Category Archives: Bolano Roberto

A Little Lumpen Novelita: Roberto Bolaño

“I knew in the kingdom of crime there were many stages and levels and no matter how hard I tried, I would never reach the top.”

“Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime,” and so begins Roberto Bolaño’s book, A Little Lumpen Novelita. It’s an intriguing beginning to an intriguing story. Bianca and her younger brother are orphaned after their parents are killed in a car accident. They remain living in the family flat in Rome, but there’s not enough money to survive. The brother takes a job at a gym, while Bianca starts working at a salon. I’ll rephrase that: Bianca starts working at a salon while her brother says “it was stupid to work, that we could live happily on the pension we got from the government, on the income from our orphanhood.” But the budget is too tight, and so the brother who thinks he can go to eating just one meal a day, finally acknowledges they need money and gets the job at a gym.The brother dreams of being Mr. Universe.

The siblings drift into a life of apathy. It’s an existence; they “killed time watching TV, first the talk shows, then cartoons” They drift along until one day the brother comes home with two men he’s met at the gym. “One was from Bologna, the other from Libya or Morocco.” As the story progresses, these two men become interchangeable in more ways than one.

My brother had met them at the gym, where they did some kind of work that was never clear to me. Sometimes I got the impression that they were trainers, a job with a certain prestige, and other times that they were just sweepers and errand boys, like my brother. Either way, they were always talking about the gym–and so did my brother, with a fervor new to me–and about protein diets and meals with names that had the ring of science fiction, like Fuel tank 3000 or Weider energy bars (all the nutrients you need for the body of a champion!).

But soon Bianca is supporting herself, her brother and his two friends. The atmosphere and situation at the flat are bizarre. Everyone avoids confrontation, and yet there’s a definite silent chain of power combined with the threat of violence. Bianca’s brother is clearly afraid of these two men who have long overstayed their welcome. Then the three males hatch a plan to get rich, and of course, Bianca is the pivotal figure in this grubby scheme:

It’s best not to think about these things. They’re here, they touch us, they’re gone, or they’re here, they touch us, they swallow us up, and it’s best–always–not to think about them. But I kept thinking, waiting for the coffee to be done, and I asked myself what my brother’s friends meant by saying that their luck would change, how exactly they planned to change their luck (their luck, not mine or my brother’s, though in a sense their luck would have an effect–any idiot could see that–on my brother’s luck and maybe even mine), what they were ready to try, how far they were expected to go to get their luck and ours to turn around. 

Bianca is our narrator and she’s somewhat unreliable. She acknowledges that when she embarks on this life of crime her story gets “fuzzier.” Her tale is told in retrospect so how much is due to hazy memory, how much she’d just not rather think about, and how much is due to the inexperience (at the time) of youth, well it’s up for grabs. In some ways this story reminds me of Modiano, but it’s sharper than Modiano in its focus. But I liked this tale, and how Bianca crossed so easily into criminality. Bianca and her brother are both passive by nature, and once they find themselves involved in crime, swept along by forces more malignant than themselves, it seems up to Bianca to either pull the crime together or else make some decisive move to escape. This is beautifully written. Bolaño doesn’t fill in all the gaps for us; instead this is Bianca remembering a murky, desperate point–a crossroads in her life.  The tale illustrates how impossible it is capture a certain state of mind from an earlier point in life, why we made the decisions we did, and that impossibility goes a long way to explaining the tale’s murkier points.

Translated by Natasha Wimmer

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The Skating Rink: Roberto Bolaño

I’m late to the party on this one: Roberto Bolaño’s The Skating Rink has sat unread on a shelf for many years. While the story centres on a crime that occurs in Z, a small Spanish resort town, the plot essentially concerns a handful of local individuals who are locked into various relationships. Obsession rules more than one character, and conflicting desires send them on a collision course. The plot unfolds through three alternating narratives: writer turned businessman Remo Morán, itinerant Mexican poet Gaspar Heredia, and Enrique Rosquelles, a lonely, unattractive civil servant.  We know almost immediately that a murder has occurred, but, tantalizingly it takes almost the entire book for the identity of the victim to be revealed.

The alternating narratives are short–almost as if each of the men is being interviewed about the events that took place. Businessman Remo Morán has his fingers in several pies: he owns the local bar with its very heavy tourist trade, and he also owns a campground. Due to their old friendship, Remo gives the destitute Gaspar a loosely- defined job at the campground where he performs various tasks as a handyman/manager/night watchman of sorts.

Skating rink

While Gaspar becomes attached to one of the transient, damaged women at the campground, civil servant Enrique worships the beautiful, talented and devoted athlete: Nuria, the town’s skating star. According to Enrique: “all the world’s adjectives fell short of Nuria’s luminous form.” In his role as a civil servant, Enrique is able to approach Nuria and gradually build a relationship with her. When her grant from the Spanish Olympic Committee is cut, Enrique begins embezzling money from government funds, and he arranges for an ice skating rink to be built at the deserted Palacio Beningut mansion on the outskirts of town. So night after night, Enrique watches Nuria as she practices endlessly on the ice rink, nourishing his unrequited love, as he watches the woman he adores circling the ice:

Then it struck me that the Palacio Benvingut was an island of a sort, and I took Nuria there. I took her to my island. A large part of the facade is covered with blue tiles and so are the two towers that rise from the annexes. Navy blue at the bottom and sky blue at the top of both towers. When the sun shines on them, people driving by glimpse a blue flash, a blue staircase climbing the hills. First we observed the shining palace from the car, on a bend in the road, then I invited her in. How did I come to have the keys? Simple: the palace belonged to the Z city council for years. Nervously, I asked Nuria what she thought. She thought it was fabulous, all of it, fabulous. As pretty as Brooke Shields’ island? Much, much prettier! I thought I was going to faint. Nuria danced up and down the salon, saluted the statues and couldn’t stop laughing. We extended our tour of the building and soon discovered in the gigantic shed housing Joan Benvingut’s legendary swimming pool. Covered with filth like a tramp, the legendary swimming pool, which had once been white, seemed to recognize and greet me. Struck dumb, unable to break the spell, I stood there while Nuria ran off through other rooms. I couldn’t breathe. The project was born, I would say, there and then, at least in essence, although I always knew I would be found out in the end. 

However, unbeknownst to Enrique, while he may think he’s created an isolated private world for just him and Nuria, they’re not as alone as they think….

There were two elements to The Skating Rink that I really enjoyed: 1) Bolaño shows readers one again how much can be done with the subject of crime (and more than one crime occurs here). 2) Enrique is seen as a rather unattractive character–especially through the eyes of Remo, and yet.. when we read Enrique’s narrative, we see a much more sympathetic view of a lonely man who lives with his mother. He asks nothing of Nuria except to be in her presence. Ultimately he was my favourite character in the book. The obsessed are imprisoned by their single minded drive, and that’s made very clear by this novel.

And what of the elusive, intriguing Nuria? She’s the candle that two moths circle; men want to be around her and yet she’s single-minded in her devotion to her sport. There’s a lot to admire there: determination, dedication, willpower, and yet there’s also something missing or at least very deeply buried. Perhaps she’s spent too long twirling on the ice. Is she using Enrique or doesn’t she even notice his devotion?

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Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano

I’ve avoided reading Roberto Bolano–mainly due to the hype, but then I visited mookseandgripes recently and came across the title of Monsieur Pain,  released by New Directions. The plot, built around incidents in the life of Peruvian poet, Cesar Vallejo sounded intriguing, and since the novel is set in that rather interesting time of flux–Paris in the 30s, I decided what the hell and ordered the book.

Here’s the plot:

Monsieur Pierre Pain, permanently damaged from Verdun, and living on a small pension, is asked to assist in the case of Peruvian poet, Cesar Vallejo. Vallejo is dying from a mysterious ailment–the only outward sign of any sort of medical problem is persistent hiccupping. Pain, a practitioner of acupuncture and Mesmerism, agrees to help mainly because he’s romantically interested in the woman who begs for his help. But his efforts to help are thwarted at every turn, and over the course of the novel Pain only manages to visit Vallejo once.

One of the novel’s recurring structures is the labyrinth, and I understand that this is true of other Bolano novels. The labyrinths in Monsieur Pain are both literal (the clinic and the nightclub) and figurative (various plot complications). The clinic is seen as an intimidating institution–a place that’s chillingly impersonal.  Here’s Pain looking at the clinic before seeing Vallejo:

I looked at the facade of the clinic through the slightly fogged window of the taxi and understood that what lay behind it, more than anything, even more than madness, was solitude, which is perhaps the subtlest or at least the most lucid of the forms that madness can take.

Once inside the clinic (and dealing with suspicion from hostile staff members), Pain realises that the clinic is constructed to disorient its visitors:

Then we followed Madame Vallejo down grey and white corridors, with a metallic, phosphorescent sheen, blemished here and there by unexpected black triangles.

“It’s like a modern art gallery,” I heard Madame Vallejo murmur.

“The corridors are circular, in fact,” I said. “if they were longer we could reach the top story without ever having noticed the climb.”

 While the clinic is painted in bright whites and seems to be well-lit, the lights flicker in some spots:

 I also noticed that the lighting in the corridors, contrived in a cunning but mysterious manner, since the illumination extended uniformly even into the corners where the newcomer could see no trace of wiring or globes, was however varying in intensity; almost imperceptibly, at regular intervals, it dimmed.

Hospitals are never happy places, but the Clinique Arago in this novel seems to exude a sort of evil. While Madame Vallejo compares the clinic’s labyrinthine structure to the Tower of Pisa, Pain, who’s a very intuitive man, and incredibly sensitive to atmosphere senses something else….

Just as it seems as though Pain might actually help Vallejo, the plot becomes increasingly surreal. The novel’s initial mystery is ‘why is Cesar Vallejo dying?’ Novels usually present a mystery and then solve it (or try to), but by the conclusion of Monsieur Pain, the mysteries have multiplied. The plot develops, becoming more elaborate and obscure as it moves farther and farther away from its central mystery, and simultaneously the characters become more opaque. Pain becomes involved with a series of bizarre characters in a sequence of seemingly meaningless encounters. There’s a great deal of skullduggery afoot in this novel, and most of it is rather vague: Who are the two Spanish agents who appear to be so interested in the fate of Vallejo? Why do they go on about the “common good“? How do the agents persuade Pain to cooperate and accept a bribe? What exactly is Madame Reynaud’s role in the story? What really happens to Vallejo? The fate of Cesar Vallejo is swallowed up by mysterious comings and goings, surreal misadventures and bizarre characters who could very well belong in someone’s fragmented nightmares. The two Spanish agents are sinister yet they remind me of Tintin’s amusing duo Dupond & Dupont, and then there’s a peculiar pair of brothers who loiter in a cafe with a “jungle-like ambiance” and “Indochinese green” lighting while they dream of hitting the big time in America with their business: creating disaster scenes in aquariums. Here’s Pain looking at the cafe’s aquarium:

I went across to the tank. On the bottom, resting on a layer of very fine sand, were miniature boats, trains and planes arranged to depict calamities, disasters simultaneously frozen in an artificial moment, over which indifferent goldfish were swimming back and forth.

Pain initially notes an absence of bodies, but then upon closer inspection…:

for a few moments I was puzzled by the black spots standing out against the sand, scattered all along beside the train. Then I realized: they were severed heads or bodies buried up to the neck. A string of corpses, but, oddly, there were none inside the train, which apart from the effects of the water had come through unharmed.

I’m limited in my ability to describe the surreal in Monsieur Pain. Imagine Alice in Wonderland blended with Edgar Allan Poe, and that’s about the best I can do. I am not a fan of surrealism; I feel much more comfortable with 19th Realism & Naturalism. Monsieur Pain is a very clever novel, very well-written, with marvellous descriptions, but when I turned the last page, I felt a bit puzzled and cheated, and I found myself asking such unanswerable questions as: but what about…? What happened to…? Why does…?All questions with no answers–or at least the answers have become so obscured by events that the truth is impossible to decipher.

As I stand further back and consider this tale again from a distance, I find myself admiring it more than I did at its immediate conclusion. The circumstances surrounding the real Cesar Vallejo are murky, and the real story–whatever it may be–is impossible to untangle at this distance. Perhaps surrealism is the only way to make sense of a world in which there are no answers and no accountability. 

It’s impossible to forget that Bolano, supportive of Allende’s regime, ended up arrested after Pinochet’s coup. He narrowly escaped torture, but others were not so lucky. Perhaps it’s safe to say that Monsieur Pain is about as surreal as being disappeared from the streets of Chile (or rendered if you prefer that word) and finding yourself in some Chilean dungeon with a cattle prod up your rear end. Or then again perhaps it’s as surreal as turning on the television and seeing Pinochet smiling, shaking hands, and having a nice cosy little chinwag with Margaret Thatcher.  

And this brings me back to the staged “accidents” in the bottom of the fish tank and the periodic dimming of the lights in the clinic. Both incidents bolster the novel’s intense surrealism, and yet one man’s surrealism is another man’s reality. The ominous power surge that Pain notes in the clinic hints of a massive power draw elsewhere in the building, and this reminds me of the tales of torture, dimming lights and staged accidents found at www.desaparecidos.org

Perhaps if someone lives with knowledge of the disappeared, perhaps if you survive and live to see the torturers walk away free, well perhaps you always see things through that surrealist lens….

And this gives me new respect for surrealism.

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