Monday, 23 March 2009

camera lucida [w. roland barthes]

It doesn’t feel entirely correct to be writing ‘a review’ of Camera Lucida or anything written by Barthes. This brief book, the last that he wrote, is one I’ve read various times over the years. I don’t know what made me return to it, but it’s slim and taxing and encapsulates the way in which Barthes writes in what appears to be a complex, intellectual fashion, but in fact his words are imbued with passion about issues of emotion, humanity, love and how we live our lives in our brief span.

Ostensibly this is a book about photography, about what makes a photograph a photograph (as opposed to a film or a chair or an ice cream.) Barthes analyses a range of photos, pursuing his personal reactions, trying to see what they have in common. This leads to a succession of observations about the way in which photographs function, and what makes, from his point of view, one photograph more interesting than another.

However, this leads him to the most important photograph he knows, which is one of his late mother as a child. The value of this photo is that it, in some alchemical way, for him, captures something of the essence of his mother, in a way no other photograph did. Barthes explores his relationship with this unseen photograph, which leads him towards the relationship between photography and death, the way in which the photo would appear to renege death, it becomes one of the only human inventions which can stand in its way. Whatever has been photographed has been, and its existence cannot be denied. Thus, the book becomes an investigation into the connections between time, death, memory and truth.

Without trying to summarise his thoughts in any great detail, its perhaps safe to say that Camera Lucida is also a requiem for his mother, and, given the irony of the fact that this is the last book he wrote before he died, himself. That the essence of a person should live on, that mortality can adapt itself through the interference of light on paper, (or now, pixels) is some kind of strange modern achievement, of which photography itself is barely cognizant. However, Barthes observes, even this is a deception, for photographs themselves fade, the ink receding with time, and the truth that is written in the arrangement of ink on a page is transient too. In this sense, it could be that photographs are a kind of liminal purgatory, a whisper of breath, of the soul, which clings to the material, knowing this is a futile gesture, doomed to obsolescence.

It is entirely fitting that there is no photograph of Barthes himself in the book. However, as he must have been aware, his words contain more of his self, whatever that is, than any photo ever could. But that’s another story.

gran torino [d. eastwood]

Clint. They love him here as much as anywhere. The 10.45 showing at Cine Punta Carretas is sold out, as was the screening before. When we leave the cinema, Ana asks me if I like Clint. And I genuinely can’t answer. I don’t know what I think. Clint is like the Grand Canyon, I say. He’s there. You can’t like or dislike him anymore than you can like or dislike the Grand Canyon. Ana says she’s never been to the Grand Canyon, and I acknowledge that neither have I. She doesn’t seem to think my theory makes much sense, but it’s the only one I have.

What you can say about Clint is that he knows how to make a film. He knows what you need, what you don’t need. You need a sympathetic if flawed hero with a journey to go on. You need others to learn from that journey. You need bad guys who will be overcome. You need lashings of Vietnamese food, men talking like men, and a shoot-out at the end. OK the last three aren’t essential. Gran Torino is both an affectionate paean to the fading frontier values of the United States, and a jaundiced side swipe at the way those values have become corroded by its consumer culture. In a way it’s a film that’s all about neighbourliness, and society, with the Huong Vietnamese community that has moved into Clint’s barrio possessing these virtues which his own white community has neglected. I could go on a tangent about child rearing in the affluent West in comparison to other, poorer parts of the world, but it’s not strictly speaking relevant.

At the heart of the film, as ever, is Clint, a figure who has become symbolic of something of which no-one’s entirely sure what. A kind of individualistic, libertarian icon, gun-toting, unafraid to use violence if he feels the need is there. And yet even this apparently self-evident image is undercut by the film’s closing sequence, where Walt rejects the way of the gun, and the audience isn’t given what they expect. Which could be construed as something of a betrayal by those who have bought into the image Clint has been steadfastly cultivating over decades (with the help of Leone).

Maybe Clint himself doesn’t know what to make of Clint, as he ages, a journey shared by his character Walt. When Walt talks about killing lots of men in the war, it could be Clint talking about the trail of bodies in his cinematic career. The way of the gun is seductive and efficacious, as well as being crowd pleasing, but is there a hint of regret for a career chiselled from the eyes of a figure who’s unafraid to kill?

Sunday, 8 March 2009

2666 (bolaño)

At one point in my university career, I read Foucault’s The Order of Things. (Les Mots et Les Choses). I don’t think it was part of the syllabus, I’d just become sufficiently possessed by the Foucault bug that I decided it had to be read. At a subsequent tutorial I sat down and said to the professor, Joanna Hodge, that I’d finished it. She looked at me, and I looked at her. There was a sort of silence, a sort of hmmm-filled silence. Which contained, it seemed to me, the knowledge that there was no real place to begin to discuss The Order of Things, a work so vast in its erudition, imagination and theoretical potential that it seemed to defy the initial stages of overview and reflection. The words to achieve this lay not within our grasp.

I’d like to think that we didn’t talk about the book at all, recognising the futility of any attempt, but I can’t remember the rest of the tutorial. I’d also like to think that when sentient beings sit down at their university tutorials to discuss 2666, a similar hmmm-shaped silence will pervade the preliminaries. Because this book is a monster. Una bestia, as they might say here. Fortunately I’ve had plenty of time to wrestle with the monster, because it demands time and effort of its readers.

Shortly before leaving England, Mr Blue called me and told me to switch the radio on. Someone was talking about the book. I switched it on too late, but was informed that the man on the radio had opined this was not a book to read on a plane. So I read it on the plane. And on the beach. And whenever I could find any down time between London and South America. I entered the strange land of Bolañismo, and lived to tell the tale, lugging the book around like a failsafe.

The first challenge of this book is that, unlike The Savage Detectives, it’s 5 books in one. None of which, save perhaps the last, have a traditional beginning or end. Which might make them all middle, but I’m not sure that’s right. The 5 books – sub-headed as The Parts About The Critics; Amalfitano; Fate; The Crimes and Archimboldi are connected by threads which are geographical and thematic. All are partially set in the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa; four of them feature the auto-didact German author Archimboldi. In all of them the smell of murder and sexual violence is never very far away; in the part about The Crimes it’s pervasive.

The part about The Crimes is the book’s anchor in so far as it secures Santa Teresa as the mooring point for the book’s diverse stories, but also in so far as its relentless description of brutal murder after brutal murder weighs the book down. It is true: this part is not airport fare. Rarely has reading felt like such an oppressive process. Bolaño traces, over the course of almost a decade, a procession of murders of women in the city. His account is based on the real-life sequence of murders which took place there. (About which there are now two films, one featuring J-Lo). Whether what the reader reads is an account of the real murders or not is another point of disconcertion. Did the writer really research every crime? Knowing where the bodies were found and how each woman was allegedly killed? And if not, how could he make it up? The elision between truth and fiction is disturbing. Furthermore, it feels as though the writer is in some way punishing his readers. Because the natural (humane) inclination of the reader is to expect some kind of resolution to the brutality, some assertion of hope, but none is forthcoming; the murders seem more a condition of life, like weather, than an aberration. This is how the world is, and the reader needs to accept it, or cast the book aside.

There are a great deal of literary references in the book, as always with Bolaño. Some of which I got, many of which I missed. The name De Sade does crop up, and at one point a Mexican general asserts that the fullest flowering of pornography occurred slightly before the time of The French Revolution. There is something Sadistic about the Part About the Crimes (with more than a hint of 120 Days Of Sodom). Furthermore it’s interesting where it’s located within the book. The opening three sections have already engendered a sense of fear for any female who goes out in Santa Teresa – a fear which the text plays on with the re-introduction of Amalfitano’s daughter in the part about Fate. So the extended description of the murders is not written to scare the reader, or invoke pity for the victims, which has already been done – rather it might be said to be there as an instrument the author uses in order to bludgeon the reader to death.


On which note, and because I both have the time and the book (it seems to me) demands that the time is taken, I shall pause, and head off to rehearse in the low-rise, Latino backstreets of Jacinto Vera, a kind of amiable mirror image to the hellish vision of Santa Teresa. And later attempt to talk a little about the other side of the book, the untethered strands which float away from the Mexican shipwreck, occupying warmer, Baltic, climes.


As ever, Bolaño writes about writers. Besides Santa Teresa, the book is also constructed around a mysterious, reclusive German writer, Benno von Archimboldi. The opening part, about The Critics, describes the quest of three academics who specialise in Archimboldi’s work to locate the writer, a quest which also takes them to Santa Teresa. Quite what the links are between Archimboldi and Santa Teresa is a question which will no doubt preoccupy academics studying Bolaño, who will find themselves heading to Mexico looking for the answers, and sometimes it feels as though the whole book has been written to manufacture this conceit. Bolaño writes brilliantly about writing, a subject closer to his heart, perhaps, than any other. His literary range is gigantic, his tread traversing peaks that many readers will never have heard of. There’s a kind of parlour game to be played, trying to spot the references, many of them contemporary. Is there a hint of McCarthy in Fate’s crossing of the border? There certainly appears to be suggestions of Pynchon in the book’s vast internationalism, but perhaps the connection merely goes with the territory. The similarities between Alan Pauls’ perverse, deranged British artist and the one who stalks the pages of the opening part about The Critics seems too co-incidental not to be some kind of homage, and on page 60 there is an indubitable reference to Rodrigo Fresan and his novel Kensington Gardens. This is not to mention the contributions of Goethe; Bely; Doblin; Shakespeare and the host of other writers who participate in one way or another. It’s no surprise that perhaps the most idyllic, least threatening, scene in the whole book takes place in a contented publishing house, where the employees happily swap notes about writers through the ages. As though the world of literature in some ways acts an antidote to the savagery of humanity.

The depiction of Archimboldi himself, so presaged by the book’s preceding six hundred pages, reflects Bolaño’s tenderness towards the literary. The foreboding giant doesn’t really live up to psychotic expectations. Here there’s an indication of the other side of the book’s tender nature; which is to create a space for the inarticulate, or the losers. Flawed character after flawed character is allocated their idiosyncrasies (none more so than the paranoid eccentric Amalfitano) and these are treated with great respect. Whilst Bolaño is a writer capable of articulating great menace, and literary caprice, he is also something of a patron saint of lost causes, the ones whose stories are seemingly lost to the world, recovered at the last.

En tonces… as they say down here. These are the last words of Bolaño, apparently, the great tome which was completed, or nearly completed, shortly before his death. Already the book would appear to be being canonised, in a manner which probably wouldn’t entirely displease him. He knew his worth, mas o menos. What does 2666 reveal in the end? Allowing that generalities are only assertions founded on stories which contain other stories which contain still more stories and so on. It tells us that great books don’t have to be neat and tidy. In fact, it probably helps if they’re not. Bolaño wrote two of them, and his second is fractured, like a broken body. Literature is not a precise science. It’s some kind of search, for some kind of something. Not for nothing is the detective novel his chosen model in both the Savage Detectives and 2666, where the reader is the detective, trying to assemble the clues both to solve the terrible crimes, but also to unlock the maverick authorial message. Literature is an offshoot of the world of literature, and though it is not essential to be aware of that, it might help. Culture, no matter how remotely, serves a purpose. The world, the one we know as humans, is a world composed of stories.