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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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem