Ben Ehrenreich on Roberto Bolaño

“Appearing and Disappearing Like True Poetry”

Roberto Bolaño’s legions of fictional poets and his own heartbroken insurrectionary poems.

by Ben Ehrenreich

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Roberto Bolaño wrote about many things, but mainly he wrote about writers: journalists, philosophers, essayists, novelists, and, more than anything, poets. Think of Borges—Bolaño certainly did—for whom the universe could be conceived as a vast and possibly infinite library. Replace the volumes on the shelves of its hexagonal chambers with poets wandering the bars and bedrooms of European and Latin American cities, and you’ll begin to get the idea. Through his legions of fictional poets (some more fictional than others), through their political compromises, their self-betrayals, their struggles and feuds both petty and grand, Bolaño built a world.Of course Bolaño himself was first of all a poet. Only in his last decade, with a family to support and death swiping at his heels—he learned in 1992 that he was terminally ill—did Bolaño turn to prose, fiction being a more gainful grit than verse. He wrote furiously during those years, publishing four novels, as many novellas, and three short story collections before his death at the age of 50 in 2003. His last and greatest novel, the gargantuan 2666, was released posthumously and is only now available in English. Relatively few poets appear in its 900-plus pages. All of his other longer works, though, are swimming with them. Most of them are very, very bad.
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This is especially true of the book that brought Bolaño to prominence in 1996, Nazi Literature in the Americas. Bolaño’s most Borgesian novel, it takes the form of a reference book composed of brief biographies of imagined fascist writers whose lives occasionally intermingle with those of actual Latin American authors. The result is cruelly, often painfully comical. Take his invented Luz Mendiluce Thompson, an obese, alcoholic Argentine poet who treasured a photo of her infant self in Hitler’s arms and whose poem “I Was Happy with Hitler” was “misunderstood by the Right and the Left alike.”

Bolaño would expand one entry from Nazi Literature into the chilling novella Distant Star, about Carlos Wieder, a fictional Chilean poet and air force pilot who pens his enigmatic verses (“Death is cleansing”) in smoke across the sky. To clarify his intent, Wieder moonlights with Pinochet’s death squads. By Night in Chile treads similar ground. The novella is a single, unbroken monologue, the self-justifying confession of a Chilean priest, conservative literary critic and failed poet haunted by his complicity with the Pinochet regime. Like Distant Star, it is a powerfully off-putting tale, less for any actual violence than for the uneasy sympathy it arouses. Bolaño seems to have needed badly to understand his characters, if only to figure out what had gone so horribly wrong, as if poetry itself had failed him.

Bolaño was born in Chile, but left at 15 when his family moved to Mexico City in 1968, the year of the student massacre at Tlatelolco. He quickly threw himself into radical politics and poetry, which would remain for him, for a while at least, a single entity. He writes of his early loss of poetic innocence in a semi-autobiographical short story in which he tells of befriending filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowski, “who, for me, was the Archetype of the Artist.” In the story, called “Dance Card,” Jodorowski declares Nicanor Parra, the great iconoclastic “antipoet,” to be Chile’s finest poet. Young Bolaño, who has not yet read Parra, disagrees, insisting that honor belongs to Pablo Neruda. They argue until Bolaño bursts into tears and leaves. The break proves final, both with Jodorowski and Neruda, whose lyricism Bolaño comes to find tainted, cloying, false.

Three years later, after the election of Salvador Allende in 1973, Bolaño returned to Chile “to help build socialism.” The first two books he bought there were Parra’s. But things did not work out. Pinochet staged a coup. Allende shot himself. Bolaño was arrested. “They didn’t torture me,” he remembers, but “In the small hours I could hear them torturing others.” He was lucky, and was let go. “I had lost a country / but won a dream,” he writes in the title poem of The Romantic Dogs, the first volume of his poetry to be published in English. “And sometimes I’d retreat inside myself / and visit the dream: a statue eternalized / in liquid thoughts, / a white worm writhing in love. / A runaway love. / A dream within another dream.”

That dream, its stubborn survival despite all evidence of its defeat, would become the subject of much of Bolaño’s writing. He caresses it, rejects it, resents it, but always returns to it. In the poem “Parra’s Footsteps,” he writes of it almost as a burden: “The revolution is called Atlantis / And it’s ferocious and infinite / But it’s totally pointless / Get walking, then, Latin Americans / Get walking get walking / Start searching for the missing footsteps / Of the lost poets / in the motionless mud. . .”

In 1974 Bolaño returned to Mexico, and for the next few years—a period lovingly chronicled in the novel The Savage Detectives—was able to live off the vapors of that dream. With a friend named Mario Santiago, he founded a gang of poet-pranksters called the Infrarealists. In The Savage Detectives, they become the Visceral Realists; Bolaño disguises himself, barely, as his fictional double Arturo Belano and gives Santiago new life through the character Ulises Lima. Tellingly, he doesn’t quote a single line of their verse. They sell grass, talk and drink and talk. They become the terrors of the local poetry scene, heckling at readings given by poets they don’t like, threatening to kidnap Octavio Paz. In real life, they spilled a drink on him.

Behind the goofy hijinks is a wary, already heartbroken version of the insurrectionary spirit that had sent Bolaño to Allende’s Chile: “Our ethics is Revolution, our esthetics is Life: one-single thing,” he writes in a Breton-inspired First Infrarealist Manifesto. The depths of his political disillusion are apparent enough (“We dreamt of utopia and woke up screaming.”), but he’s hardly cynical. For all his posturing, the young Bolaño is arguing for a passionate, uncompromising commitment to poetry-as-liberation. His legions of fascist antiheroes will demonstrate again and again that purity is murderous. Transcendence stinks. Poetry that seeks it—the lyrical, the epic—reeks of dishonesty. Only the fleeting can be trusted. If it means anything, poetry means resistance, stoic courage. “The true poet is the one who is always abandoning himself,” Bolaño writes. “Leave it all behind, again,” his manifesto ends. “Take it to the road.”

And so he does, in fact and fiction both. At the end of The Savage Detectives, Belano and Lima drive north from Mexico City, searching for an obscure disappeared poet named Cesárea Tinajero, the heroine of a previous era’s secret avant-garde. (Bolaño’s fiction is filled with quests for lost poets and artists, grail-like bearers of his insurgent dreams.) Somewhere in the desert of Sonora, just outside the fictional city of Santa Teresa, things go seriously wrong. Belano and Lima take off for Europe.

Like his fictional double, Bolaño left Mexico in 1977, vagabonding about Europe for years, ultimately settling down in Spain. But the poems in Romantic Dogs remain obsessed with what he left behind. They’re thick with melancholy and residual awe, as if life had ended at 24. He doesn’t blame himself for not measuring up to his own demands: a life devoted to the transitory, he knows, can only turn out badly. It’s not by accident that his lost poets are so often found in asylums. But Bolaño refuses to sit in judgment on his youth. In “Romantic Dogs,” he writes, “back then, growing up would have been a crime.”

His old friend Mario Santiago appears repeatedly in these poems. “Visit to the Convalescent” describes their trip to see another friend, Darío. “It’s 1976 and the Revolution has been defeated / but we’ve yet to find out,” the poem begins. “It’s 1976 and even though all the doors seem to be open, / in fact, if we paid attention, we’d be able to hear how / one by one the doors are closing.” The poem ends on a mournful note, simultaneously resigned and defiant. Bolaño recalls even then sensing the presence of “that unnamable thing, part of the dream, that many / years later / we will call by various names meaning defeat. / The defeat of true poetry, which we write / in blood. / And semen and sweat, says Darío. / And tears, says Mario. / Though none of us is crying.”

This notion of “true poetry,” defeated but not dead, comes up more than once, usually in reference to Santiago. Bolaño describes him “appearing and disappearing like true poetry.” It’s a heavy phrase for a consummate ironist like Bolaño, but as the novelist Benjamin Kunkel observes, “Bolaño’s piety is not to be distinguished from his irony.” The only faith he permits himself is a devotion to an ideal he knows to be at best tragic, at worst ridiculous. Maturity, with its heavy burden of grief, has little to recommend it, but neither does the stubborn, self-destructive nobility embodied by Santiago, who died a solitary alcoholic, hit by a car in 1998.

In a poem called “The Donkey,” Bolaño writes, “Sometimes I dream that Mario Santiago / Comes looking for me on his black motorcycle.” They ride north, “Chasing . . . the dream of our youth, / Which is to say the bravest of all / Our dreams.” Bolaño describes the northern deserts: “Land of flies and little lizards, dried brush / And blizzards of sand, the only imaginable stage / For our poetry.”

It is there, in those deserts—both literal and metaphoric—that Bolaño sets his last novel, 2666. Most of the book takes place in the same fictional city of Santa Teresa outside which he left Belano and Lima at the end of The Savage Detectives. But Belano and Lima do not appear in 2666. The central tension that pushed much of his earlier work—the stubborn, dolefully celebratory faith in a dream he knew had been defeated—is largely absent here. There’s no more disappointment, just the freedom of despair. For all its whimsy, 2666 is a sad, nightmarish book. Its plots (the novel is composed of five loosely linked novellas) circle around the serial murders of women and girls in and around Santa Teresa, a stand-in for the real-world Ciudad Juárez, where more than 400 women have been killed since the early 1990s. This is the world in the absence of poetry, or at least in the absence of any that might be called true.

There are poets, of course. There’s even a poet in a madhouse. One of the other inmates attacks him. “He raised his hand the way someone might raise a tattered flag. He moved his fingers, each finger, as if his fingers were a flag in flames, the flag of the unvanquished.” Then he drops his hand into another patient’s robe, and gropes him.

There’s an ex-poet turned into a high-ranking cultural official who is called El Cerdo (“The Pig”) even by his friends. He has learned the important lesson that “Distancing oneself from power is never good.” He carries a pistol, and no longer writes. (Literature and power, as always in Bolaño’s work, are eternal enemies.) One of the only direct intrusions of the authorial voice in the novel is Bolaño’s parenthetical insistence that a “bad Soviet poet” is “as oblivious and foolish and prissy and gutless and affected as a Mexican lyrical poet, or actually a Latin American lyrical poet, that poor stunted and bloated phenomenon.”

The word “lyrical” is key—recall his opinion of Neruda. Elsewhere Bolaño has the character most like himself, a depressive Chilean expatriate philosophy professor named Amalfitano, hear voices that tell him, “there is no lyric poetry that isn’t the gurgle or chuckle of egoists, the murmur of cheats, the babble of traitors.”

The only person to sing poetry’s praises is a mysterious young tough who may be a policeman or a killer, or both. “People are cowards to the last breath,” he tells Amalfitano. “Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated . . . . Only poetry isn’t shit.” But the fact that his hunger for purity, for some cleansing violence, so precisely echoes the versifying fascists of Bolaño’s early novels begs the question: perhaps it is shit. Perhaps everything is.

Bolaño doesn’t go quite that far. He gets close, though. In 2666, to paraphrase his old hero Nicanor Parra, Bolaño is dancing at the edge of the abyss. The point is not the abyss’s proximity, but that he’s dancing: “So everything lets us down,” Amalfitano says to the voice in his head, “including curiosity and honesty and what we love best.”

“Yes,” the voice answers, “but cheer up, it’s fun in the end.”

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Playboy Mexico with Roberto Bolaño

ArtsBeat – New York Times Blog

November 23, 2009, 3:25 pm

Stray Questions for: Roberto Bolaño?!

By BLAKE WILSON

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The novelist Roberto Bolaño died in 2003. What follows is an excerpt from his last interview, published in Playboy Mexico the month of his death and now appearing in English in “Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview & Other Conversations” (Melville House Publishing), which goes on sale tomorrow. The interview was conducted by Monica Maristain and translated by Sybil Perez. (It is also reprinted in the current issue of Stop Smiling, though not available online.)

Monica Maristain: If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been?

Roberto Bolaño: I would like to have been a homicide detective, much more than being a writer. I am absolutely sure of that. A string of homicides. I’d have been someone who could come back to the scene of the crime alone, by night and not be afraid of ghosts. Perhaps then I might really have become crazy. But being a detective that could easily be resolved with a bullet to the mouth.

M.M.: Have you shed one tear about the widespread criticism you’ve drawn from your enemies?

R.B.: Lots and lots. Every time I read that someone has spoken badly of me I begin to cry, I drag myself across the floor, I scratch myself, I stop writing indefinitely, I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I engage in sport, I go for walks on the edge of the sea, which by the way is less than 30 meters from my house and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish who ate Ulysses: Why me? Why? I’ve done you no harm.

M.M.: Which five books have marked your life?

R.B.: In reality the five books are more like 5,000. I’ll mention these only as the tip of the spear: “Don Quixote,” by Cervantes; “Moby Dick,” by Melville. The complete works of Borges, “Hopscotch,” by Cortázar, “A Confederacy of Dunces,” by Toole. I should also cite “Nadja” by Breton; the letters of Jacques Vaché. Anything Ubu by Jarry; “Life: A User’s Manual,” by Perec. “The Castle” and “The Trial,” by Kafka. “Aphorisms,” by Lichtenberg. “The Tractatus,” by Wittgenstein. “The Invention of Morel,” by Bioy Casares. “The Satyricon,” by Petronius. “The History of Rome,” by Tito Livio. “Pensées,” by Pascal.

M.M.: John Lennon, Lady Di or Elvis Presley?

R.B.: The Pogues. Or Suicide. Or Bob Dylan. Well, but let’s not be pretentious: Elvis forever. Elvis and his golden voice, with a sheriff’s badge, driving a Mustang and stuffing himself full of pills.

M.M.: Have you seen the most beautiful woman in the world?

R.B.: Yes, sometime around 1984 when I worked at a store. The store was empty and in came a Hindu woman. She looked like a princess and well could have been one. She bought some hanging costume jewelry from me. I was at the point of fainting. She had copper skin, long red hair, and the rest of her was perfect. A timeless beauty. When I had to charge her, I felt embarrassed. As if saying she understood and not to worry, she smiled at me. Then she disappeared and I have never again seen anyone like her. Sometimes I get the impression that she was the goddess Kali, the patron saint of thieves and goldsmiths, except Kali was also the goddess of murderers, and this Hindu woman was not only the most beautiful woman on earth, but she seemed also to be a good person — very sweet and considerate.

M.M.: What do you wish to do before dying?

R.B.: Nothing special. Well, clearly I’d prefer not to die. But sooner or later the distinguished lady arrives. The problem is that sometimes she’s neither a lady nor very distinguished, but, as Nicanor Parra says in a poem, she’s a hot wench who will make your teeth chatter no matter how fancy you think you are.

M.M.: What kinds of feelings do posthumous works awaken in you?

R.B.: Posthumous: It sounds like the name of a Roman gladiator, an unconquered gladiator. At least that’s what poor Posthumous would like to believe. It gives him courage.

Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company

E-cards for Mohammad Rabie

Mohammad Rabie, Kawkab ‘Anbar, Cairo: Kotob Khan, 2010

BOOKSHOP: When a book signing ends up feeling like an engineers’ reunion, it makes you think not of structure but of paranoia. There is the architectural analogy, that is true (and in Arabic an architect is literally an “architectural engineer”). But by now it is something of a cliché: the stringing together of narrative is, anyway, nothing like the construction of buildings; character, dialogue and pacing, the poetry of scene and sentence, have little to do with design. Of course, engineers deal with electric circuits as well as building plans, pistons and pulleys, drills, computers, equations, frames and frameworks, all kinds of objects that can have metaphorical relevance to the writing process. But metaphors only go so far most of the time, and for many of us writing is a profession in its own right – in danger of being taken over! A month or so ago, a shortish novel longish by recent young-writer standards, Kawkab ‘Anbar (the name means “Amber Planet”), drew into the Kotob Khan Bookshop, where it emerged during a workshop with Yasser Abdel-Latif, what seemed like a range of people interested in new writing. The main speaker was a critic but apart from one dentist (the promising young poet Ahmad Nada), almost everyone turned out to be an engineer – civil, mechanical, hydraulic, electrical. For a moment it seemed as though a mafia of those lever-wielding un-poets were ambushing the literary sphere, infiltrating writerly circles all across the city, befriending with a view to replacing true writers and eventually, well – eliminating them. I would not stand for it! Thus I directed my malicious glances to the person at the centre of all this, the author of the book, Mohammad Rabie: born in 1978, a practising, yes – practising civil engineer since his graduation from university in 2001, to his friends he is actually known as Rabie, since there are too many Mohammads in this part of the world. For a moment Rabie did look like the don of some magic realist mafia. The beauty of paranoia is that it impounds reason. It was only a moment, but for its duration I was convinced there really was a mafia who gathered at construction sites to draw up plans of attack for literary world domination. I seemed to forget that Rabie was among the most personable people of his generation I had met, a writer with talent regardless of what else he does, totally innocuous.

I spend a lot of time in bookshops. I read the blurbs on the back covers, sometimes the introductions as well. I think hard before I buy. I hate crowded bookshops where I feel no sense of privacy. That’s why Kotob Khan is the perfect place for me. I also hate bookshops where attendants materialise the moment you walk in asking you what you want. It’s insolent. But as I say Kotob Khan was a perfect place to do this. Yasser Abdel-Latif did not interfere very much at all. Since the beginning he was careful about giving the participants just as much autonomy as they needed. Still, I think he managed to slip in ideas and sentences. There were parts he was largely dissatisfied with and I worked on those. What he insisted on was that there should be a dramatic line linking the events in the book, which is what I set out to do from the beginning. All of which was of course very helpful to me; and I think the fact that the participants thought alike and had a similar orientation was the main factor behind the success of the workshop. I think that any text with dramatic lines is a novel, but that is not why I set out to write one. The novel isn’t always the ideal format. The short story is another appropriate format. The novel is appropriate for multiple characters and many events. It is also a genre that suits chatter and gossip. The characters allow the writer to say all that they want indirectly, and there is space for imagination: to create cities and documents and languages, perhaps an alternative history. But the short story is extremely enjoyable for me. Concision and economy of means are two things I particularly enjoy; and the story is appropriate for describing a moment or a situation or a day in the life if its hero. The decision to write a novel is made after a few pages, perhaps before you start writing, but I think the time frame remains the principal factor. That is why this book is a novel, in the end, because that is the way the idea developed and the way I imagined it would spread over time. Sometimes I imagine a new form even more economical than the short story, through which to condense events that are spread out over long periods of time to the greatest extent possible. But all my attempts at achieving this form have been miserable.


CYBERSPACE: Until March 2008, there was in fact another Mohammad Rabie who was not an engineer: the author of outrageous novels about sex and religion in contemporary Cairo which he Xeroxed and handed out by hand. That other Rabie died in a Camus-ian accident at the age of 33. This Rabie, by contrast, is actually a blogger; he started out on the internet – a consequence, perhaps, of his background being non-literary. But the existence of another novelist born in the same year with the exact same name seems if nothing else pertinent to the kind of writing the author of Kawkab ‘Anbar is interested in practising. Unlike his namesake, Rabie is less interested in the immediate affects of language as he is in its ability to create a sustainable world. Unlike so many Arab writers – the vast majority, in fact, from the Sixties until recently – he wants to tell a story. He wants to use his imagination, engage with a concept or an idea, breathe life into a calculated structure. He does not want to evoke, imply, explore the possibilities of language as such. He does not want to wax lyrical, much less rhetorical. He does not want to wax. His object is a tale, and the function of reality – language as well as people who emerge through its use – is to flesh out that tale. In this as much as his cyber presence as a blogger and a micro-blogger (many were saddened when Rabie, shortly after the aforementioned signing, deactivated his Facebook account), Rabie is representative of the closest thing to a generation or a movement since the prose poets of the Nineties: writers who might be called the Twothousanders but not only because they started publishing after 2000. People like Nael El-Toukhy, Ahmad Nagui and (to a lesser extent) Mohammad Kheir and Mohammad Abdelnaby also share something more profound. They are all internet-savvy, down-to-earth agents of subversion as interested in things as they are in people and as closely connected to pop culture, communications technology and the global media as they are to literary history. Kundera is their Balzak, Mahfouz their Greek tragedy. They are cynics and jokers and glorifiers of what they refer to (admittedly often with ignorance) as kitsch. By and large they eschew poetry; and until the Egyptian quasi-literary blogging craze fizzled out, many of them professed to eschew print publication. They may not always have as much access to non-Arabic culture as they claim or desire, but their position is truly postmodern in the sense that they own and disown many histories at once; they don’t have a problem revolving around the commodity as a mode of being; they don’t have a problem with commodification. In short, they live mentally in our times – and they try to do it unselfconsciously.

I think the appropriate literary climate is one that is free of groups, schools and especially this concept of generations. Anyway it is the critics’ job to classify, I cannot claim to belong to a particular generation myself. As for my link with technology, I write directly onto the computer, but the initial ideas I jot down by hand, on a piece of paper, in a pocket notebook – that doesn’t matter, but it has to be on paper. I read the news online, I think the internet is a more efficient medium for news and short articles. But it can be a disastrous medium as far as literature is concerned. Paper will live on for a long time yet. Now there are e-book readers and I don’t see a difference between them and books, they have the advantage of taking up less space and weight. But visually they are very like books and they don’t have the distractions of the computer especially when it is connected to the internet. On the whole the only reason you would resort to electronic publishing is if you are unable to publish on paper. But the internet is completely inappropriate for a novel. A short story, a poem may work on the internet but nothing longer. My blog was an experiment that lasted for a long time. I had wanted to write a large text and the blog was my training ground. I thought I would use to train until it was time to write that large text. I had no preconceptions about what would happen to the novel after it was published. I didn’t think much of sales but I wanted it to be translated into other languages – imagine the translator’s predicament when they work on a text that finds fault with the very act of translation! Otherwise I was worried about the responses to it but those have been mostly encouraging. A few months after I completed it I already feel the novel has wrenched itself away from me and acquired its own being. It’s like a child of mine who’s grown up and leads their own life. My presence online was very important, it worked as indirect publicity for the novel. Many were waiting for it after I announced several times that it would be coming out. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, I was present on the net, frankly, because I was used to being there. But my friend Marwa Rakha eventually drew my attention to the fact that it was good publicity.

LIBRARY: Kawkab ‘Anbar is the story of the eponymous, little known library (named after its original owner’s wife), a public endowment in Abbassiya on the verge of being demolished to make way for a new underground Metro line. It is told by Shahir, the endowments official who is sent there on a month-long assignment to put together a report on the library – a perfunctory, routine procedure intended to facilitate the forgone conclusion of its demolition by establishing that, all things considered, there is no reason for it to remain standing. Shahir is a young intellectual who, aware of the Kafkaesque futility of his task, is nonetheless quickly caught up in the mystery and madness of what turns out to be a Borgesian space of astounding quirkiness, initially through the existential endeavour of giving his task the semblance of credibility by searching in the library for anything of value. since he is “an old reader”, as his boss describes him in the opening, he looks – a little too earnestly for comfort – among the library’s uncannily surprising collection, eclectic as it is obscure. A string of clues leads Shahir to the two impossible ideas at the centre of the story (impossible, I mean, in the Borgesian sense, although Rabie does not delve as deeply into philosophy). First, there is a book written in a private or a nonexistent language, Luij al Sayrafini’s Creatures, translations of which have nonetheless been produced. Secondly, there is a device or a machine – invented and installed here by the owner – which is capable of producing a perfect translation of any and every book, including even Sayrafini’s, into any and every language. Rabie’s point is that, while it is possible to imagine these two things, their existence would anyway be pointless if not downright evil. He does not say it in so many words, but translation is a form of multiplying knowledge, and as such it is essentially an abomination, like Borges’s mirror, a curse. The story is also told by Dr Sayed: an arguably unnecessary complication, this, since Shahir’s voice alone would have made the essentially plot-driven, murder mystery-like narrative easier to follow. Dr Sayed is an older scholar, a cryptologist from the age of Nasser whose presence justifies all kinds of forays back into the Sixties, with passages on the real-life culture minister Tharwat Okashah, for example: an encyclopedic intellectual enamoured of both translation and classification. He is an obsessive and venomous, Dr Sayed, a quaint old cynic who enjoys watching others suffer. He knows Kawkab Anbar’s secrets but does not reveal them to Shahir. His voice gives a grotesque impression of the characters Shahir must tamper with on the way: among others, the library director, an old bureaucratic rival of Shahir’s boss; and the elderly translator who for many years has been reproducing, at first by hand, his own copies of the strange tomes that live here …

I meant the idea of translation itself, it is not a metaphor for anything else. I imagine that a complete, perfect translation is nonexistent. It is not something that people disagree much about that translation is always faulty to some extent, or that some translations are injurious to the original text. I don’t mean to imply that the text is holy. I mean simply that the ideas in a given text, which are easily understood and habitual if not stereotypical in their own language, might come across as something completely different or offensive once they have been rendered in a different language. Cultural interaction will happen anyway, but I think it happens in a more effective way through interaction with the other language without the medium of translation. That is not of course to say that translation is unnecessary, but it can certainly misrepresent a culture, or it can give rise to a deformed cultural understanding and actually obstruct rather than enhance hybridity and intercultural awareness. In translation it is much easier to stumble. This is of course the central tenet that I wanted to play with in the novel. There was no particular reason to use two voices, although I would not have wanted an omniscient narrator. But it just happened that way. First it flowed in the voice of Shahir, for weeks I worked on it in that voice. But then the voice of Sayed arrived and it forced me to work it in and give up on Shahir temporarily. But it was not technically necessary, there are ways to introduce perspectives into the texts – you add discourses or digressions, even footnotes as in the case of Mohammad Mustagab. Perhaps it is simply that writing the characters in their own voices, in as many of them as you can, makes them more alive. I do not have a clearly defined project as such because my ideas are always changing. Some ideas dog me for a long time but then they evaporate and seem naïve. Other ideas do not evaporate, and they may be just as naïve and laughable but if you think long and hard enough about anything it makes that thing highly valuable to me. I was surprised when friends told me about influences they thought they could see in the book: Naguib Mahfouz, for example, and then Saramago in All the Names, Eco in The Name of the Rose. All three are among my favourite authors in fact so it makes me proud for people to liken my work to theirs. Mahfouz was well organised and very patient which are things that I lack and would benefit from a great deal. Eco has encyclopedic erudition that is obviously beyond me but his writing is also extremely professional and I doubt if I will ever attain that level. I would also mention Orhan Pamuk in My Name is Red, Haruki Murakami in Kafka on the Shore, Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, Gamal El-Ghitani in Khutat Al-Ghitani and Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid in Virgo. It amazes me how much the Iraqi writer Ali Badr and I can think alike, which is why I try to read everything to find out if it’s been done before. For a while now I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of the historian: if the translator falsifies unwittingly, the historian does it on purpose, more or less and, well – just imagine the possible implications of that fact for fiction.

Review and interview by Youssef Rakha


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A streetcar named diwan

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Wa Qassa’id Ukhra (And other poems), Ahmad Shafie, Beirut: Dar an-Nahda, 2009

A whole new diwan? Maybe. No, yes. If such a thing exists. In a sort of anti-introduction to the book, his third, the Oman-based Egyptian poet Ahmad (Salih) Shafie (b. 1977) considers an older, colloquial sense of diwan, the contemporary word for a book of poems and the traditional word for a poet’s corpus – which, born of Farsi, can mean: court, cabinet (as in vizirate), compendium – and is, in Latin letters, the name of Egypt’s first quasi-bourgeois bookshop chain. In breadth and in tone, And other poems is the complete life’s work of a poet. In other ways it negates completeness in either work or life. The deadpan title captures an essence more reminiscent of Cortazar than of Ashbery, whose influence the book cites. Shafie is a student of literature with several volumes’ worth of translation from American English on one shoulder. He writes a crisp Arabic less like the poetry than the narrative of the Generation of the Nineties; less like Ahmad Yamani (b. 1970) than Haytham El-Wardany (b. 1972) or Mustafa Zikri (b. 1966). Or so I (b. 1976) am thinking. But language aside, he is in radio contact with the great prose poets of the 20th  century. From Sargon Boulos (1944-2007) and Mohammad Al-Maghout (1934-2006), he takes clever self-indulgence, emotional flair. An even more important thing: He shares the ability of Wadih Saadeh (b. 1948) to make nature or the city self-referential without letting the metaphors, insolent bastards, show off what they stand for with impunity. Nihilism: a proposition of the Nineties seldom followed through. It finds hermeneutical expression in the way a poem about poetry begins to be about something else before it becomes not so much even about poetry as simply about itself, definitively: I didn’t find the poetry where I left it. Nor did it surprise me as a cloud in the atmosphere of the room. Nor even as poems on my desk. But the room. When I came back. Was very much waiting for me. It opened two lashes heavy with drink, it opened two arms heavy with drink. And it said: Imagine me, imagine me please. A whole diwan out of – itself? That was a complete poem, by the way. It varies in length. But how? Like many in the book, including one that explains the fact, it has no title. It does not even have the word “untitled” for a title.

On one shoulder only. The other bears this diwan, or maybe the private journals of its author, an identification he even suggests: I will consider myself successful the day my poetry notebook becomes the notebook of my journals, but I will not know then what it is that I am successful at. And the sense of diwan Shafie considers? Somehow I forgot to mention that. Yes: In old Egyptian films, we find that the diwan contains seats, not poems, and is contained by a train. How beautiful that a library should flit past, carrying all the diwans. Or maybe I got carried away. Shafie introducing his work is Shafie already writing, which is one difference at least between him and other, inevitably older prose poets. He does not style prose into poetry; he pours poetry all over the place. Questions its existence, humiliates it, all but disbelieves its existence. Then it becomes prose. Seriously. But now you will think that Shafie is scatter-brained and verbose, that the lack of propriety and the prosaicness, the scepticism which is the missing finger of nihilism, reflect good old Egyptian lack of rigour. It is not true. This diwan is free of haiku. This diwan is pitiable. Shafie spits on the idol stands of the poetic, yes. But Shafie is cerebral and precise; he is logical. No, he is Borgesian: I was blind in the dream. And in front of me was a wall that changed before me. While I drew cracks into it and filled them with geckos. And I saw the geckos move, breed, and die. I saw their children and they had colours that were unimaginable. And I witnessed their bodies tearing. I was a blind man who saw everything. And here I am as awake as can be in a world where seeing is no longer proof of the abnegation of blindness. That, maybe, is the beauty of Shafie’s nihilism: its purpose is not to cover up lack of effort or of talent. It is authentic. That is the first and the least interesting thing he stands out for. I am not sure why I mention it. I am eager to find reasons to like what I like. Maybe. What I like and am trying to evoke in the way I write about it. I am eager to beef up my respect for Shafie. Without calling him postmodern.

Somehow I forgot to mention something else. Yes. A history-of-literature digression. It is about the Nineties. There was a flowering of poetry then. Shafie – I too – came later. The poetry of the Nineties claimed to be individualistic and pluralistic and subversive. That is why it is a reference point. Or because there is nothing else to refer to. It was not the earliest Arabic poetry in prose, but the literary establishment had the perspective of a wounded dinosaur and in a short-lived anti-establishment journal named The Locusts, prose was proclaimed a revolution. All sorts of things were said: We spit on Ideology; We are the Margin; We are not clones of each other (but really we might as well be); We write as we live. Many did not live in any particular way, however. So lives turned into after-the-fact dramatisations of not-very-original poems, which were before-it-could-happen manuals about the life. Belonging in a ghetto undermined individualism. An ideology grew. The margin became a route back to the establishment. Or an establishment in its right, with all the prehistoric and reptilian qualities of establishments. No, the Nineties are at best a starting point. Shafie’s authenticity may be due to the fact that his personal life, contrary to personal life in the Nineties, is not make-believe. In the diwan I dream of every poem remains a world complete in itself until the next one comes along and drops something on it like a soft rain which brings out plants that do not grow tall and washes walls and makes the eyes happy and so does the next one. And so on until the last poem comes along and it is not the end point but like Ahmad after Salih after Shafie and on the other hand Basho and Pessoa and everyone. Things have changed since the Nineties. The beauty of that poem is proof. It is hard to match a specific discourse to a specific personage. I am thinking of editorials and interviews, quasi-manifestos. I am thinking of many poets and critics who may no longer believe what they were saying then and may never have believed it at all. It sounds cool and that is repulsive. The point being: Shafie transcends it.

Individualistic, pluralistic and subversive: Shafie does occasionally fall into common Nineties traps. These include the tendency to end a text with an abstract or a pithy statement that leaves you feeling as if the writer, through a text he drew you into with the opposite of such things, has imparted wisdom or vision. Not ironically, not in line with an overarching question posed by the book. But not very meaningfully either, since everything that came before the statement points to a climax of confusion and meaninglessness: The rhythm that life moves to in imagination is exquisite, no true dancer can resist it. Then it feels right to snort or, in true Nineties style, spout a stream of half-obscure obscenities and run. Snorting or something like it is very rude in Egypt. Seriously, meaninglessness can be very desirable in poetry. And what on earth could that dancer be or evoke. Life as a dance? Blah. Rhythm! But the pithy finale is hardly an issue with Shafie. Sometimes it works for him. Especially when it is not a finale: “I and the rest” This is the definition of the universe. “My room and what surrounds it” This is not the definition of the world. What other traps, then? There is a sense in which the Nineties is a reaction to the Generation of the Seventies whose poetry was all about Modernist (sic.) aesthetics and/or Marxist (et al) engagement. It was ugly, the Seventies. It was cumbersome and complicated and demagogic and boring. And it left the Nineties infuriated. Snorting and spouting streams of half-obscure obscenities. Hating ideology so much they became ideological. And so thoroughly opposed to Modernism (sic.) they became postmodern before they knew what that meant. Either. Now there is a sense in which Shafie is a reaction to the Nineties. Much milder, admittedly. Perhaps not so much a reaction as a response. He builds on the substance in much Nineties work. The trap is thematic. Shafie writes about himself. His life, whatever that means. He writes about writing. He writes about the world as part of those things. He does not write about society or people or God or time or relationships. I mean he does, but not explicitly or not as much as he might. At a certain point while turning the pages of this diwan you will feel that Shafie is involuntarily paying lip service to Nineties edicts: the importance of unimportant things, the need for euphemism, veiled seriousness, ennui, the horror of anything relevant to more than three people. The false modesty of hiding under the podium when all you want to do is eloquently address the audience. If you are me or like me, you will notice Shafie paying lip service to these edicts. And you will appreciate the fact that he is not following them.

Sometimes it works for him. Most of the time. But the pithy finale works through transcending itself. It works through not being what it is. That is true of a lot of things in this book. Magic or sorcery or both. And Shafie has other tricks that work even better. Out of the work of Yamani and Yasser Abdellatif (b. 1969), for example, he coaxes one very latent but fascinating trope. In the middle of the intimate and minute liquids that suffuse the early texts of those two survivors of the Nineties, you sometimes spot something solid that aspires to epic or myth. They refer to nature or ancestry to place themselves in a grander scheme. It is almost Whitmanseque. The uncharted continent. It recalls One Hundred Years of Solitude and Eduardo Galeano. And Shafie does it more often in more ways. He does it with more humour. Yes, somehow I forgot to mention Shafie’s salutary humour. He does it with the nonchalance of someone who has built an insignificant but imperishable diwan into the iron body of the bibliographic locomotive. After the dust which was very thick settled, there was nothing but a red balloon blown up with tears. Alone on a whole horizon the colour of ice. The dust due to a dinosaur that was running and before it the humans running. And then the humans running and before them a herd of wildebeest running. And then the humans running, nothing before them, nothing behind. And suddenly a paved road and the vehicles that ran and are running and will run, with the dust. This time. Less of it and longer-lasting and suffocating to the poet and the romantic and the provincial… Or again: My ancestors did not know the alphabet. And while on their way they cast their arrows all of them and nonetheless did not catch the sky in the form of a hedgehog. Thus they did not go to war or hunting. And they did not bequeath words on me. And the stones they left me as stones, not coloured or carved. And my ancestors were defeated by everyone but they did not deprive them of the bewilderment in their eyes or anything. Their eldest gouged out his eyes one night and cried “The sky is still blue.” And he threw everything into the Nile except his soul. And they did not write his story for where is the story. Nor did they invent the alphabet. Now I am going to stop writing. I had a lot more to say. There is no need to tell anyone that Shafie’s diwan goes on.

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Sharh Diwan Zikri

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شرح ديوان ذكري

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Sharh Diwan Zikri

Reading novelist Mustafa Zikri’s new collection of essays, Youssef Rakha follows the example of several canonical works on the great 10th-century poet Abu Al-Tayyib Al-Mutanabbi, all titled Sharh Diwan Al-Mutanabbi or The Elucidation of the Diwan of Mutanabbi

Yawmiyyat (A diary)

At first, this sounds like a misnomer for the numbered pieces making up the latest book by the novelist and screenwriter Mustafa Zikri (b. 1966), Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’: Yawmiyyat (On Tiptoe: A Diary), published by Dar Al-Ain last month. Though initially circulated on Facebook as entries in an ongoing diary of some sort, the pieces comprising Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’ read less like the pages of a journal than the occasional work of a cultural columnist. Zikri’s stated formal ambition was to eschew if not actively attack the predominant, established genres, notably the novel-cum-novella that has been his preferred medium (in recent years, as he points out, the novel has increasingly become the alpha and the omega of literary endeavour in Arabic). He also wanted to relax the iron fist with which he maintains the “literary purity” of his work, guarding the gold of true art from possible intrusions by the lead of politics or society (both the metaphor and the subsequent quotes, unless otherwise stated, come from a recent interview by Mohammad Shoair).

Yet the more you think about Zikri’s work, while you read, the more sense the subtitle yawmiyyat makes. By the time you turn the last page you are convinced. This book offers precisely the kind of material you would expect to find in the diary of a writer like Zikri: fragmentary meditations on literature and film, ambiguous encounters only marginally connected with whatever real-life experiences they recount, philosophical formulations of no clear import. Entries are as carefully constructed, often as open to interpretation, as poems. And – most important of all: what sets Zikri apart from almost every other Arab writer, in fact – the texts are truly self-referential, with the movement of a passage tracing an expression or a word, not what that expression or word refers to. Narrative reduces to a sort of semantic aesthetics, the protagonist to an idea suggested by a particular turn of phrase. Ironically this tendency is clearer than ever now that Zikri is no longer consciously exercising control. Could anyone expect anything more tangible or intimate from the yawmiyyat of Mustafa Zikri?

***

I thought I was the kind of writer who, measured against his writings, lives a life of paucity at the level of the body and the soul. I think of Borges and Pesão and Dostoevsky… (1.)

While Zikri regards any link between literature and reality as a threat to the purity of his art, it is in fact references like this one – and the sweeping statements tending to go with them – that take away from his credibility. There is definitely room in the world of Arabic writing for quasi-postmodern theorising, however self-centred or contemplatively indulgent. But surely in the context of a novella like Hura’ Mataha Qoutiyyah (Drivel about a Gothic Labyrinth, 1997), it actually undermines “purity” far more than the hypothetical inclusion of social-political commentary, properly contextualised, when the narrator consciously compares himself to Borges: a celebrated genius from a decidedly different culture and one, it might be added, whose relevance to what that narrator is doing is at best obscure. The problem is not that Zikri may be a lesser writer than Dostoevsky. It is in the directed-ness, the apparent artificiality of the kind of westward looking elitism he endeavours to cultivate – the classicism of his ambition constantly in contradiction with his essentially deconstructionist approach. His slim volumes are invariably fragmentary; insanely reworked and polished, but inconclusive.

They are also practically solipsistic – in their failure to engage with the world (a failure for which the attempt to substitute the world for Great Literature, i.e., in effect, modernism and art-house cinema, does not make up). Only on reading Zikri’s yawmiyyat, in which he condescends to discuss his likes and dislikes, to engage with the politics of culture or mention a fellow Egyptian writer like the dentist and best-selling author Alaa El-Aswany or his own former mentor Edwar El-Kharrat, do you begin to appreciate what kind of writer Zikri is. Others – most, I would say – openly seek context and connection, communication. He claims to seek the least contact possible, the smallest number of readers, the company of gods – like Kafka, like Kawabata – who according to him never mix with the rabble. The irony is that it is the rabble-like qualities of his standpoint as a Third World writer that form the substance of his work, informing even the way he interprets Great Literature. Hence the deconstructionism, hence the aversion to politics (a quality Zikri shares with his generation of literati, who are still reacting to the excessive politicisation of literature all through the 1960s and 1970s); hence also the preemptive despair of ever having a readership of his own beyond “the professional reader, the writer and the half-writer”. (It strikes me now that in his systematic self-assuredness, Zikri does recall Al-Mutanabbi, not only arguably the greatest Arab poet of all time but also, famously or notoriously, the most conceited.)

***

I have always been… subject to the signal to start working… which requires me to be completely devoted and constantly ready to receive [it] whenever it might come… (17.)

Few writers have dedicated as much attention or energy as Zikri to analysing the discontents of their creative process – the nature and magnitude of the emptiness just beneath the surface of their texts. Here as elsewhere in his writing – notably in his last work of fiction, Al-Rasa’il (The Messages, 2006) – Zikri spends time on what might be termed negative productivity: the writing that has not happened, or is yet to happen, but will perhaps never happen. He narrates and describes the state of being idle and homebound in anticipation of (and in deference to) literature.

As piece 34 in Ala Atraf Al-Asabi’ demonstrates, Zikri’s negative productivity makes perhaps the most convincing case for an existential perspective on the human condition in contemporary Arabic literature. Contrary to his own, noncommittal claims, it resonates far beyond what he recently described to the journalist Ola El-Saket as “those little things which the other writing,” the engaged, energetic writing that aims to change the world, “assumes to be of no consequence, the small details that recur every day and which some of us take for granted”. Zikri’s dilemma has universal relevance: “34. Preparing and arranging, creating an atmosphere, took me a long time, and though I was unemployed on the pretext of waiting for the appropriate moment, that waiting itself was fuelled only by a long time wasted, which I mostly described, with much effort and work, as an inappropriate moment, or at least an inappropriate moment on the way to becoming an appropriate moment.”

This kind of thinking generates much needed humour in an otherwise cerebral and dry book. It also goes to show that Zikri is not as solipsistic as he might seem. At least he is aware of the irony inherent to his own narcissism, and not too scared to apply it to himself. We write about what we know best, and all that Zikri knows is sitting in his home thinking about writing; that, along with whatever else his literary anxiety happens to latch onto, is what he will write about.

***

At the start of the film The Sacrifice by the director Andrie Tarkovsky, Alexander, the hero of the film, asks his son to help him plant a dead tree on the shore of a lake… (27.)

In piece 27 as in numerous other pieces, Zikri – who, working with the filmmaker Osama Fawzi, wrote two of the best Egyptian films of the 1990s – endeavours to rewrite world cinema. Not that the novel/novella format prevented him from indulging his love of film in the past – his 1998 novella is entitled, after Fassbinder’s celebrated film, Fear Eats the Soul – but the greater opportunities presented by an “absolutely flexible medium” like yawmiyyat gives him more scope for focusing on particular scenes or techniques – in Hitchcock, in the work of the French New Wave directors, in Tarantino, Bergman – not so much to discuss this or that aspect of a film or a director as simply to see a given cinematic moment from a new and one might say literary angle.

The influence of film on fiction is a huge topic beyond the scope of this Elucidation, but Zikri’s screenwriter’s insights and his intensely individualist taste act to highlight the way words on a page can recreate and totally alter a scene already lodged in the reader’s memory. These pieces seem to reverse the tendency, suggesting new writing that can influence the way we see film. It is as if Zikri, by reference to another medium, is actively showing his reader that the strength of literature is no longer about telling a story but rather about a particular way of seeing or engaging the senses, different from but just as effective as the more predominant audiovisual medium.

Later on in the book, in the course of his bitterly sarcastic critique of Aswany’s Yaqoubian Building (2002), piece 45, Zikri says almost as much: “Yet it is enough for the physician Alaa El-Aswany that a reader with no connection to the novel genre can easily read The Yaqoubian Building, relying on his experience of newspaper reading and oral tale-telling that everyone possesses by virtue of birth, community and homeland. It may seem to the reader that watching the novel through the medium of cinema does not deprive him of penetrating to whatever is deepest in Yaqoubian. Since the novel has irrevocably divorced the tradition of style, there is then no need for reading.”

***

While the pastime appeared to have to do with free time, it actually had to do with the meaning of life. (39.)

Zikri is ostensibly speaking of “the satellite and the computer and the telephone”, initially “promises of something else, more serious” which he approaches as pastimes “within the frontiers of the house”. But here as elsewhere in this remarkably diverse book, he is also intimating a holistic world view, an idea of human existence as a totality of experience only usually available through philosophy or poetry. It is in this sense perhaps that Zikri might be compared to Borges, despite the incomparably more articulate demeanour and learned background of the latter. Though unlike Zikri Borges has a healthy awareness of context, he remains one of a handful of modern writers the world over who communicate such a sense of the totality of existence with the utmost economy of means. In many of the pieces in this book, Zikri’s tight, profoundly thought out constructions evoke the connection between the short, quasi-narrative text and the prose poem – another thing Borges manages to do, even though the great Argentine, once again unlike Zikri, wrote poems which he presented as such.

The one major difference between Zikri and Borges – between Zikri and most writers of Borges’s – is the latter’s capacity for antagonising his readers, often by overwhelming with unnecessary references. Borges in particular was known to say that, unless one is writing a scholarly monograph or a work of science, a text should always be appealing enough for the reader not to have to exert any effort reading it. More Joycean than Borgesian in this respect, Zikri cares little for the enjoyment of the reader. In fact he sets out to antagonise “the reader with whom I have no connection”, the rabble representative for whom there is no room among the gods, or so he says. And yet in most instances – in spite of himself? – Zikri produces an eminently enjoyable text. Is this yet another intractable contradiction presented by his work?

***

And in this world in which all truths stand against each other on an equal footing, meaning becomes an adventure, an endless game of mix and match. (49.)

Nowhere else is Zikri’s idea of literature more eloquently expressed (literature being an inclusive term that also covers philosophy and film, the two subjects in which he earned degrees, as well as the life of the writer, the writer’s “style” or way of using words, and perhaps also the human condition). It is not as eccentric an idea as he makes it out to be. Romantic and postmodern in equal parts, the notion of writing as a sublime but ultimately meaningless game echoes in the widest variety of contexts, from Wittgenstein to Orientalism. The fact that Zikri refrains from formulating it, never saying more by way of justifying his chosen profession than that it is “a private pleasure”, is hardly surprising.

The disorienting combination of Third World postmodernism and puritanical Great Literature reflects the contradiction between Zikri’s thoroughly fragmentary, deconstructionist method and his all but classical outlook. Far from undermining the credibility of his work, it is perhaps this very contradiction, negative productivity – and the incumbent rejection of any possibility of popular recognition or “success” – that makes Zikri, all things considered, among the most important writers working in Arabic today.

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