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Corpuses Pending: More Pieces to the Puzzles of Roberto Bola?o and Vladimir Sorokin

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Amulet
Roberto Bola?o
trans. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
New Directions Publishing Corporation

Ice
Vladimir Sorokin
trans. from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
New York Review Books

Reviewed by Brandon Holmquest

*****

Amulet
Roberto Bola?o
trans. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
New Directions Publishing Corporation

Roberto Bola?o was born in Chile in 1953. As a teenager, he bummed around South America, styling himself a poet. In 1973 he returned to Chile to join the fight against the rising right-wing movement headed by Augusto Pinochet. When Pinochet?s coup proved successful, Bola?o was imprisoned for six days; sympathetic former classmates who had grown up to be policemen let him go. Having been radicalized to the point of Trotskyism by these experiences, Bola?o resumed his travels. Like most respectable South American dissidents, he eventually settled in Europe, where he published frequently, producing stories, novels, and poems, as well as a fair amount of critical work and other essays. By the time he died in 2003, at the relatively young age of 50, Bola?o was widely considered among the great Spanish-language writers of his generation.

Bola?o?s reception in the English-speaking world has been amusing to behold, as such critics as Susan Sontag and Francine Prose trampled one another in their urge to be the first to praise him in such publications as the New York Times Book Review and the London Times Literary Supplement. Three of Bola?o?s books have appeared in English, all of them translated by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions. Bola?o?s two most important novels, Los detectives salvajes and 2666, have yet to be translated. This means that all the critical foaming-at-the-mouth has been occasioned not only by a small portion of the man?s oeuvre, but by his minor work as well. What platitudinous excesses await when the big books come out we can only imagine.

In the meantime, we have the newly published Amulet. It is a short, strange little novel. The story, set in Mexico City in the late Sixties, is narrated by a Uruguayan laborer named Auxilio Lacouture. Auxilio thinks of herself as the Mother of Mexican Poetry, because she has known the elder statesmen, Spaniards living in exile, and the younger generations of poets. She has helped them all, doing odd jobs for the elder poets, and later telling anecdotes of those same elders to the younger poets. Amulet, if it can be said to have a cohesive narrative, concerns her role as the Mother of Mexican poetry in general, and specifically of her dealings with a young Chilean poet named Arturo Belano, a recurring character in many of Bola?o?s works who serves as the author?s stand-in alter ego.

The narrative turns on two points. The first is the violent assault the Mexican government launched against rebellious students in 1968, which involved the occupation and forced evacuation of the campus of the Autonomous National University of Mexico, and a bloody massacre on the Plaza of the Three Cultures some distance away. The second is the Pinochet coup in Chile, which took place five years later.

When the army storms the University and begins rounding people up at gunpoint, Auxilio is in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet, reading a book of poetry. She manages to evade detection by remaining where she is. When the troops leave hours later, Auxilio is still in the bathroom, the only person left on campus. The rest of the book, as well as everything that led up to this point, is narrated by her from the floor of that bathroom. She tells of things that have, in 1968, already happened, but she can also see the future well enough to report in detail on the change in Arturo Belano after he returns from Chile in late 1973.

The first half of the book felt inane and dull; what interest it held for me was in its discussions of Spanish poetry, which require a nearly hermetic knowledge of the subject if they are to be intelligible at all. The repeated use of the army?s occupation of the university echoed the ubiquitous presence of the Soviet in invasion of Prague in the work of Milan Kundera. Auxilio herself was largely uninteresting. Then Arturo re-entered the story, and a most remarkable thing happened.

There is a scene about halfway through Amulet in which Auxilio relates an episode involving a friend of Arturo?s, a young homosexual poet, confides to him that, while Arturo was away, he had somehow managed to become the personal property of a character known only as the King of the Rent Boys. The friend expects that Arturo, who he assumes has spent the last six months fighting right-wing paramilitaries in the streets of Santiago, can somehow help him out of his predicament. Auxilio overhears this and accompanies them on their way across the city to the King?s apartment. They arrive to find the King in no mood to negotiate. Wasting away in the King?s bed is a young man who appears to be near death from the services he has rendered to the King. The scene that follows, in which Arturo deals with the situation, is the work of a very skilled writer. The rest of the novel is likewise the product of extreme skill: Auxilio has a run-in with a reclusive painter; there is a chapter lyrically predicting the fate of future literature; and the book closes with a vision Auxilio has of mobs of young people marching and singing.

I was bored and restless in the beginning, but by the end I was persuaded by the experience of reading it that I had missed something, or perhaps was unaware of something, that had kept me from understanding it at first. It is said that Bola?o?s work can be seen as a whole, that the individual novels fit together to form a larger work. Both of the protagonists of Amulet appear in other novels, for example. I do not doubt that this is true. It is my suspicion that it will take some years, and the English language publication of all of his major works, before we can judge the entirety of Bola?o?s endeavor. That he was very good and worked very hard is beyond doubt; but I cannot shake my suspicion that to critique Amulet in a vacuum, in ignorance of Bola?o?s other work, is to do it, and its author, a disservice.

*****

Ice
Vladimir Sorokin
trans. from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
New York Review Books

A few years ago I caught an obscure news story that a conservative youth organization in Russia was dedicating its efforts toward having a Russian writer thrown into jail and censored. They called him a pornographer and accused him of the usual Socratesian crimes of disrespect for society and corruption of youth. The scene that got them all riled up was one in a novel called Blue Fat in which the clones of Stalin and Khrushchev have incredibly nasty sex, described in minute detail. I thought that was extremely funny.

About a year later a friend of mine decided to finally finish her degree in comparative literature. Being the daughter of Russian immigrants and a native speaker of the Russian language, she thought it only natural that she focus on Russian literature. Shortly after she returned to school I began to receive frantic phone calls in the middle of the night. She would read to me, translating into English from the top of her head, from a novel called The Norm. In a vaguely dystopian future, everyone eats a substance called ?the norm.? The novel twists its blackly satirical way through the Russia of the present, as portrayed by the Russia of the future, until Sorokin reveals the norm to be made mostly of human shit. Though it recalled Vladimir Voinovich?s Moscow 2042 and the Charlton Heston film Soylent Green, it was damned modern and skillful satire. I thought that that was extremely funny.

Now 51 and living on the outskirts of Moscow, the author of these books has produced a long shelf of novels and stories since he began writing in the late Seventies. During Communism, Vladimir Sorokin was published in samizdat; since the Soviet Union?s collapse he has become an increasingly forceful presence in Russian letters. His only appearance in English up to now has been the publication of excerpts from The Norm in the literary journal n+1. Why a writer of Sorokin?s stature, from a literature as significant as that of Russia?s, has had to wait nearly thirty years to have a book translated into English is beyond me. I can think of at least five publishing houses that should have been all over this, but they dropped the ball. New York Review Books, the publishing arm of the New York Review of Books, which has up to now published primarily trade paperbacks of neglected classics, has stepped up and produced their first ever literary hardcover. It is a beautifully made book, well translated by Jamey Gambrell. It is called Ice, and it is great and strange.

Ice tells the story of a group of people in present-day Moscow who spend their time kidnapping people with blond hair and blue eyes. They take them to secluded areas and pound them in the chest repeatedly with a hammer made of ice. After each impact, they put their ears to the unfortunate person?s chest. If they hear nothing, they hit him again, then listen again. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they hammer and listen and hammer and listen, again and again, to no avail; and the person invariably dies. But once in a hundred hammerings, they hear that person?s heart speak its true name for the first time, identifying itself as one of their own kind. When this happens, the kidnapper-torturers are very happy. They take their newfound friend to a hidden clinic, where his wounds are tended. Such individuals, having been very much affected by the experience, typically rebel, leave the clinic and return to their own lives, only to realize that what their tormentors have said is true. They each cry for a week straight, at the end of which they find themselves back in the clinic. The recently hammered then accept that they are in fact one of the ice people. After a period of adjustment, they themselves begin to hammer people. Sorokin has structured the novel in four, loosely connected parts. The first tells the story of three people whose hearts have spoken. They are a shiftless young man, a shady business executive, and a prostitute. With what these characters do and where they go after they are hammered, Sorokin traces a broad picture of modern Russia. With the parallels between their three stories, he shows that the experience is the same for each of them. He does this with ruthlessly spare prose, often introducing a scene as follows:

?A birch grove. Leftover snow. Morning sun.

?Two people got out of the car.

?Botvin: 39 years old, heavy, blond, blue eyes, a kind face, a blue-green athletic jacket, blue-green pants with a white stripe, black sneakers.

?Neilands: 25, tall, thin, blond, decisively stern, blue eyes, sharp facial features, a brown raincoat.

?They opened the trunk.

?Nikolaeva lay inside: 22, a cute blond, blue eyes, a short fox-fur coat, high black suede boots, her mouth taped with a white bandage, handcuffs.

?They pulled Nikolaeva out of the trunk. She kicked and whined.?

At the end of Part One, the three protagonists are emotionally spent after seven days. They awake in a room together in the clinic. A very old woman is brought in on a wheelchair. She introduces herself.

Part Two tells the old woman?s story, from her youth during the Second World War to the moment she is taken to visit the three protagonists. Her story is also the history of the ice people in general, and it amounts to an alternate history of the entire universe, as well as an oddly angled history of the Soviet Union, revealed through the ice people?s survival of the purges of Stalin and his successors. The prose in this part differs sharply from the first. There, it was a harsh, direct third person. Here, it is a warm first person voice.

?I don?t know how much time passed.

?I came to.

?I hadn?t even opened my eyelids, and I could feel ? everything was rocking. They were taking me somewhere.

?I opened my eyes: I saw that the room was small. It swayed slightly. I looked around ? there was a window next to me, with a curtain on it. There was a little gap in the curtain and I could see the forest going by.

?I realized I was on a train.?

By the end of Part Two, the reader has been shown who the ice people are, what they want, and why they hammer people in the chest with ice. Part Three reveals, in a very formally clever fashion, the scheme the ice people have devised to hammer as many people as quickly as possible. Part Four is very short and very enigmatic. A young boy wakes up and finds that his mother is not at home.

Ice is the first book of a trilogy Sorokin has written on this theme. It is therefore not the whole story. I myself am left with a hunger for the other two books nearly sufficient to motivate the study of Russian. What Ice is for certain is the first sustained look at Sorokin the writer that the English language has had. Conceptually, this is clearly the product of much careful planning. Formally, the book is massively accomplished and executed with a skill that makes it seem effortless. Again and again, Sorokin makes choices that allow him to do and say big, important things fluidly, without strain. He does not pile on details so much as simply point them out where they are, with the effect that his characters are sketched by the things lying around their homes. We know who they are before they begin to speak, and their actions confirm this understanding, and deepen it.

The book is very inventive, but it is not so much clever as it is wise. This is not postmodern writing as it is generally understood in the United States, formalistic mischief disguising a vapidity of content. If this is postmodernism at all, it is akin to that of Charles Olson, an ?open field? in which content shapes form and form directs the experience of content. Or rather, this is what comes after postmodernism, which retains the open field but reconnects with the urge verging on need to say something that matters, to reveal something hidden. In the West we have seen this at play in the works of Twain, James and Joyce, and in the East in that of Dostoevsky, Chekov, and Tolstoy. We see it again in Vladimir Sorokin, whose work clearly resides in the mainstream of the Russian literary tradition.


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