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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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