Tag: Fascism

Roberto Bolaño: The Leak of Literature, the Leak of Youth

by on Aug.30, 2010

I’ve just begun reading the “new” Roberto Bolaño short story collection The Return, which includes one of my favorite stories of his, “The Prefiguration of Lalo Cura”, of which more in a future post.

What fascinates me about Bolano is his leaking, improbably proliferant and then unpredictably attenuated narratives. Like saints’ bodies or putrefying corpses, these leaking textual bodies issue two twin substances: literature and youth.

Literature itself has magic and improbable qualities in these stories. In Nazi Literature in the Americas, the Fascists copy themselves over in literature, so that an account of their genealogy is equivalent to an account of their literary output. In Distant Star, the Fascist pilot-poet writes airplane poems in the sky [NB: it transpires that this invention of Bolaño’s appears to be an inversion of the anti-fascist poet Raúl Zurita’s heroic real-life ploy of petitioning Pinochet’s Air Force to skywrite poems, a proposal that made it high up the chain of command before being swatted down.  Zurita’s project was itself an inversion of the military’s own project of dumping the bodies of their victims into mountains and oceans from airplanes—of which more in Action Books’s new publication Song for his Disappeared Love by Raúl Zurita, trans. Daniel Borzutzky—check it out, Bolaño fans!]. Less spectacularly but no more plausibly, the ex-pat  Chilean gangster in the first story in The Return, “Snow”, has read all of Bulgakov in Russian because his Soviet girlfriend liked Bulgakov. The initial narrator of Savage Detectives hasn’t a clue about what’s going on around him, or even about literature, he says, but can rattle off literary arcana to (literally) put his workshop instructor to shame. His youth directs him to arcana, his experience of this arcana blocks out experience of the historically present “world”, and in turn ensnares him in an alternate world of literature and murder.

In the opening pages of Amulet (my  absolute favorite of Bolaño’s books so far–but he seems to be writing more from beyond the grave like Cègeste)– the heroine, Auxilio Lacouture (from Montevidayo—I mean Montevideo!) introduces herself the mother of Mexican poetry not to assert an aesthetic matrilineage but because of her protective relationship to the waif-like young poets themselves:

“I am a friend to all Mexicans. I could say I am the mother of Mexican poetry, but I better not. I know all the poets and all the poets know me. So I could say it. I could say one mother of a zephyr is blowing down the centuries, but I better not. For example, I could say I knew Arturito Belano when he was a shy seventeen-year-old who wrote plays and poems and couldn’t hold his liquor, but in a sense it would be superfluous and I was taught (they taught me with a lash and a rod of iron) to spurn all superfluities and tell a straightforward story.” (1-2)

This sarabanding quote is occultly beguiling. Lacouture says more than enough, all while repeating an interdiction not to speak at all (“I’d better not.”) Her statements exist only in the subjunctive (“I could”) but remain syntactically unsaid. Meanwhile, as her narration is showing itself to be gushy and excessive, ”superfluous”, as it says everything, including its own interdiction, we get a mini-portrait of Belano (the author’s double) who leaks text and liquor (and, by implication, vomit, piss, and perhaps blood from barroom fights). That is to say, he leaks youth. And youth, too, like an unkempt story, is superfluid, fluent, “superfluous.”  Both literature and youth flow or leak beyond requirement.

This kind of excess appears at the intersection of youth and writing when Lacouture describes her relationship to the young poets of Mexico City: “[….] I had a kind word for each of them. What am I saying: a word! I had a hundred or a thousand words for every one of them.” The excess of the words is twinned  by the excess of the young writers:

“[T]o me they were all grandsons of López Velarde, great-grandsons of Salvador Díaz Mirón, those brave troubled boys, those downhearted boys adrift in the nights of Mexico City, those brave boys who turned up with their sheets of foolscap folded in two and their dog-eared volumes and their scruffy notebooks and sat in the cafes […]and they gave me their poems to read, their verses, their fuddled translations […]

Here beyond plausible patrilineage the boys anaphorically multiply, coming out of literature like ants surging up from woodwork. Then again, their own writing doubles and multiplies all around them—the proliferant “foolscap folded in two” ,” volumes,” “notebooks,” themselves proliferating into “poems, ” “verses,” “translations”. A kind of exponential multiplication of boys and text surge all around these pages.

At the end of this book, Lacouture renders two stunning visions which seem to twin for each other. One is of literature, spreading itself unsteadily into the future, surging and lapsing and relapsing:

“Virginia Woolf shall be reincarnated as an Argentinean fiction writer in the year 2076. Louis-Ferdinand Céline shall enter Purgatory in the year 2094. Paul Eluard shall appeal to the masses in the year 2101.

Metempsychosis. Poetry shall not disappear. Its non-power shall manifest itself in a different form.” [159]

This vision of literature’s ‘non-power’, which goes on for several pages, is twinned with another vision, a polar vision of the ‘ghost-children’ of Latin America marching down a valley and into an abyss:

“Their passage was brief. And their ghost-song or its echo, which is almost to say the echo of nothingness, went on marching. I could hear it marching on at the same pace, the pace of courage and generosity. A barely audible song, a song of war and love, because although the children were clearly marching to war, the way they marched recalled the superb, theatrical attitudes of love.”

In this passage, the song and the youth both leak and flow, become indistinguishable from each other, become substitutes for each other. The magical inter-persistence of both substances is evident in the final passage of the book.

“And although the song that I heard was about war, about the heroic deeds of a whole generation of young Latin Americans led to sacrifice, I knew that above and beyond all, it was about courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure.

And that song is our amulet.”

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