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Where Belief Is Lost and Found and Lost Again: Vedran Husić’s ‘Basements and Other Museums’


Every once in a while, a short story collection comes around that requires slow sipping—stories that silence you in the lamplight or make you pause, watch the outside daylife without really seeing it because you are still immersed in the world of the book. Such is the spell that Basements and Other Museums by Vedran Husić weaves.

Winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press, Basements cycles in and out of the tumultuous history of the Balkans—more specifically, Husić’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he was born. But the writer doesn’t overwhelm the reader with complicated backstory of the region’s past. Instead, we are often tossed into the middle of the anxieties of war or the unsettling peace that follows.

These are stories rooted in place and the loss of that place, stories anchored in the wars of the 1990s as much as in the Bosnian diaspora, where characters live in the present day in places like suburban Phoenix, Arizona, and wrestle with their inherited histories of violence. These stories interrogate borders and ethnicities, how a person who lives on the other side of town could be an enemy just as soon as they could be a friend, whether Serb or Croat, Christian or Muslim, Jew or atheist.

From the very first page, Husić’s stories come at you with the rushing velocity of the bullets that fill his collection. The opening “A Brief History of the Southern Slavs,” a micro-story, does excellent work to shape the rest of the collection not just by introducing the writer’s skillful lyricism but also by framing the overarching narrative. These are stories driven by characters who become “prisoners of ideas, then arrogant like all nonbelievers, then violent like all who regain their faith.” Ultimately, each story is a test tube in which the characters wrestle with ideology—whether religious attachment, nostalgia, romantic longing, or some other powerful force—and the stories end with a full embrace or rejection of what was first felt at the outset.

The characters we meet, such as Ivan Boric, a fictional Serbo-Croatian writer, are often consumed by an idea that morphs into something else entirely, characters who come face to face with profound loss. Boric, for instance, in “Witness to a Prayer,” is described as a writer who seeks to “[i]mprison beauty in a padded sentence,” to illustrate the “overlooked miracles of life.” Yet Boric, according to a narrator telling the tale in the style of a biography, is “embarrassed” by the sentimentality of his writing vocation, as if it is incomplete. The story shifts—surprisingly, as Husić often does—into a second section that reads more like lyrical fiction and less like biography. Here we see the character Boric from another side, a man who has fallen in love with the quiet of the world, who is consumed by the small beauties of life with his wife Vesna and daughter Mila. But as a Boric’s mind cascades through memories—glimpses in which he watches “Mila sleep in the candlelight”—the dark violence of trauma inserts itself until he must confront the truth that Mila has been killed by a “fragment of a mortar shell.” The miracles of life that he had tried to capture have evaporated, memory only dancing in the shadows of war. The narrator speculates at the story’s end that instead of sentimentalism perhaps Boric has been “trying to capture beauty and raise the dead.”

In this story and in others, Vedran Husić uses form to constantly destabilize the reader, to recreate the effect not just of war but also of exile, of longing. The story “Translated from the Bosnian” is written in the form of letters exchanged between a deceased father and his living wife and son. In the silence and white space between each exchanged letter, the longing and disconnect between characters is amplified. Another story, “Documentary,” cycles through linked first person monologues, as if each character was being interviewed as they try to describe Dario, the central figure in the story who is unable to be content in a changing world, to move on from love, to truly value the lives around him.

Time also is a character in these stories. Husić uses the slippages of memory combined with the complexity of point of view shifts as each character quests for truth. Central to these narratives, however, is a city that seems strangely unaltered by time and war, despite the many violences that happen in and around it. The city of Mostar acts as a constant place of physical as well as psychological return, bordering on the spiritual. Take this beautiful passage from “Deathwinked” when the narrator elegizes the city of his past:
Mostar, my city, you are far from me now, but I peek through the spyglass and you appear so near. In my third-floor apartment, in the neverdesperate America of my childhood dreams, at my desk, armed with pencil and paper, sensitive as a landmine, fumbling similes like live grenades, I, the young, triple-tongued poet, write down the name of my birthcity like the name of a former lover. Mostar. Mostar, my city, stunned quiet.
Husić invokes writers that similarly channel form for cerebral effect—from the poet Paul Celan to novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard—and any reader who might be a fan of these heavy lifters would certainly do well to pick up Basements and Other Museums. Among contemporary writers, Husić reminds me of Orhan Pamuk, who in books like Snow similarly questions how a fractured present can somehow be traced back to a more intact past.

Vedran Husić’s Basements and Other Museums is a collection where absence is felt acutely, where characters become strangers to themselves. A monk at a Greek monastery in the book’s final story vocalizes what is perhaps the book’s central idea: “A man in doubt is therefore a man in perpetual exile.” This is a collection, after all, where belief is lost and found and lost again.

Nobody’s Ever Ready: Snow in Poetry, Fiction, and Film

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Snow is story. Snow can be an interruption and annoyance, but it is difficult to not appreciate a child’s awe for the white flakes. Snow clogs and closes roads, but it also turns lonely hills into slopes for sledding. Snow is the possibility of a new landscape, if only until for an hour, a day, or a week.

I was born during an Ash Wednesday snowstorm. My father rushed my mother to Morristown Memorial Hospital while white cloaked the streets. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I scoped side roads for hills and banks. The best routes had speed and a smooth finish, and though I would drift to a stop, I would stare into the sky, and not care that I was cold. I listened for school closings on a Sansui, my face lit by the dial. Now I refresh the National Weather Service website as watches become warnings, and still pine for storms.

That white world has influenced my writing: my novella, This Darksome Burn, begins during an Oregon storm, and one of my poems, “The Mailman,” laments undelivered mail. Snow has also become a refrain in my reading. Snow fractures storylines and complicates characters. Snow forces writers to capture atmosphere and mood, and to uniquely describe a common event. Although we may experience many snowstorms in our lifetimes, each fall must be prepared for, dealt with, and, possibly, appreciated. I’ve noticed that writers often raise their descriptive bar when representing this winter world. What follows is a list of snow in poetry, fiction, and film. The usual suspects are mentioned, but my focus is on lesser-known gems. There’s enough reading and watching to keep you busy during the next polar vortex, blizzard, or even onion snow.

I. Snow in Poetry
Antarctica” by James Hoch (2007)

Friends kneel on the dirt floor of a baseball dugout. They pop nitrous canisters “into the communion shapes / of our mouths, slipped inside where / everything seemed to be falling snow.” The poem continues with that steel-like chill, as some boys drift toward further abuse, and even death. Hoch never glorifies drug use, but, like the blur of side-falling snow, he muddies the space between regret and nostalgia. The grown narrator sees kids “running in the heat of a taillight / swirling behind them,” and recalls his own youth, when he and his friends “wanted only to quiet our bodies, their / unnatural hum, a vague pull inward, / some thin furrows gliding over the snow.” Hoch’s poem appeared in an issue of Painted Bride Quarterly, but I prefer the version that was included in his second book, Miscreants.

A Winter’s Tale” by D.H. Lawrence (1916)

Snow and love are commonly intertwined, but Lawrence begins this poem in the “grey” past, where the woman’s footsteps document her existence. She is gone: “I cannot see her, since the mist’s white scarf / obscures the dark wood and the dull orange sky; / but she’s waiting, I know, impatient and cold, half / sobs struggling into her frosty sigh.” Yesterday, she had rushed to meet the narrator for their “inevitable farewell; / the hill is steep, on the snow my steps are slow– / why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?” No warmth in this storm.

Invocation” by Denise Levertov (1969)

In 1994, Levertov wrote “Swan in Falling Snow,” based on the photography of her friend, Mary Randlett. Although the title sounds pleasant, the poem is not: the swan is nearly dead, a “barrel-sized, heart-shaped snowball.” Levertov uses commas as knives: “splayed feet, balanced, / weary, immobile.” Yet Levertov had long been interested in snow’s ability to turn a narrative. “Invocation” is a sparer piece, resembling patches of dirt on a snowed page. The collective narrator is about to leave home, and each line in the first stanza is its own sentence, building the anticipation. Here, snow is not worried over, but wished for: “Deep snow shall block all entrances / and oppress the roof and darken / the windows.” Only snow can shutter a home and prevent entry. And that is fine, because the narrator hopes Lares will “guard” the “profound dreams” between the walls, so “that it return to us when we return.” It also contains my most favorite line in all of poetry: “The house yawns like a bear.”

Early October Snow” by Robert Haight (2013)

A nor’easter slammed New Jersey the day before Halloween, 2011. Trees snapped power lines as some counties saw nearly 20 inches of accumulation. Haight’s poem brought me back to that moment: “this morning we wake to pale muslin / stretched across the grass.” The narrator knows the snow will not stay, but the blanched landscape still fascinates him. I love a poem that isn’t supposed to happen. Snow should wait its turn, but Haight makes this early fall so believable, from the pumpkins that look like “planets / shrouded by clouds” to “leaves, still soldered to their branches / by a frozen drop of dew, splash / apple and pear paint along the roadsides.”

Ash-boughs” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1885)

Hopkins’s final sonnet, “To R.B.,” is a lament about the narrator’s inability to experience “the fine delight that fathers thought:” inspiration to write poetry. “R.B.” is Robert Bridges, poet laureate of England, but more importantly, Hopkins’s friend and posthumous publisher. The pair met at Oxford, and agnostic Bridges was the perfect contrast to Hopkins, a Catholic convert who became a Jesuit priest. Bridges named this fragment “Ash-boughs” when he published Hopkins’s Collected Poems in 1918. A curtal sonnet, one of Hopkins’s idiosyncratic 12 line variations of the form, the poem begins with a narrator’s wonder at “a milk to the mind:” the branches of ash trees. He enjoys their shapes, reach, and color: “ May / mells blue and snowwhite through them, a fringe and fray / of greenery.” The tree reaches through the memory of snow to the promise of spring and light.

Hopkins had always connected snow and ash trees, and used their intersection to present his central poetic theory, inscape. Hopkins once explained to Bridges that “no doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.” His theory of inscape is equally unusual: “the essential and only lasting thing…species or individually-distinctive beauty of style.” The theory became the core paradox of Hopkins’s poetry and life, which Bridges observed as “the naked encounter of sensualism and asceticism,” and what W.H. Gardner calls the “tension between the inborn creative personality of the artist and the acquired religious character of the Jesuit priest.”

That one of our most inventive poets synthesized his poetic and personal theories using snow brings me joy. From his notebook, in February and April, 1873: “In the snow flat-topped hillocks and shoulders outline with wavy edges, ridge below ridge, very like the grain of wood in line and in projection like relief maps…All the world is full of inscape and chance left free to act falls into an order as well as purpose: looking out of my window I caught it in the random clods and broken heaps of snow made by the cast of a broom…[in April] the ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first. I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.”

Further Reading

A great list of snow poems appears in the essay “Turning Up the Gravity” by Floyd Skloot. After a bad storm, Skloot heads inside and envelopes himself in winter verse: “Snow-Bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier, “Snowflakes” by Howard Nemerov, “Snow Light” by May Sarton, “SNO” by e.e. cummings, “The Snow on Saddle Mountain” by Gary Snyder, “Snow” by Charles Wright, “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter” by Robert Bly,  “Snow” by Philip Levine, “Winter Poem” by Frederick Morgan, “Snow” by Louis MacNeice, and “Desert Places” by Robert Frost: “A blanker whiteness of benighted snow / With no expression, nothing to express.” I would also add “Snow” by Mary Ruefle, “A Winter Without Snow” by J.D. McClatchey, “[Like brooms of steel]” by Emily Dickinson, “February Snow” by Francisco Aragón, “The Snow-Storm” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Letter from the Ice Field, December” by Sara Eliza Johnson, and, of course, “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens, which ends: “For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

II. Snow in Fiction
The Pedersen Kid by William Gass (1961)

Gass wrote his novella “to entertain a toothache;” I first read it while sitting in the waiting room at the dentist. Within his plans for the story’s draft, he explains his goal to “present evil as a visitation –sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable,” bringing to life a line spoken in the text: “nobody’s ever ready for snow.” Gass’s cast is full of effective caricatures: drunken Pa, confused Ma, conniving farm-hand Big Hans, and young Jorge, the first person narrator. Snow appears in the second sentence: in the midst of a North Dakota blizzard, Big Hans discovers a child, the Pedersen kid. The child is resuscitated but delirious, and the family attempts to discover why he is there. Armed with shotguns, sandwiches, and coffee, the men of the home cross snow to hunt the man with mysterious “yellow gloves:” assumedly, someone who has killed the rest of the Pedersen family.

In a story that both parodies and praises the adventure genre, the men experience horse troubles and shudder from cold. Pa loses his whiskey bottle in the snow, and Gass spends several pages on Pa’s obsessive search, leading to Jorge’s conclusion: “It was frightening — the endless white space.” The horse ultimately shatters the bottle, and the “brown stain spread,” the “snow bubbling and sagging.” Big Hans laughs, and Jorge thought they “could melt and drink the snow.” Jorge hates Big Hans; would hate him “forever — as long as there was snow.” A Beckett-style scene unfolds. Snow and storm create a maniacal world that is equal parts caricature and deadly real. The men reach the Pedersen barn, and Jorge hears gunshots. In the novella’s final psychotropic pages, Jorge feels reborn in the abandoned Pedersen home, though the killer might near: “More and more, while we’d been coming, I’d been slipping out of myself, pushed out by the cold maybe.” His thoughts drift toward “a movie where the months had blown from the calendar like leaves. Girls in red peek-a-book BVDs were skiing out of sight.” He sees his motionless father being buried under new snowfall, and realizes there is nothing he can do until spring: “There was no need for me to grieve…The snow would keep me.” He accepts that the “winter time had finally got them all.”

“Wickedness” by Ron Hansen (1988)

From the introduction to Ted Kooser’s book of poems, The Blizzard Voices: “[these poems were] snagged…from actual reminiscences, recorded in old age, of people who survived the most talked about storm in American history, the Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard because of the many children and their teachers who were trapped in rural schools on the bitterly cold days of January 12 and 13.” Hansen’s fictional dramatization of the blizzard is frightening. “Weather in Nebraska could be the wickedest thing she ever saw:” wicked suggests snowfall as sentient villain. The storm took most by surprise: “Weeds were being uprooted, sapling trees were bullwhipping, and the top inches of snow and prairie soil were being sucked up and stirred like the dirty flour that was called red dog.”

Animals are thrown about: “Cats died, dogs died, pigeons died.”  Humans appear to lose their minds. “Ainslie Classen” (Hansen’s usage of proper names lends a dated census-like feel to the narrative) “work[ed] his hands into the pigs’ hot wastes, and smeared some onto his skin.”  Mathias Aachen’s house is in disarray: “When a jar of apricots burst open that night and the iced orange syrup did not ooze out” the father of the house promises that “every one of us will be dying of cold before morning.” Aachen doesn’t wait for the storm: “he tilted hot candle wax into his right ear and then his left, until he could only hear his body drumming blood.  And then Aachen got his Navy Colt and kissed his wife and killed her. And then walked under the green tent cloth and killed his seven children, stopping twice to capture a scuttling boy and stopping once more to reload.”

The wicked storm kills “a Harrington woman,” “an Omaha cigar maker,” “a cattle inspector,” “a Chicago boy,” “a forty year-old wife,” and many more.  This is certainly no ordinary storm based on volume alone, but Hansen redoubles the almost mythical convention of snow through description: “Everything she knew was no longer there. She was in a book without descriptions. She could put her hand out and her hand would disappear.” Hansen makes snow a legend.

“Time and Again” by Breece Pancake (1977)

Although she deemed the story “relatively weak” and having a “sort of comic book Gothicism” in her 1983 review, Joyce Carol Oates anthologized Pancake’s morbid story in American Gothic Tales. I assume her appreciation increased with subsequent readings. I was sold on my first reading. Pancake’s story begins indoors: “Mr. Weeks called me out again tonight, and I look back down the hall of my house. I left the kitchen light burning. This is an empty old house since the old lady died.” The sentences lean forward; they are blinks of an eye, individual shots, appended with heavy periods.

The narrator’s son has been gone for years. This lonely man keeps hogs, “old hogs. Not good for anything,” but makes his money driving the plow for Mr. Weeks. Besides a loud clue — “the lug wrench is where it has always been beside my seat” — the narrator first seems more cantankerous than murderous: “The snow piles in a wall against the berm. No cars move. They are stranded at the side, and as I plow past them, a line falls in behind me, but they always drop back. They don’t know how long it takes the salt to work. They are common fools. They rush around in such weather and end up dead.” He soon picks up a hitchhiker, “a polite boy,” who reminds the narrator of his son. The talk reaches the man’s hogs, and he says they die hard, much harder than men in war. Death remains the topic of discussion: they talk of a serial killer who prays on local hitchhikers. The narrator then talks of snapping the necks of German soldiers in a French farmhouse during a World War II snowstorm. “People die so easy,” he thinks; unspoken words, but heard by the reader. He grips the lug wrench, and asks the boy to look under the seat for his flashlight. But the killing strike never comes. He spares the boy, and drives up the mountain. He tries to think about all the men he killed in France, but can’t think past that night in the storm. He returns home, and Pancake hints at what the narrator usually feeds the hogs. This time, they are unhappy.

How to Talk to a Hunter” (pdf) by Pam Houston (1990)

Besides “Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace, I haven’t found better usage of second person narration. The unnamed main character has fallen for the hunter, who “won’t play back his messages while [she is] in the room.” She is attracted to him, but also to the comfort of a warm body in bed during the winter. She imagines that it will snow for “thirteen straight days,” and that they will spend the hours together.

She soon learns that those unchecked messages are from another woman. Houston’s second person narrator outlines a hypothetical storyline: the other woman will bridge the distance from Montana and bring heavy snow with her. Closed highways will snowbound them, and the main character will realize that this man is like all the others: he is his needs and wants, and nothing more. Although not a drop of this storm actually falls, Houston absolutely convinces the reader that this character can worry herself frozen. In fact, by the end of the story there is little discernment between past, present, and possibility, except the realization that the “nights are getting shorter now,” but no less painful.

“A Change of Season” by James Bond (1984)

Bond’s story was anthologized in Best American Short Stories, and he also published fiction in Willow Springs (“Whiskey Sunday Refusal” and “Fools Fall”), but has disappeared from the literary radar. This is both surprising and not. The story torques its authentic tension through a rotating first person narration, yet it feels somewhat provincial on a first read. Two logging families, the Yanceys and Davazs, are in the midst of a competition for timber and pride. Both think the other clan is unfit for this work, but both agree “if a man can last the winter here he’s got a chance; if he can beat the winter here, he’s somebody.” Buck Davaz claims the Yanceys are “scared of snow:” the second they see fall, they “grab up everything and run, axes, tractors, trucks, saws, and what they can’t carry they throw ahead of them.” Randall Yancey, one of the sons, says Buck “didn’t know winter.”

But Buck needs Bill Yancey’s help. His Snowcat is stuck up on the mountain, and he’s got forty to sixty thousand feet of timber that he’s willing to “pay a pretty penny for help hauling.” Yancey hates scaling the mountain during a fall, but money talks, so he agrees to help. Buck needs the help but revels in Bill’s poor driving in the snow. They load and chain the Snowcat to a truck, but Bill’s towing truck slides before getting stuck. The narrative shifts perspective but never relents, as each man criticizes the other, before Buck ultimately gets his own ride stuck. Angry and frustrated, Buck smashes the windshield with a maul, and strides toward the Yanceys, wielding an axe in his other hand. Each time I read this story, I expect the worst possible ending, but Buck only walks past them, echoing a maxim he speaks earlier in the story: “Knowing when to stop fighting, that’s a side of strength most never learn.”

Further Reading

“The Hermit’s Story” by Rick Bass (as well as his non-fiction, Winter: Notes from Montana), the haunting conclusion of “Master and Man” by Leo Tolstoy, the “Snow” chapter in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey; Snow by Orhan Pamuk, The Call of the Wild by Jack London, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg, “Hunters in the Snow” by Tobias Wolff, and, of course, “The Dead” by James Joyce (“And he [wrote the story] when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” — Mary Gordon).

III. Snow in Film
Pontypool (2008)

A horror movie about linguistics, radio stations, and snow? It exists, and begins with a riddle that includes Norman Mailer, the JFK assassination, and how “physical details spasm for a moment” after a tragic event. Shock-jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is unhappy with his new assignment in a small Ontario town: “These late winters I feel like I’m living in the basement of the world.” On his way to work on Valentine’s Day morning, Mazzy encounters a distraught woman who smacks against his window, says the word “blood,” and then disappears into the snow. And that fall is only beginning: the storm is about to last all day. Local news reports of a hostage situation and gunfire flame into a zombie attack. Their virus is language. The film’s director, Bruce McDonald, calls them “conversationalists.” Cult followers of the film (and its novel basis, by Tony Burgess) point to an essay by William S. Burroughs, “Ten Years and a Billion Dollars:” “the Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself.”

This virus begins as a repetition of a word, like a broken record. The album is love: this is Valentine’s Day, so those infected repeat terms of endearment. The repetition devolves into fracture, and words break down. During the final stage, the medium swallows the message: “you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.” Soon the entire town of Pontypool is placed under quarantine. Mazzy steps outside into the blizzard, but the snow pushes inside, just as the infected pound against doors and windows. Mazzy shifts from sarcastic to serious as he recounts obituaries for those killed and who kill each other, shown in a snow-white and black interlude that recalls Wisconsin Death Trip. Soon the infected smash their way into the studio, and the snow follows, blown like wavering lines of stereo sound.

The Shining (1980)

Disciples of Stanley Kubrick have been mining this film long before Room 237 (2013) made basement theories mainstream, but its depiction of snow also deserves mention. My first viewing was a version recorded from WPIX in the late 1980’s. There was no audio during the opening sequence (the Torrance family driving to the interview at the Overlook Hotel, with scrolling, aqua-colored credits breaking beautiful scenery), but the sound kicked-in like a shock. The film is suffused with snow. When Jack (Jack Nicholson) is being interviewed for the caretaker position, the window behind the manager beams light, as if the sun is burning off snow. The manager explains that the hotel closes until May, since the cost to plow the collected 20 feet of winter snow is prohibitive. A former schoolteacher and hopeful novelist, he longs for the isolation afforded by this job. He lives in Boulder, but is from Vermont, a place of snow, and claims his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), will love the change. He also claims that his wife will be entertained, not frightened, by the manager’s revelation that a former caretaker murdered his family before committing suicide. The eccentricities of the Torrance family are nothing compared to Danny’s psychic powers.

Jack gets the job, and the snowfall doesn’t disappoint. Phone lines are down during a storm early in the film, so Wendy contacts the forest service on a radio. The ranger says it is one of the worst storms they’ve had in years. A shot of the heavy fall precedes Danny’s wandering into the forbidden room 237. The hotel’s cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) shares Danny’s psychic powers, and realizes that Jack’s eccentricities have descended into violence. Dick flies from Miami to Colorado, and then drives along a highway littered with overturned trucks and spun-out cars, a white graveyard. He is on the way to the hotel, but his well-intentioned help is not enough.

During the climactic scenes, Wendy has locked herself and Danny in the bedroom to hide from Jack’s wrath. She is only able to open the window halfway. She lifts Danny through, and he slides down a gentle hill of snow to the ground. Wendy can’t fit, so, knife in hand, she waits for Jack to reach her. He axes through one panel of the door, but stops when he hears Dick’s Snowcat nearing the hotel.

The film’s infamous final sequence occurs in the hedge maze, where Danny knows snow holds the key to his survival. The curious photograph at the film’s conclusion hints that, like snow, evil always returns.

Further Viewing

Snow’s power as a visual backdrop makes it ubiquitous in film, but here are some particularly notable whiteouts: The Ice Storm (1997), based on the 1994 novel by Rick Moody; Ang Lee’s representation is beautiful, but Moody’s prose is tough to top: “The ice had built up on every surface, on roofs and shrubs and avenues and cars and waterways. It formed a glittering and immense cocoon on tree limbs and power lines, a cocoon of impossible mass. The sound of tree limbs giving out under this weight was like the crackling of gunfire. Mike Williams, who was wandering around in the earliest part of dawn, heard these explosions in the stillness and laughed giddily at them. He was up really late. The threat of heavy weather impelled him out into the elements. To watch.”); Fargo (1996), where snow is present in the first and climactic scenes, and almost everywhere in-between; The Thing (1982), Antarctica is the perfect place to have a showdown with shape-shifting aliens; The Virgin Spring (1960), where a soft snowfall pierces the viewer’s already wounded heart; Black Christmas (1974), watch it for Keir Dullea’s maniacal destruction of a piano, Olivia Hussey’s authentic screams, and Margot Kidder’s dirty-mouthed sarcasm, but snow completes this precedent for John Carpenter’s Halloween; Road to Perdition (2002), Sam Mendes’s dramatization of a former mafia hitman’s (Tom Hanks) revenge was renowned cinematographer Conrad Hall’s final film, and is marked by rain and snow; A Simple Plan (1998), an unusual film in Sam Raimi’s catalog, where friends discover a small plane that had crashed into a snowy forest, with 4 million dollars in tow; Antichrist (2009), the appeal of snow brings a child to an open window, leading to tragedy in the film’s opening minutes; Snow Angels (2007), based on the Stewart O’Nan novel, is an incredibly moving drama about a fractured family that cannot escape pain, and a girl’s wayward walk in snow; Frosty the Snowman (1969), because cinematic snow does not always need to equal sadness.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

On Reading Snow in Turkish

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Like many American youths, I spent a number of years toiling pallidly in middle and high school French, the end result of which was being able to identify the opening strains of “La Marseillaise,” being aware of the mnemonic device “Dr. & Mrs. Vandertramp,” being able to inaccurately recite a poem by Jacques Prevert, and being able to conduct one halting conversation with a man in a bar, the highlight of which occurred when I boldly spoke of jus d’orange.  I also remember vividly the mid-century expression for peeing the bed, courtesy of the oft-viewed classroom film Au Revoir les Enfants.  

I could probably struggle through a French article about cats, written for children, but it would not occur to me to say that I am a French speaker.  The decisive moment never came when I chose to say to myself and the world: “I speak French,” and by thus saying willed it so.  You must make your linguistic statement of faith and mean it.

Through a series of happy accidents, I began learning Turkish when I was 21, first haphazardly, then in earnest, then not at all, then all the time, and now once a week for a prescribed number of hours.

Please don’t misunderstand me–I cannot speak Turkish the way that millions of people from around the world speak uncannily beautiful and idiomatic English.  But I made my statement of faith and I’m sticking to it.  I ride to school and whisper words like “threshold,” “doomsday,” and “willow tree.”  I stop in the middle of sentences and turn red and start again.

Like many people who begin learning a language in the country where it is spoken, until lately I was in the position of knowing many breathtaking and largely unsayable obscenities, but could not read a book or newspaper.

Reading is not like speaking.  You cannot look at a page and will yourself to understand, the way you can open your mouth and say nonsense and hope that someone kindly will do the work of comprehension.  Illiteracy is terrifying; semi-literacy is agonizing.  I knew Turkish words and grammar (which, viewed from English, is approximately backwards), but not how they went together on the page. I would start a paragraph and soon, my eyes would begin skipping across the paragraph at their accustomed speedy clip, apprehending nothing.

I bought Orhan Pamuk’s novel Kar (Snow) four years ago, when I had just left Turkey and felt myself, in the face of significant evidence to the contrary, a competent speaker.  Confidence is important.  A good way to feel optimistic is to acquire what Benjamin Franklin, the randy goat, called a sleeping dictionary.  In Turkish there is an expression which communicates the same thing, an arch pun on dil, which means both “language” and “tongue.”

Unfortunately, most flings in foreign lands do not equip the besotted with the skills required for reading Nobel novels.  As I have said before, I reached page 16 of Kar, which is actually page 8, by performing a very painful and ill-advised word-for-word transcription on the book’s actual pages, thereby ensuring that I would never be able to return to and read the opening chapter, or, for that matter, my own inaccurate translation.  The pages, thus defaced, resemble something out of Paul Auster, or Pamuk at his most post-modern.

During my summer reunion with this elegant language, I took a class with a very patient professor who slowly coaxed us through excerpts of early republican stories, poems, and a Vikipedi article on jaguars (beneklerle kaplıdır–“they are covered with spots”).

Setting aside the dictionary I bought in my first week in Turkey, a tiny yellow Langenscheidt, the inside of which is coated with an archaeological film of loose tobacco, I obtained a big-league dictionary.  A grown-up, non-smoking dictionary, which weighs 10 pounds and has words I don’t know in English, like “eryngo” (çakırdiken), and “schreinerize” (ipek efekti vermek), and “helve” (sap).  It also includes a fair selection of unsayable things, which are important to know.  I feel very secure with this dictionary, although I keep the yellow one in my purse, for the train.  

When the summer class drew to a close, I returned to Kar, page 16, with my adult dictionary and a sense of purpose.  For a moment, I saw the old chaos before me.  But I forced myself to go one word at a time.  Before long, rather than feeling as though I had  been strapped blind to some infernal machine, I opened my eyes to find that I was actually riding a bicycle very slowly, peddling haltingly but definitively forward down an unfamiliar street.  At first, the effort of keeping my momentum and balance prevented me apprehending the architectural features of this new territory:  
The Kars Police Headquarters was a long three-story building that was an old building that was made from stone that was used for many government buildings that were arranged on Faikbey Street that stayed from the rich Russians and Armenians.
It took me a week of train commutes with the small dictionary to progress four pages, and to perceive what I was reading in a way that seemed distinctly literary.  I am not a translator; I don’t begin to understand the alchemy of translation.  But on page 26, for the first time ever, I felt moved by something I read in a language not my own:
In the empty lot next to the Yusuf Pasha District’s park, with its unhinged swings and broken slide, in the light of the streetlamps which illuminated the adjacent coal warehouse, he watched high school-aged youths playing football.  Listening to their exchanged shouts and curses, which were swiftly muffled by the snow, he felt so strongly the distance and unbelievable loneliness of this corner of the world, under the faded yellow lamplight and the falling snow, that he felt the idea of God inside him.
In my head, this was beautiful.  

At page 85, I continue to creep along.

I think I can, I think I can.

Proust’s Arabesk: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

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There is a kind of Turkish music called Arabesk.  I’m not an expert, but by rough definition it is very sad and melodramatic, the kind of music to which old men sit and drink a booze called rakı (lion’s milk, to the Arabesk crowd) and wave their hands and sing along and get teary-eyed and feel sad.  Arabesk songs have titles like “God Hates a Lie,” “Woman in Pain,” “Am I not a Human Being?,” and “I Have the Suffering, You Have the Cure” (Dert Bende, my personal favorite, by Ajda Pekkan). Sometimes Turkish people laugh at me when I say I like this kind of music, but I think it’s the most beautiful music alive.  I can’t understand all of it (maybe that’s why I like it so much), but in the right mood, it makes my heart crack in a thousand pieces.  (I’m not kidding about the booze, by the way.  On YouTube, under songs by the famous Arabesk singer Bergen, there are comments like “I’m listening and drinking rakı,” to which someone will respond “Drink, brother, drink.  I’m having a beer.”)

Arabesk is music for indoors smoking and lost love and breaking up or knocking up or beating up.  Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is like an Arabesk song, as written by Marcel Proust.  It opens like this:
It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.  Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently?  Yes, if I had recognized this instant of perfect happiness, I would have held it fast and never let it slip away…
Someone get me a drink.

In the streets in Beyoğlu, close to where the novel takes place, there are lots of shops selling postcards and posters and old magazines and all manner of stuff.  Once I bought an Efes beer advertisement from the seventies showing a lively technicolored family around the kitchen table–Mom and Dad enjoying a glass of the national brew.  These were the triumphant modern citizens of Atatürk’s Turkey!  Look how bright and forward-thinking!  Examine Ma’s stylish permanent wave.  Of course, what you can’t see in the ad is the perpetual struggle between the ultra-nationalists, the leftists, the Islamists, the fascists, and other Ists, a struggle punctuated by the military, which every ten years or so marched in and told everyone to fuck right off.  Nor do you see the eternal struggle between secularity and religion, the eternal embarrassment of the rich and urbane for the poor and benighted, or the eternal wrangling over virginity.

Orhan Pamuk, of course, can see all this, although his central character is a citizen of that swinging, modern Turkey, for whom the nation’s sociopolitical struggles are not a primary concern.  Kemal, the novel’s protagonist, is one of the sophisticated rich who gets imported liquor for parties at the Hilton (rather than the provincial rich, who gape at uncovered women and get fruit sodas).  By chance or destiny or whatever, Kemal, engaged to a fellow bright young thing, starts an affair with an unpedigreed relative, Füsun.  There has been big talk on the dearth of sex in the writing of contemporary men–this book has sex, by God.  Right from the get-go, there are big pear breasts and honey skin and nipples like strawberries and trysts in an airless apartment.  The affair (and Kemal’s engagement) end rather quickly, but the ensuing anguish and thwarted desire and inscrutable looks stretch on almost a decade.

In an effort to win back the unsophisticated relative, Kemal spurns the trendy restaurants and cafes of his peers, going instead to her family’s shabby home to sit, night after night after night.  The beloved Füsun, an aspiring actress whose emotional depths are for the most part unplumbable, appears to be happy with her chubby husband, a screenwriter and director.  Cousin Kemal, they are all agreed, will finance the film that will propel her to success, and in the meantime they drink in seedy film hangouts (probably with Ajda Pekkan) and smoke an obscene number of cigarettes.  All the while, everyone behaves as though brooding Kemal isn’t dying of love, and brooding Kemal, displaying markedly kleptomaniac traits, pockets everything his beloved touches.  One day, these objects will populate his museum.  At about year six of the family sitting, you’re not sure whether Kemal is a crazy as a loon, if this woman wants anything to do with him, if she’s a moron, if she’s a victim, if he’s one of the world’s great lovers, or if he’s just an asshole.  I can’t say more, for fear of spoilers.

Meanwhile, Istanbul is happening all around, the sounds and the smells and the politics and the writhing humanity.  It’s no secret that Orhan Pamuk knows and loves his city, and it is a character here as in his other books.  Beyond Kemal and his Arabesk yearning, the story is about Turkey, about the collective life of the Turks, sitting in their living rooms, smoking their cigarettes, watching the state channel, and soothing themselves with food and drink and china dogs.  In the streets, the politically-minded thrash around and exchange bullets toward an obscure purpose.

Essays about Turkish literature and criticism often seem obsessed with the idea of “belatedness.”  Even those scholars who wish to protest this characterization seem to reify it through constant iteration–that Turkey is always behind.  Pamuk’s novel engages this idea in a comic way, describing the wounds sustained by Kemal and his hip cohort as they attempt to use another mysterious gadget imported from the West (can openers and the like).  Of an evening in Paris, Kemal writes:
I caught myself asking the questions that occur to every Turk who goes abroad (if he has some education and a bit of money): What did these Europeans think about me? What did they think about us all?
(I’ve always felt that the United States and Turkey have a number of things in common, especially in this regard, but that’s another essay).

Even as Pamuk writes of a country running to catch up, he writes of a country that is so unlike anywhere else, and so much itself and as a consequence so desirable, that the rest of the us find ourselves scratching at its door like puppies hoping to be let in.  For all that Pamuk the citizen has been embroiled in legal struggles with the Turkish state, he strikes me in one sense as an elemental patriot.  To chronicle something obsessively is a form of love, and Pamuk documents the details of his Istanbul obsessively, just as his character Kemal creates his museum of innocence out of the universe of meaningless bric-a-brac surrounding his beloved.

The last Orhan Pamuk novel I read was The Black Book, which was so esoteric that I found it a struggle.  This book seems more straightforward, but that’s in style only.  Its themes run deep and dark, even if they mirror the preoccupations of a seventies crooner.  The style’s simplicity is, of course, deceptive; it’s not easy to write hundreds of pages of sitting, smoking, drinking, brooding.  Nor has Pamuk abandoned his solemn post-modern playfulness.  Deliberately, I believe (particularly since he mentions them), he invokes Nabokov (especially Ada and The Gift) and Proust.  Furthermore, the extraordinary man is actually creating a real Museum of Innocence, in which he will display the various knick-knacks and impedimenta of daily life.  That’s so many posts past modern, I don’t know what it is.

One day I hope to be able to read this in Turkish.  I’m on page 8 of Kar (Snow), which I bought in 2006, so I have a lot of work to do.  But The Museum of Innocence is not a novel that seems to suffer in translation, which is beautifully executed by Maureen Freely.  I was spellbound for four days.

It’s really a remarkable book.  Read it, and bring your rakı and your nicorette.  Bring your sad songs and your broken heart.  If you have the suffering, I have the cure.

Winter Wilderness: A Review of Snow by Orhan Pamuk

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This guest contribution comes from Kevin Hartnett. Hartnett lives in Philadelphia with his fiance. After graduating from college in 2003, he joined Teach For America and taught sixth grade in the Bronx for two years. He enjoys politics and travel and writing about both.Snow, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s 2004 novel, opens as Ka, a stranger come to town, steps off a bus into the first flurries of a gathering snowstorm. He has arrived in Kars, a remote border city in eastern Turkey and a place, like much of his native country, that is foreign to him. For the last eight years Ka has lived as an exiled poet in Hamburg, shifting anonymously between the public library and the cheap porn shops near his apartment. In Kars, his bourgeois Istanbul accent and department store coat mark him as an outsider.The city appears muffled at first, its citizens dispirited by poverty and forced inside by the cold. Kars is a place of former glory, once a haunt of the Ottomans and the Russian tsars, now crumbling and forgotten as the rest of Turkey looks west to Europe. Ka, however, feels revitalized in Kars.He has come ostensibly as a journalist, to report on an epidemic of suicides among the “headscarf girls,” a group of young women who killed themselves after a law prohibited women from participating in public life with their heads covered. It is soon evident, though, that Ka has little interest in the story, or politics generally. Even his exile was prompted simply by a case of mistaken identity, an apt fate for a man whose own apparent weightlessness would have caused him to suffer the misfortune with little objection.Ka has not had sex in four years or written a poem in nearly that long and he feels the promise of a dual rebirth in Kars. His real reason for making the trip is Ipek, an acquaintance from high school whom he remembers only for her beauty. Ka takes a room at the Snow Palace Hotel where she lives, and wastes little time pressing his intentions. Ipek appears amenable, yet cautions that she could never make love while her father is under the same roof, and her father almost never leaves the hotel. Thus left to bide his time, Ka wanders the streets of Kars, finding creative inspiration in the rapidly falling snow, and learning, by chance encounter, about the political rifts and personal aspirations which rend Kars.He is approached by boys from the local religious high school, who interrogate Ka about his belief in God. One of the boys, Mesut, asks him, “do you or don’t you believe that God Almighty created the universe and everything in it, even the snow that is falling from the sky?” Ka replies only that, “The snow reminds me of God.” It is the type of elision by which Snow frequently works. Characters, their views and their motivations are elusive and unknown, often even to themselves.The boys’ interest in Ka turns out to be more than mere curiosity or defiance. Fazil, a particularly earnest boy, was in love with Teslime, a headscarf girl who committed suicide. He says to Ka, “We could not believe that a Muslim girl ready to sacrifice everything for her faith could be capable of suicide” (which is forbidden by the Koran). Fazil fears that Teslime’s suicide reveals her to have been an atheist, and even worse, he has begun to worry that it marks him by association. He seeks Ka’s reassurance. “‘Are you an atheist” asked Fazil with imploring eyes. ‘If you are an atheist, do you want to kill yourself?'”Pamuk began writing Snow before 9/11 and the book presages the lines of conflict which have erupted since. The religious boys are poor, provincial, and wary of “The West,” for mocking their faith. Their counterpoint is Sunay Zaim, an effete, secular actor, whose traveling theater troupe comes to Kars to perform an intentionally provocative version of the Turkish play “My Country or My Headscarf.” Zaim uses the performance to launch a coup when, mid-scene, prop guns turn out to have been loaded with real bullets.Ka’s confused beliefs about God and his mixed identity, as a Turk, an exile, and an outsider in Kars (an accurate description of Pamuk as well), inspire leaders on both sides of the coup to promote their cause to him. Ka is secreted to a meeting with Blue, a charismatic Islamist leader and possible terrorist, who is repulsed by Ka’s mealy convictions, but nevertheless wants his help getting a statement out to Western newspapers. Zaim likewise beckons Ka, hoping that he could secure the participation of Ipek’s sister Kadife, an outspoken headscarf girl, in the dramatic final act of the coup.For his part, Ka would rather simply pursue the affections of Ipek and the reinvigorated direction of his muse. He admits to feeling “so ashamed of his wish for happiness” yet after years of austere loneliness abroad that is all he wants. Such pretensions to happiness are not well accommodated in Kars, however. The falling snow evokes God to Ka and inspires an eponymous poem, but it also has a more practical role in the story. It abets the coup by blocking the roads into the city.Snow is haunted by the specter of religious suicide and rife with the political strife that defines our time. Pamuk handles both thoughtfully and subtly, but his final concern is happiness, and whether such a thing is possible in a world where ideological pressure and cultural change confuse an individual looking for his own path towards belief. If Ka is an emblematic figure, than our prospects seem dim, though Pamuk does offer the possibility of redemption in the story itself, well told and beautifully written as it is.

Why Bolaño Matters

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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.

Orhan Pamuk Wins Nobel Prize


It’s official. Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. As the Lit Saloon had noted, Pamuk had fallen somewhat out of favor with the oddsmakers leading up to the announcement, though he has been considered a likely winner for years. Pamuk is perhaps best known in recent years for being accused by Turkish courts of insulting “Turkishness” based on comments he made in interviews. Those charges were later dropped, but not until after his case became a cause celeb for free speech around the world.Pamuk’s most popular novels are probably My Name is Red and Snow. His most recently translated book is Istanbul, a portrait of his home city. Istanbul, of course, figures prominently into many of Pamuk’s books. As the Nobel Foundation put it, he is a writer “who, in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city, has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.”

Surprise Me!