Wednesday, 28 August 2013

the return [bolaño]

Another volume from the posthumous pen of. What to make of this collection, ripped from two volumes published in Spanish, Putas Asesinas and Llamadas Telefonicas?

I have no idea when these stories were written within the timeframe of the Bolano oeuvre. My hazard-a-guess would be they come from towards the end, rather than the beginning. The author starts to show a fascination with more colourful “characters”. Porn stars, footballers, a Parisian playboy, fashion designers. It might be that these stories, which seem dependent to a certain extent on the exoticism of their characters’ professions, do not work as effectively as those which adopt either a more neutral protagonist, or, the classical Bolanian trope, either a writer or the writer’s alter-ego. Belano or Bolaño appears in several of the stories. When he does it reminds us of what a skill it is to construct a self-referential protagonist without this seeming whimsical or self-indulgent. All too often, this device will lead (pace Amis) to something clunky and unconvincing. But when Bolaño makes an appearance in one of his own stories the voice, the turn of phrase, feels completely authentic. Of course, it is a voice from beyond the grave, but it almost feels as though the text was indeed written from that vantage point, the high peaks of death. One of the stories, The Return, is told by a dead man, but oddly the dead man’s voice here is less compelling than the dead voice of the author. Even though this is also the author’s voice and even though in the moment of writing the author was not, we imagine, actually dead.

Writing is by definition a self-indulgent process. The wife of a writer friend of mine once turned on him, telling him it was all masturbation. It’s a regular attack and, when the writer isn’t getting paid for their troubles, one that is not ungrounded. The writer plunges into the morass of their own mind, hoping to emerge with gems which, for some unknown reason, might be of interest to others. This is as much an urge as a skill, more an addiction than a virtue. What’s so beguiling about Bolaño is that the reader knows this is not a man who wrote for money  or even for fame. He wrote because he obeyed the compulsion to write, something that is detached from the industry of writing, an industry which includes the whole paraphernalia of criticism. That compulsion, shaped and honed through both practice and the act of reading, lead to the unlikely event of his books sitting in your hand, or your digital device. There might be thousands of Bolaños out there, unread, undiscovered, drowned under the weight of their unrecognised words. It is worth bearing in mind that, although his success is not entirely posthumous, it is largely so. Right up until the beginning of the end, this is someone who wrote into the void, unafraid, refusing to be silenced by the absence of an echo that might have marked the point which defined the writing’s raison d’etre.

The last story here is an account of a dream, a dream wherein he meets the poet Enrique Lihn. The story states that the dream took place in ’99. Lihn died in ’98. Lihn is therefore a ghost, although ghosts are allowed to roam free in our dreams, whilst real life ordains they remain on the other side of the crepuscular surface of ‘reality’. The story doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s just an account of a dream. It mentions the fate of another five authors who Lihn once nominated as the future voices of Chilean literature, once upon a time, all of whom have either died or seen their stars fade. What is the point of this story, this dream? It doesn’t possess the classical virtues of a well-rounded story. Yet it marks a completely satisfying conclusion to the collection of short stories. Because this is a ghost writing about a ghost. Who was also a writer. Literature, for all its masturbatory tendencies, is a death defyer. The writer, from the cocoon of his absence, maintains a presence. The universe of literature, just like the literature of dreams, resists the supposed laws of physics. The writers egotistical I triumphs. Bolaño, one feels in his writing, had a grasp of this, much as Homer or whoever else one wants to name did. Those writers who are not so much charging over the precipice of their society, as most do, for fame or fortune, but charging over the precipice of mortality. An altogether more audacious, Quixotian endeavour.

Monday, 12 August 2013

the last cowboys at the end of the world [nick reding]

The travel book is a strange beast. Of late I’ve enjoyed Stasiuk’s poeticised wanderings around the Eastern European hinterland. However, all too often, travel writing allows for someone connected enough to the publishing industry to fly in, sample a culture, offer their opinion, however well educated, and move on. Travel writing as an extension of the Sunday supplement. This tends to lead to an account which says more about the writer’s own culture than it does about the cultures he or she have chosen to visit.

Reding’s book is nothing like this. It would be harsh to even describe it as travel writing, although it recounts his journeys to Chilean Patagonia in the nineties. It reads more like a novel. Both on account of the engrossing narrative and also for the way in which this narrative succeeds in encapsulating the arresting, harsh changes which “progress” brings in its wake. Which is another way of saying that it touches on the grand themes of history post the industrial revolution, an ongoing revolution whose reach grows ever more pervasive as the world shrinks.

The book recounts Reding’s stays with a Chilean Gaucho, Duck (or Pato) and his wife, Edith, and their three children. Pato and his family live an isolated life which is not much different to the one lead for hundreds of years by gauchos in the Southern cone of South America. It’s a harsh life which Reding does his best not to sentimentalise. For all the beauty of the relationship with nature and the dignity of an existence which does not depend on possessions, it is also a life beset by boredom, superstition and alcohol. Duck possesses the kind of cowboy charisma which Hollywood stars aspire to. He can ride a herd through mountain passes, butcher a ewe in the flash of an eye and cope with anything mother nature wants to throw at him.

Only things are not quite what they seem. Were this the standard fare of travel writing we would be given a homily to gaucho life and its nobility and the writer would move on. Reding stays. He witnesses Pato’s alcoholic binges and the slow decline of his relationship with Edith. But even more heartbreakingly, he documents the way in which both tire of their rural idyll, with dreams of moving to the nearest town, Coihaique, a town which has been transformed by the arrival of Pinochet’s road. The hardship of living on the land proves too much and they leave. Knowing, in their heart of hearts, that the town is liable to destroy them. Just as the arrival of paved roads and later the internet, (the book hints, even if it was written before the digital revolution really took off), will end up destroying the itinerant gaucho existence. The gauchos, Reding seems to suggest, have become anachronistic. Modernity will change farming methods and destroy the very isolation that has helped to preserve their way of life. A way of life that Reding seeks to document, aware that it is ebbing away.

Hence the decision of Pato and his family to move to the town mirrors the societal changes that are occurring in Southern Chile. Although Reding has noted the downsides of their rural life, there is still something desperate about seeing humans stripped of their savage independence by the onset of progress. It may be a choice that Duck and Edith make themselves, but it is also clear they cannot fight history. The last line of the book, one that is self-consciously understated, comes like a hammer blow, a terrible vengeance on the part of modernity, that devil, for anyone who seeks to stand in the way of the road it is driving through nature.

Reding does the job of a historian and a novelist. He captures the dying of a light which few cared about in the first place. It is a beautiful, terrible story, one which succeeds in telling us as much about the shape the world has chosen to take as it does about the gauchos, their myths and their fading, compromised glory. The only question the book cannot answer is to what degree his own arrival, like the bearded white men of yore,  contributed to the changes in the perspectives of Duck and Edith. There is a hint of guilt, which is only to writer’s credit. He too is part of the destructive wave of change coming to Patagonia. As the tale unwinds you can smell the melancholy that cloaks the writer’s words.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

television [jean-philippe toussaint]

Television is another novel which inhabits the curious novella/ journal territory which seems increasingly popular at the edge of the latest modernist universe.

You, the reader, will accompany me as I take you on a stroll through my curiously disinteresting life. Which is nevertheless full of interesting details. In this instance, I am going to tell you about the monograph on Titian for which I have received a grant which permits me to spend the Summer in Berlin whilst my wife and kids are away but which I cannot motivate myself to write so instead I write about not writing it. Whilst also detailing my solitary adventures as a nudist bather, killing my neighbours' plants and generally not doing what I know I ought to be doing.

You might find it droll. You might find my observations on the role of television in contemporary life incisive. You might not. It doesn’t matter all that much. It’s only a novel after all. I don’t know if I am either droll or incisive. I might be. Sooner or later my wife will return and life will get back to normal and the time of this novel, called television, will have expired. A bit like a television program, in fact. Although I didn’t say that. You did.

I, the writer, not of the novel but of this review of the novel, if indeed it is a review of what can only barely be called a novel, have to confess that in this instance, I did find Toussaint and his meandering prose droll. At times I would even go so far as to say that it was even very funny. However, I would also say that Toussaint could be said to have succeeded in his ambition to create a commentary on the disposable role of television within a disposable society, because when I concluded the book, when I turned it off, it vanished from my mind almost as rapidly as, in the words of Mr Jagger, yesterday’s papers. Though not quite as rapidly. So perhaps it’s not like television after all. Perhaps the additional nano seconds are what make it literature. Entertaining literature, albeit disposable literature. But wasn’t literature once the equivalent of television? Before they had television? Maybe television is only literature in disguise. Or vice versa. And what about Titian?