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.
“Appearing and Disappearing Like True Poetry”
Roberto Bolaño’s legions of fictional poets and his own heartbroken insurrectionary poems.
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.”
ArtsBeat – New York Times Blog
November 23, 2009, 3:25 pm
Stray Questions for: Roberto Bolaño?!
By BLAKE WILSON
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
The Book Bench
Loose leafs from the New Yorker Books Department.
Posted by Sanders I. Bernstein on June 15, 2011
We’ve known for a while that Roberto Bolaño was a queer cat. He’s certainly enjoyed multiple lives—four, by my count (so far: scholars will undoubtedly invent a few more in the future). There was his actual life; there was the one he made up (claiming, at one point, to have been in Chile when Pinochet came to power, a claim later refuted by those who knew him); the life he lived in his poetry and fiction; and his afterlife as a worldwide literary phenomenon, which he’s been living since his death in 2003. That year also marked the translation of his work into English (beginning with New Directions’ publication of the novel “By Night in Chile”), and the birth in the United States of a new critical darling: he became to us a Latin American Jack Kerouac, his “Savage Detectives” another “On the Road.” We’ve wanted to know all we could about Bolaño, though separating fact from fiction has proved difficult.
The task got a little simpler (or maybe more complicated) with the publication this year of the English translation of “Between Parentheses,” a collection of fragmentary essays, articles, and speeches, which a panel of five literary wise men and women gathered to discuss last Monday at the Galapagos Art Space, in Brooklyn. “Between Parentheses” has been the subject of some small notoriety. It contains the (perhaps fictional) essay “Beach,” which has contributed to the Beat-ification of Bolaño by suggesting that he, like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs before him, had done his share of experimenting with mind-altering substances. (It begins, matter-of-factly, “I gave up heroin and went back to my town and started on the methadone treatment administered to me at the clinic.”) But, by design or coincidence, not a word about that infamous article was mentioned. Our flock’s leaders flew right over “Beach” and never looked down. (For more on “Beach,” and the period of Bolaño’s life it covers, see Daniel Zalewski’s elegant 2007 piece in The New Yorker).
The panel did begin with a nod to “Parentheses”’s unique role as the lone collection of non-fiction (or near-non-fiction) that we have from the author. The moderator read from the beginning of the introduction to the book: “This volume collects most of the newspaper columns and articles that Roberto Bolaño published between 1998 and 2003. Also included are a few scattered prefaces, as well as the texts of some talks or speeches given by Bolaño during the same period. Taken together, they make up a surprisingly rounded whole, offering in their entirety a personal cartography of the writer: the closest thing, among all his writings, to a kind of fragmented ‘autobiography.’” Of course, as the moderator admitted, “the closest thing … to a kind of fragmented ‘autobiography’ ” doesn’t mean that much at all.
But the panelists certainly felt that the essays were entertaining, and that they showcased some of Bolaño’s more feral elements. As Natasha Wimmer, Bolaño’s translator, put it, “It’s not that his non-fiction is that brilliant. He just goes for the jugular. It’s shocking.” The novelist Francisco Goldman agreed, and chided North American critics for playing down Bolaño’s shock value: “It’s as if they’re trying to domesticate him, make him seem like he’s a McSweeney’s writer.”
This suggestion that McSweeney’s writers are somehow constrained brought a swift retort from Heidi Julavits, one of the editors of a McSweeney’s publication, The Believer. “Or a Paris Review writer,” she said.
Goldman shot back, “No. They’re different animals.”
Julavits reminded him that he was in DUMBO, Brooklyn, a.k.a. prime Eggers territory. “This is a Lars Von Trier moment. Keep digging,” she advised.
Lorin Stein, the editor of the Paris Review, and Wyatt Mason, a contributing editor at Harper’s, wisely kept out of the fray.
Had we tamed the wilds of Bolaño by the end of the discussion? Not at all. We in the audience were lucky to make it out of our seats alive (or, rather, dry). All throughout the night-club-ish space, murky black ovals dotted the floor, surrounded by a subtle shimmer of metal railing, but otherwise invisible. It was only when someone’s chance remark on the heat drew a “Well, there are pools all over here. Why don’t you just take a dip?” that I realized that the dark spots were full of water. The name of this savage setting now made a whole lot more sense—and not merely because the night had been dedicated to Roberto Bolaño.
SELF PORTRAIT AT TWENTY YEARS
I set off, I took up the march and never knew
where it might take me. I went full of fear,
my stomach dropped, my head was buzzing:
I think it was the icy wind of the dead.
I don’t know. I set off, I thought it was a shame
to leave so soon, but at the same time
I heard that mysterious and convincing call.
You either listen or you don’t, and I listened
and almost burst out crying: a terrible sound,
born on the air and in the sea.
A sword and shield. And then,
despite the fear, I set off, I put my cheek
against death’s cheek.
And it was impossible to close my eyes and miss seeing
that strange spectacle, slow and strange,
though fixed in such a swift reality:
thousands of guys like me, baby-faced
or bearded, but Latin American, all of us,
brushing cheeks with death.
from The Romantic Dogs, translated ably by Laura Healy.
December 8th, 2008
Borges, Cortázar, Bolaño. With the recent publication of Bolaño’s novels in English, the Anglo-reading critics now generally concur with their Hispanic colleagues: Bolaño, who died in 2003 in Catalonia, is the greatest novelist of his foreshortened generation, supplementing the imaginative portfolio of Borges (versus the magical realism of García Márquez). The fourth of his nine novels and novellas but the first to be published, The Savage Detectives appeared in 1998. He wrote almost all of his prose fiction, including many short stories, in the final decade of his life.
Born in 1953 in Chile, Bolaño mainly wrote poetry for twenty-five years while living in Mexico and Spain. Launching a poetry movement in the early 1970s called Infrarealism, Bolaño at the age of twenty-three wrote an excoriating manifesto with a Jacobin prediction: “The bourgeois and the petit-bourgeois live from party to party. They have one every weekend. The proletariat doesn’t have parties. Only regular funerals. That’s going to change. The exploited are going to have a big party. Memory and guillotines.” Natasha Wimmer, who translated The Savage Detectives, maintains that “in the last years of his life, when he published his novel The Savage Detectives, he achieved the radical break that his manifesto promised.”
GIVE IT ALL UP AGAIN
first infrarealist manifesto
“It’s four light hours to the confines of the solar system; to the closest star, four light years. A disproportionate ocean of emptiness. But are we really sure there is only a void? We only know that there are no stars shining in that space. If they existed, would they be visible? And if there existed bodies that are neither luminous nor dark? Could it not be that on the celestial maps, the same as on those of Earth, the star-cities are indicated and the star-villages are omitted?”
— Soviet science fiction writers scratching their faces at midnight.
— The infrasuns (Drummond would say the happy proletarian fellows).
— Peguero and Boris alone in a lumpen room having premonitions of the wonder behind the door.
— Free money.
Who has crossed the city and had, as the only music, the whistles of his fellow man, his own words of wonder and rage?
The handsome guy who didn’t know
that chicks’ orgasms are clitoral
(Look around, shit isn’t just in museums.) (A process of individual museumification.) (Certainty that everything is named, revealed.) (Fear of discovering.) (Fear of unforeseen imbalances.)
Our closest relatives:
snipers, country boys who smash up cheap cafés in Latin America, people who fall apart in supermarkets in their tremendous individuo-collective dilemmas; the impotence of action and the search (on individual levels or good and muddy with aesthetic contradictions) for poetic action.
Little bright stars eternally winking an eye at us from a place in the universe called Labyrinths.
— Nightclub of misery.
— Pepito Tequila sobbing his love for Lisa Underground.
— I suck it, you suck it, we suck it.
— And the Horror.
Curtains of water, cement or tin separate a cultural machinery that serves as the conscience or the ass of the dominant class from a living, annoying cultural happening, in constant death and birth, ignorant of the greater part of history and the fine arts (everyday creator of its insane history and its hallucinatory fine artz), body that suddenly feels new sensations in itself, product of an epoch in which we approach the shithouse or the revolution at 200 kph.
“New forms, strange forms,” as old Bertolt said, half curious, half cheerful.
Sensations don’t arise from nothingness (the obvious of obviousnesses) but from conditioned reality, in a thousand ways, as a constant flow.
— Multiple reality, you make us sick!
So it is possible that on the one hand one is born and on the other hand we’re in the front row for the death throes. Forms of life and forms of death pass daily through the retina. The constant crash gives life to infrarealist forms: THE EYE OF TRANSITION
They put the whole city in the nuthouse. Sweet sister, tank howls, hermaphrodite songs, diamond deserts, we’ll live only once and the visions, more complicated and slippery every day. Sweet sister, hitchhiking to Monte Albán[i]. Unbuckling their belts to water the corpses. It’s something at least.
And the good bourgeois culture? And academia and the arsonists? And the vanguard and its rearguard? And certain conceptions of love, nice scenery, the precise multinational Colt sidearm?
Like Saint-Just[ii] said to me in a dream I had a while ago: Even the heads of aristocrats can be our weapons.
— A good part of the world is being born and the other part is dying and we all know that we all have to live and we all die: in this there is no middle road.
Chirico[iii] says: thought needs to move away from everything called logic and common sense, to move away from all human obstacles in such a way that things take on a new look, as though illuminated by a constellation appearing for the first time. The infrarealists say: We’re going to stick our noses into all human obstacles, in such a way that things begin to move inside of us, a hallucinatory vision of mankind.
— The Constellation of the Beautiful Bird.
— The infrarealists propose Indianism to the world: a crazy, timid Indian.
— A new lyricism that’s beginning to grow in Latin America sustains itself in ways that never cease to amaze us. The entrance to the work is the entrance to adventure: the poem as a journey and the poet as a hero who reveals heroes. Tenderness as an exercise in speed. Respiration and heat. Experience shot, structures that devour themselves, insane contradictions.
The poet is interfering, the reader will have to interfere for himself.
“erotic books full of misspellings”
The THOUSAND DRAWN-AND-QUARTERED VANGUARDS OF THE SEVENTIES are our ancestors
99 flowers open like an open head
Slaughters, new concentration camps
White subterranean rivers, violet winds
These are hard times for poetry, some say, sipping tea, listening to music in their apartments, talking (listening) to the old masters. These are hard times for mankind, we say, coming back to the barricades after a workday full of shit and tear gas, discovering/creating music even in apartments, spending all day watching the cemeteries-that-expand, where they hopelessly drink a cup of tea or get drunk on pure rage or the inertia of the old masters.
HORA ZERO[iv] are our ancestors
((Raise arsonist kids, get burned))
We’re still in the Quaternary Period. We’re still in the Quaternary Period?
Pepito Tequila kisses the phosphorescent nipples of Lisa Underground and heads off for a beach where black pyramids sprout up.
The poet as a hero who reveals heroes, like the fallen red tree that announces the start of a forest.
— Attempts at an ethic-aesthetic are paved with betrayals or pathetic survivals.
— And it is the individual who could walk a thousand kilometers but inevitably the road will eat him.
— Our ethic is the Revolution, our aesthetic is Life: one-and-the-same.
For the bourgeoisie and the petite-bourgeoisie, life is a party. They have one every weekend. The proletariat doesn’t have parties. Just funerals with rhythm. That’s going to change. The exploited are going to throw a big party. Memory and guillotines. Sensing it, acting it out on certain nights, inventing edges and humid corners for it, like caressing the acid eyes of the new spirit.
Movement of the poem through the seasons of rebellion: poetry producing poets producing poems producing poetry. No electric alley/the poet with his arms separated from his body/the poem moving slowly from his Vision to his Revolution. The alley is a complex point. “We’re going to invent it so as to discover its contradiction, its invisible forms of negation, even to clarify it.” A journey of the act of writing through zones not at all favorable to the act of writing.
Rimbaud, come home!
Subvert the everyday reality of modern poetry. The chains that lead to the poem’s circular reality. A good reference: Kurt Schwitters. Lanke trr gll, or, upa kupa arggg, happens in the official line, phonetic investigators encoding the howl. The bridges of Nova Express are anti-codifying: let him scream, let him scream (please don’t go pulling out pencils or little notebooks, don’t record it, if you want to participate scream along), so let him scream, to see the look on his face when it’s over, what incredible thing happen to us.
Our bridges to unknown seasons. The poem interrelating reality and unreality.
What can I ask of present-day Latin American painting? What can I ask of the theater?
It is more revealing and more evocative to stand in a park devastated by smog and watch people cross the avenues in groups (that contract and expand), the avenues, where drivers as much as pedestrians feel the urge to return to their hovels, when the murderers come out and the victims stalk them.
What stories are painters really telling me?
The interesting void, fixed form and color, at best a parody of movement. Canvases that will serve only as bright advertisements in the rooms of engineers and doctors who collect them.
The painter adapts to a society that is every day more of a “painter” than he is, and there he finds himself disarmed and registers as clown.
If painting X is found in some street by Mara, that painting acquires the status of an amusing, communicative thing; in a salon it’s as decorative as bourgeois wrought iron garden chairs/a question of the retina?/yes and no/but it’d be better to find (and systematize according to chance for awhile) the unleashing factor, class-conscious, a one hundred percent deliberate deed, in juxtaposition to the values of “work” which both precede and condition it.
The painter gives up his studio and ANY status quo and fills his head with wonder/or takes up chess like Duchamp/a self-taught painting/And a painting of poverty, free or rather cheap, unfinished, collaborative, of questioning participation, physically extended and spiritually unlimited.
The best Latin American painting is that which is still being made at unconscious levels, the game, the party, the experiment that gives us a real vision of what we are and opens us to what we can be; the best Latin American painting is what we paint in the greens, reds, and blues on our faces, to recognize ourselves in the incessant creation of the group.
Try daily to leave everything behind.
May architects give up the building of inward-looking scenes and open their hands (or make fists, depending on the place) toward that outer space. A wall and a roof acquire utility not when they’re used just for sleeping or avoiding rain, but rather when they establish, for example, from the everyday act of dreaming, conscious bridges between man and his creations or the momentary impossibility of these.
In architecture and sculpture the infrarealists start from two points: the barricade and the bed.
The true imagination is that which destroys, elucidates, injects emerald microbes into other imaginations. In poetry and in whatever else, the entrance into the work has to already be the way into adventure. Create the tools for everyday subversion. The human being’s subjective seasons, with their gigantic, beautiful, obscene trees like experimental laboratories. Watch, glimpse parallel and heart-rending situations as a giant scratch on your chest, on your face. Endless analogy of gestures. There are so many that when new ones appear we don’t even notice, even though we’re making/watching them in front of a mirror. Stormy nights. Perception opens by means of an ethic-aesthetic carried to the limit.
— Galaxies of love are appearing in the palms of our hands.
— Poets, let down your hair (if you have any)
— Burn your nonsense and start loving until you come up with priceless poems
— We don’t want kinetic paintings but enormous kinetic sunsets
— Horses running 500 kilometers an hour
— Squirrels of fire hopping through trees of fire
— A bet to see who blinks first, between the nerve and the sleeping pill.
Risk is always somewhere else. The true poet is the one who’s always letting go of himself. Never too much time in the same place, like guerrillas, like UFOs, like the white eyes of prisoners serving life sentences.
Fusion and explosion from two shores: creation like a decisive and open graffiti by a crazy kid.
Not at all mechanical. Scales of amazement. Somebody, maybe Bosch, smashes the aquarium of love. Free money. Sweet sister. Visions frivolous like corpses. Little boys jerking off from kisses until December.
At two in the morning, after having been at Mara’s house, we (Mario Santiago and some of us) heard laughter coming from the penthouse of a 9 story building. They didn’t stop, they kept laughing and laughing while below we slept propped up in various phone booths. There came a moment when only Mario was still paying attention to the laughter (the penthouse is a gay bar or something and Darío Galicia had told us that it’s always watched by the cops). We made phone calls but our coins turned into water. The laughter continued. After we left that neighborhood Mario told me that actually no one had been laughing, that it was recorded laughter, and up there in that penthouse, some stragglers or maybe a single homosexual had silently listened to that record and made us listen to it.
— The death of the swan, the swan song, the last song of the black swan, IS NOT in the Bolshoi but in the intolerable pain and beauty of the streets.
— A rainbow that starts in a grindhouse theater and ends in a factory on strike.
— May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth. May it never kiss us.
— We dreamed of utopia and woke up screaming.
— A poor lonely cowboy that comes back home, what a wonder.
Make new sensations appear—Subvert daily life.
GIVE IT ALL UP AGAIN
HIT THE ROAD
—Roberto Bolaño, Mexico, 1976
(translation by Tim Pilcher)
[i] A large pre-Columbian archaeological site in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.[ii] A French revolutionary and close friend of Robespierre who was heavily involved in the Reign of Terror. Immediately following the Terror he was sentenced to death by guillotine at the hands of the National Convention who feared his fiery rhetoric that led to so much bloodshed.
[iii] Giorgio de Chirico. An Italian painter best known for his early surrealist paintings.
[iv] Hora Zero: An avant-garde poetry movement founded in Peru in the 1970’s.
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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Roberto Bolaño belongs to the most select group of Latin-American novelists. Chile of the coup d’état, Mexico City in the 1970s, and the reckless youth of poets are some of his frequent subjects, but he also takes up other themes: César Vallejo’s deathbed, the hardships endured by unknown authors, life at the periphery. Born in Chile in 1953, he spent his teenage years in Mexico and moved to Spain at the end of the seventies. As a poet, he founded the Infrarealist movement with Mario Santiago. In 1999 he won the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, previously awarded to Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, for his novel Los detectives salvajes [The Savage Detectives], for which he also received the prestigious Herralde Prize.
A prolific writer, a literary animal who makes no concessions, Bolaño successfully combines the two basic instincts of a novelist: he is attracted to historical events, and he desires to correct them, to point out the errors. From Mexico he acquired a mythical paradise, from Chile the inferno of the real, and from Blanes, the town in northeast Spain where he now lives and works, he purges the sins of both. No other novelist has been able to convey the complexity of the megalopolis Mexico City has become, and no one has revisited the horrors of the coup d’état in Chile and the Dirty War with such mordant, intelligent writing.
To echo Bolaño’s words, “reading is more important than writing.” Reading Roberto Bolaño, for example. If anyone thinks that Latin-American literature isn’t passing through a moment of splendor, a look through some of his pages would be enough to dispel that notion. With Bolaño, literature—that inexplicably beautiful bomb that goes off and as it destroys, rebuilds—should feel proud of one of its best creations.
Our conversation took place via e-mail between Blanes and my home in Mexico City in the fall of 2001.
Carmen Boullosa In Latin America, there are two literary traditions that the average reader tends to regard as antithetical, opposite—or frankly, antagonistic: the fantastic—Adolfo Bioy Casares, the best of Cortázar, and the realist—Vargas Llosa, Teresa de la Parra. Hallowed tradition tells us that the southern part of Latin America is home to the fantastic, while the northern part is the center of realism. In my opinion, you reap the benefits of both: your novels and narratives are inventions—the fantastic—and a sharp, critical reflection of reality—realist. And if I follow this reasoning, I would add that this is because you have lived on the two geographic edges of Latin America, Chile and Mexico. You grew up on both edges. Do you object to this idea, or does it appeal to you? To be honest, I find it somewhat illuminating, but it also leaves me dissatisfied: the best, the greatest writers (including Bioy Casares and his antithesis, Vargas Llosa) always draw from these two traditions. Yet from the standpoint of the English-speaking North, there’s a tendency to pigeonhole Latin American literature within only one tradition.
Roberto Bolaño I thought the realists came from the south (by that, I mean the countries in the Southern Cone), and writers of the fantastic came from the middle and northern parts of Latin America—if you pay attention to these compartmentalizations, which you should never, under any circumstances, take seriously. 20th century Latin American literature has followed the impulses of imitation and rejection, and may continue to do so for some time in the 21st century. As a general rule, human beings either imitate or reject the great monuments, never the small, nearly invisible treasures. We have very few writers who have cultivated the fantastic in the strictest sense—perhaps none, because among other reasons, economic underdevelopment doesn’t allow subgenres to flourish. Underdevelopment only allows for great works of literature. Lesser works, in this monotonous or apocalyptic landscape, are an unattainable luxury. Of course, it doesn’t follow that our literature is full of great works—quite the contrary. At first the writer aspires to meet these expectations, but then reality—the same reality that has fostered these aspirations—works to stunt the final product. I think there are only two countries with an authentic literary tradition that have at times managed to escape this destiny—Argentina and Mexico. As to my writing, I don’t know what to say. I suppose it’s realist. I’d like to be a writer of the fantastic, like Philip K. Dick, although as time passes and I get older, Dick seems more and more realist to me. Deep down—and I think you’ll agree with me—the question doesn’t lie in the distinction of realist/fantastic but in language and structures, in ways of seeing. I had no idea that you liked Teresa de la Parra so much. When I was in Venezuela people spoke a lot about her. Of course, I’ve never read her.
CB Teresa de la Parra is one of the greatest women writers, or greatest writers, and when you read her you’ll agree. Your answer completely supports the idea that the electricity surging through the Latin American literary world is fairly haphazard. I wouldn’t say it’s weak, because suddenly it gives off sparks that ignite from one end of the continent to the other, but only every now and then. But we don’t entirely agree on what I consider to be the canon. All divisions are arbitrary, of course. When I thought about the south (the Southern Cone and Argentina), I thought about Cortázar, Silvina Ocampo’s delirious stories, Bioy Casares, and Borges (when you’re dealing with authors like these, rankings don’t matter: there is no “number one,” they’re all equally important authors), and I thought about that short, blurry novel by María Luisa Bombal, House of Mist (whose fame was perhaps more the result of scandal—she killed her ex-lover). I would place Vargas Llosa and the great de la Parra in the northern camp. But then things become complicated, because as you move even further north you find Juan Rulfo, and Elena Garro with Un hogar sólido and Los recuerdos del porvenir. All divisions are arbitrary: there is no realism without fantasy, and vice versa.
In your stories and novels, and perhaps also in your poems, the reader can detect the settling of scores (as well as homages paid), which are important building blocks in your narrative structure. I don’t mean that your novels are written in code, but the key to your narrative chemistry may lie in the way you blend hate and love in the events you recount. How does Roberto Bolaño, the master chemist, work?
RB I don’t believe there are any more scores settled in my writing than in the pages of any other author’s books. I’ll insist at the risk of sounding pedantic (which I probably am, in any case), that when I write the only thing that interests me is the writing itself; that is, the form, the rhythm, the plot. I laugh at some attitudes, at some people, at certain activities and matters of importance, simply because when you’re faced with such nonsense, by such inflated egos, you have no choice but to laugh. All literature, in a certain sense, is political. I mean, first, it’s a reflection on politics, and second, it’s also a political program. The former alludes to reality—to the nightmare or benevolent dream that we call reality—which ends, in both cases, with death and the obliteration not only of literature, but of time. The latter refers to the small bits and pieces that survive, that persist; and to reason. Although we know, of course, that in the human scale of things, persistence is an illusion and reason is only a fragile railing that keeps us from plunging into the abyss. But don’t pay any attention to what I just said. I suppose one writes out of sensitivity, that’s all. And why do you write? You’d better not tell me—I’m sure your answer will be more eloquent and convincing than mine.
CB Right, I’m not going to tell you, and not because my answer would be any more convincing. But I must say that if there is some reason why I don’t write, it’s out of sensitivity. For me, writing means immersing myself in a war zone, slicing up bellies, contending with the remains of cadavers, then attempting to keep the combat field intact, still alive. And what you call “settling scores” seems much fiercer to me in your work than in that of many other Latin American writers.
In the eyes of this reader, your laughter is much more than a gesture; it’s far more corrosive—it’s a demolition job. In your books, the inner workings of the novel proceed in the classic manner: a fable, a fiction draws the reader in and at the same time makes him or her an accomplice in pulling apart the events in the background that you, the novelist, are narrating with extreme fidelity. But let’s leave that for now. No one who has read you could doubt your faith in writing. It’s the first thing that attracts the reader. Anyone who wants to find something other than writing in a book—for example, a sense of belonging, or being a member of a certain club or fellowship—will find no satisfaction in your novels or stories. And when I read you, I don’t look for history, the retelling of a more or less recent period in some corner of the world. Few writers engage the reader as well as you do with concrete scenes that could be inert, static passages in the hands of “realist” authors. If you belong to a tradition, what would you call it? Where are the roots of your genealogical tree, and in which direction do its branches grow?
RB The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word writing is the exact opposite of the word waiting. Instead of waiting, there is writing. Well, I’m probably wrong—it’s possible that writing is another form of waiting, of delaying things. I’d like to think otherwise. But, as I said, I’m probably wrong. As to my idea of a canon, I don’t know, it’s like everyone else’s—I’m almost embarrassed to tell you, it’s so obvious: Francisco de Aldana, Jorge Manrique, Cervantes, the chroniclers of the Indies, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, Pedro Henríquez Ureña, Rubén Darío, Alfonso Reyes, Borges, just to name a few and without going beyond the realm of the Spanish language. Of course, I’d love to claim a literary past, a tradition, a very brief one, made up of only two or three writers (and maybe one single book), a dazzling tradition prone to amnesia, but on the one hand, I’m much too modest about my work and on the other, I’ve read too much (and too many books have made me happy) to indulge in such a ridiculous notion.
CB Doesn’t it seem arbitrary to name as your literary ancestors authors who wrote exclusively in Spanish? Do you include yourself in the Hispanic tradition, in a separate current from other languages? If a large part of Latin American literature (especially prose) is engaged in a dialogue with other traditions, I would say this is doubly true in your case.
RB I named authors who wrote in Spanish in order to limit the canon. Needless to say, I’m not one of those nationalist monsters who only reads what his native country produces. I’m interested in French literature, in Pascal, who could foresee his death, and in his struggle against melancholy, which to me seems more admirable now than ever before. Or the utopian naiveté of Fourier. And all the prose, typically anonymous, of courtly writers (some Mannerists and some anatomists) that somehow leads to the endless caverns of the Marquis de Sade. I’m also interested in American literature of the 1880s, especially Twain and Melville, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Whitman. As a teenager, I went through a phase when I only read Poe. Basically, I’m interested in Western literature, and I’m fairly familiar with all of it.
CB You only read Poe? I think there was a very contagious Poe virus going around in our generation—he was our idol, and I can easily see you as an infected teenager. But I’m imagining you as a poet, and I want to turn to your narratives. Do you choose the plot, or does the plot chase after you? How do you choose—or how does the plot choose you? And if neither is true, then what happens? Pinochet’s adviser on Marxism, the highly respected Chilean literary critic you baptize Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a priest and member of the Opus Dei, or the healer who practices Mesmerism, or the teenage poets known as the Savage Detectives—all these characters of yours have an historical counterpart. Why is that?
RB Yes, plots are a strange matter. I believe, even though there may be many exceptions, that at a certain moment a story chooses you and won’t leave you in peace. Fortunately, that’s not so important—the form, the structure, always belong to you, and without form or structure there’s no book, or at least in most cases that’s what happens. Let’s say the story and the plot arise by chance, that they belong to the realm of chance, that is, chaos, disorder, or to a realm that’s in constant turmoil (some call it apocalyptic). Form, on the other hand, is a choice made through intelligence, cunning and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death. Form seeks an artifice; the story seeks a precipice. Or to use a metaphor from the Chilean countryside (a bad one, as you’ll see): It’s not that I don’t like precipices, but I prefer to see them from a bridge.
CB Women writers are constantly annoyed by this question, but I can’t help inflicting it on you—if only because after being asked it so many times, I regard it as an inevitable, though unpleasant ritual: How much autobiographical material is there in your work? To what extent is it a self-portrait?
RB A self-portrait? Not much. A self-portrait requires a certain kind of ego, a willingness to look at yourself over and over again, a manifest interest in what you are or have been. Literature is full of autobiographies, some very good, but self-portraits tend to be very bad, including self-portraits in poetry, which at first would seem to be a more suitable genre for self-portraiture than prose. Is my work autobiographical? In a sense, how could it not be? Every work, including the epic, is in some way autobiographical. In the Iliad we consider the destiny of two alliances, of a city, of two armies, but we also consider the destiny of Achilles and Priam and Hector, and all these characters, these individual voices, reflect the voice, the solitude, of the author.
CB When we were young poets, teenagers, and shared the same city (Mexico City in the seventies), you were the leader of a group of poets, the Infrarealists, which you’ve mythologized in your novel, Los detectives salvajes. Tell us a little about what poetry meant for the Infrarealists, about the Mexico City of the Infrarealists.
RB Infrarealism was a kind of Dada á la Mexicana. At one point there were many people, not only poets, but also painters and especially loafers and hangers-on, who considered themselves Infrarealists. Actually there were only two members, Mario Santiago and me. We both went to Europe in 1977. One night, in Rosellón, France, at the Port Vendres train station (which is very close to Perpignan), after having suffered a few disastrous adventures, we decided that the movement, such as it was, had come to an end.
CB Maybe it ended for you, but it remained vividly alive in our memories. Both of you were the terrors of the literary world. Back then I was part of a solemn, serious crowd—my world was so disjointed and shapeless that I needed something secure to hold on to. I liked the ceremonial nature of poetry readings and receptions, those absurd events full of rituals that I more or less adhered to, and you were the disrupters of these gatherings. Before my first poetry reading in Gandhi bookstore, way back in 1974, I prayed to God—not that I really believed in God, but I needed someone to call upon—and begged: Please, don’t let the Infrarealists come. I was terrified to read in public, but the anxiety that arose from my shyness was nothing compared to the panic I felt at the thought that I’d be ridiculed: halfway through the reading, the Infras might burst in and call me an idiot. You were there to convince the literary world that we shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously over work that wasn’t legitimately serious—and that with poetry (to contradict your Chilean saying) the precise point was to throw yourself off a precipice. But let me return to Bolaño and his work. You specialize in narratives—I can’t imagine anyone calling your novels “lyrical”— and yet you’re also a poet, an active poet. How do you reconcile the two?
RB Nicanor Parra says that the best novels are written in meter. And Harold Bloom says that the best poetry of the 20th century is written in prose. I agree with both. But on the other hand I find it difficult to consider myself an active poet. My understanding is that an active poet is someone who writes poems. I sent my most recent ones to you and I’m afraid they’re terrible, although of course, out of kindness and consideration, you lied. I don’t know. There’s something about poetry. Whatever the case, the important thing is to keep reading it. That’s more important than writing it, don’t you think? The truth is, reading is always more important than writing.
Translated by Margaret Carson