Monday, 28 July 2008

last evenings on earth [bolaño]

I had not been able to read a book since I read the last book. Too many reasons why, none of them as bad as they might once have been. Besides which, reading is a habit, and once something displaces that habit, the hardest part is getting it back.

Bolaño's collection of short stories had lain on a corner of my swampy desk since May. I had begun to read Sensini, the opening story, several times, only to abandon it. Knowing that I would be flying into Gerona, and then visiting Barcelona, both of which are places that feature in that story, I summoned up some reading strength and opened the book on the plane.

It's hot at this time of year in Barcelona. So hot I was thinking on the first day, before the others arrived, that I really couldn't see the point in visiting cities anymore. Certainly not at this time of year. I walked, exhausted, battered by modern plane travel and a week's insomnia, down the Ramblas, then along the port, trying to find somewhere to stop. I stumbled past an African market and the restaurant where once I ate lobster with H. Our trips to Barcelona never seemed to work as well as they should have done. I say 'trips' but there were only two. The second H was ill. I remember her lying on the bench in Parc Guel, as I walked on up, watching the old folk on their Sunday constitutional. We didn't realise it then but the reason our trips to Barcelona didn't go as well as they should was because we were actually participants in an unwritten Bolaño story (he was dead so didn't have time to write it), loaded with his tropes of Latin American exile; unstable poets and their unstable relationships; the action rarely in the here and now, usually just around the corner. As it was then, for us, though we only intimated it at the time, we didn't actually know it. (How could we as neither of us had even heard of the writer then, let alone read him.)

Anyway, I wasn't thinking all this. I wasn't thinking much of anything, except, it's hot, and I'm not sure I want to visit cities anymore. Then I found a bit of shade, just a step, on a wide bit of space, behind the restaurant complex where I ate lobster and so on, and there were people walking past and cycling past and all I could think of doing was opening and then reading the Bolaño. It was a story about an American woman who ended up getting to know the narrator in Gerona. I didn't like the story all that much - I don't like Bolaño's stories, they ramble and they go nowhere, and just when you think they're getting somewhere they stop, and it's a trick and he knows it and we know it and it's really detective fiction (to which he alludes) decorated by obscure poets, post-modern non-referentialism; a train of thought wrapped round his little finger. And of course it's not true because I do like Bolaño, but whether I like him or not didn't seem to be the issue, the issue was that the only thing I wanted to do at that moment in that city at that point in the thing which is my life was sit there and read his story, his rambling, pointless stories.

Which is what I did. Then, when I finished it, I got up and I mooched on to the next stop, and wrote a note about 'poeticism' which was, of course, conditioned by the reading I had just done and the circumstances I found myself in.

The last story I had to read, or one of them, was Days of 1978. I read it in the queue for the Ryanair flight last night on the way out of Gerona airport. It's a bit of a treck from Gerona to Barcelona but I was glad I did it, if only to look out at the hills and the land where some of these stories are set. I got to the airport, it was evening, and stood for an hour in the queue. As I got to the front, the party in front of me, a stag party, suddenly quadrupled in size, as those who'd been drinking in the bar came to join the ones who'd been standing in line. It's the sort of thing which, after you've been queuing for an hour already, on too little sleep, can really get to you. Luckily I'd been reading the short story as I waited. It's about a Chilean exile from '73 who's tried to commit suicide, whom the narrator doesn't like. But they all meet at a party and the narrator, displacing the action as always, finds himself recounting the narrative of a Russian film, which makes the would-be suicidee weep, but not the narrator, of course, because Bolaño's narrators are like detectives, they recount, they observe, and if they weep they will only do it on their own. Anyway, part of Bolaño's power is that sometimes, everything just clicks, and a line releases all the displaced emotion, (it might be something you least expect, like the son crossing his father's path on the way down to the ocean in Last Evenings, or Leprince's rejection, or whichever moment you happen to stumble over), and I have a feeling that the moment when the would-be-Chilean suicidee starts to cry after hearing the narrator's description of the film, might have been such a moment, had I not been standing in the queue for an hour at Gerona airport. All that sadness locked up in that image, all the bits and pieces of life and the life we lead that go into the making of that fictional moment... I am grateful to the stag party of three hundred who queue-jumped me at Gerona airport. I am sure that under different circumstances it, his rambling story, would have had me weeping like a newborn.

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