We All Just Want To Be Literary Rock Stars: Reading Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star

Title:  Distant Star

Author:  Roberto Bolaño

Translator:  Chris Andrews

Publisher:  New Directions, New York (2004)

 

Last weekend eight or ten books by Roberto Bolaño fell off a bookstore shelf and landed on my head.  Fortunately they were paperbacks.  But the not so subtle point was made that it was way past time for me to read Bolaño.  And so I picked-up a copy of Distant Star, shelved the rest and went home to read.  The following weekend I went back for Nazi Literature In the Americas.

Distant Star began life as the final chapter of Nazi Literature in the Americas. Bolaño, in a short introductory note, explains how his friend Arturo B. was unsatisfied with the story.  Arturo felt it should be longer and less dependent on the other stories in the collection; that “rather than mirror and explode the others, would be, in itself, a mirror and an explosion”. And so the two men spent “a month and a half in my house in Blanes, where, guided by his dreams and nightmares, we composed the present novel.  My role was limited to preparing refreshments, consulting a few books, and discussing the reuse of numerous paragraphs with Arturo and the increasingly animated ghost of Pierre Menard.”  The joke for those in the know: Arturo B. is Bolaño’s alter-ego.  Pierre Menard is a reference to the Borges short story – “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“.

Primarily set in Chile and beginning in the year 1971 – two years before the military coup which unseated then President Allende and put General Augusto Pinochet in power for the next twenty-five years – Bolaño renders a tumultuous period in Chilean history for readers.  Events are described by a first person narrator; a struggling Chilean poet* who recalls how he spent the years leading up to the coup attending poetry workshops with his best friend Bibiano.  In one of these  workshops, led by the Bolshevik poet Juan Stein, our narrator and Bibiano meet the lovely and talented Garmendia twins.  It is in Stein’s workshop that they also first encounter Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, the man who we are told will “revolutionize Chilean poetry”.  Ruiz-Tagle, we eventually learn his real name is Carlos Wieder, becomes a life-long obsession for our narrator.  He is the  bogeyman at the center of the novel –  tied to random acts of terror perpetrated by the Pinochet regime.  Even after our narrator becomes an expat living in France he continues collecting information on Wieder, as well as the other poets he left behind (the poetry professor Stein and his rival workshop leader Soto, Bibiano and the doomed Garmendia twins). He makes only a token effort to sort fact from rumor.  Most of the information comes to him incomplete, in bits and pieces. You get the feeling he’s filling in the gaps, himself, as he goes.

What happened next is uncertain.  Soto lost himself in the cathedral or cosmic transmitter that is the Perpignan railway station.  Because of the time and the weather (it was winter), the station was almost empty despite the fact that the 1:00 a.m. train for Paris was about to leave. Most people were in the bar or the main waiting room. Soto, for some reason, perhaps he heard voices, went to look in another room, some way off.There he found three young neo-Nazis and a bundle on the ground.  The youths were diligently kicking the bundle. Soto froze on the threshold until he realized that the bundle was moving, when he saw first a hand and then an incredibly dirty arm emerging from the rags. The tramp shouted, Stop hitting me. It was a woman’s voice. But no one was listening, no one except the Chilean writer. Perhaps his eyes filled with tears, tears of self-pity, because something told him he had met his destiny. Now he wouldn’t have to chose between Tel Quel and the OuLiPo. For him, life had chosen the crime reports. In any case, he dropped his bag and the books at the door and approached the youths. Before the fight began he insulted them in Spanish. The harsh Spanish of southern Chile. The youths stabbed Soto and ran away.

There was a brief article in the Catalonian newspaper, but Bibiano told me all about it, in a very detailed letter, almost like a detective’s report. It was the last letter I received from him.

Then one day, without warning, a detective arrives at our narrator’s apartment and asks for his help in tracking down Wieder.  Bibiano had sent him.  He, of course, agrees to help. Continue reading

Two Gothic Novels – Old & New

Château D’Argol by Julien Gracq, translated from French by Louise Varèse
Publisher: Pushkin Press, London (2013)
ISBN: 978 1 78227 004 1
The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
Publisher: Doubleday, New York (2014)
ISBN:  978 0 38553 815 2

Château d’Argol

Like real estate, a Gothic novel is all about location, location, location.  Whether it be a Southern Manse, a moldering European castle or a gloomy family estate – success ultimately depends on the setting.  Once an author gets that right everything else is up for grabs.  Hero or heroine? Truly horrid or amusingly satirical? Supernatural explanations or Scooby Doo ending?  No one cares as long as there’s at least one secret passageway.

Published in France in 1938, Julien Gracq’s Château D’Argol was influenced by the late German Romantics (taking as one of its themes the idea that genius is supernatural and unable to exist within societal norms) and the work of Andre Breton (to whom the novel was dedicated).  Albert is a wealthy, indolent and arrogant young man – an intellectual who espouses the philosophies of Hegel – who has purchased an isolated medieval castle on the coastline of Brittany.  A huge estate surrounded by a dark forest and near the water – Albert spends the beginning of the novella exploring it while he awaits the arrival of his best friend, Herminien.

Herminien, when he arrives, brings with him a beautiful young woman named Heide. Somewhat predictably a love triangle forms between the three. Heide, though, is not the apex of this triangle. Despite a promising start, where she intellectually holds her own with the two friends, she quickly assumes the role of an object to be passed between them. Each man using her as a kind of surrogate for the other.  Theirs is the true relationship driving the plot of Château D’Argol. Albert, particularly, is obsessed by his cynical and jaded friend.  His interest in Heide no more than an extension of that obsession. Herminian’s motives are harder to place. Heide is one in a long line of lovers – all of whom (according to Albert) are eventually treated cruelly and ridiculed.  How Herminian views Albert – the my impression is that Herminian does not possess Albert’s wealth or resources, making his motivations predatory.  The result is a dark, disturbing and violent tale.

The nature of the violence obfuscated by the flowery, antiquated language of the prose (reminiscent of William Morris’ work).* Château D’Argol features almost no dialogue.  Instead, metaphors saturate Gracq’s writing – descriptions of the landscape providing insight into the characters’ psyches.  His repeated reliance on metaphor to create tension can (particularly in today’s world of pared down prose) feel overdone.  And yet, in the context of a gothic tale – it works. The metaphors thicken the prose, imbuing it with menace, building layers of foreshadowing.  Nature is a harbinger.  The paragraph below eventually ends with Albert receiving news of Herminian’s & Heide’s imminent arrival.

The storm was raging over Storrvan.  Heavy clouds with jagged edges rushed out of the west, almost brushing against the tower, and at moments enveloping it in streamers of vertiginous white mist.  But the wind, above all the wind-filled space with its unbridled and appalling power.  Night had almost fallen.  The tempest, passing as though through a head of fragile hair, opened quick fugitive furrows through the masses of grey trees, parting them like blades of grass, and for the space of a second one could see the bare soil,black rocks, the narrow fissures of the ravines.  Madly the storm twisted this grey mane! Out of it came an immense rustling; the trunks of the trees, before hidden by the frothing leaves, were bared now by the wind’s furious blasts; one could see their frail grey limbs as taught as ship’s rigging. And they yielded, they yielded – a dry crackling was the prelude to the fall, then suddenly a thousand cracklings could be heard, a cascade of resounding noises drowned by the howling of the storm, and the giants were engulfed. Now the shower let loose the icy chill of its deluge like the brutal volley of handfuls of pebbles, and the forest answered with the metallic reverberation of its myriad leaves. Bare rocks glinted like ominous cuirasses, the liquid yellowish splendour of the wet fog crowned for an instant the crest of each forest tree, for an instant a yellow and luminous and marvellously translucid band shone along the horizon against which every branch stood silhouetted, and made the drenched stones of the parapet, Albert’s blond hair soaked by the rain, the cold wet fog rolling around the tops of the trees, shine with a golden gleam, icy and almost inhuman – then went out and night fell like the blow of an axe.

The elaborate style and tangled symbolism is more suited to a 19th century author than to one writing in the 2oth.  Gracq’s American contemporaries – Hemingway, Fitzgerald & Faulkner – had all published their modernist masterpieces a decade before.**  Joyce’s Finnegans Wake would be released a year later in 1939.  Even to readers in 1938, Château D’Argol must have seemed of another age.

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The Supernatural Enhancements also can be categorized as a gothic novel.  One updated to more suit our modern world.  Think Gothic Fusion. Edgar Cantero is  a Catalan author who writes in three languages: Spanish, Catalan & English. For this book he chose English and borrows from the idea of the Gothic novel only to quickly abandon it in favor of a DaVinci Code style puzzler.

The initial premise/setting is similar to Château D’Argol in that a young man, referred to only as A., finds himself in possession of a rambling estate.  A’s house is located in Virginia, left to him by a distant relative he’s never met.  He and his companion/love interest: a punk rock, teenage girl who happens to be mute (I feel as if there should be a more eloquent way to write that, but there you are) travel from Europe to America.  They arrive and  discover that A.’s relative died under sinister circumstances – by jumping out his third story bedroom window.  More distressing is the revelation that this particular mode of suicide runs in the family. The deceased relative’s father also committed suicide in the same way, from the same window… as may have his grandfather (I’m a bit fuzzy on the geneology). Regardless, our two protagonists soon discover that their new home is the meeting place for a secret society.  And that a ghost lurks in one of the bathrooms.  And that a general curse seems to hang over the place.  And if you think I just gave everything away, you couldn’t be more wrong.

The narrative is told through letters, journal entries, video recordings and interviews.  Every time you think Cantero has run out of plot twists another one appears.   Not always to the good.  The Supernatural Enhancements is entertaining at a very superficial level.  Cantero introduces so many characters, ideas and strange digressions (the book is a veritable encyclopedia on how to break a code) that when it comes time to wrap up the actual mysteries it feels very hastily done.  I half expect there to be a sequel (which I doubt I will read).

The Supernatural Enhancements did make me wonder: what would a true 21st century gothic novel look like?  Val McDermid’s redux of Northanger Abbey?  Anne Rice’s  The Witching Hour (a good, stand-alone book though I found the other two parts of the trilogy unreadable) and  Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind trilogy occurred tome, but are out of the running if only because of the periods they are set in.  There needs to be technology included in the plot in a meaningful way and more of a sense of a global world – something Edgar Cantero attempts to incorporate into The Supernatural Enhancements but which is overwhelmed by minutiae.  Or is the contemporary gothic novel already here?  The purview of the Sci-Fi / Fantasy author?

What do you think, readers – Have you read any good gothic novels lately?

 

*Gracq  referred to Chateau D’Argol as a “demonic” retelling of Percifal.  The Grail Legend was a favorite among the Pre-Raphaelites who surrounded Morris.   Not to mention influential in Morris’ own writing – particularly his classic fantasy novel The Wood Beyond the World.

**The Sun Also Rises (1926), The Great Gatsby (1925) & The Sound & The Fury (1929).