Monday, August 17, 2015

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

 2666” by Roberto Bolano (first published in Spanish in 2004; English translation by Natasha Wimmer first published 2008)

            You have now seen me do this two or three times on this blog, and here I am about to do it again. I am about to serve you as a “Something Old”, unaltered from its first appearance in print, a review of mine, which appeared in another publication.
            Five years ago, an indulgent books page editor of the Sunday Star-Times allowed me much more space than newspaper reviews usually permit, to review Roberto Bolano’s 2666.  This was because I argued that the novel had already been a huge cultural phenomenon and I wanted to respond to it in some detail.
            My main grouch was what I call “premature evaluation”. I’m always on my guard when everybody seems all too eager to label a new novel a masterpiece. In my view, time is the only winnowing fan in the sorting of masterpieces. Wait fifty or a hundred years before you call a book a masterpiece. Only then will it have proven its enduring worth. In reading Bolano’s 2666, I was reacting in part against what I saw as excessive praise of the novel. I am fairly sure that my review was the longest review of this novel to appear in any New Zealand newspaper or magazine. I am also fairly sure that it received a (veiled) rebuke in one highbrow publication, where it was contended (without any reviewer being named) that “some people” hadn’t appreciated the novel’s many ironies.
            I do not have delusions of infallibility (despite some of the things I say on this blog). I know my opinions are perishable and worthy of no more respect than those of other informed people. I also understand that, when a lot of powerful reviewers and critics salute the high merits of something, it is hard for lesser critics and reviewers to contradict them.
            Anyway, for all its defects (and demotic style), here is my original review of Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which appeared in the Sunday-Star Times on 31 January 2010. As newspaper book reviews go, it is long; but it is shorter (and less analytical) than the reviews that usually appear on this blog. Having the space to talk about books in more detail was one of the reasons I set up this blog. If I were writing this review in a more specialised context, I might have quoted parts of the text to validate my views, and I would have handled it with a little more finesse. For all that, I still stand by this judgment. So here is my review:

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            Here is a massive problem for a reviewer – a book that comes so laden with praise that any criticism of it will seem impertinence.
Let’s explain.
            Roberto Bolano was a minor poet, born in Chile in 1953, exiled from the military coup there, who spent most of his life in Mexico and Spain. Though he was a fervent left-winger himself, he had a reputation for seeing South America’s leftist literary establishment as gutless, elitist and complacent. He was notorious for his fierce criticisms of the revered novelist Isabel Allende.
In the 1990s, needing to earn a living for his family, Bolano turned from poetry to fiction. He began to turn out dark, satirical and often oddly surreal short novels that gradually gained critical praise. But for the last four or five years of his life, we was working on something really big. In 2003, at the age of fifty, he died of liver failure (exacerbated by a history of drug abuse). He left behind him a huge, unfinished manuscript divided into five parts. His literary executors debated whether they should publish it as five shorter novels or one big one. They decided to go with the big one.
            2666 was published in Spanish in 2004. It was at once hailed by Spanish and Latin American critics and became a huge bestseller. Natasha Wimmer’s English language translation came out in 2008. The praise continued. 2666 was seen as the most stunning Spanish-language novel since Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, but completely different in tone from the old macho poseur. The Picador paperback edition quotes enthusiastic reviews by John Banville, Susan Sontag, Colm Toibin and Edmund White among others. The word “masterpiece” is frequently used. On YouTube I have accessed Spanish and Portuguese language promos, which sell it to readers in a style usually reserved for movie blockbusters.
            So here is a certified masterpiece, a critical and popular success. Now how dare I say, after making my way through its 900 pages, that I have not been knocked over in the tsunami?
            Let’s make it clear that I am not at all scared of long novels. In fact there are some that are among my best friends. Cervantes, Richardson, Balzac, Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy, Joyce, Mann, Morante – bring ‘em on, I say.
            But when I invest in 900 pages of fine print, I like to think that the author has actually realised his/her characters, actually believes in them and doesn’t just see them as pawns in an intellectual game. In 2666, I feel I am reading an intelligent, observant and often engaging intellectual game.
            Again, let’s explain.
            The title 2666 has nothing to do with the future and this is not a work of science fiction. (Apparently the title derives in an obscure way from an earlier work by Bolano.) The novel is set firmly in the twentieth century. At its core, it questions the meaning and purpose of literature and art in general in a world of material horror.
            The first of its five parts is literary satire. Four literary critics are on the trail of an obscure German writer, who lurks behind the improbable pseudonym Benno von Archimboldi. They think he is Nobel Prize material, but he hides from the public and virtually nothing is known about him. I read this section with a happy smirk. Bolano captures perfectly the fatuity of so much academic lit crit. The backscratching and bedding at literary conferences.  The bitching at other critics in snide articles in refereed journals. The whole academic catastrophe.
            So far, so satirical. But in the second and third parts we get something much grittier and more disturbing. First a Chilean critic, and then a black American reporter, are drawn to the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, where women are being murdered by the hundred. (Bolano has based this town closely on the real Mexican town of Ciudad Juarez and its real history of multiple unsolved murders.)
            Then we come to the third part, which really threw me.
            Across about 300 pages, Bolano gives us the details of all the women who have been raped, murdered and mutilated in Santa Teresa. There are side issues about a nutter who goes around desecrating churches, and vignettes of such fun things as rape and castration in an all-male prison. There is a subtext of Yanqui cultural exploitation and a milieu of drug cartels and casual violence. But it is the endless CSI-type descriptions of women’s naked and violated bodies which dominate. They go on and on and on. And on and on and on. And (in case I didn’t mention it) on and on and on, to the point where I became numbed and indifferent to them.
            Of course, this could have been Bolano’s intention. We get used to (or indifferent to) the most repulsive things if we experience them often enough. Perhaps literature is partly responsible for numbing our senses, so there’s another criticism of literature for Bolano to wave at us. But I can’t shake the sense that his overblown and overlong section could have been handled more concisely. Is it in fact evidence that the book hadn’t yet taken final shape when Bolano died?
            I’m not violating any reviewer’s code, or spoiling any secrets, by pointing out that the search for the serial killer and the search for the obscure German novelist, are connected. Obviously any reader will quickly understand that they have some connection, if they appear so pointedly in the same novel.
            The fifth part gives us the pay-off, placing the German writer in the context of the huge violence of the mid-twentieth century – Stalinism, Nazism, the Holocaust – and then twisting the story back to Santa Teresa for intentional comparison. Again, there are all those finely tuned questions about the importance (or utility) of art in a world of horrors. Is literature really a trivial game? Or necessary escapism? Or something that ennobles the sordid? Or mere mystification?
            Yes, it’s much more subtle and complex than this sort of summary makes it sound. There is much dry wit among the horror. However with the frequent explicit sex as with the frequent explicit violence, Bolano does appear to be seeing how far he can push his readers before they choke. He may be critical of the literary game, but he himself is caught up in it.
            It’s important to add that the prose of this English translation is clear and readable throughout. My misgivings about 2666 are not misgivings about deliberate obscurity, which is often the case with self-consciously literary novels. It’s also important to note that these 900 pages may not be definitive. A news report says that a sixth part has been unearthed among Bolano’s papers.
            Still, while I found it often intriguing, generally readable and filled with interesting (if sometimes nauseating) detail, in the end I found 2666 an intellectual construct rather than a novel that engaged my sympathies and senses and enlarged my world. I would wait another fifty years to see if it was still remembered before I started singing the word “masterpiece”.
            I know this is a minority report, but there it is.

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