Tag Archives: 2666

The Third Reich, by Roberto Bolaño

17 Apr

 

In La Universidad Desconocida, the collected poems that Roberto Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, brought together after her husband’s death in 2003, she includes in the foreword an unpublished piece called ‘My Literary Career’ that Bolaño had scribbled in anguish after receiving serial rejections from all the publishers of Spain, which he lists fastidiously, and then: “under the bridge, while it rains, a golden opportunity / to see myself for who I am: / like a snake at the North Pole, but writing. / Writing poetry in the land of imbeciles.” Clearly Bolaño was under no illusions as to the readiness of the literary world to embrace his work. The poem is dated 1990, a year after The Third Reich was written, in longhand. We do not know what plans Bolaño might have had for the manuscript, which by the time of his death he had begun to type out and tinker with: it may well have come into print in a completely different form. Or not at all.

Udo, a German board-games champion, takes his girlfriend, Ingeborg, on holiday to the same hotel he last visited with his parents ten years earlier, as a fifteen-year old. They meet another German couple, Hanna and Charly, and with the help of a couple of local no-good-boyos called the Lamb and the Wolf, they do the nightclubs and bars of the resort by night and lie on the beach by day. Charly turns out to be a bit of a liability, and following a mysterious incident in which he appears to have assaulted his girlfriend, he takes his surfboard out to sea and does not return. Hanna and Ingeborg go back to Germany but Ido, a loner and a nerd, stays on in the resort, ostensibly to wait for Charly’s body to be washed up, but actually to carry out a forlorn pursuit of the hotel owner, Frau Else. At this point the narrative wavers, becoming repetitive and somewhat listless, and although there are hints towards a darker centre, there is nothing particularly threatening about the local lowlife, not even El Quemado, the disfigured South American who rents out pedal boats, and whom Ido adopts as his opponent in the marathon board game that gives the book its title. There are vague allusions towards a deeper connection with Nazi themes – notably with Frau Else’s husband, a tall, moribund character who seems oddly prescient of the writer Archimboldi in 2666 – but they only lead to dead ends.

As it is, The Third Reich, despite the promise of the opening half, is a strange and ultimately unsatisfying book. It feels incomplete, but that is not the problem: what this novel lacks is that paradoxical sense of intentional incompleteness, the unwillingness or refusal to tie up loose ends (perhaps because they retain more intensity for being left hanging) that is a marker of Bolaño’s mature style.

Ignore the cover blurb’s suggestion that this is the perfect place to begin reading Bolaño: it is not, and anyone unfamiliar with his work would be much better off reading By Night in Chile or The Skating Rink, another novel modelled on the seaside town of Blanes, where Bolaño settled in the 1980s. If it were not for the fact that it is an early work by a highly marketable author The Third Reich would probably not have been published. But for Bolaño’s many fans it displays, in emergent form, some of the themes and tropes that would be more abundantly explored in The Savage Detectives or 2666. Like those two great works, it is beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer.

 

This review first appeared in The Independent, on 1 March 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blistering Blue Barnacles!

13 Nov

Buckwheat pancakes with maple syrup and bacon (the latter a rare commodity in the Blanco kitchen these days) all washed down with lashings of coffee made with real beans: what a way to start a Sunday. Not only that, but today’s is the ONE HUNDREDTH (100th) POST SINCE BLANCO BEGAN BLOGGING ON SUNDAY 10TH JULY THIS YEAR. HUZZAH!

Last night we went to see the Spielberg/Jackson production of Tintin (The Adventures of). Mrs Blanco and I were agreed that Captain Haddock (played by Andy Serkis with a magnificent quasi-Scots drawl) and Snowy (aka Milou) the dog stole the show. Tintin is always so damned earnest, but more alarmingly for me, bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Welsh novelist of my acquaintance, and he returned in a more complex hybrid form later, to haunt my dreams, a sort of Tintinesque literary prodigy ploughing the astral plains in search of Ultimate Literary Truth. God help us.

The Tintin stories, for all their being imperialist and racist (charges which no one in their right minds would dispute) created in young readers of my generation – long before the advent of gap years hanging loose on Thai beaches or trekking in the Andes – an ambition to see the world, to become an explorer of worlds. And this is what excited me from an early age. A Dutch student of mine once told me that her grandmother said that children who love the Tintin books will become travellers as adults, and those that don’t won’t. I have a suspicion that something of the kind might be true.

In the meantime I must refrain from embarrassing myself and my dear ones by coming out with exclamations like ‘Great Snakes!’ or ‘Blistering Blue Barnacles!’.

 

 

On a quite unrelated theme, I see the film of Owen Sheers’ novel Resistance will be out shortly, with an introductory talk by the author/scriptwriter at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff on Saturday 26th November, which I will miss as I am off to Mexico that weekend. In fact I was invited to Mexico along with the same Mr Sheers, who is clearly otherwise engaged – but I share with Owen a childhood fantasy – we grew up a few miles (but two decades) away from each other in the Black Mountains – both playing games that involved charging around in the bracken and ferns evading Nazis, something which I discovered quite by accident while chatting to Owen when we were doing a series of readings together in New York (and where Resistance - the novel – was getting its U.S. launch). What a perennial occupation this Nazi obsession must have been for boys growing up in the decades following World War 2: is it still? I have no idea. But how profoundly the mythology of Nazism has infiltrated our psychological as well as our historical agenda.

And this leads me to the third topic of the day, or the fourth if we include breakfast: the front cover of the Vintage paperback edition of The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell.

The picture shows a solitary German soldier walking down a country road in what I imagine is some part of the Soviet Union. If, as the acknowledgement claims, the photo was taken in 1943, the soldier is probably in retreat. In the background and to his side, across a field, are other soldiers, themselves walking alone. There is snow on the ground, and it is either still snowing or else there is a mist. The soldier is walking purposefully, and carrying a rifle over his soldier, so is not in a state of combat. I am fascinated by the photograph, and am trying to work out why. Is it to do with the solitary status of the soldier, knowing as we do the vast numbers of troops involved in the invasion of Russia and in its defence, the huge tallies of the dead that Littell’s protagonist Dr Max Aue recites ad absurdum in the introduction to his story? From what source does the poignancy of this image derive, and why does it affect me so?

I think the focus on the individual soldier is meant to reinforce Max Aue’s refrain that yes, he is responsible, he did the things which he recites, but that he was an individual in a chain of command, an infinitesimal cog in a massive destructive machine, and his question is, simply, what would you have done?

Or, more succinctly, in Aue’s words, it is “a fact established by modern history that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and pardon me, but there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was. If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and your children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person. Because if you have the arrogance to think you are, that’s just where the danger begins.”

The Kindly Ones, fastidiously researched (Littell spent many years on the project and read over two hundred books on the German occupation of the USSR alone) is without doubt one of the most extraordinary novels of recent times: I would place it, together with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 as one of the two most significant pieces of literary fiction in the 21st century, at least that I’m aware of. 2666 was written in Spanish, obviously, but Jonathan Littell’s book was first published in French as Les Bienveillantes in 2006 and won the Prix Goncourt. It is marvellously translated by Charlotte Mandell, and maybe I will write about it when I have finished (I am not quite half way through its 960 pages, but will stand by my current appraisal nonetheless), but in the meantime I am fascinated by the cover picture, poorly reproduced here, because I could not find a copy of the original, despite searching online through the Keystone/Getty archive, who apparently hold the original. If any readers know anything at all about this photograph, please let me know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post-canícula promenade

28 Aug

 

The howling of the village dogs has calmed down over the past week, due to the passing of the canícula (named for the dog star, Sirius, and its associated theme of mad dogs/midday sun, hence also ‘dog days of summer’) – that period of extreme heat that peaks here at some point between late July and mid August; and while it is now still hot, it is not unbearably hot. With this in mind I suggest to my friend and neighbour Joan Castelló that we might profitably do a hike from the monastery of Sant Quirze, near the village, across the mountains to Portbou. It seems a reasonable proposition, given an early start. We reckon we might even get to Portbou by lunchtime.

So, Joan, my daughter Sioned and I set off at 6.30, deposited at the monastery by Mrs Blanco, who has decided to sit this one out (on the beach, and somewhat later than 6.30), and we begin the calf-wrenching ascent to the first pass, Coll de Pallerols. Despite the mist, we arrive at the pass an hour later drenched in sweat, and I already feel as though I have spent an uninterrupted week in a Turkish bath, but having got this far there is no option but to press on. I keep wanting the mist to clear, as there are magnificent views across the peaks, and although the Alberas are small mountains compared with the Pyrenees of the interior, they are still dramatic in juxtaposition with the sea.

We pass small circular shepherds’ huts, a variation on a theme found all around the Mediterranean as well as in the British Isles, and just over half way, as the sun finally breaks through the cloud, we find ourselves in an enchanted deciduous woods, remarkable for those of us who live on the south-facing flanks of the Pyrenees, but common enough on the north-facing French side.

Following the border between the two countries for much of our walk, we start descending towards a point where the sea spreads ahead of us, spearheaded by a final mountain ridge, with Cerbère on the French side, and Portbou on the Spanish. The landscape provides a natural frontier, supposedly, (but not to the Catalans, who feel that both sides belong to them, rather than to either nation state).

It is at this point that a new feature has been added to the landscape: a large placard informing walkers in four languages that the renowned German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin passed this same way on his flight from the Nazis in 1940 (see post for 7 August). The route has been renamed ‘Passage of Liberty’. Fine words, but confusing too – since the passage to liberty was traversed in the opposite direction often enough during and after the Spanish Civil War. They must mean a flexible passage of liberty, bi-directional, depending on your fancy or the pressures of historical necessity.

I applaud the honours due to Walter Benjamin, but cannot help feeling the Portbou civic administration might be milking this one, perhaps in pursuit of a new strain of intellectual tourism, no doubt attracting Euro-funding at the same time as raising the little town’s profile considerably, especially compared with the cultural paucity of the resorts further down the Costa Brava. In fact ‘Literary Landmarks of the Costa Brava’ might have considerable market potential: already there is a new statue to the Catalan poet Josep Palau i Fabre at nearby Grifeu beach. How long before Blanes starts selling itself as the home of Roberto Bolaño, and turning the Botanical Gardens there into a Santa Teresa theme park with 2666-themed dodgem rides and a Savage Detectives Treasure Hunt?

 

Our walk ended, as we might have predicted, far later than we wanted it to, in far too much heat. Seven hours after setting out we staggered onto the beach at Portbou and fell into the sea.

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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