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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Let’s Stay Together

posted by on April 19 at 14:23 PM

A few weeks ago, a friend introduced me to Roberto Bolaño. My friend handed me a copy of The Savage Detectives, Bolaño’s long Chilean novel about young poets in Mexico City. The first four sentences were exciting and fun:

I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.

But then things got a little dull. The story fell away into smoking pot, talking about girls, talking about other poets. My attention wandered. I picked up other books. (Daphne Merkin! I had no idea!) I felt bad about that. Not just because leaving one book mid-stream feels like a tiny breakup, but also because Bolaño is supposed to be all kinds of exciting. People compare him to Borges. I don’t see it.

Reading this review in Sunday’s New York Times (I know, I’m slow) felt like looking up an old girlfriend on myspace. Checking up, seeing what I’m missing, getting a flavor of the thing without having to actually do the work:

The best way to offer a sense of this writer might be to take a scene, and a sentence, from “By Night in Chile,” still his greatest work. The book is narrated by Father Urrutia, a dying priest and conservative literary critic, a member of Opus Dei, who comes to emblematize, by the novella’s end, the silent complicity of the Chilean literary establishment with the murderous Pinochet regime. In one episode, Father Urrutia is sent to Europe, by Opus Dei agents, to report on the preservation of the churches there.

Wow. It sounds like Bolaño and I got off on the wrong foot—Opus Dei and Pinochet trumps young poets with wispy mustaches any day. And then, when the character gets to Europe:

Father Urrutia discovers that the chief threat to the churches comes from pigeon excrement, and that all over Europe churches have been using falcons to kill the pests. In Turin, Father Angelo has a fearsome falcon called Othello; in Strasbourg, Father Joseph has one named Xenophon; in Avignon, the murderous falcon is named Ta Gueule.

Pigeon shit—funny. Awesome. And then the actual sentence:

Ta Gueule appeared again like a lightning bolt, or the abstract idea of a lightning bolt, and stooped on the huge flocks of starlings coming out of the west like swarms of flies, darkening the sky with their erratic fluttering, and after a few minutes the fluttering of the starlings was bloodied, scattered and bloodied, and afternoon on the outskirts of Avignon took on a deep red hue, like the color of sunsets seen from an airplane, or the color of dawns, when the passenger is woken gently by the engines whistling in his ears and lifts up the little blind and sees the horizon marked with a red line, like the planet’s femoral artery, or the planet’s aorta, gradually swelling, and I saw that swelling blood vessel in the sky over Avignon, the blood-stained flight of the starlings, Ta Guele splashing color like an Abstract Expressionist painter.

That is a hell of a sentence. I’m going to give our relationship another shot.

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That's one of the more compelling moments in the book, all right. But Bolano had a habit of setting things up for reckless abandon and then letting all the excitement seep out in lengthy digression. The falcon/pigeon thing recounted, it just goes away unless you want to do the work of wondering what it all might mean on your own time. You just have to sign on for that.

Posted by MvB | April 19, 2007 2:36 PM
Posted by MvB | April 19, 2007 2:40 PM

Julio Cortazar's Hopschotch is one of the best novels I ever read, but the first eighty pages or so are a horrible morass of young intellectuals lazing around talking about jazz. I can't believe I got through it, but when I did, there was all sorts of nifty stuff.

Posted by Andrew B | April 20, 2007 6:46 AM

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