“I said to Cartier-Bresson I’m really not interested and I’m not going to read The Decisive Moment”: Interview with Joseph Koudelka

Legendary photographer Josef Koudelka packed the house at the Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville during the Look3 Festival of the Photograph over the weekend, and the audience greeted him with a standing ovation after master of ceremonies, photographer Vince Musi, announced that Koudelka had been reluctant to participate. Koudelka, who has a reputation as a lone wolf among a group of peers known for their independence, has rarely granted interviews during a career that spans more than 40 years.

“Of course I don’t feel very comfortable to be here. I am not a good speaker,” said Koudelka, who was nevertheless gracious to Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, who was also on stage to interview him. “I don’t know what she’s going to ask me, [but] I gave her assurance I would answer everything…I will try to be as honest as possible.”

Koudelka also told the audience at the outset that he “never listened much to what [other] photographers say,” and recounted how Henri Cartier-Bresson had asked him to read and comment on the text of The Decisive Moment before that book was published. “I said to Bresson I’m really not interested and I’m not going to read it.” Koudelka added, “I think the best portrait of a photographer are his photographs, so please judge me on my photographs.”

The audience cheered, and the program got under way with a projection of a sampling of Koudelka’s earliest work–a documentary of stage actors during performances, followed by a series of abstract images that stemmed from his work as a theater photographer. The program alternated between silent projections of Koudelka’s major bodies of work, presented chronologically, followed by several minutes of Q&A conversation between Tucker and Koudelka about that work.

Here’s an edited version of the conversation. The headings indicate the subjects of the major bodies of Koudelka’s work, and when it appeared during the program.

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Re Bolaño’s latest novel in English: Woes of the True Policeman

Translating Bolaño: An Interview with Natasha Wimmer

Natasha Wimmer had been working for Farrar, Straus and Giroux for several years when she was presented with the opportunity to translate The Savage Detectives, Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s first novel, into English. She hadn’t heard of the author before, but Wimmer read the book in Spanish and was floored. “It was the best book I had read in either Spanish or English in a long time,” she said. Still, Wimmer didn’t think she would get the job: Christopher Andrews, who had already translated Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and Distant Star, was the go-to choice. However, in a stroke of luck, Andrews was too busy to tackle the project and Wimmer took it on. After The Savage Detectives was released in the United States, both the book and its late author became literary sensations. That was in 2007.

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Burroughs: Introduction from Queer

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William S. Burroughs

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When I lived in Mexico City at the end of the 1940s, it was a city of one million people, with clear sparkling air and the sky that special shade of blue that goes so well with circling vultures, blood and sand–the raw menacing pitiless Mexican blue. I liked Mexico City from the first day of my first visit there. In 1949, it was a cheap place to live, with a large foreign colony, fabulous whorehouses and restaurants, cockfights and bullfights, and every conceivable diversion. A single man could live well there for two dollars a day. My New Orleans case for heroin and marijuana possession looked so unpromising that I decided not to show up for the court date, and I rented an apartment in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City.

I knew that under the statute of limitations I could not return to the United States for five years, so I applied for Mexican citizenship and enrolled in some courses in Mayan and Mexican archaeology at Mexico City College. The G.I. Bill paid for my books and tuition, and a seventy-five-dollar-per-month living allowance. I thought I might go into farming, or perhaps open a bar on the American border.

The City appealed to me. The slum areas compared favorably with anything in Asia for sheer filth and poverty. People would shit all over the street, then lie down and sleep in it with the flies crawling in and out of their mouths. Entrepreneurs, not infrequently lepers, built fires on street corners and cooked up hideous, stinking, nameless messes of food, which they dispensed to passersby. Drunks slept right on the sidewalks of the main drag, and no cops bothered them. It seemed to me that everyone in Mexico had mastered the art of minding his own business. If a man wanted to wear a monocle or carry a cane, he did not hesitate to do it, and no one gave him a second glance. Boys and young men walked down the street arm in arm and no one paid them any mind. It wasn’t that people didn’t care what others thought; it simply would not occur to a Mexican to expect criticism from a stranger, nor to criticize the behavior of others.

Mexico was basically an Oriental culture that reflected two thousand years of disease and poverty and degradation and stupidity and slavery and brutality and psychic and physical terrorism. It was sinister and gloomy and chaotic, with the special chaos of a dream. No Mexican really knew any other Mexican, and when a Mexican killed someone (which happened often), it was usually his best friend. Anyone who felt like it carried a gun, and I read of several occasions where drunken cops, shooting at the habitués of a bar, were themselves shot by armed civilians. As authority figures, Mexican cops ranked with streetcar conductors.

All officials were corruptible, income tax was very low, and medical treatment was extremely reasonable, because the doctors advertised and cut their prices. You could get a clap cured for $2.40, or buy the penicillin and shoot it yourself. There were no regulations curtailing self-medication, and needles and syringes could be bought anywhere. This was in the time of Alemá¡n, when the mordida was king, and a pyramid of bribes reached from the cop on the beat up to the Presidente. Mexico City was also the murder capital of the world, with the highest per-capita homicide rate. I remember newspaper stories every day, like these:

A campesino is in from the country, waiting for a bus: linen pants, sandals made from a tire, a wide sombrero, a machete at his belt. Another man is also waiting, dressed in a suit, looking at his wrist watch, muttering angrily. The campesino whips out his machete and cuts the man’s head clean off. He later told police: “He was giving me looks muy feo and finally I could not contain myself.” Obviously the man was annoyed because the bus was late, and was looking down the road for the bus, when the campesino misinterpreted his action, and the next thing a head rolls in the gutter, grimacing horribly and showing gold teeth.

Two campesinos are sitting disconsolate by the roadside. They have no money for breakfast. But look: a boy leading several goats. One campesino picks up a rock and bashes the boy’s brains out. They take the goats to the nearest village and sell them. They are eating breakfast when they are apprehended by the police.

A man lives in a little house. A stranger asks him how to find the road for Ayahuasca. “Ah, this way, señor.” He is leading the man around and around: “The road is right here.” Suddenly he realizes he hasn’t any idea where the road is, and why should he be bothered? So he picks up a rock and kills his tormentor.

Campesinos took their toll with rock and machete. More murderous were the politicians and off-duty cops, each with his .45 automatic. One learned to hit the deck. Here is another actual story: A gun-toting politico hears his girl is cheating, meeting someone in this cocktail lounge. Some American kid just happens in and sits next to her, when the macho bursts in: “¡CHINGOA!” Hauls out his .45 and blasts the kid right off his bar stool. They drag the body outside and down the street a ways. When the cops arrive, the bartender shrugs and mops his bloody bar, and says only: “Malos, esos muchachos!” (“Those bad boys!”)

Every country has its own special Shits, like the Southern law-man counting his Nigger notches, and the sneering Mexican macho is certainly up there when it comes to sheer ugliness. And many of the Mexican middle class are about as awful as any bourgeoisie in the world. I remember that in Mexico the narcotic scripts were bright yellow, like a thousand-dollar bill, or a dishonorable discharge from the Army. One time Old Dave and I tried to fill such a script, which he had obtained quite legitimately from the Mexican government. The first pharmacist we hit jerked back snarling from such a sight: “¡No prestamos servicio a los viciosos!” (“We do not serve dope fiends!”)

From one farmacìa to another we walked, getting sicker with every step: “No, señor. . . .” We must have walked for miles.

“Never been in this neighborhood before.”

“Well, let’s try one more.”

Finally we entered a tiny hole-in-the-wall farmacìa. I pulled out the receta, and a gray-haired lady smiled at me. The pharmacist looked at the script, and said, “Two minutes, señor.”

We sat down to wait. There were geraniums in the window. A small boy brought me a glass of water, and a cat rubbed against my leg. After awhile the pharmacist returned with our morphine.

Gracias, señor

Outside, the neighborhood now seemed enchanted: Little farmacìas in a market, crates and stalls outside, a pulquerìa on the corner. Kiosks selling fried grasshoppers and peppermint candy black with flies. Boys in from the country in spotless white linen and rope sandals, with faces of burnished copper and fierce innocent black eyes, like exotic animals, of a dazzling sexless beauty. Here is a boy with sharp features and black skin, smelling of vanilla, a gardenia behind his ear. Yes, you found a Johnson, but you waded through Shitville to find him. You always do. Just when you think the earth is exclusively populated by Shits, you meet a Johnson.

One day there was a knock on my door at eight in the morning. I went to the door in my pyjamas, and there was an inspector from Immigration.

“Get your clothes on. You’re under arrest.” It seemed the woman next door had turned in a long report on my drunk and disorderly behavior, and also there was something wrong with my papers and where was the Mexican wife I was supposed to have? The Immigration officers were all set to throw me in jail to await deportation as an undesirable alien. Of course, everything could be straightened out with some money, but my interviewer was the head of the deporting department and he wouldn’t go for peanuts. I finally had to get up off of two hundred dollars. As I walked home from the Immigration Office, I imagined what I might have had to pay if I had really had an investment in Mexico City.

I thought of the constant problems the three American owners of the Ship Ahoy encountered. The cops came in all the time for a mordida, and then came the sanitary inspectors, then more cops trying to get something on the joint so they could take a real bite. They took the waiter downtown and beat the shit out of him. They wanted to know where was Kelly’s body stashed? How many women been raped in the joint? Who brought in the weed? And so on. Kelly was an American hipster who had been shot in the Ship Ahoy six months before, had recovered, and was now in the U.S. Army. No woman was ever raped there, and no one ever smoked weed there. By now I had entirely abandoned my plans to open a bar in Mexico.

An addict has little regard for his image. He wears the dirtiest, shabbiest clothes, and feels no need to call attention to himself. During my period of addiction in Tangiers, I was known as “El Hombre Invisible,” The Invisible Man. This disintegration of self-image often results in an indiscriminate image hunger. Billie Holliday said she knew she was off junk when she stopped watching TV. In my first novel, Junky, the protagonist “Lee” comes across as integrated and self-contained, sure of himself and where he is going. In Queer he is disintegrated, desperately in need of contact, completely unsure of himself and of his purpose.

The difference of course is simple: Lee on junk is covered, protected and also severely limited. Not only does junk short-circuit the sex drive, it also blunts emotional reactions to the vanishing point, depending on the dosage. Looking back over the action of Queer, that hallucinated month of acute withdrawal takes on a hellish glow of menace and evil drifting out of neon-lit cocktail bars, the ugly violence, the .45 always just under the surface. On junk I was insulated, didn’t drink, didn’t go out much, just shot up and waited for the next shot.

When the cover is removed, everything that has been held in check by junk spills out. The withdrawing addict is subject to the emotional excesses of a child or an adolescent, regardless of his actual age. And the sex drive returns in full force. Men of sixty experience wet dreams and spontaneous orgasms (an extremely unpleasant experience, agaçant as the French say, putting the teeth on edge). Unless the reader keeps this in mind, the metamorphosis of Lee’s character will appear as inexplicable or psychotic. Also bear in mind that the withdrawal syndrome is self-limiting, lasting no more than a month. And Lee has a phase of excessive drinking, which exacerbates all the worst and most dangerous aspects of the withdrawal sickness: reckless, unseemly, outrageous, maudlin–in a word, appalling–behavior.

After withdrawal, the organism readjusts and stabilizes at a pre-junk level. In the narrative, this stabilization is finally reached during the South American trip. No junk is available, nor any other drug, after the paregoric of Panama. Lee’s drinking has dwindled to several good stiff ones at sundown. Not so different from the Lee of the later Yage Letters, except for the phantom presence of Allerton.

So I had written Junky, and the motivation for that was comparatively simple: to put down in the most accurate and simple terms my experiences as an addict. I was hoping for publication, money, recognition. Kerouac had published The Town and the City at the time I started writing Junky. I remember writing in a letter to him, when his book was published, that money and fame were now assured. As you can see, I knew nothing about the writing business at the time.

My motivations to write Queer were more complex, and are not clear to me at the present time. Why should I wish to chronicle so carefully these extremely painful and unpleasant and lacerating memories? While it was I who wrote Junky, I feel that I was being written in Queer. I was also taking pains to ensure further writing, so as to set the record straight: writing as inoculation. As soon as something is written, it loses the power of surprise, just as a virus loses its advantage when a weakened virus has created alerted antibodies. So I achieved some immunity from further perilous ventures along these lines by writing my experience down.

At the beginning of the Queer manuscript fragment, having returned from the insulation of junk to the land of the living like a frantic inept Lazarus, Lee seems determined to score, in the sexual sense of the word. There is something curiously systematic and unsexual about his quest for a suitable sex object, crossing one prospect after another off a list which seems compiled with ultimate failure in mind. On some very deep level he does not want to succeed, but will go to any length to avoid the realization that he is not really looking for sex contact.

But Allerton was definitely some sort of contact. And what was the contact that Lee was looking for? Seen from here, a very confused concept that had nothing to do with Allerton as a character. While the addict is indifferent to the impression he creates in others, during withdrawal he may feel the compulsive need for an audience, and this is clearly what Lee seeks in Allerton: an audience, the acknowledgement of his performance, which of course is a mask, to cover a shocking disintegration. So he invents a frantic attention-getting format which he calls the Routine: shocking, funny, riveting. “It is an Ancient Mariner, and he stoppeth one of three. . . .”

The performance takes the form of routines: fantasies about Chess Players, the Texas Oilman, Corn Hole Gus’s Used-Slave Lot. In Queer, Lee addresses these routines to an actual audience. Later, as he develops as a writer, the audience becomes internalized. But the same mechanism that produced A.J. and Doctor Benway, the same creative impulse, is dedicated to Allerton, who is forced into the role of approving Muse, in which he feels understandably uncomfortable.

What Lee is looking for is contact or recognition, like a photon emerging from the haze of insubstantiality to leave an indelible recording in Allerton’s consciousness. Failing to find an adequate observer, he is threatened by painful dispersal, like an unobserved photon. Lee does not know that he is already committed to writing, since this is the only way he has of making an indelible record, whether Allerton is inclined to observe or not. Lee is being inexorably pressed into the world of fiction. He has already made the choice between his life and his work.

The manuscript trails off in Puyo, End of the Road town. . . . The search for Yage has failed. The mysterious Doctor Cotter wants only to be rid of his unwelcome guests. He suspects them to be agents of his treacherous partner Gill, intent on stealing his genius work of isolating curare from the composite arrow poison. I heard later that the chemical companies decided simply to buy up the arrow poison in quantity and extract the curare in their American laboratories. The drug was soon synthesized, and is now a standard substance found in many muscle-relaxing preparations. So it would seem that Cotter really had nothing to lose: his efforts were already superseded.

Dead end. And Puyo can serve as a model for the Place of Dead Roads: a dead, meaningless conglomerate of tin-roofed houses under a continual downpour of rain. Shell has pulled out, leaving prefabricated bungalows and rusting machinery behind. And Lee has reached the end of his line, an end implicit in the beginning. He is left with the impact of unbridgeable distances, the defeat and weariness of a long, painful journey made for nothing, wrong turnings, the track lost, a bus waiting in the rain . . . back to Ambato, Quito, Panama, Mexico City.

When I started to write this companion text to Queer, I was paralyzed with a heavy reluctance, a writer’s block like a straitjacket: “I glance at the manuscript of Queer and feel I simply can’t read it. My past was a poisoned river from which one was fortunate to escape, and by which one feels immediately threatened, years after the events recorded. –Painful to an extent I find it difficult to read, let alone to write about. Every word and gesture sets the teeth on edge.” The reason for this reluctance becomes clearer as I force myself to look: the book is motivated and formed by an event which is never mentioned, in fact is carefully avoided: the accidental shooting death of my wife, Joan, in September 1951.

While I was writing The Place of Dead Roads, I felt in spiritual contact with the late English writer Denton Welch, and modelled the novel’s hero, Kim Carson, directly on him. Whole sections came to me as if dictated, like table-tapping. I have written about the fateful morning of Denton’s accident, which left him an invalid for the remainder of his short life. If he had stayed a little longer here, not so long there, he would have missed his appointment with the female motorist who hit his bicycle from behind for no apparent reason. At one point Denton had stopped to have coffee, and looking at the brass hinges on the café’s window shutters, some of them broken, he was hit by a feeling of universal desolation and loss. So every event of that morning is charged with special significance, as if it were underlined. This portentous second sight permeates Welch’s writing: a scone, a cup of tea, an inkwell purchased for a few shillings, become charged with a special and often sinister significance.

I get exactly the same feeling to an almost unbearable degree as I read the manuscript of Queer.

The event towards which Lee feels himself inexorably driven is the death of his wife by his own hand, the knowledge of possession, a dead hand waiting to slip over his like a glove. So a smog of menace and evil rises from the pages, an evil that Lee, knowing and yet not knowing, tries to escape with frantic flights of fantasy: his routines, which set one’s teeth on edge because of the ugly menace just behind or to one side of them, a presence palpable as a haze.

Brion Gysin said to me in Paris: “For ugly spirit shot Joan because . . .” A bit of mediumistic message that was not completed–or was it? It doesn’t need to be completed, if you read it: “ugly spirit shot Joan to be cause,” that is, to maintain a hateful parasitic occupation. My concept of possession is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanations, with their dogmatic insistence that such manifestations must come from within and never, never, never from without. (As if there were some clear-cut difference between inner and outer.) I mean a definite possessing entity. And indeed, the psychological concept might well have been devised by the possessing entities, since nothing is more dangerous to a possessor than being seen as a separate invading creature by the host it has invaded. And for this reason the possessor shows itself only when absolutely necessary.

In 1939, I became interested in Egyptian hieroglyphics and went out to see someone in the Department of Egyptology at the University of Chicago. And something was screaming in my ear: “YOU DONT BELONG HERE!” Yes, the hieroglyphics provided one key to the mechanism of possession. Like a virus, the possessing entity must find a port of entry.

This occasion was my first clear indication of something in my being that was not me, and not under my control. I remember a dream from this period: I worked as an exterminator in Chicago, in the late 1930s, and lived in a rooming house on the near North Side. In the dream I am floating up near the ceiling with a feeling of utter death and despair, and looking down I see my body walking out the door with deadly purpose.

One wonders if Yage could have saved the day by a blinding revelation. I remember a cut-up I made in Paris years later: “Raw peeled winds of hate and mischance blew the shot.” And for years I thought this referred to blowing a shot of junk, when the junk squirts out the side of the syringe or dropper owing to an obstruction. Brion Gysin pointed out the actual meaning: the shot that killed Joan.

I had bought a Scout knife in Quito. It had a metal handle and a curious tarnished old look, like something from a turn-of-the-century junk shop. I can see it in a tray of old knives and rings, with the silver plate flaking off. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon, a few days after I came back to Mexico City, and I decided to have the knife sharpened. The knife-sharpener had a little whistle and a fixed route, and as I walked down the street towards his cart a feeling of loss and sadness that had weighed on me all day so I could hardly breathe intensified to such an extent that I found tears streaming down my face.

“What on earth is wrong?” I wondered.

This heavy depression and a feeling of doom occurs again and again in the text. Lee usually attributes it to his failures with Allerton: “A heavy drag slowed movement and thought. Lee’s face was rigid, his voice toneless.” Allerton has just refused a dinner invitation and left abruptly: “Lee stared at the table, his thoughts slow, as if he were very cold.” (Reading this I am cold and depressed.)

Here is a precognitive dream from Cotter’s shack in Ecuador: “He was standing in front of the Ship Ahoy. The place looked deserted. He could hear someone crying. He saw his little son, and knelt down and took the child in his arms. The sound of crying came closer, a wave of sadness. … He held little Willy close against his chest. A group of people were standing there in Convict suits. Lee wondered what they were doing there and why he was crying.”

I have constrained myself to remember the day of Joan’s death, the overwhelming feeling of doom and loss . . . walking down the street I suddenly found tears streaming down my face. “What is wrong with me?” The small Scout knife with a metal handle, the plating peeling off, a smell of old coins, the knife-sharpener’s whistle. Whatever happened to this knife I never reclaimed?

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.

I have constrained myself to escape death. Denton Welch is almost my face. Smell of old coins. Whatever happened to this knife called Allerton, back to the appalling Margaras Inc. The realization is basic formulated doing? The day of Joan’s doom and loss. Found tears streaming down from Allerton peeling off the same person as a Western shootist. What are you rewriting? A lifelong preoccupation with Control and Virus. Having gained access the virus uses the host’s energy, blood, flesh and bones to make copies of itself. Model of dogmatic insistence never never from without was screaming in my ear, “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!”

A straitjacket notation carefully paralyzed with heavy reluctance. To escape their prewritten lines years after the events recorded. A writers block avoided Joans death. Denton Welch is Kim Carson’s voice through a cloud underlined broken table tapping.

William S. Burroughs, February 1985

Originally intended as a sequel to his first book Junkie, Queer was written by Burroughs in the late 1940s in Mexico City. However, it was not published until 1985, when Viking brought out the first edition in New York. This introduction was composed specifically for the long-delayed publication of the manuscript.
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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

Interview with William Burroughs

(Originally appeared in Journal For the Protection of All Beings, 1961)

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By Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg

Gregory Corso: What is your department?

William Burroughs: Kunst und Wissenschaft.

Gregory Corso: What say you about political conflicts?

William Burroughs: Political conflicts are merely surface manifestations. If conflicts arise you may be sure that certain powers intend to keep this conflict under operation since they hope to profit from the situation. To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring, you are charging the cloth. That is what politics is for, to teach you the cloth. Just as the bullfighter teaches the bull, teaches him to follow, obey the cloth.

Gregory Corso: Who manipulates the cloth?

William Burroughs: Death

Allen Ginsberg: What is death?

William Burroughs: A gimmick. It’s the time-birth-death gimmick. Can’t go on much longer, too many people are wising up.

Gregory Corso: Do you feel there has been a definite change in man’s makeup? A new consciousness?

William Burroughs: Yes, I can give you a precise answer to that. I feel that the change, the mutation in consciousness, will occur spontaneously once certain pressures now in operation are removed. I feel that the principal instrument of monopoly and control that prevents expansion of consciousness is the word lines controlling thought, feeling and apparent sensory impressions of the human host.

Allen Ginsberg: And if they are removed, what step?

William Burroughs: The forward step must be made in silence. We detach ourselves from word forms — this can be accomplished by substituting for words, letters, concepts, verbal concepts, other modes of expressions: for example, color. We can translate word and letter into color — Rimbaud stated that in his color vowels, words quote “words” can be read in silent color. In other words, man must get away from verbal forms to attain the consciousness, that which is there to be perceived at hand.

Gregory Corso: How does one take that “forward step,” can you say?

William Burroughs: Well, this is my subject and is what I am concerned with. Forward steps are made by giving up old armor because words are built into you — in the soft typewriter of the womb you do not realize the word-armor you carry; for example, when you read this page your eyes move irresistibly from left to right following the words that you have been accustomed to. Now try breaking up part of the page like this:

Are there or just we can translate many solutions for example color word color in the soft typewriter into political conflicts to attain consciousness monopoly and control

Gregory Corso: Reading that it seems you end up where you began, with politics and it’s nomenclature: conflict, attain, solution, monopoly, control — so what kind of help is that?

William Burroughs: Precisely what I was saying — if you talk you always end up with politics, it gets nowhere. I mean man it’s strictly from the soft typewriter.

Gregory Corso: What kind of advice you got for politicians?

William Burroughs: Tell the truth once and for all and shut up forever.

Gregory Corso: What if people don’t want to change, don’t want no new consciousness?

William Burroughs: For any species to change, if they are unable and are unwilling to do so — I might, for example, have suggested to the dinosaurs that heavy armor and great size was a sinking ship, and that they do well to convert to mammal facilities — it would not lie in my power or desire to reconvert a reluctant dinosaur. I can make my feeling very clear, Gregory, I feel like I’m on a sinking ship and I want off.

Gregory Corso: Do you think Hemingway got off?

William Burroughs: Probably not.
(Next day)

Allen Ginsberg: What about control?

William Burroughs: Now all politicians assume a necessity of control, the more efficient the control the better. All political organizations tend to function like a machine, to eliminate the unpredictable factor of affect — emotion. Any machine tends to absorb, eliminate, Affect. Yet the only person who can make a machine move is someone who has a motive, who has Affect. If all individuals were conditioned to machine efficiency in the performance of their duties there would have to be at least one person outside the machine to give the necessary orders; if the machine absorbed or eliminated all those outside the machine, the machine will slow down and stop forever. Any unchecked impulse does, within the human body and psyche, lead to the destruction of the organism.

Allen Ginsberg: What kind of organization could technological society have without control?

William Burroughs: The whole point is, I feel the machine should be eliminated. Now that it has served its purpose of alerting us to the dangers of machine control. Elimination of all natural sciences — If anybody ought to go to the extermination chambers, definitely scientists. Yes, I’m definitely antiscientist because I feel that science represents a conspiracy to impose as the real and only universe, the universe of scientists themselves — they’re reality-addicts, they’ve got to have things so real so they can get their hands on it. We have a great elaborate machine which I feel has to be completely dismantled — in order to do that we need people who understand how the machine works — the mass media — unparalleled opportunity.

Allen Ginsberg: Who do you think is responsible for the dope situation in America?

William Burroughs: Old Army game, “I act under orders.” As Captain Ahab said, “You are not other men but my arms and legs –” Mr. Anslinger has a lot of arms and legs, or whoever is controlling him. Same thing as the Eichman case: he’s the front man who has got to take the rap. Poor bastard, I got sympathy for him.

Gregory Corso: Could you or do you think it wise to say who it will be or just what force it will be that will destroy the world?

William Burroughs: You want to create a panic? That’s top secret — want to swamp the lifeboats?

Gregory Corso: O.K. How did them there lifeboats get there in the first place?

William Burroughs: Take for instance some Indians in South America I’ve seen. There comes along this sloppy cop with his shirt buttons all in the wrong hole. Well then, Parkinson’s law goes into operation — there’s need not for one cop but seven or eight, need for sanitation inspectors, rent collectors, etc.; so after a period of years problems arise, crime, dope taking and traffic, juvenile delinquency. So the question is asked, “What should we do about these problems?” The answer as Gertrude Stein on her deathbed said, comes before the question — in short before the bastards got there in the first place! That’s all —

Allen Ginsberg: What do you think Cuba and the FLN think about poets? And what do you think their marijuana policy is?

William Burroughs: All political movements are basically anti-creative — since a political movement is a form of war. “There’s no place for impractical dreamers around here,” that’s what they always say. “Your writing activities will be directed, kindly stop horsing around.” “As for the smoking of marijuana, it is the exploitation for the workers.” Both favor alcohol and are against pot.

Gregory Corso: I feel capitol punishment is dooming U.S.A.

William Burroughs: I’m against Capitol Punishment in all forms, and I have written many pamphlets on this subject in the manner of Swift’s Modest Proposal pamphlet incorporated into Naked Lunch; these pamphlets have marked Naked Lunch as an obscene book. Most all methods of capitol punishment are designed to inflict the maximum of humiliation — not attempts to prevent suicide.

Allen Ginsberg: What advice do you have for American youth who are drawn to political action out of sympathy for the American revolution?

William Burroughs: “I wouldn’t be in your position” — old saw. If there is any political move that I would advocate it would be an alliance between America and Red China, if they’d have us.

Gregory Corso: What about the Arab peoples — how are they faring?

William Burroughs: They’re stuck back thousands of years and they think they’re going to get out with a TV set.

Gregory Corso: What about the Negros, will they make it — not only the ones in the South, but everywhere?

William Burroughs: Biologically speaking the Afro-Asiatic block is in the ascendancy — always remember that both Negro and White are minority groups — the largest race is the Mongoloid group. In the event of atomic war there is a tremendous biological advantage in the so-called undeveloped areas that have a high birth rate and high death rate because, man, they can plow under those mutations. The country with a low birth rate and low death rate will be hardest hit — and so the poor may indeed inherit the earth, because they’re healthier.

Allen Ginsberg: What do you think of White Supremacy?

William Burroughs: The essence of White Supremacy is this: they are people who want to keep things as they are. That their children’s children’s children might be a different color is something very alarming to them — in short they are committed to the maintenance of the static image. The attempt to maintain a static image, even if it’s a good image, just won’t work.

Gregory Corso: Do you think Americans want and could fight the next war with the same fire and fervency as they did in World War II?

William Burroughs: Undoubtedly, yes — because they remember what a soft time they had in the last one — they sat on their ass.
According to Maynard & Miles, this is the first published interview with William Burroughs. It appeared in the 1961 issue of Journal for the Protection of All Beings, a periodical edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and published by City Lights Books in San Francisco. (Maynard & Miles E1)
***

INTRODUCTION to QUEER, William S. Burroughs

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from Roberto Bolaño’s Romantic Dogs

GODZILLA IN MEXICO

Listen carefully, my son: bombs were falling
over Mexico City
but no one even noticed.
The air carried poison through
the streets and open windows.
You’d just finished eating and were watching
cartoons on TV.
I was reading in the bedroom next door
when I realized we were going to die.
Despite the dizziness and nausea I dragged myself
to the kitchen and found you on the floor.
We hugged. You asked what was happening
and I didn’t tell you we were on death’s program
but instead that we were going on a journey,
one more, together, and that you shouldn’t be afraid.
When it left, death didn’t even
close our eyes.
What are we? you asked a week or year later,
Ants, bees, wrong numbers
in the big rotten soup of chance?
We’re human beings, my son, almost birds,
public heroes and secrets.

Translated by Laura Healy

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