: in each version of Ulises and Arturo, we recognize something ineffable and unchanging. However plastic or fantastic, they are always somehow themselves. As we are always somehow ourselves. Among other things, then, The Savage Detectives is a treatise on human nature.III.To borrow from Sir Mix-A-Lot: I like big books, and I cannot lie. Bolaño’s shorter novel, Amulet revisits one of The Savage Detectives’ narrators, a poor Uruguayan named Auxilio Lacoutre. When, in the riotous year of 1968, the Mexican army invades the sovereign campus of the national university, Auxilio refuses to be evacuated. For twelve days, she hides in a women’s bathroom, subsisting on tapwater and scribbling poems on sheets of toilet-paper. In her disorientation, she drifts into the past… And, bizarrely, into the future, where her resistance – like Ulises and Arturo’s exploits – will become the stuff of legend. As a character sketch, Amulet is vivid and hallucinatory, but I found the proliferation of subplots and hazy chronology hard to track. I much preferred the version of Auxilio’s rebellion that appears in The Savage Detectives. Like the tales told by that novel’s other 52 voices, Auxilio’s gains meaning and urgency through its connection to a larger narrative arc.Of course, much of Bolaño’s fiction is part of a single galaxy, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Several short stories, for example, are narrated by a figure who shares biographical circumstances with Arturo Belano (which is to say, with Bolano himself). And Caesarea Tinajero, at the end The Savage Detectives, hints darkly at events that will unfold in 2666.Still, for the novitiate looking for a quick introduction to Bolano’s world, the best place to start may be Last Evenings on Earth, a collection of stories rendered into English, like Amulet, by Chris Andrews. It’s all here in miniature: the romantic fatalism, the rich irony, the soupcon of the supernatural, the political depredations, the enigmatic yet incredibly real characters. A story like “Gomez Palacio,” in which, simultaneously, nothing much happens and everything does, presents a vision as idiosyncratic, and as existentially important, as Kafka’s. Each writer seems to have sprung fully formed from the void.Which makes Bolaño’s own story seem all the more implausible. Broke, addicted, and unknown as of the late ’80s, the former poet kicked heroin and took up fiction writing to support his growing family – a quixotic pursuit if ever there was one. Bolaño would enter his short stories in Spain’s many regional writing contests, often winning multiple prizes with the same piece (camouflaged under a variety of titles). By 1999, the massive Savage Detectives had won the Romulo Gallegos prize – Spanish-language literature’s most prestigious award. Upon learning that his liver was failing, Bolaño raced to finish the even-more-massive manuscript for 2666, his literary legacy to the world, and his financial legacy to his wife and children. Whether 2666 can equal or surpass The Savage Detectives remains to be seen (among English-speaking audiences, at least; Wimmer’s translation will be released next year). It seems certain, however, that Bolaño’s place among the dozen or so great novelists of the last quarter-century is secure… Or anyway, that’s how it looks to this correspondent.

The Most Anticipated Books of 2007

As I did in 2005 and 2006, I’ve decided to open this year looking ahead to some of the exciting or intriguing titles that we’ll be talking about over the next few months.Possibly the biggest literary arrival of this young year will be that of Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest later this month. Unfortunately for some fans, the book is not the long hoped for sequel to Harlot’s Ghost, a book that Mailer abandoned for this one, according to an interview. With this effort Mailer treads into charged territory, chronicling the early life of Adolf Hitler from the point of view of the devil or something like it. The curious can read an excerpt of the book that appeared in the January issue of Esquire.Also coming right around the corner is House of Meetings by Martin Amis. The book came out in the UK in September where John Banville in The Independent named it a “Book of the Year.” The reviews have been generally good. The Observer called it a “compact tour de force.” The Guardian was slightly more skeptical saying that the book is “an attempt to compress the past 60 years of Russian history into 200 pages, delivered as the monologue of someone whose name we’re never told; an ambitious plan, held together by the sound of a voice.”Also this month, Paul Auster’s latest book Travels in the Scriptorium comes out. It sounds like another inscrutable, postmodern tale from Auster, this time starring a protagonist named Mr. Blank. In this case, Auster’s inward looking tendencies are amplified as the book references many of his previous works. At both Condalmo and Strange Horizons, this particular Auster experiment has been deemed less successful.Louis Begley, author of About Schmidt, has Matters of Honor coming out this month. It starts with three unlikely roommates at Harvard in the 1950s and goes on to trace how the diverging outcomes of their lives came to be. If that sounds like a tired old tale, PW makes the same observation but then brushes it aside: “It’s a story covered by everyone from Cheever to Roth, but Begley finds new and wonderful nuances within it.”Colum McCann’s fourth novel Zoli will hit shelves soon. The book is named for a Roma (or Gypsy) woman in Slovakia who we follow from her harrowing childhood during World War II to her becoming something of local literary celebrity. Through it all, however, she is unable to escape what her heritage signifies in her Communist bloc country. The book has been out for several months in Ireland and the UK where The Guardian hailed McCann’s “near pitch-perfect control of character and narrative.” For those who want a taste, a pdf excerpt from the book is available.Another big name with a new book out this year is Jane Smiley, whose Ten Days in the Hills arrives in February. Hills is being billed as Smiley’s “LA Novel” (note that Jonathan Lethem’s “LA Novel” arrives in March). PW sums it all up rather well: “Smiley delivers a delightful, subtly observant sendup of Tinseltown folly, yet she treats her characters, their concern with compelling surfaces and their perpetual quest to capture reality through artifice, with warmth and seriousness. In their shallowness, she finds a kind of profundity.” On the other hand, I’m not convinced that the world needs another literary look at the Hollywood-caricature side of LA.February will also see the arrival of Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio. This is Alarcon’s first novel, following his collection of stories, War by Candlelight, which was a finalist for the 2006 PEN Hemingway Award. Alarcon likely came to many readers’ attention in 2003, when his story “City of Clowns” was featured in the New Yorker debut fiction issue. This new book scored a blurb from Edward P. Jones – “Mr. Alarcon, like the best storytellers, reveals to us that the world we have secreted in our hearts spins in a bigger universe with other hearts just as good and just as bad as our own.” – always a good sign.Also in February, a new book will arrive from Nuruddin Farah, quite likely the best known Somali novelist and the winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998. Knots is about Cambara, a Somalian woman who has emigrated to Canada, where a crisis sends her on a journey back to Somalia. Farah is known for his strong female protagonists and this book appears to be no exception. Knots gets a glowing review from PW – “Despite its heavy subject, joy suffuses the novel” – and Farah will likely continue to be discussed as a potential Nobel winner.It would be strange to read a book by Jonathan Lethem that wasn’t deeply rooted in his hometown of Brooklyn, but readers will get that chance in March when You Don’t Love Me Yet arrives. The book is set in Los Angeles, but, while Fortress of Solitude had some amusing LA moments set in the office of a Hollywood agent, this new book concerns itself with the city’s grungier east side neighborhoods, home to a star-crossed indie rock band whose members are classic LA misfits. Early accounts at PW and this bookseller’s blog have found the book to be funny and entertaining but not up to par with the author’s earlier efforts.If you’ll indulge me in allowing a little non-fiction to sneak into this post, please note that William T. Vollmann has a new book coming out in March called Poor People, a rather slim tome, weighing in it at just 464 pages. This is the book that Vollmann mentioned when Ed and Scott saw him read back in spring 2005. From Scott’s post: “Vollman is currently working on a book about the experiences of poor people in different countries. He says he asks everyone why they think they are poor, and the answers greatly vary. He says most of the Thais told him it’s because they were bad in a previous life. Most of the Mexicans he spoke to told him it was because the rich stole from them.”A book by Columbian writer Laura Restrepo will hit American shores in March. Delirium was originally written in 2004 and follows the life of a struggling literature professor who must investigate what has caused his wife to go insane. The book bears an impressive array of blurbs befitting a writer of Restrepo’s stature (if not here, then overseas), including raves from Jose Saramago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Harold Bloom, and Vikram Seth.We’ll also see a new novel from Kurt Andersen co-founder of the influential magazine Spy and host of the public radio show Studio 360. Heyday is set in the mid-19th century and it follows an immigrant, recently arrived on bustling American shores, who falls in with a group heading west, lured by the California Gold Rush. Random House calls the book “an enthralling, old-fashioned yarn interwoven with a bracingly modern novel of ideas.” A short story about two of the book’s main characters appeared in Metropolis in 2003.Debut novelist Joshua Ferris already has a backer in Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, who says Then We Came To The End is “a humane and affecting book.” Mark also included the novel in his contribution to the Year in Reading series where he said that this “hilarious and gorgeously written novel might just change [his] mind about MFAs.” Of course, Mark is fully aware that we all might not share his particular tastes, so he convinced publisher Little, Brown to let him publish the book’s first chapter at TEV, where you can now check it out for yourself.Orange Prize winner Lionel Shriver also has a new book coming in March, The Post-Birthday World. PW describes as “impressive if exhausting” this novel that explores what might have been if its children’s book illustrator protagonist had given into temptation and pursued an affair. Following the success of Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and the subsequent re-release of her back catalog, The Post-Birthday World marks her first new effort since hitting the literary big time.The Savage Detectives, originally published in 1998 by the late Roberto Bolano, will arrive in April. The book has already appeared in other languages, which is how Francois of Tabula Rasa came to read it. he shared his reactions with us as a part of the Year in Reading series: “Pure bliss! In turn coming-of-age story, roman noir, literary quest, this is a real tour de force, reminiscent of Julio Cortazar and Jack Kerouac while remaining deeply original. Bolano passed away in 2003. He was fifty years old, and I just can’t help thinking about what else might have been coming from him.” New Directions, meanwhile, will publish a translation of Bolano’s novella Amulet in January.There’s not much available yet on Dani Shapiro’s new book arriving in April. Buzz Girl notes that Black and White is “about mothers and daughters set in New York and Maine.” The book follows Shapiro’s well received 2003 book Family History.The biggest literary month of 2007 might be May which will start with the much anticipated, much delayed publication of Michael Chabon’s new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon’s first full-length adult novel since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a thriller set in an imaginary world inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s short-lived plan during WWII to create a Jewish homeland in Alaska, rather than the Middle East. Sounds interesting, no? We’ve been following this book for quite some time now, as it was originally set to be released nearly a year ago. But Chabon put the brakes on the project when he decided it was moving along too fast.Yet another big name author with a new book out this year is Haruki Murakami, whose book After Dark hits shelves in May. The book was originally published in Japan in 2004, and has already been translated into some other languages, including Dutch. In keeping with the title, the novel tracks a number of nocturnal characters who dwell in Tokyo and have the sorts of encounters that tend to occur in the wee hours of the morning. Murakami’s typical melding of dream and reality will be familiar to readers of this new novel as well. Still, I join Scott Esposito in hoping that Murakami breaks new ground with this new book.Also in May: the arrival of Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. Not much available on this one yet, save a stray synopsis or two. The novel begins with a family on a farm in northern California in the 1970s and moves to the casinos of Nevada, at which point a “traumatic event” breaks the family apart. The pieces are put back together in the novel’s second part, which takes place “in the stark landscape of south-central France.” Like I said, not much to go on just yet.Susanna Moore, best known for her novel In the Cut, has a new book coming out in May. The Big Girls is based on Moore’s experience teaching writing in a federal prison in New York, and one early look at the novel found it to be, as one might expect, fairly disturbing. It’ll be interesting to see other opinions of what sounds like a very emotionally charged book.The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins will arrive in June. Wiggins’ last book, Evidence of Things Unseen, was a National Book Award finalist in 2003. This new book is a historical novel about the Old West photographer Edward Curtis.I’ll close the list with two additional non-fiction books that I’m particularly looking forward to. Pete Dexter has a collection of his old newspaper columns coming out called Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage. A number of the columns are from his time in Philadelphia, which should be of particular interest for me, since the city is now my home. In addition, I’ve always felt that the old school newspaperman’s sensibility that Dexter brings to his fiction is one of his most appealing qualities as a writer, so I’m looking forward to getting the opportunity to delve into the pure stuff, as it were. Another journalist whose new collection is, for me, hotly anticipated is Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski is a Polish writer who, to me, is unsurpassed in his chronicling of the so-called Third World and its forgotten wars and struggles. I don’t yet know what his latest, Travels with Herodotus, will cover, but I know I’ll be reading it.While long, this list is by no means exhaustive, so please use the comments to share what you’re looking forward to reading in 2007.

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