From the Golden Fleece to The Two Towers, from the Holy Grail to Heart of Darkness, great works of world’s literature are often stories of quests. So goes for Roberto Bolaño‘s masterpiece, The Savage Detectives, which follows two young poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, in their odyssey in search for the mythical Cesárea Tinajero, great priestess of the “Visceral Realists”.
We follow them, often under the bemused eyes of Juan García Madero, seventeen when he joins the visceral realists (no initiation ceremony), from the streets of Mexico City to the Sonora desert, via Chile, Nicaragua, California, Barcelona, Rome, Angola, Sierra Leone, and other places in history, meeting biblical whores, murderous pimps, corrupt policemen, incorruptible generals, and, of course, lost poets.
This is a story of poets, fugitives, witnesses… perhaps apostles? Its roots are in the horror and miracles of a continent, steeped in literature and death.
“Bolaño,” writes his translator, Natasha Wimmer, “took seriously the idea of literary immortality – never more than when he turned it into a joke. Failed writers are frequent characters in his stories and novels; so are lost writers, whose legacy must be preserved. In ‘Photographs’, the only published story in which Arturo Belano reappears, he comes upon a kind of illustrated encyclopaedia of forgotten French poets from the 1960s and ’70s. As he looks at their pictures and reads their biographies, remote and irrelevant now, he sees a line of birds on the horizon, ‘an electrocardiogram that flutters or spreads its wings in expectation of their death, thinks Belano, and then he shuts his eyes for a long moment, as if he’s thinking of crying with his eye closed.'”
Geography is equally important for Bolaño, who describes meetings, encounters, love affairs and murders with a careful labelling of time and place: “Rafael Barrios, in the bathroom of his house, Jackson Street, San Diego, California, September 1982.”
I went on to read “Distant Star”, and hope to read “2666” soon. An important writer, a genial novel.
It comes back at this time of the year: longing for open spaces, a different sky, another light in the morning… So we argue about where, and when, and for how long: not a severe argument, I’m willing to listen, and you have the grace to hear my reasons. But it won’t end for sometime, perhaps not even before the new year.
For we are travellers in a hurry, to discover, and also to retrace our steps, in equal measures. By now the range of possibilities is hardly finite. I lean toward the East, and you to the South. Evidently the West and the North haven’t lost anything yet.
Maps litter the room, photos of unforgettable places, mementoes of love in strange places…
We look at each other, and laugh. No chess game this is, more like a battle field!
These days, he rarely visited the old town: he wanted to forget the ghosts, even if he sometimes missed the tortuous streets, the medieval houses, the narrow lanes at the back of secret and overgrown gardens…
But today, he wanted to go back, to smell the ancient timber, admire once again the tortured roofs, and those long gone courtyards.
There, near the templar church, in one corner, he knew he would meet her again, the cloudy shadow of a timeless beauty… and those eyes…
Few trees are yet in bloom: this is the time of year when Spring is lurking, not yet triumphant, but already more than a promise.
Soon, we take the narrow lane, bordered with hedges full of busy birds, I am following you, my eyes taking in the beauty of the morning and your supple steps, your curves and the sloping hills in one exalted breath.
Among the crocuses and the primroses we sense hints of more wealth to explore, perhaps a little later, the air is still cold…
In the middle of this landscape I am thinking of all the other places in the world, unhappy, and ravaged by cruelty and greed: what made us so fortunate?
But now, after only a few short decades, we have succeeded, to ruin our chances, to rob our children and grand children, and grand grand children, for centuries to come, of their life chances: poison in the oceans, in the rivers, filth on the land, more poison in the air…
But greed is good, and look how rich we are now, after all those revolutions: admire our cities, and the clever elites who live within – walled islands of wealth…
Satan laughs, quietly, in his corner, watching human stupidity, working hard, for him!
His dreams often found him, on islands of darkness, trying to reach out, to long lost lovers, to his parents, and, to her, the elusive woman, the shimmering silhouette. Sometime, he woke up, lost, looking for some way to find, an old phone number, an address, a letter. In the paraphernalia of his sleep he found an extraordinary luxury of details, a Proustian vault of forgotten objects, of rooms once visited, of family occasions, inaccessible under the light of day.
And always, she was there, along the streets of his mind, in cities that were once real, no longer inhabited, other than by her ghost. She walked fast, alone, ignoring the shadows. He wanted to call her, to let her know. In the suburbs of his dreams other things crawled, hardly visible, indeed unseen, perhaps nested in the interstices of another universe. She was not aware, he guessed, of even his existence.
Silent, he was searching, feeling his way, blind to the dawn that would come, for her and for him.
Inspired by “The City & the City”, China Miéville.
Image: The Adelphi by Bill Brandt, 1939
For decades I have been a fan of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. The first one I read was “V”, still one of my favourites, but, really, I love all of them. There is some geographical and historical magic Pynchon distils in his writing, that permeates his characters in a unique way. Maxine Tarnow, in Bleeding Edge, is the girl of the 90’s, immersed in what is already the nightmarish world of post 911.
Doc Sportello, the pot-smoking gumshoe and hero of Inherent Vice, is, in many ways, a happier character than some, in Pynchon’s world. He, and his vanishing groovy girlfriend Shasta, live in late 60s LA, in post-hippy California, already governed by Mickey-Mouse Ronald Reagan, already busy dismantling the public services and tax legislation that had made California the most prosperous state in the Union. Worst would come later. Tricky Nixon is president, not yet disappeared down the Watergate plughole. ‘Nam is about to be left to her destiny…
I love the story for its nostalgic atmosphere and evocation of a fast disappearing species: happy Americans. Thus I was a little anxious to go and see Paul Anderson‘s film, drawn from the novel. Rarely I enjoy movies taken from loved books, almost never.
This is a brilliant exception. Mr Anderson scores all rounds: a mastery direction, wonderful camera shots, and perfect actors: it’s all there, and it is Inherent Vice. Joaquin Phoenix is Doc Sportello, and Katherine Waterston his ravishing and gifted girlfriend. I was impressed by Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot, the hippy-hating cop with a taste for ice-cream… Owen Wilson is a marvellous Californian double snitch, who loves his wife and family.
This is, of course, a very funny movie, in a very Pynchonesque style. We hear the surf, we look at the cars, we admire Shasta’s grooviness, we fear the sinister FBI…
I left the theater wishing we could go back in time, before Mickey-Mouse became president and ruined us all. Luckily Thomas Pynchon is still around to write novels that may inspire Paul Thomas Anderson… In fact I’d fancy Miss Waterston as Maxine.
Most passengers had abandoned their films or books, next to her, the beloved husband was deep in dreams, the attractive and cherished face twitching from time to time.
They were now over Greenland, the icy landscape, far below, lit by a frigid moonlight through scattered clouds.
It would take them another seven hours to reach home, and they would face a new day – for her, without sleep.
But in her mind, there was only the girl, who’d shown her the Path of Life, near the volcano, at the foot of the Sunset crater, and Sarah loved her, for eternity.
Image: Edward S. Curtis, Chaiwa, courtesy Arizona State Museum, Tucson
Dedicated to the Hopi tribes, who knew agriculture, and the art of living, when Europe was starving, crawling in medieval darkness.
Slowly they appear in his vision: the millions, slaughtered by disease, hunger, the swords and bullets of the invaders.
He knows: a people in tune with nature, who understood the path of Mother Earth, as no-one since has understood Her.
And, now, he, the scientist, knows the end is near: his own tribe will have to leave the fourth world, and find solace in hell.
Then the braves will rise from their forgotten graves, as trees from the desert.