Sunday, September 14, 2014

Beauty and its Discontents

“According to Bibiano, he was describing an angel. A proudly human angel? I hazarded quoting Blas de Otero. No, dick-head, replied Bibiano, the angel of our misfortune.”––from A Distant Star, by Roberto Bolaño

Last winter, I took a long drive across the South Western United States.

I did so listening to an audio recording of Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star, and once again every moral imperative fiction has ever ignited in me, ignited all over again.

That experience––driving from California toward Albuquerque then taking a dramatic right turn toward everything south as Bolaño’s words rang in my ears––became a most dynamic literary experience.

In Distant Star the fundamental neutrality of language, even aesthetic language, and its potential to support a violent act as much as a beautiful one is foregrounded in a narratively audacious manner. The pursuit of beauty becomes justification for one writer to silence his poetic brothers and sisters with torture and death.

The earnest young poets of the novel’s early chapters, among them the Garamedias sisters, are caught up in Chile’s post-Allende period. I gasped when those sisters were rounded up, tortured, and murdered on orders from their former poetry workshop colleague, a writer calling himself Carlos Wieder.

Though I know a small something about this period in Chile’s history, I was pained that Wieder, a character who sincerely loved poetry, could also love fascism. Afterall, Wieder was just as motivated by an impulse to create beauty as the unsuspecting sisters. In the hours before he kills their aunt and ensures the sisters will be imprisoned and later executed, the poets sit peacefully, unsuspecting, discussing the great artists who preceded them. Each loves language with seemingly equal devotion.

Bolaño depicts resistance to Pinochet far less dramatically and heroically than is typical in a piece of fiction. Among the writers who stand against the regime are Distant Star’s narrator and his friend, Bibiano. These two never gain half the writerly reputation as the fictional Wieder. Ambitious but nevertheless failed poets recur in Bolaño’s work again and again. I must admit such characters fascinate and repel me.

I too am an ambitious writer. I too am mired in the problematic pursuit of beauty, all kinds of beauty through language. I too have a belief that literature can somehow save us, even as I carry the undeniable realization that language can just as easily blind us to our crimes and help perpetuate them. Literature silences some voices just as easily as it amplifies others.

Again and again, Bolaño makes this aspect of narrative and poetic language part of a larger moral landscape.

In this manner, my drive through a North America desert was linked to political events in a country far from my home, a country nevertheless shaped by the historical forces set in motion, in large part, by my native land––the United States. Distant Star connected me to the moral complexity of creating fiction and the dangers of such an unsteady tool as language.

No comments:

Post a Comment