I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was deep into Bolano. I think I’ve now come out the other side. Looking back it’s a fantastic panorama, and a frightening one. One might say sublime but that’s probably my awe talking. Bolano is awesome, the work is awesome. The reading is hard and the money shots are compromised but I haven’t been able to put aside Bolano for some months now. Do you remember what Lincoln said about Grant? “I can’t spare this man, he fights.” I feel the same about Bolano.
Distant Star is a brief novel about an evil poet. Best kind, I should think but no, not a good evil poet, rather a bad poet made banal by evil, or perhaps evil by banality. Either way, it’s a good book, with an alluring bathos of regrettable adolescent scribblings transitioning into mass murdering zeal that gets more and more apposite the more you think on it. It might just be me but it’s closer to home than might be expected. The zeal of teen poetry is usually accompanied by a one-eyed idea of virtue pursued headlong into intolerance. Bolano makes good use of this merging linearity, recycling the fascist skywriting poet idea he first uses in Nazi Literature in the Americas to sketch the awful shallowness of writers trying to please dictatorship, and writers not trying.
It’s a world in which writers are either unaware or ill-aware. Distant Star is a very tight and controlled piece of writing, very focused on being neither of these, but for that I couldn’t help but feel that not very far from the surface was a great urge to get the fascists up against the wall, end those muthafuckas. Bolano is on a wire with Distant Star, he’s showing us evil but he can’t slip into being evil about evil. The taut simplicity of this narrative held me in sway, waiting for the great confrontation. It’d already happened, so I waited in vain, but that’s the point about waiting for the end of evil.
Also waiting for the end of evil is Father Urrutia, the narrator of By Night in Chile, but Father Urrutia is a writer who has fallen from the wire. Father Urrutia knew and acquiesced. It is a portrait of the deliberately ill-aware. One bit of By Night in Chile that really hits the mark is the description of a literary salon that Father Urrutia visits, along with the young and beautiful literati. Under the floorboards, in the basement, is a torture suite. The salon’s hostess is married to a sightly mysterious American, and under the very feet of Chile’s intellectuals the neo-imperialists are getting on with repression, safe in the knowledge that the self repression practiced on the floor above will conceal their actions. At one point Father Urrutia declares: “I was not afraid, I would have been able to speak out but I didn’t see anything, I didn’t know until it was too late.”
By Night in Chile is not feelgood, it’s a long series of rationalisations based on the thought that it’s OK to go along with evil because no one seems to mind, and, well, what can you do? As the novel moves through a single night at Father Urrutia’s bedside and his rationalisations appear ever more unstable you the dark horror of apologia spreads itself out. Bolano’s great skill, the great sleight of hand that he manages in By Night in Chile, is that shortly before end he has convinced the reader not to accept the apology. Not to forgive the little old man still in love with his youthful self, not to let it go and let him die, not to let it be bygone: evil does not end, it just becomes ludicrous.
And because of this, in Amulet, it can make you crazy. Bolano’s narrator, Auxilio covers a lot of territory while hiding out from troops in the toilet of a university philosophy department for a fortnight. As her name suggests she is helpful, she stands by and is needed. She saves and gives aid, to the usual array of needy men: poets, philosophers, rent boys, revolutionaries. Happily, she is not in love with anyone, which is refreshing. But under pressure she does not aid the military.
She stays in the stall, she’s stalled. This incarceration in the loo sends Auxilio in to a world of memory and desire. She recalls and foretells with equal uncertainty: it’s all a mosaic of resistance, of not being all orderly and arranged for power to act upon. The fact of disorderliness impacts on Auxilio, she deploys fantasy and horror and contradiction to save herself from the reasoned forward thinking of the boot-heeled occupiers. It works, she’s safe, but also she’ll never be safe again. Her drift will not be true again, only imagined but with that comes safety, the amulet.
Last Evenings on Earth, a collection of short stories, is about living with the amulet, being safe. But also elsewhere and making oneself not safe through despair and disappointment. Most of the stories feature a writer called Belano, or a writer called B, living in Europe and not managing to make a life, not letting a life be led. As if, by evasion of evil, the writers are no longer able to make new choices, only repeat the folly of their escape. There are some lovely bits and pieces involving equivocation between hopelessness and lessness. In particular I liked ‘Sensini’, about writers who tries to make a living by entering short story competitions. The precariousness of this revenue stream is a gesture toward wanting to be unsafe, to be free of the amulet and back in the struggle, committed and whole. Last Evenings on Earth is a reflection on the tenuousness of being free, and of wanting to be free.
The Skating Rink is no less equivocating. A foggy wander through a thrill-less murder mystery The Skating Rink is all about not wanting to be free. Producing a dense map of unseen things, Bolano induces the reader to wander, bumping into things and making no path, through the space made by violence and to never understand it. The willingness to wander is all that is required, wanton hopefulness is put under terrible scrutiny here, asking always what violence does and what comfort it offers and at what price that offer is taken. It’s not a novel that reaches out but one that tangles and entraps and enmazes.
More mazes are at play in Antwerp, but they’re cruder and it’s harder to see the corners. But it’s all corners and it reads as contrived and more like a series of prose poems, not quite composed together. Losing oneself in the maze is easy, finding what was lost much more difficult. There’s no safety here, obscurity is only safety from the powers that be, not from oneself. I found myself faltering as it went on, sliding a little deeper into a belief in the author, as if salvation might come through a sudden revelation and catharsis. No, Antwerp is a book about loss and gives nothing but a view of abandonment.
There is more Bolano to read and I will find it but I must admit that Antwerp has, for the time being, exhausted my enthusiasm and sent me down some new roads. I reckon they’ll join up with Bolano again somewhere down the line. I’d like to think that we’re fighting the same fight.