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Roberto Bolaño–Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 (2011)



SOUNDTRACK: PUBLIC ENEMY-Fear of a Black Planet (1990).

NPR recently broadcast a PE show from the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival.  I didn’t know that PE was still touring, so that was a surprise to me.  The show was largely a celebration of Fear of a Black Planet, which meant that I had to go back and listen to the original.

Man, is this a solid album.  The lyrics pack a punch even twenty years later and what is perhaps more amazing is that the sound collages that Terminator X created, which were something of an oppressive sonic assault are now fairly mainstream-sounding (forward thinking or what?).

What I like about this (and most PE) albums, is that  they have little skits between songs, but unlike most rap skits they’re not one-not jokes that you listen to once and then skip every future time.  A wonderful skit (for lack of a better word) is “Incident at 66.6 FM” in which we hear an amazing amount of racist epithets thrown at PE apparently on the radio.  Or the rather disturbing “Meet the G That Killed Me.”  “Anti-Nigger Machine” is a great collage of samples like “Think” and James Brown and a dozen more songs.

“Can’t Do Nuttin for Ya, Man!” is a (sort of) comic song from Flav that is catchy as anything. While “Reggie Jax” is a confusingly titled song that has nothing to do with baseball, but everything to do with funk.

Of course, this disc has some of PE’s best songs as well.  From the awesome “911 is a Joke” to one of the best rap songs ever, “Welcome to the Terrordome” (my favorite story of this song is when I was wearing a  Welcome to the Terrordome shirt and my philosophy professor asked me quite pointedly, “What in the hell is a terrordome.”  That was a fun conversation).  “Terrordome” is still amazing–powerful, musically intense and for all of its lyrical acuity, it still has funny moments….boing.

And of course, “Burn Hollywood Burn” is an amazing critique of the movie industry (and it’s catchy too).  I got Black Caesar back at the crib, right Lar?

I’ve always been a little confused by “Pollywannacracker.”  Not lyrically, but vocally, as Chuck’s (is it really Chuck?) voice is treated in a surprisingly tinny way.  I liked the song more on this listen than any other, I guess in the past it just kind of snuck by me.

The album is a little front loaded with greatness.   “Power to the People” is another powerful song, but it’s not quite as memorable as the other tracks.  “Fear of a Black Planet” has some really cool sounds on it (where did they get that “black man, black woman, black baby” sample?).   “Revolutionary Generation” is a great track in which Chuck and Flav stand up for black women: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, my sister’s not my enemy.”  Not your average rap subject.

And the last couple of proper songs, “B Side Wins Again” and “War at 33 1/3″ are fast paced and furious, but they don’t really have much in the way of a hook.  Nevertheless, lyrically they are really great, and I love to hear Chuck D flow that quickly.

The biggest surprise for me is the censored version of “Fight the Power” (the song that got me into PE in the first place, thanks Spike).  It’s really surprising to me that PE allowed their music to be bleeped–unless it was just for a deliberate radio play (which I can accept).  Although they also list a title as “Leave This Off You Fu*Kin Charts” (did I buy a Columbia House version or something?)

This is an amazing album, one that still sounds fresh and sadly, is still relevant.

[READ: October 15, 2011] Between Parentheses

I never expected to get so addicted to Roberto Bolaño.  And despite his death, there is no shortage of works coming out in English (that is one of the advantages to reading a translated author–even death doesn’t cease the available materials).  Indeed, this year alone, New Directions is publishing Between Parentheses, and Tres and FSG is publishing The Third Reich (a collection of non fiction, a collection of poetry and a novel respectively).

When I really get into an author, I fall for his or her works, not necessarily him or her as a person (heck, some author are downright jerks).  But there are some authors that I want to know about, personally.  Bolaño is a pretty polarizing figure–he seems obnoxious, his works don’t shy away from very specific opinons, and sometimes it’s unclear what kind of views Bolaño himself has in his works (or if he’s even telling the truth about his so-called truths).  One thing in particular is the constant use of the word “faggot.”  It is used often in 2666 (and I know that is a translator’s choice, but still) and used deragoatorily.  Now, clearly the context is everything for something like that.  But it seems to speak badly of Bolaño.  And yet, when reading these essays he is not homophobnic in the least.  He is obvously well aware of institutionalized homophobia in Latin America, and he is obviously not supportive of it.

But that’s just one interesting thing about this book.  So let me back up.

This is (as the subtitle suggests) a collection of various non-fictions from Bolaño.  It’s broken into 6 sections: 1. Three Insufferable Speeches 2. Fragments of a Return to the Native Land  3. Between Parentheses  4. Scenes  5. The Brave Librarian  6. The Private Life of a Novelist.  And before I forget, Natasha Wimmer’s traslation is engaging and fast paced.  She finds the perfect words to match the tone of these articles (see this post for some examples).

Normally, I try to write a few words about every short piece included in a book, but since there are over 100 individual items (most of them 2 pages or less), I will skip that and briefly mention what each section is.

1. Three Insufferable Speeches.  These are indeed three speeches (although hardly insufferable) that were given at various Literary Conventions.  Most of the pieces in this book relate to Bolaño’s views on liteature and his love and adoration for certain writers (he mentions Borges 35 times in the book) and his dismissal of other writers (man, he does not like Isabel Allende).  But unlike the impression I got from elsewhere, Bolaño is actually quite supportive of a lot of contemporary and even younger writers.  He applauds many and has even written reviews and introductions for many of them.  These speeches laud others and are actually self deprecating about himself.

2. Fragments of a Return to the Native Land.  Bolaño was born in Chile.   He moved to Mexico as a youngster and then moved back to Chile just in time to get arrested by the Pinochet government (although this New York Times article suggests that he may have made up that entire incident as fiction (along with his heroin addiction!)).  This section is a group of essays and speeches having to do with Chile (of which he is, shall we say, disdainful).  But most of his arguments and critcisms are of politics (it’s hard to argue that Pinochet was a bad guy) and the failure of the left to address the onslaught of the right.  An understanding of Chileans and South American politics helps for this section.

3. Between Parentheses.  At three times during his later life (he died in July 2003), Bolaño wrote a column for Spanish-language newspapers (after living in Mexico he settled in Blanes, Spain).  As with everything that Bolaño has written there’s some confusion for the casual reader about exactly what the hell is going on with these articles.  Here we have articles that he submitted to one paper and then resubmitted to another.  (This is similar to a tactic he used with his short stories–he submitted the same story to different contests, only changing the title.  He often won both).

i.  (Jan 1999-Apr 2000).  In January 1999, Bolaño wrote for the Diari de Girona (in a Catalan city named Girona) until the spring of 2000.  (These were translated from Spanish to Catalan, when the editor could find the originals, they were included in this volume.  When the originals could not be found, they did not bother using the Catalan translation (and then have it retranslated back into Spanish (or in our case English)), so they just oleft them out.

ii.  (May 1999-July 2001).  In the spring of 2000, he began writing for a Chilean newspaper La Últimas Noticias.  He recycled many of the articles from the Diari and published them in La Última.  The ones that he recycled are printed here in section ii. (hence the crazy date structure for this section).   The ones that did not get recycled are in section i.

iii. (Sept 2002-Jan 2003).  After retiring from La Última, he recanted and came back a year or so later and continued to write his Between Parentheses Column.  The introduction of the book explains that Bolaño fully intended to have these articles collected at some point.  And there are evidently numerous letters backs and forth with the paper’s editor about what to call the column (with many funny titles suggested like “Thus Spake Bolaño”).  So he intended these for posterity.  And I enjoyed them very much.  They were all very short (most about a page and a half) and it was basically an opportunity for Bolaño to talk about whatever was on his mind: whether it was other writers (very often) or films, or life in general.  His articles were pithy, often surpruingly funny and–even if I have no idea who he was talking about–always enjoyable.  If for no other reason than you learn a bit more baout Bolaño himself (even if it they are ostenibly about Rodrigo Lira, for example).

4. Scenes.  This is a collection of essays about travelling.  They were written for various sources, but most often for newspaper supplements.  For a man who was ill and seemingly dying, he sure travelled a lot: although most seem to have been for conferences.  Several of these articles are also about Blanes and Chile.

5. The Brave Libraian.  These essyas are laregly about young writers (again most of whom I have not heard) like Enrique Vila-Matas or Jaime Bayly.  But the opening article, “Our Guide to the Abyss” is all about Adventures of Huickleberry Finn (and a little about Moby-Dick).  Bolaño states that The Savage Detectives is sort of his answer to Huck Finn.

6. The Private Life of a Novelist.  This section contians several short pieces about what it’s like to be a writer (advice on writing short stories can be summed up: have mutiple stories going at once and read Edgar Allan Poe).  He writes a tiny bit about The Savage Detetcives and also about stealing books in his youth.

The final piece is an interview with mexican Playboy.  Monica Maristain asks some wonderful questions, and Bolaño seems to really engage with her, answering some tough questions as well as some softballs.  But it makes for a very engaging and often quite funny interview.

He’s also amusing in more subtle ways, like his joke about Putins (which he says is not a diminutive for of puta (which means whore), but a story about Vladimir Putin.  Or how about this wonderful quote: “I enjoy vegetarian food the way I enjoy a kick in the stomach.”

In sevearl of the articles Bolaño dismisses memoir and autobiograohy.  In “Autobiographies: Amis & Ellroy” he reviews Martin Amis’ and James Ellroy’s (and says that Ellroy’s is much better), but he says that any writer should be working on writing not on reliving their life and past glories.  And so we will never see a memoir from Bolaño.  But these essays work to put some pieces together of the man himself.  Bolaño was nortious about his melding of fact and fiction (witness, well, everything he’s every written).  His novels have characters named Belano who seem very much like him.   And many of the episodes he recounts here have been fictionalized to some degree in his books.

One piece in here, “Beach” is one that talks about his heroin addiction.  And yet there is some dispute as to whether or not the piece is even non-fiction (Bolaño never told).  Another piece “Jim” also appears in his short story collection The Insufferable Gaucho.  So is it an essay or a story?  Does it matter?

Another thing that is similar in his fiction as well as in these articles is his utter lack of fact-checking when telling stories.  Not saying that he makes up facts, just simply that he says I forget or I don’t know or it’s not important.  Like in “The Lost” where he says, “…he’s killing imself to protest the recent increase in the price of bread.  Or sugar.  I can’t rememebr which.”  Or in “Wilcock,” he says, “…he was sent books by Anagrama, why I don’t remember.”  Or how about, “When I was eighteen I read a book by Ivan Turgenev that dogged me for the next eighteen years….  I don’t even remember the title….  I can’t be sure but I think it was Rudin.”

This whole lack of specificity gives his essays (and his stories) a casualness that is somehow endearing and somehow gives an air of urgency to his writing–what I’m writing can’t be stopped for me to look up the details.  And I rather like that careferee nature.  It also seems to make his stories flow even more briskly.

And yet he is also very specific.  The index to this book is over 7 pages long–Bolaño talks about everyone!  from River Phoenix (in an essay called “Chilean Literature” of all things), to Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, whom he greatly respects (especially his book Ferdydurke).  From the classics like Jonathan Swift, Turgenev and Dostoevsky to painters, like Picasso, Dalí and Titian to contemporary authors David Foster Wallace, Douglas Coupland, and Don DeLillo to contemporary Spanish writers (most of whom I have never heard of: Rodrigo Rey Rosa or Javier Cercas,  and of course classic Spanish authors like Mario Vargas Llosa and Cervantes and some writers that I will definietly check out Javier Marías, César Aira and yes, Borges.

If you don’t care about Bolaño there’s probably no reason to read these pieces. Although, he is a profoundly opinioated man and, as I said, I didn’t know who most of these pieces were about and yet I still enjoyed reading them.  If you’re at all interested in Bolaño himself, this is a great place to find some things straight form the man’s mouth (although surely many things are in quotation marks)–and you can read what he really says about Isabel Allende.  At the very least, read the Playboy interview, and you’ll find a charming, enagaging, self deprectaing, opinionated man.

It’s a wonderful collection.

For ease of searching I include:  Javier Marias, Cesar Aira, Salvador Dali, Roberto Bolano.



The BEST holidays

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