south america

FICCIONES BY JORGE LUIS BORGES

I owe the discovery of El Matrero to Harper Lee. Five years ago I was spending the evening with my friend Renaldo Compostella, and, as was often the way, literature was our main topic of conversation. Renaldo, who always, or certainly more than I, kept an eye on forthcoming releases and bookish news, happened to mention the scheduled publication of a new novel by Harper Lee, the American authoress famous for To Kill a Mockingbird. The ensuing discussion was notable not for what we had to say about Lee and her work, but because it led Compostella to bemoaning the lack of specific details concerning the publication of the recently unearthed novel by Jorge Luis Borges. My friend, in so casually dropping this information into the conversation, must have thought that I was aware of such a discovery, but of course I was not. Borges wrote a large number of intelligent, speculative, metaphysical short stories, but he did not, to my knowledge, ever write a novel.

Compostella expressed surprise at my ignorance and asked me if I had ever read Ficciones, a small [roughly 140 pp] volume of the Argentine’s stories, comprising two collections, The Garden of the Forking Paths and Artifices, in which, he said, the novel was first referenced. I replied that naturally I had read it, but that I did not recall any mention of a novel, either within the text itself or within John Sturrock’s introduction. My friend laughed and said that I must have skipped the footnotes. I assured him that I had not skipped anything, and, as I had a hardcover Everyman’s Library edition [Alfred A. Knoff, 1993] in my apartment, I took it down from the bookshelf and handed it to him, with the instruction that he find me the relevant page.

Compostella opened the slim volume and, as is often the case when you pass someone a book, flicked through it, seemingly distracted from the matter at hand. Indeed, he was keen to talk about the story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, which he called a particular favourite. Compostella’s opinion was that it was about ‘Godlessness and playing God,’ which, despite my desire that he find the footnote in relation to Borges’ novel, piqued my interest. Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius involves Borges’ search for, or investigation into, a number of books that outline every aspect of an imaginary planet or civilisation, including their language, customs, psychology, and so on. It seems to me that the story is about many things, about language and how it directs thought, about the possibilities of human imagination, about mirrors and how different cultures are a distorted reflection of your own.

My friend conceded all of these ideas, but pointed out that prior to the invention of Tlön the only person responsible for the creation of a planet or civilisation was God; that if human beings start to create planets etc then God is unnecessary, because he becomes just another man. I was of course very interested in all of this, but, being aware that it was getting late, I had to draw his attention back to Borges’ novel. Compostella again flicked through Ficciones and came to a stop somewhere in the centre, in the middle of the story The Library of Babel. He turned one particular page, page 63, over and back numerous times. It is not here, he told me, by which he meant the footnote, which, he assured me, was present in his own first edition copy of Ficciones, but was evidently absent from mine. At this point I considered it a fine joke at my expense, and bundled my friend out of the door.

However, about an hour later my telephone started to ring. It was Renaldo Compostella. He told me that he had just arrived home, that he had dug out his copy of Ficciones, and had indeed found the footnote. Your copy, he said, must be subject to a printing error, or perhaps, as a later edition, the footnote had been expunged for reasons we can only guess at. I asked him to read to me the footnote, which, it turned out, was very short: ‘Very soon I hope to complete and publish my own novel.’ Although this information, this promise or tease, was certainly interesting, my excitement was tempered by the lack of concrete information. I reminded Compostella that Borges was a writer who consistently imagined unwritten books, often even outlining their plot, like in the story The Approach of Al-Mu’tasim. I also pointed out that part of his appeal is that he did not draw clear lines between fact and fiction, that one was never sure in his stories what was true and what was not, because nearly everything he wrote appeared plausible.

Moreover, Borges, so often described as an impersonal author, was actually the most personal, in that he almost always used himself and details about his own life as part of his fiction. So, it did not seem too much of a stretch to suppose that the novel he refers to is itself a fiction, an imaginary novel, and that the suggestion of its existence was part of a [not out-of-character] labyrinthian game he was playing. However, my friend replied that for years he had thought this too, but reminded me that it had recently been announced that the novel had been unearthed, and it was currently being readied for publication through Penguin in the UK and US. Well, this changed everything, of course. I asked him how I could find out more, and he said that if I googled Borges and El Matrero I was bound to turn up numerous articles, as the discovery was a big deal in literary circles. At this, I thanked Compostella and hung up the phone and switched on my computer.

After googling the recommended terms I was introduced to various articles, including pieces in the Guardian, The Independent, Le Monde and El País. However, according to the articles that were returned by my search El Matrero was not written by Jorge Luis Borges, but by Pierre Menard, a previously unpublished protégé of the Argentine’s. At first glance, this suggested that my friend had jumped the gun, and was not perhaps in full possession of the facts, yet, being a fan of Borges’ work, and having read all of his collections numerous times, I was aware that the name Pierre Menard features in Ficciones as the author of Don Quixote. The story, called, in Spanish, Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote, appears to be about a fictional French writer who re-writes Don Quixote word-for-word. The central idea being that this newer version, Menard’s, is richer than the original because it can be viewed in terms of more recent world events, by which we mean more recent than 1602, of course.

In light of these articles, I was forced to ask myself, did Pierre Menard actually exist? Certainly, while one would assume that he did not, as Borges claimed, re-write Don Quixote, this naturally does not mean that, if he did exist, for surely he is dead now, he did not write the recently unearthed El Matrero. And yet if he did write the novel, why exactly is this a cause for excitement? It is worth noting that the story in Ficciones featuring Pierre Menard is, at least partly, concerned with authorship and plagiarism, is about who, if anyone, owns a work. So one might wonder, as indeed does Caroline Hurst in the Guardian, whether Pierre Menard is simply a pseudonym for Borges himself, that Borges wrote the novel – El Matrero – as Menard, as one of his own fictional authors. Yet other commentators reject this idea, claiming, perhaps rightly, that as the footnote does not specify a title, or suggest a plot or theme, the novel referred to in Ficciones is not El Matrero.

Even after a more extensive internet search I could not turn up any information relating to a writer called Pierre Menard, except in reference to the Borges’ story that has already been discussed. Therefore, I decided to reread The Library of Babel, which, as already noted, Renaldo Compostella claimed contained the footnote that first makes mention of a novel by Jorge Luis Borges. The Library of Babel, or La biblioteca de Babel, imagines the universe as a vast library, which houses every possible book, featuring every possible permutation of letters, and which, as a result, will contain many volumes of pure gibberish but also every possible piece of information, including that relating to the future and to your own life.

If Compostella was to be believed, it would indeed make sense that it is here that Borges would mention the novel that he had apparently been working on, as it would, naturally, also exist within the library of Babel. However, the veracity of the information contained within the footnote now seemed even more doubtful. In the footnote, as passed on to me by Compostella, Borges mentions a novel that he hopes to complete and publish, but ‘hopes to complete’ only suggests that he has started it, when in fact he may not have put even one word down on paper. I may hope to complete a marathon, without ever taking part in the race. Furthermore, the library would of course still contain a copy of his novel, regardless of whether he had started it or not, because it contains copies of all books, past present and future.

Weary of mentally going round in circles without any real progress I put the matter out of mind, and vowed to wait for the publication of Pierre Menard’s work, El Matrero, hoping that this would make everything clear.

*

Postscript. Some months after the night described above, the novel El Matrero by Pierre Menard was published to rapturous acclaim, being voted the book of the year in many publications, newspapers, magazines. The critical praise was so intense that the public caught on, and Menard’s book was the year’s biggest seller. Indeed, Menard’s reputation became such that it was almost universally agreed that it was he, and not Borges, who had written Ficciones, The Aleph and so on, because only someone as talented as Menard could possibly have composed those stories. Jorge Luis Borges, ran popular opinion, was merely a pseudonym for, a creation of, Pierre Menard, whose life has become the subject of endless speculation.

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THE INVENTION OF MOREL BY ADOLFO BIOY CASARES

I misread ‘the intimate forms of address’ as ‘the intimate forms of sadness,’ and liked it much better.

At one time I could recite word-for-word, without the book in my hand, but now, as I read it, I make mistakes. Before I found the book I spent a long time looking at photographs, studying them. I would stare at the faces and try to gauge their mood. Who amongst them were happy? Those who are smiling? That seems obvious, of course; but who can say with any certainty? You cannot know anyone but yourself. Finding the book was a relief, a welcome distraction from the photographs that were becoming an obsession for me.

Start at the beginning? There are no beginnings. The book is called La invención de Morel and was written by Adolfo Bioy Casares and first published in 1940. Whilst the loneliness is sometimes hard to bear, at least now that everyone has left no one will point out that he was a close friend of Jorge Luis Borges. Moreover, with no one here to read what I write I do not have to worry about spoilers. It is possible to read the book as an adventure story, a detective or mystery story, a ghost story, a love story, or as a philosophical investigation. I have had time enough to enjoy it in every way possible.

I sometimes misread the title of the book as The Island of Morel. This is because it is written as though it is the diary of a fugitive who lands on what he thinks is an uninhabited island. Ah, from the start you are led to believe that this is no ordinary island, that it is ‘unhealthy, sinister.’ There are three buildings; the largest, the museum, is a kind of labyrinth, with hidden rooms, and strange aquarium flooring. I must admit that in my solitude these early adventurous chapters, that are so reminiscent of Conrad and Melville and Carpentier, none of whom I have access to, and which speak of a new land and new discoveries, are a source of excitement. There is nothing for me to discover here; everything is familiar.

I am not on an island. I hope I have not given that impression. No, I am at home. They left, I did not arrive. So one could say that my situation is the reverse of what happens to the fugitive, who suddenly finds his island has been invaded by a group of people. Here is the mystery. How did they get there? The fugitive did not see or hear them arrive. Who are they and why are they there? They appear to be tourists, or holidaymakers. Eventually the narrator focuses on one of them, a woman called Faustine. It has been a long time since I have seen a woman, except in photographs. Sometimes I find a photograph that features a beautiful woman, and I dream. These dreams are really nightmares, of course.

The fugitive and Faustine is, for me, one of the world’s greatest love stories, despite the fact that Faustine does not at any stage speak to, or even acknowledge, the fugitive. I have been alone too long; my heart has turned peculiar. One of the novel’s themes is recognition. How can life have meaning if you go unrecognised, or if no one will acknowledge your existence? What purpose does life have without human contact? Of course I have given much thought to these questions. Before everyone left I often ranted and raved about our need to be acknowledged, about how we [by which I mean humanity-at-large] spent all day posting our vacuous thoughts onto the internet for just that reason: for someone to see it and validate our existence. I no longer scoff at this idea. I write this now in the same spirit, even though I know that no one will ever read it.

Have you ever been in love? Was that love always reciprocated? Unrequited love could be said to define the fugitive’s relations with Faustine. He tries to catch her attention; she ignores him. This is painful, of course; it causes him to despair. He becomes bolder, takes greater risks – for one must remember that he is a fugitive, and the police are perhaps looking for him. Could Faustine be a trap? A sting? Is she, and the rest of the gang, working for the authorities? Love makes one crazy, they say. Or they once said; they have left, as I have to keep reminding you. But the fugitive must reach out. Ah, there we are: loneliness and the yearning for human companionship. No man is an island, although he may find himself living on one. ‘Hope is the one thing I must fear,’ says the fugitive. The hope that Faustine will love him in return, is what he means, of course.

Eventually the fugitive starts to doubt his own sanity. Is Faustine really there? If so why does she not respond? He reminds the reader that he eats plants and so forth that have been known to make him hallucinate. Is he hallucinating? Adolfo – I allow myself to address him familiarly, I know his work so well – wants the reader to think about the nature of reality. Ask yourself, is what a madman sees real? Is an hallucination real? Perception is a strange beast. If something feels real to you, then it is real, it is your reality. Consider: what if I am not the last man on earth, what if it is not the case that everyone left one day without so much as a solemn wave of the hand, and that actually I am in an insane asylum or I took some super-strength narcotic and I only think I am alone in the world? Does that make me any less alone? More importantly, does it make my loneliness less acute, less painful? If Faustine does not exist, does the fugitive love her any less? The book, to my mind, is at least partly about how, no matter how many people you have around you, you are truly alone; because the only person, the only thing, you can be certain of is you.

Of course, it could be that Faustine is a ghost. Or that the fugitive is a ghost. How tragic, to be in love with a dead person, with someone who you can never, therefore, touch or reach. The narrator mentions ghosts frequently; perhaps the island is enchanted? Perhaps, perhaps. As I read the book for the first time, many ideas, many interpretations occurred to me, as you can imagine. What qualifies the work as a work of genius – if I can use so lofty a term – is that it actually becomes more moving, more beautiful, more fascinating once you know what the twist is, i.e. once you finish and return to the beginning of the book and start again. Faustine and the rest of her troupe are not ghosts, nor hallucinations, nor the result of madness [or maybe they are – but we’ll gloss over that for fear of going round in circles]; they are…

No, no, I can’t do it….I can’t spoil it for…who? How strange that certain niceties and politenesses cannot be shaken off, how one maintains certain behaviours even though there is no one around to appreciate them. Morel, more is important. Love. Faustine. I still put down the toilet seat after using it. For who? For Faustine? My own Faustine has gone, is dead, most likely.

The invention of a man called Morel.

What is Morel’s invention? Ah, well, the invention is actually twofold: first of all, it is the story that the island houses a kind of disease that will kill you within two weeks. This story was invented by Morel in order to keep people away. Second of all, there is the physical, or, if you like, mechanical invention. How very clever you are, Adolfo. How I wish they hadn’t left so that I could praise your lovely novellita to them all. The fugitive is in love with…! Isn’t it beautiful? If you were to go back and read the book, with a certain knowledge in mind, wouldn’t the scenes with the fugitive and Faustine, scenes such as when he creates a little garden for her, wouldn’t they break your heart? But, wait, there’s more…

The Invention of Morel is about death, about immortality. Yes, it is. There’s something rather amusing about that: to be immortal, you must die! Maybe my sense of humour has soured somewhat due to my isolation; one finds it hard to tell jokes to oneself; one does not often find humour in empty streets and buildings.

I have consciousness but did my mother, my brother? My Faustine? I’m losing my thread…weariness overtakes me suddenly. Thinking is all I do these days, and so I regularly overtax my brain. Being alone like this I find that I do not think better, but much, much worse, less clearly. ‘When one is alone it is impossible to be dead,’ wrote the fugitive. My favourite line in the book.

Proceed to a conclusion: the conclusion? How very happy-sad the ending of the book is.

How sad…so sad…

I cry to myself; for myself; for everyone who left.

And yet how uplifting…

To reach Faustine…faustine….faustine….

It wasn’t impossible after all.

THE SHIPYARD BY JUAN CARLOS ONETTI

For sale: babies shoes, never worn.

The above is described as a six-word novel, and is often said to have been written by Ernest Hemingway, although I have also seen it attributed to F Scott Fitzgerald. Regardless of the identity of the author, it’s an clever little thing. It is designed to make one ask questions, such as Why were the shoes never worn? Why are they for sale? and so on. One is meant to read the novel and speculate; one is meant to be intrigued.

When I came to review The Shipyard by the Uruguayan author Juan Carlos Onetti I set down the following as the beginning of a brief synopsis:

A former pimp, Larsen, returns after an unexplained exile to a fictional South American town.

And I looked at that and felt as though those words contained something like the ‘babies shoes’ sense of mystery. Why a former pimp? Why had he been exiled? Why is he returning now? That such few words could raise so many interesting questions, could excite me even though I’ve already read the book, goes, I hope, some way to highlighting the power of Onetti’s short novel.

Larsen makes his entrance into Santa Maria ‘just after the rain had stopped, maybe heavier than before, more squat, apparently tamed, no different from anyone else.’ He is, one could say, a normal man, a man, as Onetti has it, who is no different from anyone else; and yet what happens to him, and more specifically, his own behaviour, is not normal at all. The real clue to the novel is in that word tamed. It’s a sad word, in my opinion. To be tamed one must, of course, have once been untamed; it is, then, a word that signals defeat, or submission, at least. It is this sense of being tamed or defeated that motivates Larsen to do the strange, possibly insane things that he does. What does he do? Well, he starts to pursue a local woman, Angelica Ines, almost for the sake of it, but, more importantly, he takes a job at a local shipyard. This shipyard, however, has been out of business for some time. Bizarrely, no one wants to acknowledge this fact, including the owner and his co-workers, and so Larsen continues to go to work; he makes plans for the business, he takes check of the stock, he fights for a competitive wage [a wage that he will never be paid].

At heart, this pretence, this act, this fiction, is merely a way of attempting to convince himself that his purposeless life has a purpose, that it may have a meaningful future, that his best, brightest days haven’t already been pissed into the wind and that it isn’t the case that all that remains is a long and tedious crawl towards death. He is now tamed, yes, but he is fighting to persuade himself that it isn’t the end of the world, that he still has something to live for. All of which sounds kind of depressing, I guess, and also kind of humorous [to me, at least]. But, be warned, Onetti is possibly the most straight-faced writer I have ever encountered. He doesn’t play for laughs. Someone like Nikolai Gogol, and others, would have teased out the comedy of this set-up by pitching a heroically sane Larsen into a river of stupidity, by surrounding him with morons, by making his responses to this stupidity and these morons increasingly frantic, increasingly exasperated. Not Onetti! Oh no, he sees your potential giggle and stamps on it, as though it were a spider.

In the other novel I have read by him, A Brief Life, the po-faced attitude, or authorial voice, feels oppressive, is actually dispiriting and tiring. The Shipyard works, however, because of the wonderful balance between that absurd set-up and the very serious treatment of it.

THE TOP TEN NOVELS OF ALL TIME

 

1. IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME BY MARCEL PROUST

[FRANCE, 1913-27]

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“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

2. WAR AND PEACE BY LEO TOLSTOY

[RUSSIA, 1869]

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“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

3. THE CASTLE BY FRANZ KAFKA

[CZECH REPUBLIC, 1926]

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“Our winters are very long here, very long and very monotonous. But we don’t complain about it downstairs, we’re shielded against the winter. Oh, spring does come eventually, and summer, and they last for a while, but now, looking back, spring and summer seem too short, as if they were not much more than a couple of days, and even on those days, no matter how lovely the day, it still snows occasionally.”

4. THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV BY FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY

[RUSSIA, 1880]

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 “I love mankind, he said, “but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.” 

5. BLEAK HOUSE BY CHARLES DICKENS

[ENGLAND, 1852-53]

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“I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole what it concedes to the butterflies.”

6. THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN BY THOMAS MANN

[GERMANY, 1924]

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“He probably was mediocre after all, though in a very honorable sense of that word.”

7. UNDER THE VOLCANO BY MALCOLM LOWRY

[ENGLAND, 1947] 

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8. INDEPENDENT PEOPLE BY HALLDOR LAXNESS

[ICELAND, 1934]

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“It was pretty miserable wretches that minded at all whether they were wet or dry. He could not understand why such people had been born. “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry” he would say.”

9. THE STORY OF THE STONE BY CAO XUEQIN

[CHINA, 1868-1892]

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“Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.”  

10. THE LEOPARD BY GIUSEPPE TOMASI DE LAMPEDUSA

[ITALY, 1958] 

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“As always the thought of his own death calmed him as much as that of others disturbed him: was it perhaps because, when all was said and done, his own death would in the first place mean that of the whole world?”

THE POSTHUMOUS MEMOIRS OF BRAS CUBAS BY JOAQUIM MARIA MACHADO DE ASSIS

The Posthumous Review of [P]

I: A Dead Man Writes

No one expects a dead man to write reviews. One doesn’t lower a guy into the ground or watch him disappear into the flames and think I hope he acclimatises quickly because I cannot wait to read his review of Plato’s Symposium. Naturally, death is seen as an impediment to review-writing, as the final full-stop. So, the very existence of this review is, I imagine, something of a surprise, coming, as it does, from someone recently deceased. It was a surprise to me too, by which I mean my ability to write reviews from beyond the grave, not, of course, death itself. Death I had anticipated. Death I knew was coming to me one day. Death, I’m afraid, is belligerent and indiscriminate. But I had always thought that it was obliterating, was a towel thrown over the birdcage, and yet it turns out that it is more like a surprise party, that, yes, the lights will go out, and so one may feel a moment of disorientation, but soon enough someone will flip the switch back on and you’ll be greeted with a loud cheer and the sight of a bunch of people you have to pretend to be happy to see.

II: Karen

One advantage of being dead is being able to do as you like, because, let’s face it, no one can threaten you with any kind of punishment worse than death itself, except perhaps a life-long membership to the Tory or Republican parties. With that in mind I aim to write this review as I please, and it pleases me to write it in an unconventional and digressive fashion. I feel, at this moment, like writing about Karen, even though I’ve not yet even told you the name of the book that I’m reviewing, or what it is about. You may find this diversion interesting, or you may not, and you are certainly free to skip it if your desire for logical order [a concept that doesn’t apply to a dead book-reviewer] is so strong and impossible to ignore. At one time I was a member of a popular social networking site and Karen is a prominent, perhaps the most prominent, reviewer on that website. I don’t want to spend a lot of time boring my readers with background information about Karen, but want, instead, to focus on a comment left on one of her reviews [the dead can read as well as review]. I don’t, either, want to pass judgement on this comment or the person who wrote it. In life I did not know the person, or what their intention was when they wrote what they did, and anyway death is a great humbler of men.

The comment, because I know you’re gagging for details, was something like I’ve realised that you never review books that I’m interested in, and the implication was, I guess, that this meant that Karen’s reviews were therefore not worth reading. And it struck me then that my response to writing is not always the same response that others have. Yes, it took a hammer to the face and brief stint in a box underground for me to have this epiphany. The thing is, Karen could never have reviewed a single book that I want to read [she, indeed, reviewed plenty I wouldn’t even consider now that I have infinite time on my hands] and I would have still read and enjoyed her reviews. Why is that? Because I liked her voice, because, confident in my own ability to choose which books to read, I am not particularly interested in recommendations from other people; what I want most of all from reviews is a style and a voice that pleases me, and hers did. Voice! Voice in writing is very important, dear friends; it can make the most unappealing things appealing indeed [and likewise it can make the appealing seem unappealing]. Gnome sex? Would I ever read a book about that? No, triple no! Would I read and enjoy a review about it? Yes. And so, we have eventually meandered around to the point: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’ authorial voice. It is marvellous.

III: Machado de Assis Earns A Permanent Place In My Affections

In his book Dom Casmurro Machado de Assis wrote about jealousy and possible infidelity, about the scold of grand passion, and those were things I could easily relate to as the very young man I was when I first read it. Yet with Bras Cubas I was less able to identify with the central character and his concerns, it being a book about….well, you’ll have to wait until a later chapter to find that out. In any case, it is Machado de Assis’ voice that guarantees this book a permanent place in my affections regardless of whether I am able to relate to the story. It is funny, it is charming, it is insightful and wise; his voice is always engaging, and his prose, which is the physical expression of this voice, is soulful. Joachim had a lot of soul, and I know this because I’ve seen it here in the afterlife; it’s so huge it spans the gates of heaven.

IV: Why Michael Hofmann Is Wrong

The poet and translator Michael Hofmann once said of the novel The Book of Ebenezer Lepage that it is almost unique in that it gives you the whole man. The idea, one imagines, is that the narrative spans the life of the central character and gives you access to his thoughts and opinions on various subjects. This claim of Hofmann’s is quite often regurgitated [unacknowledged, by the way] by other reviewers, which is funny to me because, well, Hofmann is wrong. Firstly, no novel can give you a whole man, it’s impossible. Secondly, if Ebenezer Lepage is the standard for an author giving you the whole man then lots of novels give him to you, for there is nothing out-of-the-ordinary in the depth of Ebenezer as a character and nothing unusual about a book spanning the life of a character.  One such book is Machado de Assis’ The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas. Bras Cubas is a kind of bildungsroman; it charts, as these things do, the life of one person from childhood into adulthood, and, then, in a novel move, beyond death.

V: The Fly Killer

The narrative of Bras Cubas progresses like a three-legged dog on a rocky road. In structure and tone it is similar to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, although it is perhaps less sophisticated. The chapters are short and often appear as though they had been shuffled into a random order prior to publication. My favourite chapter in Bras Cubas is The Black Butterfly, in which Bras kills just such a one and laments that had it been blue it might have been spared. It reminded me of all the stupid childish things I used to do when I was still alive, such as the time I was on a bus and noticed a fly struggling to maintain forward momentum as it climbed up a condensation-soaked window. Mindlessly I flicked at it and it fell down to the small pool of water at the base of the window. I watched it drag itself out, like an exhausted dog from a river, and once it had fully extricated itself I flicked it back down again. Rinse and repeat. Eventually the fly gave up and died, and I felt ashamed. I started to imagine that the fly had been female, that it had children and was probably trying to get home to them. The living are a strange lot: barbaric and yet prone to extreme sentimentality.

VI: I Have Never Fallen For A Crippled Girl

I’ve never fallen for a girl with a limp or a withered hand. I don’t think I’ve ever even met one. A couple of months ago, while still among the living, I was having my cooker fixed by a local workman and he was telling me about a girl he dated once. This girl had a cleft-lip, and the man said that he had to end the relationship with her because he was constantly getting into fights due to the comments made by random people in bars and on the street. He said it just wasn’t worth the hassle and bruises. That little anecdote made me sad. Bras Cubas makes up a trinity of great novels in which the central character almost falls for a crippled girl. The other two are Ulysses by James Joyce and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago. This chapter is dedicated to crippled girls. May you always capture the hearts of sensitive boys.

VII: It’s Easier To Love When You’re Dead

It’s easier to love when you’re dead. I found that out quite quickly. Here in the afterlife my patience is less tested, I’m more forgiving, more likely to cherish my enjoyment of things rather than look for defects and criticisms. This applies equally to people and books. When I think about my still-living family and friends now I feel a swelling in my once-beating heart; when I consider humanity at large, whose petty preoccupations and often hysterical sense of self-importance would periodically send me tumbling, belly-flopping, into a dark pool of despair, I now feel an overriding affection. Yes, now I am no longer one of you I find you easier to love. I do not extend this love to the dead though; don’t mention the dead to me.

VIII: Superfluous Man

The Japanese writer Natsume Soseki wrote almost exclusively about men who are on the outside, men who are estranged from humanity in general or from their wives and friends in particular. Superfluous men. These men feel isolated, they cannot relate to their surroundings and their peers. It struck me as I read this book for the second time, a book that had seemed a kind of shaggy dog story on first reading, that it is about a different kind of superfluous man, one that is less existentially oppressed. Yes, Bras Cubas is still a superfluous man, even though he isn’t taciturn and brooding; he forges no career and shuns marriage and children for the greater part of his life. It is merely the case that, as a gregarious man who is possessed of a sparkling wit, it is harder to spot how at odds he is with conventional society.

I mentioned earlier how I could relate less to Bras Cubas than Dom Casmurro, and that is because it is a novel about a whole life, about Time’s whims, and at the point at which I read the book I felt as though I was at the start of my life and my time.

IX: I Was Wrong

Turns out I was wrong.

2666 BY ROBERTO BOLANO

I was speaking to someone recently about the band Radiohead. Now, I really like a couple of their songs, but, on the whole, I find the group excruciating to listen to. The problem is probably best summed up as a clash of personalities: mine and the lead singer’s. Of course, I’ve never met Thom Yorke, and as a rule I prefer to withhold judgement on people I do not know, but in his case I can’t help myself. It would be unfair to disparage without providing evidence, so here goes:

– Thom Yorke once claimed that melody made him feel sick [I don’t even like traditionally melodic music, but this irked me].

– The constant allusions to the torturous recording process, as though he’s so much of a damaged genius that it takes years of hair-pulling and hand-wringing to birth these flawless records.

– The lyrics.

– The h in Thom.

– The cover art.

– The lyrics.

– The pompous political blather in interviews.

– The lyrics.

On those lyrics, let me expound my objection a little bit: I know that song lyrics are mostly awful. I get that. Even the lyricists that are meant to be top-notch, your Dylans and so forth, are still pretty terrible. However, Thom’s lyrics annoy me like no one else’s, because not only are they rubbish, they are nonsensical rubbish, and, what’s more, the man himself seems to regard them as mind-expanding and heart-rending statements of profound and painful insight. Profound?

Cracked eggs, dead birds scream as they fight for life!

Dead birds screaming as they, uh, fight for life…fighting for life, even though they are, um, dead…screaming, but, er, dead. Fuck off with that shit.

What has any of this got to do with 2666? Well, prior to reading it I thought I hated Roberto Bolaño in much the same way. His most highly praised work, The Savage Detectives, based on the reviews etc I had read, always struck me as having been written specifically to irritate me. A book featuring a roving gang of poets called the Visceral Realists? Oh, please. An On the Road for a new generation? I despise the beats, hippies, and bohemians; they can turn on, tune in, drop out and fuck off as far as I’m concerned. Then there are the stories about how Bolaño would turn up at poetry readings, heckle the more famous poet on stage, and proceed to read his own poetry from the back of the hall. Oh no no no no no no; seriously now, I just can’t take it.

So, for the most part, on the basis of these objections, I tried to avoid the author as much as possible, and as a consequence I had no idea about the furore surrounding 2666 prior to and upon publication. I’m not even sure I knew he had passed away. In fact, a lot of the time I got him confused with Paulo Coelho. Then, one day, when wandering around my local bookshop, I spied a large imposing hardback book out of the corner of my eye. I love big books, they call to me like weighty wrist-wrecking sirens, so I trundled over and picked it up. Oh, it’s some shit by that guy who wrote The Savage Detectives and The Alchemist, I thought to myself, and so I put it down and left the shop. A few weeks later, though, I was back. Again, my eye alights on the book, again I pick it up. 2666. The title intrigued me. I check the cover: some bumph about murders. I think about buying it; I tell myself that I won’t read it, that I just want to, y’know, own it and hold it and caress it; but then I remember the transsexual behind the counter, his large hands, and badly applied make-up, and how he always talks to me about the books I buy, and I just don’t want to get into that kind of conversation, not about someone like Bolaño.

The upshot of this rambling is that it took me quite a while to find the pluck to buy and read 2666. Indeed, I experienced the same level of resistance and dread intermingled with a perverse curiosity that I feel when someone tries to play me the new Radiohead record. So, yeah, I didn’t have high expectations, but I couldn’t help myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who read things they don’t like merely to be able to say that they read it. I bought and read the book because something about it spoke to me, some hard-to-define thing rapped on my brain with its knuckles giving me no peace until I did. And I am so glad, because aspects of the book still haunt the back-alleys of my mind.

Yet, it starts breezily enough with a Borgesian tale of a group of academics on the trail of an obscure author; and it’s all a bit Scooby Doo, and all a bit ridiculous [intentionally so, for the most part. Bolaño is funnier than he is often given credit for], but there is a point of interest here, for bibliophiles anyway, which is the current obsession amongst academics and the publishing industry for unearthing forgotten masterpieces and great obscure writers. There are numerous examples of this in recent years: Marai, Grossman, Banffy, Szerb, Zweig, etc. I’m not disparaging this trend, it has brought to the surface some wonderful novels, but I felt at times as though Bolaño was perhaps lampooning it.

Intermission: why are all of Bolaño’s men incredible lovers? They seem to be able to bring a woman to orgasm by raising an eyebrow.

The heart of the novel, the section upon which it either succeeds of fails as a truly great work, is the murders. For me, without this section the book would be occasionally charming, and diverting, but lacking in any substance [although it is worth noting that some readers seem to find this part of the novel hard-going]. The Part About The Crimes, to my mind, is an incredible piece of writing, is amongst the finest sections to be found in any hulking tome out there. For me, those long and difficult wrist-wreckers are defined by the scenes, the passages, that leap out of the text and burn themselves into your consciousness. Let’s be honest, in nearly all 900+ page books there are peaks and troughs, that is part of the appeal, but it is the height of the peaks that usually separates the very good ones from the truly great ones.

The Part About The Crimes is pretty much as it sounds. There are a series, a seemingly relentless series, of grisly murders of young women. It ought to be repetitive, it ought to reduce these shocking acts to a level of reader-tedium, but it doesn’t. One should be thinking after about twenty of them: Oh no, not another; I’m bored by this shit now. Yet, the opposite is the case; each crime is subtly different, each draws you in, as you ponder both the similarities and differences and start to wonder if they have been committed by the same man or different men. More than any other novel dealing with murder and brutal crimes 2666 makes you consider, makes you feel, just how habitual, how ubiquitous violence is. One begins to feel overwhelmed by it, but by highlighting each and every one they never feel like a mere statistic, and this is Bolaño’s greatest achievement.

You may well ask, what is 2666 about? Honestly, I don’t know. There is a sense of a world falling apart, or spiraling out of control, and yet, to all intents and purposes, despite some theories about how the book is set in the future [that 2666 is a date, the year the novel is set] the world of 2666 is our world; and I found that devastatingly moving, because the idea of a world, of humanity, collapsing under the weight of its own faeces aligns with my own feelings. And Thom Yorke’s too probably.