‘This is the peanut brittle equivalent of Bolano’ – The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano
Your enjoyment of The Insufferable Gaucho, the latest Bolano reissue and the last book he was apparently working on before he died, may initially best be viewed through your reaction to the cover quote from Patti Smith. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think of Patti Smith as a fountainhead of artistic integrity. A cover quote from Patti Smith is not akin to a cover quote from Roddy Doyle. When Patti speaks, we listen. And what does Patti have to say? Well:
“We savor all he has written as every offering is a portal into the elaborate terrain of his genius.”
We savor ALL HE HAS WRITTEN. Now, putting to one side how happy you would feel if Patti Smith felt that way about your creative endeavours, we have to ask the question (of you, dear reader) concerning your familiarity with Bolano. There seems to be something of an arc vis-à-vis your enjoyment of Bolano. You read one or two books, perhaps on the recommendations of friends (let’s say, 2666, for obvious reasons, The Savage Detectives – because real Bolano fans lap it up – and maybe Last Night in Chile or Nazi Literature in the Americas). Perhaps you are so enamoured that you read more – Amulet and Monsieur Pain and Antwerp and The Skating Rink and The Third Reich and The Return. It may be that there are Bolano fans who read everything and only want more (Patti, we are looking at you). At the same time, it may be that you start to feel that for every worthy Bolano book – and there are as many that we enjoyed as we didn’t enjoy in the list above – there is a book that should never have seen the light of day (Woes of the True Policeman, we are very definitely looking at you). Which somewhat colours your anticipation of a new (or at least a reissued) Bolano. Will I like this one? Will it feel arduous? Will I regret breaking open the cover?
The Insufferable Gaucho is a collection, which helps somewhat. This is the peanut brittle equivalent of Bolano, little pieces of varying shapes and sizes. This is Bolano you can pick up, put down, digest. This is Bolano whose tendency to overwhelm can be limited. Contained herein are five short stories and two essays. As with virtually all of the short story collections I read, I jumped about reading the pieces out of order, determined by length and at times inclination. So I kicked off with the book’s opener, ‘Joe’, a three page blink and you’ll miss it rumination on a guy that Bolano possibly knew (called Joe) who fought in Vietnam, became a poet, had a bad marriage and then disappeared. The majority of the – I don’t want to call it a tale, it’s more an aside – concerns the last time Bolano saw him, when Joe stood watching a flamethrower who appeared to be performing for Joe alone. It’s not bad but it’s also not much. So I flicked across to the first of the two essays, ‘Literature + Illness = Illness’, thinking: this book was the last book Bolano was putting together for publication before he passed away – perhaps illness sharpened his mind, contradicted his need to digress and wander and daydream, perhaps this essay will give us a genuine glimpse into the heart and mind of a man knocking on death’s door’. Or not. Like Nazi Literature…, ‘Literature + Illness…’ is driven by a series of subheads (ILLNESS AND PUBLIC SPEAKING, ILLNESS AND FREEDOM, ILLNESS AND HEIGHT) some of which work and some of which annoy (ILLNESS AND DIONYSUS). ILLNESS AND FRENCH POETRY is surprisingly fun, though, featuring as it does a sort of rumination on Mallarmé’s poem, ‘Brise Marine’ – in particularly the way in which Mallarme seems to be saying (according to Bolano) ‘that fucking and reading are boring in the end and that travel is the only way out.’ Which gives Bolano carte blanche to have a little rant about travel and how he is forgetting things as a result of the toxins in his liver. For a couple of pages, Bolano’s brilliance – his ability to fuse erudition with bloated arrogance and humility in a way that is arresting and complex and hilarious – makes the pages flame beneath your fingers. He goes on to talk about Baudelaire’s poem ‘The Voyage’ and his own travels and the piece is sustained and exhilarating and entertaining and – yes – worth reading.
Next we have ‘Two Catholic Tales’, in one of which a young man finds himself beset by thoughts of the suffering of the martyr, St Vincent, as he and his friend go to see too many movies – the second encapsulates what is, for me, the epitome of Bolano irritation. A series of seemingly random sentences you read thinking – why this sentence and not another, why this paragraph and not another, why this action and not another? There is an atrocity at its climax but the randomness undercuts the drama and it’s all a little – yes – boring. The second essay, ‘The Myths of Cthulthu’ takes issue with popular novelists – not that Bolano has anything against popular novelists per se, or people who read popular novelists in their multitudes – and we glimpse (or perhaps rather ‘mull over’ is a better way of putting it) Bolano’s approach, why he does what he does, and how. And we are also treated to a minor digression about sandwiches and a bit of a rumination on someone called Sanchez Drago (and again we wonder, as we have during many previous Bolano reading experiences, if Bolano himself is cut from such an alien cloth that perhaps our mind – by which I mean my mind – is just not up to the job of trying to work him out; which isn’t to say I’m entirely stupid and more to admit that perhaps I just don’t get Bolano and what he’s up to – perhaps I should just admit defeat?). There’s certainly a sense of superiority – which I’ve picked up before in the works of other novelists I’m not all that fond of – that sense of the writer being too good for almost any audience but at least in Bolano it’s somewhat undercut (see the title of the book).
Just as you wonder whether you should put the book down and read something else for a bit, you come to ‘Alvaro Rousselot’s Journey’, a proper story – like what you’d get in one of those dag-blamed popular novelist’s books – in which an Argentinian writer of growing repute comes to learn of a French film director who appears to be plagiarising his stories. The story breathes, takes its time getting where its going, has wit and pathos (all of the things that you imagine Bolano might well have sneered at) and culminates with a comic face-off and a surprisingly sweet phone call to a young prostitute who refers to Rousselot as cherie. The remaining two stories in the book – ‘Police Rat’ and ‘The Insufferable Gaucho’ are also – yes! – enormously good. The former concerns a police rat, that is a rat who investigates crimes that take place in the world of the rats, down in the sewers. There is a killer on the loose and our police rat – Pepe – starts to suspect that the killer is also a rat which his superiors refuse to believe as rats don’t kill rats. It’s a great, original, taut story that had this reader fully in the world of the story from beginning to end. ‘The Insufferable Gaucho’ concerns a judge who decides to go and live in the Pampas and restore his old house. Although we are taken through much of the judge’s adult life, the meat of the story concerns his time in the Pampas, buying horses and cows, hunting rabbits, and exploring in the company of guests his writer son brings from the city such as a publisher who gets his cheek bitten by a rabbit and a psychiatrist who seems to get on his nerves. Again, it’s a good story that plays to Bolano’s strengths and doesn’t wander too far from a straightforward narrative.
All told, then, The Insufferable Gaucho contains a little bit of every kind of Bolano, but pound for pound weighs in as one of the good ones.
Any Cop?: Patti Smith got it right this time. The Insufferable Gaucho is well worth a read.
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- February 20, 2014 / 8:04 am