Chile spring: an installation of 10,000 clay flowers by the Chilean artist Fernando Casasempere at Somerset House in London, 2012. Photo: Getty
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Flowers from beyond the grave: The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño’s books are still appearing and we have not finished understanding them. 

The Insufferable Gaucho 
Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews
Picador, 176pp, £14.99

Last year, I asked Carolina López, Roberto Bolaño’s widow, what it had been like to watch her late husband’s work spread far beyond Spain towards global renown. At first I thought she replied that the “explosion” of his work had been a bad time for her. (“Because Roberto wasn’t there,” she added.) In fact, she hadn’t said anything about an explosión but had used the similar-sounding word eclosión, which means something more like flowering or blooming.

López’s term is apposite. Bolaño’s books are still appearing and we have not finished understanding them. In the UK, we lag behind the Spanish versions by between five and ten years, so we are still catching up with works that were published in the author’s lifetime or just after. This new collection, which includes five stories and two essays, is said to have been the last book he prepared before his death in 2003.

The title story features rabbits that may have murderous designs. Manuel Pereda, a lawyer from Buenos Aires, has a political awakening and returns to a ruined family ranch on the pampas. He stops washing and takes to riding his horse into bars, where he slurps eau de vie and spits on the floor. Pereda’s son, a debonair novelist from the city, visits at one point with his publisher. Pereda and the publisher are out riding one day when a rabbit leaps up out of nowhere and bites the publisher’s neck. “From where he was, all Pereda saw was a dark shape springing from the ground, tracing an arc toward the publisher’s head, and then disappearing.”

Bolaño traced a similar trajectory. The Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas has said that Bolaño’s great early novel The Savage Detectives did not emerge from nothing, as some have thought, but from the “implacable machine of anonymity”. The years of thankless scribbling in the critical dark, Vila-Matas argues, gave Bolaño an unstoppable energy and creativity. (He was about to revise the drafts of 2666, widely regarded as his masterwork, when he died.)

He appeared, delivered his mordant message and vanished again only too soon. It was mordant but not unmitigated: in Bolaño’s work, humour often functions to undermine the sense of threat. The literary world is a frequent butt of this bathos. When one of the son’s friends, another ambitious literary type anxious about his connections, sees blood on the editor’s neck, he exclaims, “Son of a bitch! . . . Your dad’s gone and killed our publisher.”

Writers often teeter on this knife edge between violence and absurdity in Bolaño’s work. They either come across as charlatans or as anarchic, Rimbaldian prophets not yet properly understood. It is up to the reader to pass judgement. In the first story, “Jim”, the narrator sees a friend of his watching a fire-eater in the street. Jim is so transfixed by the spectacle that he is still watching the performer when all the other bystanders have moved on. It is as though he alone has understood; the fire-eater (or the writer) is performing exclusively for him.

Other stories explore the writer’s anxiety over whether he will ever be understood. In “Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey”, the novelist Rousselot, at first irate that a film-maker called Morini seems to be plagiarising his plots, is then crushed to see further Morini films that bear no resemblance to his succeeding novels. Rousselot is “preoccupied by the thought that he had lost his best reader, the reader for whom he had really been writing, the only one who was capable of responding to his work”.

The pair of stories in “Two Catholic Tales” are from a different mould. Devoid of the humour that flashes through the other pieces, they evoke the sinister, hallucinatory atmosphere of the sections of The Savage Detectives narrated by Joaquín Font as he languishes in a psychiatric hospital. “The Myths of Cthulhu”, the final essay in the collection, finds Bolaño on more typical form, showing off his caustic wit, complaining that writers are not the hedonistic tearaways they used to be: “Vargas Llosa never gave a better lesson in literature than when he went jogging at the crack of dawn.”

This is the armour of the posturing Bolaño: the competitive shell that keeps us out of his non-fiction. In the fiction there is more nuance. Bolaño knew that, like all writers, his eventual fate would be oblivion. Whether his work bloomed like a flower or exploded like a bomb, the dust would some day settle on it. Rousselot is described at one point as “one of the five rising stars among the nation’s younger writers”. Two senten­ces later, even that (gently ironic) honour is tainted: “It is common knowledge that the rising stars of any literary world are like flowers that bloom and fade in a day; and whether the day is literal and brief or stretches out over ten or twenty years, it must eventually come to an end.”

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

BBC
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Was this Apple Tree Yard sex scene written by a sexually frustrated politician?

No mortal can resist the Chapel in the Crypt.

After much anticipation, the BBC’s Apple Tree Yard, an adaptation of Louise Doughty’s novel, aired last night. Newspapers had whispered excitedly over its opening sex scenes – the Sun exclaimed that this would be “the most explicit bonkbuster yet” (whatever that means), as the first episode would have more than five minutes of graphic sex throughout, in locations as varied as a toilet and an alleyway.

But the most toe-curling scenes of all occurred in a grander location – Westminster Palace. Dr Yvonne Carmichael (Emily Watson) meets a tall, dark and handsome stranger after giving evidence on genomes to the government (as all politics nerds know, there is nothing sexier than a select committee meeting.) What follows feels like the erotic fanfiction of a political hack who has spent far too much time at the Houses of Parliament.

They “run into each other” in the canteen, and flirt in Westminster Hall. Yvonne is about to leave - then our politico stranger brings out the big guns. Yep, the alpha move of all Westminster workers and tour guides. Here it comes.

Pow. No mortal can resist the Chapel in the Crypt. As he runs off to get the keys, Yvonne’s loser husband Gary texts her.

Ugh, boring Gary, sat at home sniffling. You can just tell from a text like that that Gary has never been to the Houses of Parliament. Gary refers to the whole palace as “Big Ben”. Gary’s never even heard of the Chapel in the Crypt.

Not like this bloody Keeper of the Keys.

So in they go to the chapel, handsome stranger smoothly remarking that you can get married in here, because, as he knows, weddings are basically porn to women (seeing as they don’t watch actual porn). The sexual tension is palpable as he deploys facts about royal peculiars, Oliver Cromwell’s horses and Lord Chamberlain.

Yvonne gets dust on her coat, and our man hands her a handkerchief, because he really knows what he’s doing.

If you’ve ever been to the Chapel in the Crypt, you know what’s coming next. “That’s not the best bit,” says the stranger, walking over to a cupboard at the back. Yes, here comes the pièce de résistance, the sexual cherry on top of this weird fucking cake. “You’ve come this far,” he says lightly, but he knows this is the point of no return: if Yvonne sees this next reveal she will surely be a lost woman.

They creep into the cupboard, where he shows here the back of the door. YES, IT’S THE TONY BENN EMILY WILDING DAVISON PLAQUE!!!!!!!!!!!!

In one fell swoop, this complete stranger has persuaded a beautiful woman to climb into a dark and secret broom cupboard with him, whilst he simultaneously shows off his feminist credentials. He even explains who this iconic feminist was to Yvonne. A man showing off a plaque, made by another man to commemorate a dead Suffragette, to a woman. I have literally never seen anything more feminist in my fucking life.

And then, of course, they bang, right in front of the plaque. Did Emily Wilding Davison die for this? Probably.

It brings a tear to one’s eye. Undoubtedly this is the perfect British politics geek’s sex scene, and I, for one, applaud the BBC for this brave and stunning work.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.