Tag Archives: Mexico

Bolaño and criticism

7 Dec

My last night in Mexico, after a quiet dinner with a friend, I dreamed a strange and involved kind of dream that, when I awoke, left an aftereffect of mystery and sadness. Bolaño was there; my friend also (who in fact knew Bolaño far better than I ever did) and we were in a city that felt like Barcelona, but might have been Guadalajara. It was cold. We were walking back from a party at dawn; myself, my friend and Bolaño. A car pulled up. The driver and the passengers all wore masks; wolfmask, pigmask, V for vendetta, something else. They offered us a ride to the next party, we said we’d rather walk. I don’t think we were going to a party. Near the cathedral a river was flowing and in the dirty brown, fast-flowing water was all the furniture of the city: desks, bookcases, refrigerators, lampshades, sofas, kitchen tables, dishwashers. I remember thinking it was important to remember all this, but when I woke could not think why it might be important, nor what happened next.

So when I get home I start reading through a book of interviews with Bolaño, interviews I have read before in Spanish and am now reading in English. There are a few silly mistakes in the translation of one of them. And then I notice a passage that I remember from before, I mean remember having noted it the first time I read in, in the original. Bolaño is answering a question about the relationship of writers to critical writing:

Literary criticism is a discipline that represents more for me than literature. Literature is prose, novel and short story, dramaturgy, poetry, and literary essays and literary criticism. Above all, I think it is necessary that there be literary criticism – without accident – in our countries, not ten lines about an author the critic will probably never read again. That is to say, it’s necessary to have criticism that mends the literary landscape along the way . . . I view criticism as a literary creation, not just as the bridge that unites the reader with the writer. Literary critics, if they do not assume themselves to be the reader, are also throwing everything overboard. The interesting thing about literary critics, and that is where I ask for creativity from literary criticism, creativity at all levels, is that he assumes himself to be the reader, an endemic reader capable of arguing a reading, of proposing diverse readings, like something completely different from what criticism tends to be, which is like an exegesis or a diatribe. For me, Harold Bloom is an example of a notable critic, although I am generally in disagreement with him, and even enraged by him, but I like to read him. Or Steiner. The French have a long tradition of very creative critics and essayists who are very good, who illuminate not just one work but a whole era of literature, sometimes committing grave mistakes, but us narrators and writers also commit errors.

If we ignore a couple of mistranslations (what can he have meant by “without accident”?; “narrators” is better translated here as storytellers or even novelists) this passage reflects a fairly radical approach whereby Bolaño sees critical writing as not simply an extension of (or a parasite upon) ‘creative writing’ but as an essential component of it. His writing is full of writers and of critics (one thinks especially of the four literary scholars in Part One of 2666) and there is throughout his work a sense of a writer observing himself at work. This accounts in part for his apparent indifference, at times, to the actions of his protagonists – the kind of utterances that populate his work, that go like: “he might have said so-and-so but equally he might have said such-and such”; “she took the book from the table, or was it the photograph, I forget, and held it tightly to her chest”  (no, these aren’t precise examples, I don’t have time to search, I have to go to work, but you get my drift): it seems at times as if Bolaño is a writer observing himself ‘doing writing’. I am not sure if this is the same as meta-fiction, it probably is, and there is certainly an element of detached self-criticism. (I should find genuine examples if I am to do this properly, otherwise I will end up writing a blog that consists of a dream and a series of suppositions about Bolaño’s writing that uses examples I have made up). But what strikes me more than anything is Bolaño’s generosity of spirit towards criticism, of viewing it as being part and parcel of the same enterprise upon which we are embarked as writers, and to which he urges us to return. This is why he emphasises that critics should “assume themselves to be the reader”, something which is clearly not the case in a lot of academic criticism. When writers write criticism there is, it seems to me, a greater consideration of the work as something to be read rather than, for example, as a statement of intent, a reflection of a particular cultural factor such as the exploitation of women by men, or an examination of social class in 19th century London. This is not to say that these considerations are not important, but as a part of the whole, as a part of the reading experience itself, which tends to get neglected in a focus on the particular.

Bolaño’s comments on Bloom and Steiner are particularly interesting, since these two critics have been the object of sustained attacks by the mafia of literary and critical theory, and yet, in my experience, are the kind of critics (along with Blanchot and Bataille, for example, from the French contingent) favoured by many writers of my acquaintance, at the expense of scholars more favoured by the academy. But maybe this is not the case, I’m not sure.

 

 

 

 

Books and guns in Guadalajara

2 Dec

One of the great pleasures of the Guadalajara Feria del Libro is the spirit of festivity and celebration. Being a Latin affair, the partying is intense and persistent. Fortunately for his readers, Blanco is a restrained sort of chap these days, and since time is limited, would prefer to have a quiet meal with friends rather than to go off on reckless jaunts into the rosy-fingered dawn. However on Tuesday night there was a big do at the house of the Book Fair President, Raúl Padilla, and I went along, easing past the ranks of some very frightening bodyguards into the fabulously well-furnished salón, to enjoy a buffet of epic proportions, and to eavesdrop on the spirited banter of the guests. There is a bit of a bun fight as to who will be invited to be the host country (this year it is Germany’s turn, and next year Chile). There has never been an English-speaking nation, but Ireland are working on a bid for 2013, which might be fun.

 

Blanco with Wendy Guerra and Andrés Neuman

 

Blanco was also able to meet up, quite fortuitously, with two of his favourite Spanish-language writers, both of whom he recently translated for Poetry Wales, the enchanting Cuban Wendy Guerra (who has just brought out a fictionalised account of Anaïs Nin’s time in Cuba called Posar desnuda en La Habana) and the no less gorgeous – and brilliant – Andrés Neuman, whose prize-winning novel Traveller of the Century will be available in English translation in February (published simultaneously by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA and Pushkin Press in the UK).

While talking of favourite writers, I must confess to having met two of my literary heroes, neither of them well enough known in the Anglo-Saxon world, but giants in Latin America. I was introduced to Juan Gelman, the finest Argentinian poet of his generation and a strong contender for the Nobel Prize. Gelman’s is a complicated and tragic story, the essentials of which can be read here, but if you have not read him, please try the excellent translations by Katherine Hedeen and Victor Rodríguez Nuñez in The Poems of Sidney West, published by Salt.

The novelist Sergio Ramírez – who was vice-president of Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution of 1979, but has since seriously fallen out with the corrupt regime of his onetime-comrade, Daniel Ortega – is perhaps best known for his own powerful and moving account of the revolution, Adiós muchachos but his short stories and a couple of his novels are available in English also. The two of them were enjoying a few tequilas, so I didn’t hang around, but Gelman was very genial, and seemed genuinely pleased when my friend told him I was working on a selected poems of Joaquín Giannuzzi into English (forthcoming with CB Editions).

Strangely enough, I didn’t find out Wednesday night, but the week before the Book Fair there was a mass execution carried out in the city, and the bodies of 26 men, bound and gagged, were found in three trucks only a mile from the Expo Centre where the Book Fair was held (read more here).

Since the Book Fair was celebrating its 25th anniversary the joke was going around that they had chosen to murder 25 and one for luck. Or something. Just to give a signal. It illustrates perfectly the precarious balance of daily life in Mexico today; the contrast between the genuine warmth and hospitality of the Mexican people and the horrific and appalling violence that erupts with such regularity, and which so profoundly colours the outside world’s perception of this fascinating, dangerous and beautiful country.

 

 

 

 

 

Dog-throwing in Zapotlanejo and other rare feats

30 Nov

Blanco is renowned for his benevolent nature and willingness to engage in Good Works, especially the healthful encouragement of youth (or what employers insist on calling ‘community engagement’, or even worse, in the university sector ‘impact factors’ – I can barely believe I am saying this) so it will come as no surprise to learn that my visit to the Zapotlanejo High School was a resounding success.

Despite admitting to a certain nervousness in my last post, once the nettle was grasped – or the cactus, more appropriately – everything went swimmingly. First I had to meet the mayor of this small provincial town for handshakes and the obligatory photo session, and received a gift of a history book detailing the beginnings of the Mexican revolution – the war of independence against the Spanish – which was fomented in this region, we set off for the school, where, escorted by two stunningly elegant pupils garbed in regional costume, and to a deafening fanfare of trumpets, such as greets the toreador entering the bullring (I kid you not dear reader) I was introduced to my audience of 16-17 years olds..

Blanco with escorts

The reality was far more pleasant than a corrida, and less bloody. After the usual embarrassing introduction, from the headmaster, I managed to blather on fitfully in Spanish for twenty minutes on the theme of ‘being a writer’ or ‘how I became a writer’, and read a couple of poems, which the English teacher, Carlos, delivered in translation. By which time I felt I’d said enough and opened it up to the floor, rather a dangerous move considering the reluctance of teenagers to be seen to respond positively under these strenuous circumstances. But they reacted marvellously, humouring me – or perhaps even taking pity – by bombarding me with civil, intelligent and even (from one gangster youth near the back) with considerable wit. The most astute question came from a young fellow in a hoodie who asked, more or less, ‘how do you know, when you get to the end of a page, that the words you have chosen are the right ones?’ Most of the kids laughed at him, but I thought it was rather perceptive, and said dammit, that’s what bothers me all the time, jolly good question my lad. So all the kids who had laughed were then booed by the kids who liked the hoodie kid. And so on. We all had a grand time. They had even made a Welsh flag especially for the occasion and some of my new fans posed with me for a picture afterwards.

El Puente de Calderón

My hosts insisted on taking me to a nearby Place of Historical Importance, where the first major battle of the war of independence took place, at Puente de Calderón. There, beneath the blazing Jalisco sun, I found out about the details of the conflict, explained to me by Carlos, and when I clambered through the scrub to take a picture of the bridge wondered if there were rattlesnakes – I was assured there were – and wondered yet again at the indefatigable capacity of our species to slaughter one another without respite. I also discovered a new addition to my collection of weird signs, which reads ‘Se prohibe tirar perros’, literally, ‘it is forbidden to throw dogs’, or less literally, to take them to the park and leave them there, a horribly cruel thing to do in any case, but one which encourages the formation of packs of feral dogs who then start to become a menace, as well as shitting everywhere, as Carlos explained. While there, we bumped into the local captain of police, a short but very well-built gentleman with many gold teeth. We fell into conversation and he explained to my hosts about a recent raid that he had led, and which had featured in the news. It involved an organised assault on a drug manufacturing laboratory and resulted in many arrests and a number of deaths. When they had finished, he told us, without any sense of false modesty or exaggeration, the ground outside the laboratory was carpeted with thousands of empty cartridges. He actually seemed a mellow-mannered, thoughtful fellow, but I wouldn’t want to get into a gunfight with him. ‘Mexico is a country of many faces’, said the history teacher, as we walked back to the car.

it is forbidden to throw dogs

So, my respects to local culture completed, we set out to eat at a fabulous restaurant where great slabs of meat and half sheep were skewered and cooked around a blazing fire of oak. We ate and drank to the tuneful accompaniment of a mariachi band. Then it was all over and I had to return to Guadalajara to conduct Literary Affairs and to star in an event called La Mirada del Vagabundo or ‘The Gaze of the Vagabond’. It was only when the event had ended and people started to queue up to buy signed copies of said book that I realised I ought to have brought some with me. Oops.

The Kindly Ones

29 Nov

Well, I finished The Kindly Ones on the way here, actually at a little eatery called One Flew South in Atlanta airport, the only place that wasn’t a McDonalds or a Dunkin’ Donuts. The ending was a bit of a let down: I won’t spoil it for you, but it is set in the Berlin zoo as the Russians finally take the city centre. The zoo has taken direct hits from Soviet artillery, all the animals are either wounded and bellowing or else roaming free, and Max, our narrator, gets himself into a bit of a pickle with the two rather odd Thompson and Thomson-style detectives who have been tracking him for half the book, on and off, for the alleged murder of his mother and step-father. Max conducts himself particularly badly, even by SS standards, but then he is a Lieutenant-Colonel by now, as well as quite barking. In fact his last memorable act – and this I must reveal, so stop here if you intend to read the book – is at a medal-giving ceremony in Hitler’s bunker, no doubt the last such ceremony the Führer officiated at. Max has been awarded other medals (he already has an iron cross first class for being bravely shot through the head at Stalingrad) but since he is one of the few senior officers not to have fled Berlin, they think he deserves another one:

As the Führer approached me – I was almost at the end of the line – my attention was caught by his nose. I had never noticed how broad and ill-proportioned this nose was. In profile, the little moustache was less distracting and the nose could be seen more clearly: it had a wide base and flat bridges, a little break in the bridge emphasised the tip; it was clearly a Slavonic or Bohemian nose, nearly Mongolo-Ostic. I don’t know why this detail fascinated me, but I found it almost scandalous. The Führer approached and I kept observing him. Then he was in front of me. I saw with surprise that his cap scarcely reached my eyes; and yet I am not tall. He muttered his compliment and groped for the medal. His foul, fetid breath overwhelmed me: it was too much to take. So I leaned forward and bit into his bulbous nose, drawing blood. Even today I would be unable to tell you why I did this: I just couldn’t restrain myself. The Führer let out a shrill cry and leaped back into Bormann’s arms. There was an instant when no one moved. The several men lay into me.

The effect of this passage is shocking to the reader, in part because up to this point (we are on page 960) everything that has happened has been feasible, if not historically authenticated; Max’s experience of the massacre at Babi Yar, the battle of Stalingrad, the shenanigans among the leadership, the ostracism of Speer by elements of the SS because he wanted to deploy concentration camp inmates as armaments factory workers rather than killing the lot – most everything is the book, other than the character of Max himself, is historically based: and then this marvellous touch, with Max biting Hitler’s nose. I was so surprised I nearly fell off my chair – Demay (or was it Demaine or Deraine?) who was ‘looking after me today’ in One Flew South, was discreet enough not to ask why it took me two hours to eat a portion of sushi – and I truly thought this was an audacious move on the novelist’s part, to have his character bite Hitler’s nose. After all this tension, the massive build up of suffering and terror and slaughter, to have the whole thing brought into close-up: the suggestion that Hitler was far from a perfect example of the Aryan race he sought to perpetuate; that indeed his proboscis indicated Slavic, possibly even more degenerate racial roots, was to Max, ‘scandalous’, serves to explode the tension in a surprisingly effective way. “Trevor-Roper, I know, never breathed  a word about this episode, nor has Bullock, nor any of the historians who have studied the Führer’s last days. Yet it did take place, I assure you.” I will not reveal how Max manages to get himself out of this final indiscretion, but it is quite reasonable that he does: and by this point anyway, you just want to get to the end.

Reading Jonathan Littell’s book, however, knowing how slow a reader I am, and the amount of time it has taken me while I might usefully have been employed reading other things has helped bring me to a decision: that for the next year I will only be reading short fiction and poetry. I don’t know if I can stick to it but we’ll see. If nothing else, I will acquire a new acquaintanceship with the short story, which will be fun, and certainly less exhausting.

But right now I must prepare some notes to deliver a talk to a hundred or so Mexican High School kids, on the theme of ‘How I became a writer’. Gulp. Why did I agree to this? I had the choice and could have said no. The truth is, I said it to accommodate the person who asked, at the time a distant an unknown Book Fair official. But what does it take to back out now? In future I  think I will cultivate a Beckettian or Pynchonesque silence on matters of self-disclosure – not easy if one is the author of a ‘memoir’. Truly, why put oneself through this kind of thing? But then again, after The Kindly Ones, it’s bound to be a doddle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Holy Coyote

29 Nov

What are the chances of bashing your head on the protuberant arm of the TV bracket twice in your hotel room in the space of ten minutes? The second time my head bled so profusely by the time I got to the bathroom I looked like an extra from a zombie/slash/horror movie. Never mind. I’ve moved the table where I type away from the wall now. As far as it can possibly go.

Today I was taken to lunch in El Santo Coyote restaurant, and in the shady garden (where, as usual, according to the sign, invasion is prohibited – please see my post from Montevideo on this recurrent theme) complete with waterfall, your man comes to the table with mortar and pestle made from volcanic rock and, after asking if you like your salsa hot or what, he begins to pummel it into shape before your eyes. With chilli, garlic, some variety of parsley, and then tomato. And hell, yes, it works.

The blurb on the menu of The Holy Coyote tells of the thirteen Sioux tribes and all that shamanistic stuff. I love it. All my Carlos Castaneda comes flooding back: I will meet my ally soon, or dance with coyotes into the dark chasms of forgetting. But probably not tonight. After the bump on my head I’m half way there anyway, forgot just about everything today, including my ticket for the Herta Müller dramatization/reading at the theatre. I’ve forgotten what else I forgot but will probably find out tomorrow if I manage to sleep.

As for the food from the north of Mexico – so not, strictly speaking, indigenous to Guadalajara – I take off my hat, the hat that would, if it existed, cover my poor skull. But since my literary activities don’t begin in earnest until tomorrow, and the sun is shining, it was good to look around and see what is what.

But without invading anything or anyone, if possible.

And before they serve you any lunch you must first answer the riddle posed by the two sacred dollies of the coyote shrine

 

 

 

 

 

Down Mexico Way

26 Nov

Over the next few days, the International Book Fair of Guadalajara will be taking place in Mexico.

Guadalajara is noteworthy for actually inviting numbers of that marginal group in the production of the book, the writer – rather than just the important figures, the publishers and literary agents, for whom these affairs are generally designed. Blanco’s previous visits to Book Fairs (London, twice, and Istanbul, once) apart from being immensely tedious, impressed on him the fact that writers merely represented the messy, grubby end of the publishing process, and if it were at all possible, the agents and publishers would prefer to dispose with them altogether.

Anyhow, the rather novel idea of inviting writers as a major feature of the thing has, contrary to expectations, meant that Guadalajara has gained the reputation of being far and away the most interesting of the world’s book fairs, so that is where Blanco is headed after receiving an invitation from the kind festival administrators back in September. It will involve giving a couple of readings, talking about The Vagabond’s Breakfast (if anyone is interested) and making a visit to a local High School where the students will be waltzed around Blanco’s eerily vacant warehouse of wisdom on literary matters.

Blanco was also told, by an informant who would prefer to remain anonymous, that on arrival at the Book Fair, participants are directed towards a discrete figure who will sell them peyote, the fiercely hallucinogenic recreational drug favoured by Carlos Castaneda’s guru Don Juan, and, with a markedly less spiritual dimension, the late lamented Hunter S. Thompson. This is in order to prevent the punters at the festival from getting hold of the wrong stuff, which I am assured can be very bad for the head.  But before anyone starts to fret, or worries that Blanco’s posts from Mexico might become a little, shall we say, confused over the next few days, let me assure you that he is in Guadalajara strictly for professional duties. Indeed, he will leave the recreational side of things to agents and other ne’er-do-wells.

But before packing my toothbrush, just take a look at Mr Scott Pack’s review of Holly Howitt’s unjustly neglected short novel The Schoolboybetter still, buy it yourself. It is, quite simply one of the most impressive first novels (written when the author was 22) that I have read in a long and grizzled career.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Into the Mystic

3 Sep

 

The motif of the ouroboros appears in the ancient cultures of Egypt, India, Greece and Mexico, and was of particular interest to European alchemists in the early modern era. Conventionally it depicts a serpent or a dragon eating its own tail, from the Greek oura/voros = tail-eater.  To the alchemists the symbol came to signify cyclicity, and thus, in a human context, self-reflexivity. In my beginning is my end. The idea of eternal return and intrinsic self-renewal. I am not quite a mystic, but many of my favourite poets were.

Now, the other day I wrote about labyrinths, another favourite topic, and quoted myself (although, ironically, I had forgotten from where): “an exit to the labyrinth marked entrance to the labyrinth”. Moreover, in the

catalogue to an exhibition on labyrinths that I attended in Barcelona last year, there is a short essay by Umberto Eco, in which, after discussing the difference between the uni-cursal labyrinth (in which there is only one route in and out, as in the illustration above) and the multi-cursal labyrinth or maze or Irrweg (in which there are alternative paths, all leading to dead ends: you can make mistakes, and may have to retrace your steps, but you will always be able to get out) he proposes a third type of labyrinth, the network, in which each point can be connected to any other point, which makes it possible to travel around for ever. And you never get out of the network: you keep going round and round inside.

This is all good, because leafing, as I am, through Marie-Louise von Franz’s excellent  Alchemy, I come across the following:

“One must remember the Ouroboros, the tail eater, where the opposites are one: the head is at one end and the tail at the other. They are one but have an opposite aspect and when the head and the tail, the opposites, meet, a flow is born, which is what the alchemists meant by the mystical or divine water, which is described as the meaningful flux of life.”

 

 

So, both the ouroboros and the labyrinth have served as representations of energy, of flow, and of the questing human soul, or at the very least as symbols of regeneration. They are linked in profound and deeply sympathetic ways.

And then, as if to confirm the last happy thought, I come across this fabulous video, titled Ouroboros. It seems a good place to leave these thoughts hanging.

 

 

 

 

 

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