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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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Picture it: three mild-mannered academics are having dinner together in London. They’re literary scholars who have deeply bonded over a shared love for an obscure author. The conversation turns to collegial romance, and the two men begin to press their female colleague on whether or not she has fancied a third man known to all. As they drunkenly continue the lewd discussion in the back of a cab, the driver, a Pakistani immigrant, overhears them. He is not pleased. Suddenly the Pakistani declares that the woman is a “slut” and the men are her “pimps.” After a shocked silence, something terrible happens.
This is a scene from Roberto Bolaño’s momentous last novel, 2666. I was reading it just days after the 2008 edition of Book Expo America, where I had reverently acquired a galley. The book would go on to become a huge best-seller, a critical grand slam, and a winner of a prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award. It is truly a great novel, but as I read this scene, I could not believe what Bolaño had written. The things the academics were about to do to this cab driver were completely out of character—they were so unthinkable that it seemed like a bizarre error, a rare lapse on Bolaño’s part.
But more and more it has stuck in my mind as prophetic, all too accurate.
So here is what happens. Offended, the academics demand that the driver stop his car. He complies, coolly handing them the bill. This tense moment seems on the verge of fizzling when one of the men opens the driver’s door and drags him out. As if on cue, the beating commences:
as they delivered kick after kick, shove Islam up your ass, which is where it belongs, this one is for Salman Rushdie (an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mention seemed pertinent), this one is for the feminists of Paris (will you fucking stop, Norton [the woman] was shouting), this one is for the feminists of New York (you’re going to kill him, shouted Norton), this one is for the ghost of Valerie Solanas, you son of a bitch, until he was unconscious and bleeding from every orifice in the head, except the eyes.
Bolaño wrote this in roughly 2003. When I encountered it in 2008, I honestly thought the worst of this was behind us. Civilized, educated Westerners wouldn’t do that sort of thing any longer. But increasingly I have seen that in fact Bolaño was foretelling our future. He had intuited some deep resentment that was beginning to assert itself in 2003, and was maybe a little more visible in 2008, and is now becoming monstrously unleashed in 2017, this year of astonishing animosity toward Muslims, Mexicans, and many others.
As a writer, Bolaño was obsessed with the way fascism had immigrated to South America after it was defeated in Europe. His shorter novels tend to deal with what fascism became in places like Chile, but in 2666 he seems to imply that perhaps fascism has become globalized. The book is stuffed with fascism, albeit not in the sense of goose-stepping thugs and authoritarian leaders, but rather in the texture of daily life. That is, 2666’s fascism is found in the upwelling of deep-bred hatred that makes these meek men beat a taxi driver to within an inch of his life. A sort of fascism that has become profoundly embedded in the culture of educated, economically powerful, liberal democratic nations.
I have thought more and more about this scene these past months, as we have seen Nazi-saluting creeps celebrating Donald Trump in Washington, purveyors of hate engineering incidents designed to provoke violence and chaos, and the spiking of hate crimes and other forms of racialized violence. I have been brought back to this scene as it has bit by bit been demonstrated that the racism at the heart of Trump’s campaign was decisive in his win, and as our President now defames Mexicans, insults Muslims, incites rage against outsiders, and even uses the name “Pocahontas” to mock a United States Senator. I have thought about this scene, and I have thought how Bolaño detected the rot spreading through Ciudad Juárez long before it was dubbed “the most violent city on Earth,” how he was among the first to zero in on the unique horror of Juárez’s femicide epidemic, and how he was brave enough to turn these nice academics into enraged barbarians.
Thinking of these things called to mind Bolaño’s reflection that “literature is basically a dangerous calling.” Let me quote Bolaño in full on this:
A writer’s country isn’t his language or isn’t only his language . . . There can be many countries, it occurs to me now, but only one passport, and obviously that passport is the quality of the writing. Which doesn’t mean just to write well, because anybody can do that, but to write marvelously well, though not even that, because anybody can do that too. Then what is writing of quality? Well, what it’s always been: to know how to thrust your head into the darkness, know how to leap into the void, and to understand that literature is basically a dangerous calling.
When Bolaño says that literature is dangerous to its practitioners, I think it goes back to the state of mind one would have to be in to create characters like 2666′s academics: decent, liberal, incredibly well-educated Westerners who are capable of spouting out feminist pieties while nearly murdering an immigrant with their bare hands. It would touch upon the levels one would have to exist on in order to be sensitive to the inchoate rage that was circulating through Western culture and would soon find itself concentrated in the hateful campaigns of the likes of Donald Trump, Theresa May, Marine Le Pen, and others. Let us not forget that 49 percent of white college graduates were angry enough with the status quo to choose Donald Trump for President.
A writer’s duty is to see as much of the truth as possible of the society he or she inhabits, and often this is dangerous. Not simply dangerous in the sense of journalists like Ben Jacobs, who in May 2017 was assaulted by a candidate for Congress he was covering, or the many other journalists who have been threatened by Trump and terrorized by his supporters at his rallies—I mean dangerous in the sense of having to get close enough to the darkest sides of a society that it begins to infect your mind. This is precisely what Bolaño did, and anyone who has read his literature knows that it left a profound impact.
Bolaño, of course, saw much more of the worst of humanity than should anyone in a single lifetime. He was born in Chile, and he fought for the regime of Salvador Allende just as a coup d’etat forced the suicide of this democratically elected president in favor of a dictator. (Bolaño narrowly escaped with his life.) All of this happening while neighboring Argentina—which had descended into fascism itself with its president Juan Perón—was mutating into one of Latin America’s most hideously grotesque and murderous regimes. He then went to Mexico, a nation that was being ruled by (as Mario Vargas Llosa once called it) the “perfect dictatorship.” And he ultimately settled in Spain, which had just recently relinquished the last vestige of fascism in Europe, a nearly 40-year reign. Given his experiences, it is unsurprising that Bolaño was preternaturally sensitive to a society’s incipient fascism and the darker aspects of humanity.
You can make a very strong case that fascism is the center of Bolaño’s massive literary project. Just to name a few larger examples, we can start with the aforementioned 2666. Then we have By Night in Chile, which deals profoundly with how fascism fled Europe and took root in the New World. Distant Star brings us face-to-face with what fascist evil looked like on the ground in Chile, bringing together avant-garde art and political torture. Amulet deals with a woman who is terrorized during one of Mexico’s darkest episodes, the massacres of hundreds of citizens following major political protests in Mexico City in 1968. And Nazi Literature in the Americas is a sort of endeavor to form a gallery of the petty little men and women who use fascist politics and/or techniques to chase literary fame.
Part of the reason we read Bolaño in America is that his life experiences, and his literary errands, gave him enormous insight into how fascism lurks in a society. This is a subject that has long fascinated Americans—think of the popularity of Upton Sinclair’s 1935 novel about a fascist president, It Can’t Happen Here, as well as Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winner All the King’s Men, George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Philip Roth’s massively bestselling The Plot Against America.
What does Bolaño add to this question that an American author can not? Perhaps Bolaño was the only writer who could give us such deep insight into the nature of political evil while filtering it through the minds of would-be artists who are dominated by a sort of nostalgic romanticism. What this amounts to is a mapping of the difficult, but extraordinarily rich terrain where the most noble aspirations of art overlap with the most perverse aspirations of politics. (And here, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, a remarkable inquiry into the similarities between the rise of German avant-garde music and the rise of Nazism, is essential.)
This union of fascism and art has important lessons for us today. When our unbelievably surreal president—who effortlessly conjures enormous lies, changes his mind unpredictably, and breaks all norms of the office—is often compared to a performance artist; when purveyors of outrageous, dangerous lies like the right wing radio personality Alex Jones take cover behind the title of “performance artist”; and when the worst truths of our contemporary politics are frequently uttered by talented comedians who base their newscaster personae off parodies of clown-like Fox News hosts—at such a time, it seems that the overlap of art and politics is something important for us here in America.
So I would like to ask, which of our writers will do as Bolaño said we must and thrust their head into the darkness? I do not know that there is another way to find certain truths we must hear about our nation. These are not things you will read in the newspaper or see debated on CNN. They do not come from a politician’s mouth. They are not the sort of truths that science will unveil to us. They only come into existence when a writer is working at the edge of things, when their language is being used to articulate the highest degree of literary truth possible—writing that contains more truth than even the writer necessarily realizes. Bolaño gets it just right in his story “Dentist” when he says:
The secret story is the one we’ll never know, although we’re living it from day to day, thinking we’re alive, thinking we’ve got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn’t matter. But every damn thing matters! It’s just that we don’t realize. We tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, we don’t even realize that’s a lie.
We must have writers who are sensitive to the secret story. I do not know exactly who these writers are, but I can tell you that they will be, like Bolaño, citizens of the world who can live up to the words, “A writer’s patria or country . . . is his language.” They will be deeply knowledgeable of the history of political systems, and they will have an intimate familiarity with contemporary politics. They will also care deeply about people—about what motivates them, how their minds work, what drives them to passion, and what makes them terribly afraid. And I think they will be the sort who can grapple in the deepest possible way with these rightly famous lines of Bolano’s:
A poet can endure anything. Which amounts to saying that a human being can endure anything. Except that it’s not true: there are obviously limits to what a human being can endure. Really endure. A poet, on the other hand, can endure anything. We grew up with this conviction. The opening assertion is true, but that way lie ruin, madness and death.
Writers Who Have Shown Us the Secret Story
Roberto Bolaño (tr. Natasha Wimmer)
The Neapolitan Quartet
Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)
Thomas Mann (tr. John E. Woods)
Texas: The Great Theft
Carmen Boullosa (tr. Samantha Schnee)
Seiobo There Below
László Krasznahorkai (tr. Ottilie Mulzet)
The Handmaid’s Tale