Roberto Bolaño, disappearances, and the Welsh

21 Jul

“To the south they discovered rail lines and slum soccer fields surrounded by shacks, and they even watched a match . . .  between a team of the terminally ill and a team of the starving to death, and there were two highways that led out of the city, and a gully that had become a garbage dump, and neighborhoods that had grown up lame, or mutilated or blind, and sometimes, in the distance, the silhouettes of industrial warehouses, the horizon of the maquiladoras.”

That is an extract from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, the epic novel that is largely concerned with a series of murders in ‘Santa Teresa’ – in actual fact Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez, the city which is now the world’s undisputed capital for murder, kidnapping and extortion. Bolaño’s book is eerily prophetic in fingering Juárez as the hell-hole of the universe, and exploring its grisly origins in that role as the place where hundreds of women – many of them workers in the maquiladoras, or sweatshops referred to above – were murdered or ‘simply’ disappeared. And yet the truth is that Bolaño never visited Ciudad Juárez.

There is a fascinating article by Marcela Valdes, titled  ‘Alone Among the Ghosts: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666’ in which the author traces the way in which Bolaño, while terminally ill, pursued his research for the novel by email correspondence with the journalist Sergio González Rodríguez, who had himself come close to being murdered – or ‘disappeared’ – for getting too close to some key people while investigating the murders for a Mexico City newspaper.

Disappearance is for Bolaño (pictured below), a recurring theme – the recurring theme of his fiction. In 2666 a running motif of the novel is the search for the novelist Benno von Archimboldi, who has ‘disappeared’ himself. More generally, the disappearance of young, gifted poets, like the Venegas sisters in Bolaño’s  Nazi Literature in the Americas or the Garmendia twins in Distant Star, or the Font sisters in  The Savage Detectives, becomes, by 2666, the disappearance of anonymous wage-slave immigrants knocking at the door of America with their shitty jobs in the charnel houses of international capitalism, their mutilated bodies slung out in the desert, left abandoned by roadsides and in ditches: this, we are told, is what has happened to the dreams of those Latin Americans, like Bolaño, born in the 1950s, who grew up amid dreams of poetry and revolution, and who saw their countries, in a series of interjections spearheaded by the CIA and Chicago School Economists, used as testing grounds for Shock Doctrine policies and oppressive regimes of the right.

A couple of years ago I had decided to write a piece on the theme of disappearance in the work of Roberto Bolaño when I received an email from the Argentine novelist Andrés Neuman (whose wonderful novel, The Traveller of the Century, will be published in the UK next year) which included, as an attachment, an essay he had written for a Buenos Aires magazine. In it Andrés considers Bolaño’s death as a disappearance, which is not so strange as it sounds since the two writers were close friends, and Andrés’ theme was that, five years after Bolaño’s death, it still felt to Andrés as though – with the huge posthumous fame that Roberto had accrued – he was the victim of some kind of macabre practical joke. The title and content of his article makes much use of the term ‘disappearance’ which for Latin Americans of Roberto’s generation, holds so much significance.

‘Disappearance’: it was a legacy from which Bolaño never escaped, and even though he had effectively become domiciled as a European by the time of his death, he carried that essential Latin American sensibility towards social injustice and radical change that marked his generation.

As a PS, and with all the best will in the world – I am, after all, a proud Welshman – I must share the lines from 2666 that made me almost haemorrhage with laughter when I first read them, and with which I will sign off today’s blog. They are from the fifth part of 2666, in which the young Hans Reiter learns about the people of Britain from his father, a World War One veteran:

“The Welsh are swine” said the one-legged man in reply to a question from his son. “Absolute swine. The English are swine, too, but not as bad as the Welsh. Though really they’re the same, but they make an effort not to seem it, and since they know how to pretend, they succeed. The Scots are bigger swine than the English and only a little better than the Welsh”.

Makes you wonder what the question was.

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