This post also appears on the website of WALES ARTS REVIEW today. The new re-vamped Wales Arts Review serves as a media platform where a new generation of critics and arts lovers can meet to engage in a robust and inclusive discussion about books, theatre, film, music, the visual arts, politics, and the media.
Lord, protect us from the wise old men of literature
Though in fact, the Lord may be the last person to do this protecting. At the literary festival I am currently attending, and at every such conference or festival I have attended to date in various parts of the world there has been a celebration of some great writer, living or dead. All, with a single exception, have been men.
Last night, a Mexican poet was celebrated here in Bogotá. During the sycophantic introduction to this venerable and ancient poet, I was alarmed to be told that he was responsible for one of ‘the three great works of misogyny’ of the 20th century.
How can it be acceptable to make a statement of that kind, especially in the context of a society like Mexico, in which violence against women is of epidemic proportions? (You do not need to have ploughed through Bolaño’s 2666 to be aware of this fact, although it helps). How can it be acceptable for educated men to make jokes about this, and to laugh amongst themselves, as they did at the event last night? Would it be OK to laugh at an announcement that such and such a book was one of the ‘great racist novels of the twentieth century’? And yet somehow, in too many places, it is perfectly OK to derogate women in a way that would be considered unacceptable if a similar derogatory comment were directed at people of another race or colour.
And here is where we get to the ‘maestro’, the great man of literature, whose sonorous tones must be heard, whose opinions must be listened to, even if those opinions are self-regarding pap and without conceivable value. It is one of the dangers associated with the prestige given to writers in certain societies, as compared, say, with Great Britain, where no one gives a toss what writers think, and where the prestige of the poet is somewhere on a par with that of a refuse collector – but well beneath that of a pest control operative.
European writers might at first be impressed or flattered by the respect afforded writers elsewhere, and the bowing and scraping that goes on in the presence of so-called ‘great’ writers, especially old ones, however decrepit, lecherous or boring they might be. However, the problem is that the stereotype of the wise old man is, to put it crudely, a bit of a bollocks.
The fact of the matter is that many people simply get stupider as they get older; their prejudices atrophy, their most disagreeable characteristics come to the forefront, and they are only interested in talking (or hearing) about themselves.
I have just picked up (and put down) a fat novel by a leading British novelist. It doesn’t matter which one. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker a few years ago. It’s meant to be a cracker. But I can’t be bothered to read it. I know it’s supposed to be oh so very good and all that: ‘well-written’, ‘unputdownable’; ‘a masterpiece’ even, but can I be arsed to invest the amount of time needed to complete it, when essentially, I know what is going to happen from Page One, and also how it will be told, by glancing over the first few pages? Probably not.
There are two ways of looking at the world, and they lie behind two ways of doing literature. The first way, to quote Roberto Bolaño, consists of stories that are “easy to understand”. They imply a linear narrative, a degree of suspense, a beginning, a middle and an end – preferably in that order. As Bolaño wrote, these books “sell and are popular with the readers because their stories can be understood. I mean” – he goes on to say – “because the readers, as consumers . . . understand perfectly (these writers’) novels or their stories.”
Which brings me to an article I read over the summer in a newspaper by the novelist Enrique Vila-Matas. For those who read Spanish, it’s available here.
There are two groups of people, writes Vila-Matas – more or less, as I am paraphrasing. One lot insists that things are the way they are, that life is simply thus, and it’s not worth worrying your socks off about it. The other group, of whom V-M is perhaps a particular offender, believe that they don’t quite belong on this planet, that they are restlessly in pursuit of another place, which might be called death, but quite possibly has some other definition entirely . . . V-M likens the distinction between these two types of person to those whose literary predilections lie in the direction of a simple story, well told – the kind disparaged by Bolaño – and those others who are enthralled “by complexity and by the labyrinth”, and who will always find ways of constructing stories in a different and more complex manner, and will always try to see more. (In ordinary life, this latter group are often compulsive liars, or fantasists, or are confined to institutions of one kind or another.)
Put another way, in the lounges of those conservative writers who adhere to some kiss-and-tell narrative linearity based on the novels (and to an extent, the ideology) of the nineteenth century, the world is described as ‘given’. Whereas in the slums and squats occupied by these more complicated types, a kind of negativity is evoked which, suggests V-M, might find an allegory in this quotation from Kafka:
I know how to swim like the others, but I have a better memory than they do and I have not forgotten my old inability to swim. And as I have not forgotten it, the ‘knowing how to swim’ part isn’t of much use to me, and so, in consequence, I don’t know how to swim.
Perhaps then, some of us, although we have learned to swim, sometimes practise drowning, just to remember what it feels like.
So it is, too, that some writers, even though they know how to write in a certain linear way, to write a certain kind of story, that ‘can be understood’, elect not to, and opt instead for the labyrinth, or head for the deep forest. Perhaps they find it more of a challenge that way, more fun.
Many of my readers will know that I am a fan of Andrés Neuman’s writing, and have translated some of his poetry and several of his short stories over the past two years, including for the ‘Best of young Spanish language novelists’ issue for GRANTA, and two for the innovative new mag The Coffin Factory. Having read this novel when it came out in Spanish, I was aware that there was quite a challenge in store for whoever took on the task of translating this big book, with its sweeping philosophical themes, for readers of English. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García have made a grand success of the task and talk about their translation here.
I was asked to write about the book for the New Welsh Review and The Independent, so I did two different reviews. I would really have preferred to do one long one, and could have got more said. The NWR version will be available at the end of May, but the following, for The Indie, will give an idea. It is a wonderful novel, and Pushkin Press have done a great job with presentation and cover design. The edition also includes, as a kind of Preface, an article written by Roberto Bolaño about the young Neuman after the publication of his first novel, back in 1999 (but first collected in book form in 2004, a year after Bolaño died). And below is a youtube interview with Andrés, talking about the novel in London a couple of months ago:
One cold winter’s night, Hans, a traveller and translator, arrives by coach in the fictional German city of Wandenburg, intending to break his journey en route to somewhere that actually exists on the map. With him he carries a mighty trunk, packed with books. “What have you got in there, a dead body?” asks the coachman. “Not one dead body,” answers Hans, “several” – an answer that the novel proceeds to unpack.
Our hero takes lodgings in an inn, and the next day, walking around the town, befriends a mendicant organ grinder, who takes him to his cave in the idyllic countryside outside the city. Hans sups with the organ grinder and his dog, enjoying the sort of bucolic reverie familiar to poets of the early Romantic period. Returning to the town, he stays a second night and begins, almost by accident, to be drawn into its comfortable and bourgeois circle of socialites and intellectuals, and falling in love with Sophie Gottlieb, the daughter of a local merchant. Alas, Sophie is betrothed to Rudi Wilderhaus, a local aristocrat and scion of the ancien régime. Those readers with even a fleeting knowledge of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise will already have cottoned on, and it might be of more than passing interest that Andrés Neuman, the novel’s Argentinian author, has translated Wilhelm Müller, author of the Winterreise poems, into Spanish.
But these hints towards a reconstruction of the beginnings of the Romantic movement, and of the challenges presented to Hans in his exploration of the city are misleading. Although set in post-Napoleonic Germany, Traveller of the Century is by no means an historical novel. Its author has described it as a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as science fiction rewound.” It is, among other things, a romance, an adventure story, a survey of literature and politics in the 1820s, a pseudo-historical study of feminism, and a brilliant (although largely allegorical) analysis of Europe at the start of the 21st century. Over the course of the book’s 584 pages, we partake in magisterial synopses of entire swathes of literature and philosophy, and enjoy sparkling dialogues with the denizens of Wandenburg, a sleepy and conservative version of Fortress Europe, and a place in which the geography will not stay still, even the architecture given to fleeting, shifting behaviour, the church steeple “slanting perceptibly . . . as though it were about to topple forward.”
Sometimes something stirs and shifts in the substrata of world literature: a book appears which has the potential to change what will follow. Sometimes it just so happens that people pick up on the ideas and emotions generated by that book and it becomes a classic and sometimes it becomes instead a cult book enjoyed, or even revered, by a few, but never catching on with the many. Traveller of the Century has already achieved impressive things for its young author in Spain and elsewhere, but this by no means guarantees its success in the litmus test of the English-speaking world, famously resistant to literature in translation. We cannot predict how this book will be received in the months and years to come, but there is little doubt in my mind that it deserves its place in the sun, a work of true beauty and scintillating intelligence by a writer of prodigious talents. On the evidence of Traveller of the Century we might well be convinced by Bolaño’s much-vaunted prediction that the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a handful of his blood brothers. Whatever one’s opinion of such elevated claims, books as stimulating, erudite and humane as this do not come along very often.
This review was first published in The Independent on 20 April 2012.
In La Universidad Desconocida, the collected poems that Roberto Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, brought together after her husband’s death in 2003, she includes in the foreword an unpublished piece called ‘My Literary Career’ that Bolaño had scribbled in anguish after receiving serial rejections from all the publishers of Spain, which he lists fastidiously, and then: “under the bridge, while it rains, a golden opportunity / to see myself for who I am: / like a snake at the North Pole, but writing. / Writing poetry in the land of imbeciles.” Clearly Bolaño was under no illusions as to the readiness of the literary world to embrace his work. The poem is dated 1990, a year after The Third Reich was written, in longhand. We do not know what plans Bolaño might have had for the manuscript, which by the time of his death he had begun to type out and tinker with: it may well have come into print in a completely different form. Or not at all.
Udo, a German board-games champion, takes his girlfriend, Ingeborg, on holiday to the same hotel he last visited with his parents ten years earlier, as a fifteen-year old. They meet another German couple, Hanna and Charly, and with the help of a couple of local no-good-boyos called the Lamb and the Wolf, they do the nightclubs and bars of the resort by night and lie on the beach by day. Charly turns out to be a bit of a liability, and following a mysterious incident in which he appears to have assaulted his girlfriend, he takes his surfboard out to sea and does not return. Hanna and Ingeborg go back to Germany but Ido, a loner and a nerd, stays on in the resort, ostensibly to wait for Charly’s body to be washed up, but actually to carry out a forlorn pursuit of the hotel owner, Frau Else. At this point the narrative wavers, becoming repetitive and somewhat listless, and although there are hints towards a darker centre, there is nothing particularly threatening about the local lowlife, not even El Quemado, the disfigured South American who rents out pedal boats, and whom Ido adopts as his opponent in the marathon board game that gives the book its title. There are vague allusions towards a deeper connection with Nazi themes – notably with Frau Else’s husband, a tall, moribund character who seems oddly prescient of the writer Archimboldi in 2666 – but they only lead to dead ends.
As it is, The Third Reich, despite the promise of the opening half, is a strange and ultimately unsatisfying book. It feels incomplete, but that is not the problem: what this novel lacks is that paradoxical sense of intentional incompleteness, the unwillingness or refusal to tie up loose ends (perhaps because they retain more intensity for being left hanging) that is a marker of Bolaño’s mature style.
Ignore the cover blurb’s suggestion that this is the perfect place to begin reading Bolaño: it is not, and anyone unfamiliar with his work would be much better off reading By Night in Chile or The Skating Rink, another novel modelled on the seaside town of Blanes, where Bolaño settled in the 1980s. If it were not for the fact that it is an early work by a highly marketable author The Third Reich would probably not have been published. But for Bolaño’s many fans it displays, in emergent form, some of the themes and tropes that would be more abundantly explored in The Savage Detectives or 2666. Like those two great works, it is beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer.
This review first appeared in The Independent, on 1 March 2012.
A new addition to the mass of Bolaño miscellanea being published in English appears on the New York Review of Books blog. In an entertaining essay, Scholars of Sodom, Bolaño takes a delightful swipe at V.S. Naipaul’s absurd and arrogant attack on Argentina, in which the choleric Trinidadian decided that Argentina’s woes, political and cultural, stem from a typically macho predilection for buggery.
Luckily, the NYRB blog allows the reader to link to Naipaul’s original essay, Argentina: The Brothels Behind the Graveyard, as well as two others; The Corpse at the Iron Gate and Comprehending Borges. Best to focus on the first of these, as this is where he first lays down his extraordinary theory. Naipaul starts from the premise that Argentina is a land founded on the principle of plunder – of the Indians, of the land itself – a theme which he establishes early on and which he develops, after a tortuous route, towards a startling conclusion. Considering the macho attitudes that dominate Argentinian society at the time of writing (the essay was published in 1974), and the prevalence of bordellos, Naipaul warns that “Every schoolgirl knows the brothels; from an early age she understands that she might have to go there one day to find love, among the colored lights and mirrors.” And then, his coup de grace:
The act of straight sex, easily bought, is of no great moment to the macho. His conquest of a woman is complete only when he has buggered her. This is what the woman has it in her power to deny; this is what the brothel game is about, the passionless Latin adventure that begins with talk of amor. La tuve en el culo, I’ve had her in the arse: this is how the macho reports victory to his circle, or dismisses a desertion. Contemporary sexologists give a general dispensation to buggery. But the buggering of women is of special significance in Argentina and other Latin American countries. The Church considers it a heavy sin, and prostitutes hold it in horror. By imposing on her what prostitutes reject, and what he knows to be a kind of sexual black mass, the Argentine macho, in the main of Spanish or Italian peasant ancestry, consciously dishonors his victim. So diminished men, turning to machismo, diminish themselves further, replacing even sex by a parody.
Armed with this knowledge, Naipaul feels he has finally understood the Argentinians, with “their violence, their peasant cruelty, their belief in magic, and their fascination with death, celebrated every day in the newspapers with pictures of murdered people, often guerrilla victims, lying in their coffins.”
No holds barred here then. As Bolaño put it, in his imaginative response to the article, “Naipaul’s vision of Argentina could hardly have been less flattering. As the days went by, he came to find not only the city [Buenos Aires] but the country as a whole insufferably aggravating. His uneasy feeling about the place seemed to be intensified by every visit, every new acquaintance he made.”
Bolaño takes up the thread of Naipaul’s argument, and extemporises on the theme:
I remember, he writes, that when I read the paragraph in which Naipaul explains what he takes to be the origin of the Argentinean habit of sodomy, I was somewhat taken aback. As well as being logically flawed, the explanation has no basis in historical or social facts. What did Naipaul know about the sexual customs of Spanish and Italian rural laborers from 1850 to 1925? Maybe, while touring the bars on Corrientes late one night, he heard a sportswriter recounting the sexual exploits of his grandfather or great-grandfather, who, when night fell over Sicily or Asturias, used to go fuck the sheep. Maybe. In my story, Naipaul closes his eyes and imagines a Mediterranean shepherd boy fucking a sheep or a goat. Then the shepherd boy caresses the goat and falls asleep. The shepherd boy dreams in the moonlight: he sees himself many years later, many pounds heavier, many inches taller, in possession of a large mustache, married, with numerous children, the boys working on the farm, tending the flock that has multiplied (or dwindled), the girls busy in the house or the garden, subjected to his molestations or to those of their brothers, and finally his wife, queen and slave, sodomized nightly, taken up the ass—a picturesque vignette that owes more to the erotico-bucolic desires of a nineteenth-century French pornographer than to harsh reality, which has the face of a castrated dog. I’m not saying that the good peasant couples of Sicily and Valencia never practiced sodomy, but surely not with the regularity of a custom destined to flourish beyond the seas.
The danger in theorising outward from a single sexual act (one which seems to fill Naipaul with unspeakable horror) is that it creates a rather lopsided (and ultimately hilarious) simplification of Argentinian culture. It is a long time since I read Naipaul, and reading this quite demented essay, and Bolaño’s intelligent and witty response to it, reminded me why.
How interesting then, to read Ian Buruma’s review of Naipaul’s authorized biography (by Patrick French), also available on the NYRB website, and to discover that – when not beating her up – sodomising his Anglo-Argentinian mistress was Naipaul’s preferred occupation of an evening, while the cockatoos sang and the sun went down. Here is the passage summarizing their longstanding relationship, and the very special role of sodomy within it:
In Buenos Aires, at the apartment of Borges’s translator, Naipaul met Margaret Murray, a vivacious Anglo-Argentinian:
I wished to possess her as soon as I saw her…. I loved her eyes. I loved her mouth. I loved everything about her and I have never stopped loving her, actually. What a panic it was for me to win her because I had no seducing talent at all. And somehow the need was so great that I did do it.
Margaret left her husband and children, and for the next twenty years would be at the beck and call of her master, who was finally able to do all the things that had horrified and fascinated him before . . .The more Naipaul abused Margaret, the more she came back for more. She wrote him letters, paraphrased by French, about worshiping at the shrine of the master’s penis, about “Vido” as a horrible black man with hideous powers over her. Her letters were often left unopened, and certainly unanswered, adding to her sense of submission. According to Naipaul, he beat her so severely on one occasion that his hand hurt, and her face was so badly disfigured that she couldn’t appear in public (the hurt hand seems to have been of greater concern). But Naipaul said, “She didn’t mind at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her.” And then there was the mutual passion for anal sex, or as Margaret put it (paraphrased by French), “visiting the very special place of love.”
Funny the way things come round.
We met up in Nick’s bar, The Promised Land, to discuss literature in translation with some friends, editors, writers and such luminaries from the field of literary translation as Christopher MacLehose and Boyd Tonkin, chaired by the erudite and perennially entertaining Charles Boyle. By the end of the day I had the impression that we had achieved what we set out to do: we had talked about interesting stuff in good company; we had provided a forum for our guests to listen to and discuss literature in translation, and we had introduced to a Cardiff audience – for the first time but definitely not for the last – the prodigiously talented Argentinian novelist and poet, Andrés Neuman. More than that, most of us seemed to have enjoyed ourselves.
The day began with a reading and discussion with Andrés, who led us on a merry dance through Russian Jewish migration of the early 20th century, German Romanticism, the music of Franz Schubert, European identity in the 21st Century, an hilarious impersonation of Jorge Luis Borges, and an account of a chess game with Roberto Bolaño, in which the Chilean author plied his young admirer with whisky while playing Mexican heavy metal at full volume as a way of gaining tactical advantage.
There followed a delightful reading by the poets Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson, their lines bouncing off the walls with a playful (and sometimes darker) exchange of ironies.
The Fiesta was made by its participants, especially our Argentinian guests, and the fine writers who made the afternoon come alive: Des Barry, Zoe Skoulding, Tristan Hughes and the superb Philip Gross.
In the end it all went swimmingly, although afterwards I wondered – rather like a medieval adventurer returning from the Forest of Enchantments – whether it had all been a mysterious dream. But that was probably just the lack of sleep.