D. H. Lawrence, from “We need one another,” 1930
On first appearance nothing but a so-so mystery with a not very satisfying conclusion. It would be a shame to be fooled by appearances however; in fact this short little number brilliantly achieves two things: 1) it explains the Fascist personality with a terrifying brevity 2) exudes Bolaño’s magical wordsmithery. As this is my first encounter with the man, I was struck by both, but this is not a blog for serious literary criticism so I’ll only comment on the first.
The plot focuses on exiled Chilean writer Arturo B. and his efforts, at first intentional, then not so much, at tracking down his co-national, fellow literary figure, and serial killer - a mysterious man named Carlos Wieder. Arturo (a not very disguised stand-in for Bolaño himself) first becomes acquainted with Wieder thanks to a poetry circle that they both frequented as students in early 70s Concepción. Yet they never become friends. Wieder (whose actual name is Alberto Ruiz-Tagle) comes across as very strange in fact. In Allende’s Chile,
we spoke a sort of slang or jargon derived in equal parts from Marx and Mandrake the Magician (we were mostly members or sympathisers of the MIR or Trotskyist parties, although a few of us belonged to the Young Socialists or the Communist Party or one of the leftist Catholic parties).
spoke Spanish, the Spanish of certain parts of Chile (mental rather than physical regions) where time seems to have come to a standstill. …[He] lived on his own, in a flat near the centre of town, with four rooms and the curtains permanently drawn. …[He] was never short of money.
At first sight an apolitical middle-class bohemian. But Wieder is no such thing. He is a psychopathic and fanatically reactionary chameleon waiting for the opportune moment to strike. Bolaño goes into great detail (using amazingly few words) describing Wieder’s coming-into-his-own as a military thug/literary superhero after the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet’s junta into power (and with it a vicious white terror). Almost immediately after the Allende government collapsed in fact, Wieder commits his first act of murderous “poetry”. The victims are the Garmendia sisters, literary gifted twins, and oblivious friends of Wieder’s:
Everyone is asleep. [Wieder] has probably slept with Veronica Garmendia. …[He] gets up like a sleepwalker, without hesitation, and quietly searches the house. He is looking for the aunt’s bedroom. ..[He] finds the aunt’s room, on the ground floor next to the kitchen. …And as he slips into the the aunt’s room he hears the sound of a car approaching the house. He smiles; no time to lose. In a bound he is beside the bed. In his right hand, he holds a curved knife, he cuts her throat. …Soon he is at the front door, breathing normally, letting in the four men who came in the car. They greet him with a discreet but respectful nod. … With these men the night comes into the Garmendias’ house. Fifteen minutes later, or ten perhaps, when they leave, the night leaves with them. …And the bodies will never be found.
Granted that my knowledge of junta-controlled Chile is only cursory, this passage is I think perfectly evocative of the terror and the bloodshed that thousands and thousands of ordinary Chileans fell victim to after 1973. In fact, it encapsulates the violence of the (police) state in general. It would make as much sense if the story were set in the Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.
But this is not all. Bolaño does not stop at merely describing the deeds, but delves, almost like a literary Lombroso, deeply into the motives and the logic of the criminal. Wieder ends up murdering other people (mostly women), but he is not just a typical thug; he is also a poet, and the way he writes his poems is with smoke, from an aeroplane.
Over the presidential palace of La Moneda, he wrote the third line: Death is responsability. Some pedestrians saw him: a beetle-like silhouette against the dark and threatening sky. Very few could decipher his words: the wind effaced them almost straight away. …On the way back to the airstrup he wrote the fourth and fifth lines: Death is love and Death is growth. When the strip came into sight, he wrote: Death is communion.
The disgust and disturbing grotesquery that this passage manages to conjure up is truly remarkable (and there are others like it in the book, but this is the best one I think). It certainly surpasses mere documentary/historical evidence in that respect, like this picture for example:
Or this one:
The hideous Fascist obsession with death and its “purifying” qualities (encapsulated by the slogan ”¡Viva la Muerte!”, which became a battle cry of sorts for the Falangist hordes during the Spanish Civil War) is not news, but to see it take a supposedly “artistic” dimension is truly sickening, and I think Bolaño is one of the first to describe such a transformation in a work of fiction.
To conclude, I am reminded of Miguel de Unamuno’s words as he addressed José Millán Astray (key Falangist and coiner of ”¡Viva la Muerte!”), and the future fascist establishment at the University of Salamanca in 1936:
I have just heard the senseless and necrophiliac cry of ‘Viva la muerte!’ To me this is the same as crying Death to Life! And I, who have spent my life creating paradoxes … , I have to tell you … that this outlandish paradox seems to me to be repellent... You will win but you will not convince. You will win because you have more than enough brute force; but you will not convince, because to convince means to persuade. And to persuade you need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle.
Paris, 2 years before “le mouvement de mai” is not terribly interesting. Paul, the “unstable youth”, is a PCF fellow traveler who’d rather talk the talk than walk the walk (when asked by his “syndicaliste” friend Robert to help with union organizing he says he’ll “think about it”). His girlfriend, the doe-eyed aspiring pop star, has a lovely smile (too bad Chantal Goya never really starred in anything major after this film) but has nothing relevant to say. Her friend, Elisabeth, whom Robert is unrequitedly in love with, is equally boring. All of them are in fact (even Robert seems like more of a CGT bureaucrat in the making than a selfless class warrior).
No one drinks Coca-Cola (although there is a cute reference to the “Pepsi generation”), and certainly no one has anything to say about Marx. They are more the children of petits fonctionnaires, grudgingly making the transition from tradtionalism to consumerism (Paul still prefers Bach to Dylan).
The “verité-style” mini-interviews are perhaps the best commentary on pre-1968 youth culture. The one with the “Miss 19 girl” is particularly telling:
The image of a happy-go-lucky yé-yé getting bombarded with “serious”, political questions is more than just a cheap laugh; it is indicative of the disconnect between the post-war “technocratic society” (including its occasional would-be critics like Paul), and the oncoming wave of student revolutionary fervor. In the words of Alain Touraine:
Before May , limited intellectual arguments had questioned this or that aspect of the dominant social order. But the May movement, by its very existence, went beyond the multiplicity of social, national, or international problems and revealed that the system of power and domination was a unified phenomenon. [Alain Touraine, The May Movement, p.34]