Meeting Roberto Bolaño
I first met Roberto Bolaño through Andersen Tepper in The Village Voice. It was back in 2006, I was in Tehran, and Bolaño, who was by then already dead and a ghost, was standing on the page with two other authors from Latin America, Martinez and Galeano. The meeting so excited me that I had a friend who was traveling to Tehran buy me their books and bring them to me, because as you might or might not know, in Iran there are no bookstores selling books of literature in foreign languages (except one or two that sometimes get orders), and you can’t go online on Amazon or any other site and order the books, because either you don’t have a credit card, or if you have one, sanctions and regulations might prevent you from using it in the country of the Axis of Evil, or even if you can pass through all these obstacles, there are still others: the books cannot be sent to an address in Iran, and even if they could, there would be no guarantee that they would survive the Iranian postal service inspections or irregularities and reach you.
Anyway, Last Evenings on Earth arrived in Tehran in a suitcase and it simply made me fall in love with Roberto Bolaño. It was the beginning of a relationship that has continued to intensify to this day. I began to know him through the uniqueness of each and every short story of the collection, and later on, when I came to the States, I kept buying whatever books of his were published in English. Even on a trip to Buenos Aires last year I kept going into bookstores to check out the Spanish editions of his books, and I even got his poetry collections in Spanish to be able to cherish him in his own language.
As soon as Bolaño and I had gone on only a couple of dates in the Last Evenings on Earth, like a woman who wants to brag to everyone about her new man, who is moreover new in town, I began to share my obsession with him with my Iranian author and translator friends. I wanted them to know him and to see in him what I saw and loved in him. But even that was not enough. Soon enough, I wanted Bolaño to become mine and then be introduced to a larger society. I wanted to translate him and have him read in my own language.
Like any relationship, ours too has had its share of complexities. Bolaño and I are of two different generations, two far-away geographical locations, two different languages, totally different lifestyles and financial statuses (he struggling to make ends meet and wandering around various countries like a vagabond, I living the safe life of a bourgeois; he being overtly counter-establishment, I being always wary of strongly decrying anything). Yet he talks to me in so intimate a voice that sometimes it gets frightening. Despite all differences, he understands me, as if he has shared a past with me, lives in the same present, and aims for a shared future. I feel as if we share the same worlds, real and fictional.
His stories, like all great literature, show me as an Iranian that I (or rather we as a nation) are not alone, and this is both sad and hopeful at the same time. It is sad because it shows how the human race commits the same mistakes over and over again. It is hopeful because it shows that people will survive and life will go on. And most importantly, art will always remain part of human nature, and stories will keep on being told.
An Ongoing Dance with Roberto Bolaño
Some may say that this relationship has been with Roberto’s works, not with him. But I believe that writers of are of two natures: with most of them, one gets attracted to and is amazed by the stories and does not go beyond them; but with some, the attraction and the amazement goes beyond the stories and makes one wonder about the person behind them. In the first case, the stories feel separate from the author, and in the second case, one feels that these stories are lived by the author, and therefore become one and the same with the author, an author who writes not from a normal standpoint but as if from another plane. Bolaño is one of the latter group. He is his works.
And in his works, poets and writers, and, in a more general sense, artists play a significant role. Bolaño’s artists are also of two natures: (1) Either they are his own babies, conceived through an intercourse between his philosophies and ideologies and his imagination, as in the case of the artists in the Nazi Literature in the Americas, or through an intercourse between his real self and characteristics he wishes, or even hates, for himself, as in the case of the various alter-egos in his works. (2) Or they are real artists, as in the case of Amulet, which names dozens of artists, all of whom are real and once lived in this world. Many of the artists in Amulet were exiled or just migrated of their own will, many of them were not necessarily world famous, many of them presented ideas similar to Bolaño in their works.
One of the female artists named in Amulet is the painter Remidios Varo. She left Europe for Latin America during World War II, wishing to return one day, but living in exile till the end of her life, a situation not at all dissimilar to that of many Iranian artists. Varo’s works are mysterious, dark and humorous all at the same time; they seem to be renditions of dreams or of another plane; many of the figures appearing in her works are ghostly, seeming to be lost or wandering around—aspects that not only make her works similar to Bolaño’s stories, but also interesting as separate entities for me as an Iranian. In fact, she was inspired by Sufism and alchemy, both familiar concepts in Eastern cultures.
Then there is Vladimir Mayakovsky, a Russian poet imprisoned for subversive political activity, as some Iranian writers have been. He was a futurist, as Bolaño is in a sense in 2666 and in Nazi Literature in the Americas, as many Iranians, surviving through the hopeful stories they create for their tomorrow.
On Mayakovsky’s Wikipedia page there is an image from an article by him entitled “How to make poetry.”
Unfortunately I could not find the English text of the article, but considering the biographical similarities between him and Bolaño, I suddenly wondered if this was the wellspring of the poem at the end of The Savage Detectives, which I would like to call “a poem in drawing.” Maybe yes, maybe not.
There is a second interesting link between the two authors. In an article on Mayakovsky, Marjorie Perloff talks about the Russian word, byt, mentioned by critic Roman Jackobson in his essay “On a Generation that Squandered Its Poets.” Jackobson writes: “Opposed to this creative urge toward a transformed future is the stabilizing force of an immutable present. . . . The Russian name for this element is byt.” Jackobson adds that the word has no equivalent in the West European languages because opposition to the status quo is different in their cultures. Mayakovsky saw “motionless byt” as his enemy.
Bolaño in The Savage Detectives gives another odd word, simonel, for which there also exists no equivalent in English. Simon means yes in slang language, nel no, and so the word means yes and no at the same time, a response perhaps not much common in a Western culture, but much useful in situations, such as in dictatorship countries or in the face of violence, where one, for various reasons, considers both answers or does not necessarily want to reveal one’s clear standpoint.
After finding out about these two artists, I can’t stop wondering what else one could find if one reads more into each of the figures that Bolaño names in his books. But even at this level, I can put my finger on several points that make his artists of special interest to me as an Iranian.
First of all, they do not have it easy. His writers cannot lead organized lives in safe or at least predictable havens and write, either by their own choice or their situation. True, even in the U.S. not everyone writes from a safe haven, but there exists much more opportunity to do so. For Bolaño’s writers, however, writing can only be a way of life. His artists are of a different mould than those of the modern societies, and I feel this difference is one rooted in the different natures of the very societies these artists come from. It is not a matter of saying which is better or worse, but merely a matter of how different world views, ruling systems, cultures, traditions, politics, goals, and ratios of modernity—different societies, and thus different artists and lives. And perhaps Bolaño’s worlds and artists hit closer to home for me. Chaos, chance, fate, faith, intimacy, and friendship are all present in Bolaño’s works in excessive proportions, they are elements that one can feel in the air when one travels to Latin America or to the Middle East, but not necessarily to the U.S. or Europe. The latter societies perhaps function better in the modern world, but in the former societies one feels more in touch with the human spirit, both with the dark and the bright sides of it, as one does when reading Bolaño’s books.
The other thing Bolaño reveals through artist-characters is the idea that art is worth the effort because it survives beyond its agents. His artists are wandering souls in malfunctioning worlds, but their art rises above all and remains forever. That is a theme I deeply believe in: that not only artists but human beings in general are wandering souls, their world and societies all a big mess, yet art remains the sole victorious survivor. Bolaño’s real artists survive through their real art, his imaginary ones through their imaginary art, through the most natural form of art—storytelling—Bolaño’s stories. He superbly demonstrates how artists may cease to exist, but the art and philosophy they leave behind flows from one soul into another. Feel for me and many artists in my situation that is the most outstanding silver lining in sight that keeps us functioning: knowing that even if we are taken amidst the whirlwinds of our hectic time and place, our art continues to live in a totally different realm; and even though we might lose the battle to the forces of oblivion, the true essence of our lives that is art and storytelling will survive beyond us.
Other than artists and art, another significant theme in Bolaño’s stories is the issue of nationality and exile, major issues for Bolaño himself as a person. And this is a second reason I feel passionate about him, because they are major issues in my own life and works as well. When asked where his homeland was, Bolaño provided different answers: that he was Chilean; that he was Latin American; that he agreed with another writer who had said that a writer’s homeland was his language, adding that he believed that it was not only his language but also the people he loved, memory, loyalty, courage; and, most interestingly, that the identity of a writer’s homeland depended a lot on what the writer was working on at the moment.
And perhaps it was exactly because of this particular viewpoint toward what defined a homeland that he did not like to consider himself an exile. But by the traditional definition Bolaño is too heavily influenced by and concerned about a specific geographical map to be really a man beyond borders.
He sets most of his stories in countries he has a history in: Chile, Mexico, and some in Spain, and he fills them with life and death, with passion and fear, seriously criticizes their vices, and searches for their virtues. I can only see one reason for this: sadness about what went on and a hope for a better reality. He doesn’t express these emotions for the whole world, but just for the places he himself has seen and lived in.
Moreover, many of his characters are people, particularly artists, who have left their geographical homelands. Some have resettled elsewhere and built new lives that are not necessarily great. Others do not consider anywhere as their home and just move around. They are people who are hopeful and desperate at the same time, lost souls. Bolaño shows paradoxical feelings toward these characters of his, so do the characters toward each other, sympathy and empathy at the same time. He treats them with sarcasm, so do the characters toward each other. This is exile in its true sense. Bolaño was an exile in the deepest sense of the word. He was an exile no matter where he lived because he did not feel at home in any one place or time. Perhaps that was why he redefined the word, connected it with literature and writing then brought along his restlessness into his works.
This relates to another particularity of Bolaño’s works: the vague line between reality and fiction. Everything can be something else or can remind of something else. The short story “Meeting with Enrique Lihn” is filled with sentences starting with “as if”s. As is the book The Skating Rink. The short story “Sensini” ends like this: “suddenly I realized that we were at peace, that for some mysterious reason the two of us had reached a state of peace, and that from now on, imperceptibly, things would begin to change. As if the world really was shifting.” But in reality, it is not. Are our lives any different? How much do we depend on “as if”s? We too live a great deal with our memories, with the stories we tell about ourselves and the ones around us, even about the politics of the world.
Reading Bolaño, one should, moreover, not look for a final clean resolution, but for tiny understandings of characters, for limited understanding of events, for little resolutions, for enlightenments scattered in the least expected places and in the least expected forms of writing. The same applies to the real life. In the end it is the little discoveries that count, and the questions themselves. In the Eastern philosophy of Sufism it is believed that when one reaches the level of doubt, when one starts to ask questions, one is finding the answers. And perhaps the answer is actually the question.
Bolaño brings us face to face with all these issues in works that are serious, violent, unpredictable, passionate, and thoughtful, yet in the end it feels like he is cracking a joke on us. And that is the skeleton of life. Life is serious, violent, unpredictable, passionate, thoughtful, and in the end it is all a joke. No matter how hard you try to control it, you will fail and understand that you have been taking a joke too seriously.
Bolaño finishes his epic novel 2666 by giving us a piece of narrative that is nothing but a joke next to all we have gone through to get there. It ends with this:
If you want a good chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream, you can order a Fürst-Pückler.
The nine-hundred something pages of the book end a few paragraphs after the introduction of an ice cream that bears the name of a botanist and travel writer who is remembered not because of his books but because an ice cream bears his name. Can it get more of a joke than this?
From the fiction to the man
In Bolaño’s short story “Clara,” the narrator, talking about Clara’s life and not his own, says, “All these details say more about me than they do about her.” And later on he says, “She asked me to tell something about my life. I made up something on the spot.” And I believe these two points hold as true in the case of Bolaño himself, the man who tells us a lot about himself through his narrations of others’ life stories. For Bolaño, reality and fiction are not two separate things. His fiction is real and his reality is fiction.
And so I want to confess that there is a great chance that the Bolaño I have created might have nothing to do with the truth and the reality of Bolaño, but since it is Bolaño, I know that he won’t mind, because he knows that there is not just one truth or one reality, because he knows that there is no one definite rendition of a person’s character, and because he knows there is no one complete image of anything or anyone and even the image each person has of herself lacks the aspects others have of that person. So, why worry? My picture of him can be as true as any other, real or fictional.
And in a relationship like this, in the world of literature, in the end, it is not the man per se who counts, but words and stories. And it is exactly because of the nature of our relationship, its being a literary love-making, that our love keeps growing rather than failing in the face of all our differences and despite the fact that Bolaño has disappeared from the physical world. And this is what reveals a very important quality of good literature: its universality, its humanness.
The first characteristic that is very dear to me, as I mentioned earlier, is the sense of exile that he creates in its truest deepest meaning. Iranians have had two major migrations in the recent history, one at the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which never stopped and continued at lower rates, recently reaching new high rates after the June 12, 2009 election. Iran now has the highest rate of brain drain in the world, and many of its journalists, writers, and artists have had to leave because they cannot freely express their art, because if they do so, they could fear their lives. The people who have left and even those who have stayed inside the country are Bolaño’s artists. His characters are my friends and my friends’ friends and my acquaintances and my acquaintances’ acquaintances. They are real people. Shadows. Ghosts. Wandering. On a quest for some peace and meaning. All with a sense of loss. All with a restlessness. And these are mirrored in their artworks, each in their specific ways.
Corruption, crime, violence, injustice, secrets, politics, chance, inevitability, passion, sexual desire, hope, hopelessness, death, all significant players in Bolaño’s fiction, are immediate realities in the Iranian life. Even the moods his works create remind me of the moods we go through in our daily lives.
Consider the killings in 2666. Bolaño gives us hundreds of pages of forensic-like reports about women being killed. In the beginning, as one reads the cases, one is shocked, then as the cases accumulate the shock grows into a kind of numbness, a numbness in which one still feels sad and angry; there is hopelessness and at the same time hope that with the crimes getting this widespread, something might change. Alas! In the end nothing is resolved.
Living through the recent events in Iran after the disputed presidential election has put me, and many others, through the same emotional trajectory. In the beginning when I took part in the protests and watched the videos captured and sent out by citizen journalists, I was shocked of how these things could be true. The video of the first person dying in front of the camera shocked everyone beyond imagination. Months later, the news and the videos, which are far more brutal and merciless, have ceased to shock us as they did in the beginning. Today, watching the development of the events from far away, the feeling is more of numbness, filled with all kinds of paradoxical emotions. And as for the end . . . well, nothing is certain.
And Iranians live like romantics, exactly like Bolaño’s vagabonds who pursue a romantic lifestyle in the face of their desperate lives. And that is all natural, because in the face of such conditions of life one has only two options: either to become totally bitter, hopeless, passive, and suicidal, or to live romantically despite all these emotions, and to continue searching, struggling, creating passionate love stories and adventures that keep one going. At the end of the day, when we sit and read the story of our daily lives, we realize that many of us are romantics, romantics like the romantic vagabonds of Bolaño’s stories.
And it is in such circumstances that writing, in the true sense of creating literature, cannot remain just a profession. It becomes life because its price is just too high, and this is exactly what literature is for Bolaño. In the late ’90s, dozens of Iranian writers and scholars were killed in a series of killings that later on came to be known as “Chain Killings.” The killings, the way the cases were handled, the implications of them are none too far from Bolaño’s fictional accounts of the killings in 2666 or from the tortures in By Night in Chile. They remind us of what might await if we write in the tradition of great writers, seriously questioning the status quo. The Iranian writers who do not necessarily conform to the rules and regulations, even when not killed or threatened, have always been harassed. Either they must censor themselves in order to publish and exert a tiny influence over their world, or their works are censored by the ruling system to fit the moral codes of the society. Or else they are completely banned. After the recent election upheavals, writers have been one of main groups targeted, and many of them who have agitated for better politics or human rights face various forms of punishment. For Iranian writers, literature is not just something to do and enjoy and earn a meager living from. It is what you do even though you might lose your life for it. The literature Bolaño’s characters deal with is this kind of literature. One that demands for one’s life.
Moreover, there are the writers on the other end of the spectrum, the right-wing ones who write to please the rulers and to gain either fame or money. They are real characters in our society, as in many other societies, as in Bolaño’s stories.
Bolaño’s stories might be different from our lives in cultural or historical senses, yet they are the stories of our lives. And that is what true literature is, what makes a writer one of the great ones, his voice a familiar one to the ears and to the hearts of many around the world.
This familiar voice for the Iranian audience, however, comes not just from Bolaño but from many Latin American writers. Translations of Latin American literature have always been popular with Iranians. It is perhaps the similarities of the shadows of time, place, history, and politics over our peoples and countries that create this intimacy and understanding. One Hundred Years of Solitude has had a special place in the hearts of many Iranians (it was the novel that brought literature to a totally new level for me), and Gabriel Garcia Marquez was, in a survey carried out among both male and female university students, voted as the most loved foreign writer. Allende, Neruda, Lorca, Vargas Llosa, Borges . . . have all been popular with Iranians.
So it is not strange at all that today Bolaño is starting to make a name for himself among the Iranian literature lovers who are able to read him in English, and translators are beginning to rush to get their hands on one or another book of his, even though his bigger novels won’t have a chance of legal uncensored publication inside Iran. And like a little girl who feels proud of her discovery, whenever I hear comments like, “Have you heard of this guy, Bolaño? Check out Savage Detectives. It’s fucking great. The man is a genius,” from my Iranian friends, I smile a proud smile and reply, “I have already read all his works. I have already made love to him.”
Bolaño is a man I can never be rid of. My encounter with him more than three years ago has changed my life and my ideas about writing in so many ways. When I first started my masters in creative writing, I thought that I could keep my life and literature apart. But reading Bolaño’s works one after another as they came into publication in English, and being enchanted by them, along with the developments in the political social situation of Iran in the past year or so, has pushed me into an unexpected realm: the realm of literature being one’s life, the realm of literature being a dangerous vocation.
When I was back in Tehran, one summer night two years ago, I sat cross-legged on the floor of the balcony and typed these words on my computer:
I am sitting on the terrace of one of the most expensive apartment buildings in this melancholy city that is Tehran with the melody of Sidsel Endresen running through my ears, getting high hours after several puffs of hash and a couple shots of vodka failed to get me even close; getting high with the music and the residues of the perpetual fear of a night in Chile and Mexico City and the Sonora desert and Bolaño’s words running through my cells; getting high with the humming sound that can be an airplane flying over, in the skies, or a heavy truck with a load of cement blocks or steel rods driving below, on the ground.
Sitting where I am sitting. In the space in between. Far from the earth, not really in the skies, amidst the notes of music and the heavenly smell of jasmine in the flowerpots of the terrace; amidst the city lights and the river of cars and trucks working at night, which resurrect the nostalgia for the once-upon-a-time darkness and silence of a big villa that rested in a secluded alley; amidst the many pale stars sparkling in the sky where each and every molecule in the air smells of smoke and dust. And still the scent of the jasmines does not cease its stubborn dance around the notes of the music.
And all this vividly mingles in my mind with the question Bolaño raises repeatedly: Is there a solution? And I wonder whether he had found any definite answer. I wonder and I look beyond the computer screen, beyond the fences of the balcony on the fourteenth floor at the sparkling lights of this city that never sleeps, not as New York never sleeps, but, nonetheless, it never sleeps and stays awake in its own drunkenness, in its own lostness, in its own randomness and haphazardness. I wonder and I realize I am just one ghost among all the ghosts residing in this city and I feel that even as ghosts we are running out of life …
That night little did I know that the waves of history and time and the secret jokes of destiny would one day turn these very words into a novella heavily guided and influenced by Bolaño. That first encounter between me and Roberto Bolaño was meant to happen, at the time it happened and the way it happened. It was meant to be, because with the way the world around me as an Iranian writer has spun, I could not make it without Bolaño keeping my back on this path. It was through his words and stories, through the greatness and uniqueness of those words and stories, that I realized that I have no choice but to live literature.
Raha Namy, an English-Persian translator and editor, is a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins Master of Arts in Writing. Her thesis consists of a novella heavily influenced by Bolaño, set in Tehran in the months leading to the disputed June presidential election and weeks after it. She is right now working on a collection of short stories.
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