I think I could have listened to Francisco Goldman tell stories all night long, despite the heat raditating from over a hundred of us standing, eager Bolaño fans at Idlewild Bookstore Thursday night. While Goldman and Bolaño had never met – indeed, Goldman had not read Bolaño until shortly after his death – he effused passion for the subject of the night's talk and channeled their many mutual friends and admirers for a surprisingly intimate look an author who is taking on the near mythical status he's had for some time now outside of the U.S.
Bolaño might not have been too comfortable with this status, nor would his earlier fans, as Goldman says in an essay written for the talk:
“When Bolaño began to become the whole world's writer; when he was becoming—let's accept it, he did, regardless of how wonderful that was—New York literary fashion's writer-of-the-moment, it was as if something was being torn away from Aura” [who studied at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the backdrop for some of Bolaño's stories].
When Goldman and Bolaño translator Natasha Wimmer took questions later in the night, one person asked if there was a planned Bolaño biography, to which the answer was no, but I couldn't help thinking earlier when Goldman outlined Bolaño's life that I had read it all already, in his novels and stories – at least the part before, as Wimmer pointed out, he spent 20 years in a house in Blanes, Spain, writing. This is where the night led us, talking about Bolaño's short and rather extraordinary life; his voracious reading, his generosity to other writers after “becoming the whole world's writer,” and the incredible work he did after the first diagnosis of the disease – a result of years of heavy drinking and drug abuse – that would kill him a decade later. But as Goldman said, “that is the end of the story of the body.”
The story of the work, or perhaps its trajectory, might be summed up best by the poem by Bolaño Mr. Goldman read to kick things off, which biographically showed a writer battling the duel demons of time and history, writing as a “radical way of living,” as Ms. Wimmer wrote in an essay for the talk. If Savage Detectives was his Huckleberry Finn, one of two “titanic” books for Bolaño, then 2666, Goldman pointed out, was on the scale of Moby Dick, “Melville's giant book of God and Death.” This might be why the book is so popular: it's a “book of grief,” it's “human,” it's “dark.” Mr. Goldman said he'd never read anything “with such velocity,” and in the above mentioned essay, a very personal essay, he returns after his own wife's death time and again to Ingeborg's death in 2666, quoting from one of the many passages that seemingly could have been the beginning or the end of the book,
“'We're in a place surrounded by the past. All these stars…' and she draws his attention to the stars: All this light is dead,' said Ingeborg. 'All this light was emitted thousands and millions of years ago. It's the past, do you see? When these stars cast their light, we didn't exist, life on Earth didn't exist, even Earth didn't exist. This light was cast a long time ago. It's the past, we're surrounded by the past, everything that no longer exists or exists only in memory or guesswork is there now, above us, shining on the mountains and the snow and we can't do anything to stop it.'”
Of course if you've read 2666, you know that passages like this were not necessarily the norm, there were many styles of writing and much very matter-of-fact reportorial writing as well. Ms. Wimmer was surprised at how uniformly positive the reviews were for 2666, but singled out Adam Kirsch's review for Slate where, paraphrasing Proust, he wrote:
“One proof that we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly. Only minor writers write beautifully, since they simply reflect back to us our preconceived notion of what beauty is; we have no problem understanding what they are up to, since we have seen it many times before. When a writer is truly original, his failure to be conventionally beautiful makes us see him, initially, as shapeless, awkward, or perverse. Only once we have learned how to read him do we realize that this ugliness is really a new, totally unexpected kind of beauty and that what seemed wrong in his writing is exactly what makes him great.”
Aptly, then, when she earlier asked Mr. Goldman why he thought Bolaño chose the Ciudad Juarez murders over something more fantastic or political, Goldman answered that Bolaño's writing, as opposed to the Boom generation's response to political issues which was writing of extreme aestheticism (“a mis-reading of Borges, in some sense”), took on his subject with “eyes wide open.” Wimmer wrote in her essay for Words Without Borders:
“He didn't set out to do this just to prove something, to experiment, or to make some nihilistic statement. As he said many times, writing was for him a radical way of living, and thus he had to find a vital and arresting and, in some ways, anti-literary approach to fiction.”
This “anti-literary” approach included though, in the case of 2666, a great deal of “pastiche and literary references.” This makes work difficult for a translator, especially “The Part about Fate,” she said, “A black reporter from Harlem (where Bolaño had never been) going to the fights in Mexico” (and one audience member pointed out the great originality of some of Bolaño's jokes that must have been hard to translate). Despite having gotten used to his writing while translating Savage Detectives, this was still challenging. Goldman, admiring her heroic effort asked if she wasn't exhausted, if she wouldn't next “translate the Bible into Lithuanian!”
There were several questions on translating (perhaps, I wondered, if Bolaño was a hero to novelists, if Ms. Wimmer wasn't also a hero to translators for the book's breakthrough), but in response to whether or not we “are entering a new era where translation is respected” she demurred.
Many people think of the exiled writer when they think of writing as a “radical way of living,” but when asked about that, Goldman and Wimmer rejected the notion, saying that he would have thought the idea of the exiled writer “too cute, too pretty” – he's quoted as saying “Spanish is my country” – and in fact, unlike in the time of Joyce, Bolaño was able to make great use of email to stay in touch with friends from Mexico and elsewhere, and more importantly, bombard them with frequent emails about details of places people and things for his writing; “what does this building look like….”
Is 2666 unfinished? one questioner asked. Ms. Wimmer answered that it was only months away from completion and if it was incomplete you wouldn't really know it, but Mr. Goldman added that there were “so many things to tie up” [in the novel] that it would be “impossible to finish, thankfully.”
Francisco Goldman's essay can be read here. Natasha Wimmer's essay can be read here.
Photo Credit: Bud Parr
This discussion was part of Words Without Borders' “Conversations on Great Contemporary Literature” series held on the first Thursday of the month. The next event will be on Thursday, January 8th (the second Thursday) when translator Stephen Snyder and Allison Powell will discuss Yoko Ogawa's “The Diving Pool.”