Saturday, January 17, 2009

To Robert Bolaño, RE: "Nazi Literature in the Americas"


What would I say to you if you could really hear it? I'm not sure. I always tell myself not to be too effusive towards my literary idols, but I always break my promise--sending juvenile, unfinished poems with quaint dedications, like the one I sent to Kevin Young, "Ode to the Curator", written on a tram in Basel, but then later edited into something a little worse. He politely glossed over it in our subsequent correspondence, though, to be honest, I don't regret sending it. I wouldn't like to be the kind of writer who didn't worship other writers, and I think you may have agreed, even though the boys at n+1, who certainly understand your work much better than I ever will, seem to believe that for you, "literature is a helpless, undignified, and not especially pleasant compulsion, like smoking." Which makes sense to me (Smokers are intensely loyal to their brands, right? (I don't smoke.)) and you describe one of the writers in "Nazi Lit of the Americas" in similar terms: "Both reading and humiliation were to be constant features of his life." Your characters all seem resigned to their compulsion to write as if it were an addiction, an addiction that doesn't have any ameliorating effect on them as people, rather the opposite in fact, since for many, it's literature itself that leads them to fascism. "At one point you started and now you can't stop," n+1 goes on to say, and that's certainly true for me, though if you truly believed "lit = smoking" I don't think you would have produced such enabling material. Even in translation, I find your books irresistable, something akin to a narcotic for young writers. Who could not, after reading "The Savage Detectives", not want to be a 17-year-old poet in Mexico City? "The basic Bolaño aporia--literature is all that matters, literature doesn't matter at all..." - n+1. But if it already matters to you, to discover someone who creates characters who would die without it--how can I not want to be one of them also? To wish I'd been born early enough to be inside one of those tangential comparisons you make--"...he was accused of copying Eguren, Salazar Bondy, and Saint-John Perse..."--which, taken together, create not a canon but an entire universe that to be shut out of is almost like never existing. (I mean, if you, the definition of a compulsive reader, didn't see fit to mention a contemporary, what then?) The note n+1 concludes their piece with is sad, but I'm pretty sure you would agree with it: "People read less and less; worse yet, they're right to. It's clear that, besides the occasional small or large check, most writers--ourselves included--write out of vanity and compulsion. One believes in being a writer more it seems than in writing. What is it, again, you once had to say? And who supposedly wanted to hear it?" I have a slightly different take. I think you knew we needed to read these books, that somehow, literature was arriving quickly at its present state of atrophy, and those of us still hanging onto book culture would need a true believer, spefically a true believer who paints, as you do in this book, portraits of other (flawed) true believers. To show us that the life itself is worth living, even if it produces nothing more than its own rituals and rhythms, and may even, possibly, ruin our individual chances at happiness. I'll let you have the last words.

"And in the third novel, The Mute Girl, the major cities of Brazil are like enormous skeletons, while the villages are like little children's skeletons, and sometimes even the words are transformed into bones."

"Death found him composing the posthumous works of his heteronyms."

"Why are so many Nazis still alive? Take Hess, for example, who would have made it to a hundred if he hadn't committed suicide. What makes them live so long? What makes them almost immortal? The blood they spilled? The flight of the Book? A new level of consciousness? The Charismatic Church of California went underground. A labyrinth where Ernst and Leni went on fucking, unable to uncouple, like a pair of dogs on fire in a valley of sheep."

"He once wrote that penitentiaries and jail cells had been his Mississippi."

"...a day in 1973, fading irretrievably. And during the night Emilio Stevens gets up like a sleepwalker, perhaps he has slept with Maria Venegas, perhaps not, at any rate he gets up without hesitation, like a sleepwalker, and goes to the aunt's room, hearing the motor of a car approaching the house, and then he cuts the aunt's throat, no, he stabs her in the heart, it's cleaner, quicker; he covers her mouth and plunges the knife into her heart, then he goes down and opens the door, and two men come into the house that belongs to the stars of Juan Cherniakovski's poetry workshop, and the fucked-up night comes into the house and then it goes out again, almost straight away, the night comes in, and out it goes, swift and efficient."

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