Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bolaño: Dances with other writers

Two stories in Roberto Bolaño's collection The Insufferable Gaucho (2003; 2010 English trans.) draw directly from major writers who shaped his work, and it's instructive to see how Bolaño manages these dances.

The title story's protagonist, a retired judge, Pereda, knows he's reenacting a Borges story, "The South," a useful bit of intelligence to convey to the reader, who can then find the story on her bookshelf. Though I hadn't read "The South" until after reading "The Insufferable Gaucho," perhaps it's worthwhile to begin with the Borges to best understand how Bolaño uses it. A brief tale, told largely in broad strokes before arriving at the one momentous scene, concerns Dahlmann, an Argentinian with German ancestors, who, after years of a professional life in the city decides to move to a large ranch in the country, an estate he recalls from his youth. Before he can do that, Dahlmann hits his head and endures treatments that seem like Kafkaesque tortures rather than helpful medical treatments. In the end, released from his torment, he arrives in the country, and, through an inadvertent set of actions, finds himself, at the story's end, about to face a drunk in a knife fight he will certainly lose. "Reality is partial to symmetries and slight anachronisms," Borges writes, and the story turns on such elements that seem to carry the protagonist forward toward something ironic and inevitable.

Bolaño's protagonist, aware of how fate can grind you down, in part because he's read Borges, nonetheless embarks on a similar journey, wanting to resurrect the family's rural estate. Though the landscape is surreal, prowled by carnivorous rabbits who race trains and attack travelers, and the judge has to wait for money sent by his former housekeeping staff, Pereda throws himself into the task of reviving the estate, employing, despite their relative uselessness, a host of gauchos and gathering people to himself. Unlike the protagonist of Borges's story, this man pushes back against the direction in which history seems to be moving. By the end, Bolaño has inverted the narrative: Pereda's son is a writer, and when Pereda returns to the city to see young writers gathered in pointless discussion at a familiar café, he challenges one of the men, confident of his success in a knife fight. The stories contain other parallels, but Bolaño's is, I think, both a comment on the different cultural moments out of which the writers emerged as well as a comment on how writers use their materials. Certainly Bolaño constructs more of a "story" rather than a "tale," but he also grants his aged leading man some agency: like Bolaño, he is aware of a literary and iconic past; like Bolaño, he refuses to be helpless in the wake of such a past. Since the gauchos in Bolaño's tale are harmless, the title itself may be a rebuke to the gaucho of the Borges tale, a motionless symbol of a man who, at the crucial moment, tosses Dahlmann a knife he shouldn't pick up.

"Police Rat," another long story in this brief book, has its origins in "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk," Kafka's last completed story. (A line from the Muirs' translation, "So perhaps we shall not miss so very much after all," is the Bolaño collection's epigraph.) Though "Police Rat" doesn't mention Kafka or his story, the narrator, Pepe the Cop, tells us early on that he's one of Josephine the Singer's nephews. Kafka's story—which employs mice rather than rats—is a rumination (perhaps) on the relationships between an artist and her audience. Most mice simply "pipe," but Josephine sings, or at least she tells her fellows that that's what she's doing, or that's what they believe . . . or want to believe. The story, which is more a portrait of this relationship, floats ideas and then backs away from them; describes situations and then cautions the reader about the descriptions; posits motives from which it retreats but then reasserts. Josephine moves from being, at the outset, clearly someone special to, by the end, a shadowy and even unpleasant figure, so that the narrative arc is one of increasing uncertainty by the narrator, who finds he can neither defend her nor the idea of an art form. (Mice, after all, have no sense of music.)

Bolaño expands Kafka's mental circlings by moving to include all of human nature in the dark plot of "Police Rat." Kafka, too, asks why the mice do what they do, but Bolaño's rats, more capable of self-awareness (and more likely projections for human readers), don't simply lie to themselves about the realities of hope; instead, they work to construct the lies that hold society together, and like characters in a '70s police movie, those in charge possess ulterior motives while even the bit players seem to be in on the true nature of the world, leaving Pepe the sole seeker of justice for the innocent. It's a terrific story with far more narrative momentum than Kafka's piece, and it's not at all necessary to have first read "Josephine," or to read it at all. Like "The Insufferable Gaucho," the story not only takes into account a preceding storyteller, it also raises questions about how stories function for us to both reveal and conceal.