Really, truly remarkable. At times it's savage, terrifying, foreboding, and at others it's whimsical, bombastic and very very funny. With an impossibl...moreReally, truly remarkable. At times it's savage, terrifying, foreboding, and at others it's whimsical, bombastic and very very funny. With an impossibly huge cast, the story takes place over nearly a century; covering 3 continents and all levels of society with a narrative focus which is both detailed to the point of absurdity, yet which tears you away from events at points just when you're desperate to learn more. I wouldn't say that all of the 900 pages flew by, but it was gut-wrenching to finish the thing - leaves you wanting more, to say the least.
The story is about an aging German novelist who makes a journey to a violent Mexican city on the US boarder; a gang of adoring Literature professors who attempt to track him down there; their lives in the highest echelons of the European literary scene; a Chilean academic and his motherless daughter living in this fictional Mexican city, 'Santa Teresa'; her monied friends in the City's seedy underworld; the climate of misogyny and the violent fate of dozens of women in the city a year; the influence of US-corporate maquiladoras (factories) on the city's working life; the corruption of the city's political classes by drug barons; the floundering police investigation to find a single 'serial killer' responsible for the crimes; the life of the convicts in the Santa Teresa jail; the struggles of feminist activists to protest general apathy to the ongoing murders; the life of a herbalist mystic and her local radio appearances; the travels of a New York journalist writing for a black community magazine; an ageing ex-Black Panther activist turned recipe-book author; the only communist left in the city in the late eighties; the rise of fascism following WWI; the fate of POWs at the close of WW2 and of Jews on the eastern front.
A masterpiece of writing, undoubtedly, but what is most striking is what a damning picture of ourselves it paints. And not in a general, existential way, but directly to the era we currently live in. Society and morality is at the core of this novel, with the hopelessness of our culture's hellish representative - the fictional city Santa Teresa - showing us a culture which is both past the point of being able to solve its problems, and still unwilling to seriously confront them.
Though Bolano wears his stunning breadth of academic knowledge on his sleeve, the intellectuals of this novel are more blind than most of the characters to the decay of civilization represented in this point of intersection. The references are laid so thick throughout that they, and the human endeavour they represent, turn to a marsh of meaningless trivia. This is vividly portrayed in the second section, 'The Part About Amalfitano', in which the titular character loses his sanity despite his attempts to ground his mind in the figures of intellectual history. The theme of art's creation and permanence is a overriding obsession of the novel - and thinly veiled manifestos for Bolano's own intentions with this project are scattered in the mouths and minds of characters throughout (or hung out to dry).
Stylistically, it was very exciting. It's solidly 3rd person and, by default, journalistic and deliberately colorless, but the dynamics of the prose are completely unpredictable. It'll leap right into someone's most subjective, hallucinatory thoughts from broad daylight, and break off with complete immersion into huge, unspeakable reams of reported speech, transitioning into free indirect thought. It slides liberally in and out of direct and reported speech so that you're not sure whether you're only being briefed about some detail or whether you're being pulled right into a different, tangential story. On top of this, his characters are diverse, funny and human, despite being so enmeshed in symbolic events and curious correspondences with other characters in different sections. The book ends on a satisfyingly inconclusive note. The final scene is pitched just right, leaving you with a thought that combines a great deal of what you've read, yet leaving the question of what it ultimately means open-ended.
Just one thing, though - how was Archimboldi able to read Ansky's fireplace notes?(less)
A bombastic, funny and exceedingly humane journey, which takes a fair look at the failings and virtues of both white and Indian societies in a time of...moreA bombastic, funny and exceedingly humane journey, which takes a fair look at the failings and virtues of both white and Indian societies in a time of great violence and hardship all around. Jack Crabb/ Little Big Man is a character who says little but thinks quick, and has a weary, flippant wisdom about his narration that really makes you believe he has seen all he claims to. The Mark Twain comparisons are fully justified.
Whatever the judgement on that, I knowed right then that the Cheyenne way was finished as a mode of life. I saw this not in the present camp, but back in Denver; for truths are sometimes detected first in a place remote from the one to which they apply. Think of how if you was standing in China when gunpoweder had been invented, you could have known that thousands of mile away stone castles and armor was finished. (p.167)
A fantastic little story about American workers in 1920s Mexico, attempting to find their fortune whilst feverishly guarding their secret accumulation...moreA fantastic little story about American workers in 1920s Mexico, attempting to find their fortune whilst feverishly guarding their secret accumulation of wealth from sadistic, roaming bandits. Mexico in this novel is a place where working people are thrown about from poor paying job to poor paying job, with no place to live in except camps and hotels, and where the only cheer is found in retelling stories of glorious hidden riches. It's funny, gritty (for its time), humane and gripping.
Robbery, a constantly manifest threat from bandits, is a central metaphor in this novel for the state of the land the three male protagonists, Dobbs, Curtin and Howard, find themselves fighting for survival in. At one point, at the end of their work, the three discuss how to leave the land they have been upturning for gold, and the elderly Howard asks the younger men to consider that nature may appreciate being restored to the state it was in before they came. This merely bemuses the younger men, and they can only think of self-interested reasons for covering their tracks, e.g. if they wish to return to it in the future.
Howard realises that in reality they are robbing the earth's resources just the same as the bandits threaten to rob them. The massive demand for casual labor and short term projects made possible by enormous capital are as unsustainable as the actions of the bandits, too. By the end of the story, robbers are robbed themselves, and the great efforts to obtain the booty is cut short just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Traven's point, I think, is that work is something which can unite people and give life a purpose, but when you work only for gold only the worst parts of human nature can come out, and nobody really wins, who plays this game, except for a handful of winners and a whole lot of pipedreaming losers (who are, in this setting, brutally dispatched of).
No man has ever originated an idea. Any new idea is the crystallization of the ideas of thousands of other men. Then one man suddenly hits on the right word and the right expression for the new idea. And as soon as the word is there, hundreds of people realize that they has this idea long before.
When an enterprise takes definite shape in a man's mind, one can safely say that numbers of men all round him cherish the same or a similar plan. That is why movements catch on and spread like wildfire.(p.46)
All that might not have been so bad. The worst was that by taking out a licence [for a gold mining project], however careful you might be, you were pretty sure to bring bandits about your ears - those bandits who reap without sowing, who lie in wait for weeks and months while their victims do the hard work, and then fall upon them as soon as they load up to go, and take their gold from them. And not only their gold, but their donkeys and even the shirts from their backs. It is not easy to find the way back to civilisation without donkeys or trousers or shirts or boots. Often the bandits, realizing this, are kind enough to take their lives too rather than leave them in such a perplexity. Who is to say where the poor wretches have got to? The bush is so vast and so impenetrable and its dangers so many. Sometimes there is a search for a missing man. And before the search is even on foot the bush has disposed of the body almost to the last bone. From this last bone it has to be made out who the man was to whom the bone belonged. And the culprits, of course, will be brought to justice. But for that, they must first be caught. And because of this, the bandit's trade is an easy one, much easier than getting gold by the sweat of his brow.(p.64)
This is book with complex qualities. The narrative tricks you into sympathising with feelings that it later tears down as navel-gazing pomposity, and...moreThis is book with complex qualities. The narrative tricks you into sympathising with feelings that it later tears down as navel-gazing pomposity, and once it's built a feeling of optimism in you it continues to makes you feel deluded for your credulity.
It's a carefully structured story, claiming to be a manuscript left unpublished by an unemployed lodger; the retired, divorced scholar, Henry Haller. It is prefaced by the account of the son of the houseowner, who presents a vague picture of a man only met in casual acquaintance before he fled without a trace; an intellectual, quirky, polite, a drinker, a smoker, indoorsy. The manuscript itself is a stylised but journal-like story of his stay in the town. The first 'part' largely concerns his feelings of depression and philisophical dissatisfaction after nearly 50 years of living, alongside accounts of his aimless journies out to town. He explicitly tells us about his dreams, but even in his awakened state his accounts are dreamlike and infeasible, at times clearly the product of an insane mind.
Haller tells people his name is The Steppenwolf, an alter ego that represents his most self-destructive, unsocial thoughts. Conincidentally, one day he comes to acquire a book called 'A Treatise on The Steppenwolf'. The short text is a philosophical pamphlet that at first seems to vindicate Haller's most hateful conclusions regarding the average man through his own intellectual alienation; addressing Haller by name and echoing his philosophy of wild/civilised duality; but the text's attitude turns halfway through. It proceeds to accuse the aforementioned philosphy of self-serving egotism, and mock his view of age and personality as simplistic. Following his discovering of this strange document, he meets with an old friend, a professor, and burning this bridge spectacularly, Haller begins to contempalte suicide. So scared of his razor, he refuses to return home, staying in a bar in town. There he meets a free-spirited and aloof young woman, Hermine.
Haller's obsession with his own intellectual misery becomes replaced with a growing obsession with Hermine and her bohemian circle of friends, who challenge his aging sensibilities and tutor him in new, more youthful pleasures like dance, sex, drugs and jazz. As the book builds to its climax reality begins to merge with surreal symbols of time, personality, jealousy, aesthetics and violence, and events already described are cast into doubt. You find yourself returning in mind to the preface to anchor the story to some sense of reality, but at the same time Haller's rich flights of fantasy are so though-provoking that it's not clear which is the illustration of the other - a dreamy representation of some grim reality, or a fictional cast that represent Haller's internal aruments over his own nature.
The book is summarily about the pains of overbearing thought. It's outlook is more complex than the kind of self-pitying, glam-cynicism that Colin Wilson trumpets in The Outsider, however, as if any conclusion can be solidly made from the poetic jumble of images, dialogue and situation, it is that Hesse ridicules the sort of intellectual ludditedom that Haller often embodies. I don't feel like the ending should be taken as an inevitable and moral consequence of the thoughts and feelings that Haller indulges in, but the feeling remains that the root of his problems lie in his reluctance to learn from experience, rather than living his life through books and thought. The "manuscript"'s gradual disassociation from the everyday into free-flowing, associative imagery echoes a poignant metaphor that Haller himself makes to the landlady's son in the preface, quoting from an unnamed book of the philosopher Novalis:
'This is very good too, very good', he said, 'listen to this: "A man should be proud of suffering. All suffering is a reminder of our high estate." [Very] fine! Eighty years before Nietzsche. But that is not the sentence I meant. Wait a moment, here I have it. This: "Most men will not swim before they are able to." Isn't it witty? Naturally, they won't swim! They are born for the solid earth, not for water. And naturally they won't think. They are made for life, not for thought. Yes, and he who thinks, what's more, he who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown.' (p.21)
I really really liked this book. Not only was it colorful and witty, but it was heartwarming and, at time, melancholy, too. The narrator is a likeable...moreI really really liked this book. Not only was it colorful and witty, but it was heartwarming and, at time, melancholy, too. The narrator is a likeable young married man whose central American adventure begins with this unforgottable opening paragraph:
My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone. I was biding my time. This was October. They had taken my car and my Texaco card and my American Express card. Dupree had also take from the bedroom closet my good raincoat and a shotgun and perhaps some other articles. It was just like him to pick the .410 - a boy's first gun. I suppose he thought it wouldn't kick much, that it would kill or at least rip the flesh in a satisfying way without making a lot of noise or giving much of a jolt to his sloping monkey shoulder.
Ray Midge's personality is supremely rational, and his character serves as a straight man for the many unbalanced friends he makes on his road trip to find his wife - most notably the "Doctor" Reo Symes and his ancient, devoutly Christian mother, Mrs. Symes, whom he meets on the way through Mexico and British Hondouras, successively. He is not merely a spock-like walking encyclopedia, however - he is fundamentally sincere, trusting, good-natured and philisophical. Midge never once pities himself, even though he feels at one point or another all the normal human emotions of frustration, discomfort, love, lust and anger.
The novel begins with Midge tracing the eloped couple's whereabouts, and ends with Norma finally revealing the events behind those billings. Between these ends is a far fetched aventure, with characters as strong and memorable as Joseph Heller's, and a snappy, dry, distinctly Southern-eccentric sense of humour in the tradition of Mark Twain. It's very funny indeed.
Some quotes from my folded down pages:
I was starting off for Mexico in [Dupree's] junker without so much as a new fan belt. There were health bar wrappers, at least forty of them, all over the floor and seats and I hadn't even bothered to clean them out. It wasn't my car and I despised it. I had done some thinking too. The shock of clean oil or the stiffer tension of a new belt might have been just enough to upset the fragile equilibrium of the system. And I had worked it out that the high mileage was not really a disadvantage, reasoning in this specious way: that a man who has made it to the age of seventy-four has a very good chance of making it to seventy-six- a better chance, in fact, than a young man would have. [p.19]
-- "His mouth was bleeding from scurvy, from mucosal lesions and suppurating ulcers, his gums gone all spongy. He was a broken man all right but by God the work got done. He wrecked his health of that we might have Wings as Eagles."
The Doctor went on and on. He said that all other writing, compared to Dix's work, was just "foul grunting," I could understand how a man might say such things about the Bible or Koran, some holy book, but this Dix book, from what I could see of it , was nothing more than an inspirational work for salesmen. Still, I didn't want to judge it too quickly. There might be some useful tips in those pages, some Dix thoughts that would throw a new light on things, I was still on the alert for chance messages. [p.66]
-- Melba brought me her stories. They were in airmail tablets, written in a round script on bot hsides of the thin paper. One was about a red-haired beauty from New Orleans who went to New York and got a job as a secretary on the second floor of the Empire State Building. There were mysterious petty thefts in the office and the red-haired girl solved the mystery with her psychic powers. The thief turned out to be the boss himself and the girl lost her job and went back to New Orleans where she got another job that she liked better, although it didn't pay as well.
Melba had broken the transition problem wide open by starting almost every paragraph with "Moreover." She freely used "the former" and "the latter" and every time I ran into one of them I had to backtrack to see whom she was talking about. She was also fond of "inasmuch" and "crestfallen."
I read another story, an unfinished shocker about a father-and-son rape team who prowled the Laundromats of New Orleans. The leading character was a widow, a mature red-haired woman with nice skin. She had visions of the particular alleys and parts where the rapes were to occur but the police detectives wouldn't listen to her. "Bunk!" they said. She called them "the local gendarmes," and they in turn called all the girls "tomatoes." [p. 130]
Worth the hype etc. etc. etc. many people have consistently said for six generations now why now it's time for you to hunker down and read the damn th...moreWorth the hype etc. etc. etc. many people have consistently said for six generations now why now it's time for you to hunker down and read the damn thing. It's a healthy dose of literary greens and the historical highpoint of prose realism, probably of literary prose period; and written at a time in which writers like Eliot faced society in all it's clumsy, runaway hugeness.(less)
The Way of All Flesh is a really sharp social history of the author's age in 3 generations of one family. It's brisk and farcical throughout but on th...moreThe Way of All Flesh is a really sharp social history of the author's age in 3 generations of one family. It's brisk and farcical throughout but on the way Butler constructs some really painful confrontations between father and son, whose lasting damage and psychological realism puts forward a very depressing general account of family life and the bourgeois pressures of keeping the family's "station" stable across generations. Butler attacks a great deal through the learned voice of the protagonist's kindly, bachelor uncle, but generally these targets all represent forms of Victorian moral hypocrisy and of, alternatively, downright cynicism and corruption of the pampered educated elites, especially within the clergy.(less)