Natasha Wimmer Interview about Bolaño at Conversational Reading

Conversational Reading has an interview with Natasha Wimmer about Roberto Bolaño’s latest book to be published in English, The Third Reich. It s a good interview, especially the parts about approaching a Bolaño novel.

SE: It’s interesting that you read the novel’s lack of a strong climax as a positive thing, since I’ve seen a number of reviewers ding The Third Reich for not having that one culminating scene of horror that many of Bolaño’s other novels accustom you to expect. (For my own part, I liked the anti-climax, regarding it more as a failure of Udo’s transformation than of Bolaño’s imagination.) To tie this in to your reading of the book as a farce, do you think there’s a certain perception out there of what Bolaño represents and that a book like Third Reich will be judged in terms of what’s accepted “Bolaño” instead of simply on its own terms?NW: Yes, I do think that there is a certain expectation of what a Bolaño novel will be, and I worried from the beginning that critics wouldn’t appreciate The Third Reich. Mostly I thought they would have problems with it on a sentence level, because Bolaño’s prose is thinner and more transparent than usual, with fewer of the oblique-lyrical moments that so dominate a novel like By Night in Chile, for example. My sense of the book, though, is that it’s one giant oblique-lyrical moment, and that the pacing is what gives it its stylistic edge and distinctiveness. It’s a book that leaves you feeling off-balance without realizing quite why, because the effect develops so gradually. I like your interpretation of the anti-climax as a reflection of the failure of Udo’s transformation, although I do think that he’s changed—diminished, or somehow shrunken—by his loss of faith in gaming, absurd or creepy as that faith was.

Manuel Puig Profiled in the Nation by Natasha Wimmer

The Nation has a profile of Manuel Puig  by Natasha Wimmer. The article is an occasion to discuss three of his books that have been brought out recently by Dalkey Archive. As her starting point she mentions that Puig’s reputation has always suffered a bit because he was a some times comedic writer during the Boom. (via Conversational Reading)

Manuel Puig occupies a curious place in Latin American literature. Chronologically, he should be a member of the Boom generation, but he’s rarely included in the usual catalog of Boom writers (Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes). This is not because he was less prominent, though since the 1980s his reputation has faded a little. His novels—especially Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976)—were internationally acclaimed and widely read. He was a genuinely popular writer while at the same time a radical innovator, with a subversive take on sexual and domestic affairs. Kiss of the Spider Woman was notorious for its frank depiction of a love affair between two prisoners; Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968) and Heartbreak Tango (1969), his first two novels, are kitschy tributes to the Argentina of his youth; his third, The Buenos Aires Affair (1973), is a frothy, Freudian noir.

From the perspective of some critics, the trouble with Puig wasn’t that he wrote about homosexuals and housewives. It was that he didn’t write about them seriously. His protagonists weren’t so much persecuted heroes or twisted victims (though they were that, too) as they were creatures of sentiment—and, often, figures of fun. What disqualified Puig (implicitly) as a member of the Boom was his lack of gravitas, both in fiction and in life. In a New York Times review of Suzanne Jill Levine’s highly entertaining and essential biography, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions (2000), Vargas Llosa writes disapprovingly about what he sees as Puig’s lack of dedication to the world of books: “Of all the writers I have known, the one who seemed least interested in literature was Manuel Puig (1932–90). He never talked about authors or books, and when a literary topic came up in conversation he would look bored and change the subject.” As Francisco Goldman points out in his excellent introduction to Heartbreak Tango, one of three Puig novels recently reissued by Dalkey Archive, this was unfair and ungenerous. Of all the writers of the Boom, Vargas Llosa might have been expected to understand and appreciate Puig, because he too has occasionally embraced what might be called the literature of cursi.

Cursi is possibly my favorite word in Spanish, and one of the most difficult to translate. Depending on the context, it might mean sentimental or prissy or precious or affected. It is the polar opposite of macho, which is the more familiar strain (at least abroad) of Spanish and Latin American culture. And yet cursi has a substantial history in Spanish-language fiction and poetry. The nineteenth century was its heyday, with novels like the tragic idyll María by the Colombian writer Jorge Isaacs and verse by the arch-cursi Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. Not coincidentally, Puig refers to Isaacs and Bécquer in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and The Buenos Aires Affair, respectively, the other two novels republished by Dalkey Archive. The literature of cursi blossomed again in the twentieth century, with Puig’s novels and work by writers like Alfredo Bryce Echenique, the delicious Jaime Bayly (as yet untranslated; for those who read Spanish, Yo amo a mi mami is the one to start with) and—yes—Vargas Llosa (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, most felicitously, but also the more recent The Bad Girl).

More on Mexican Noir and the Black Minutes

The Quarterly Conversation tipped me off to this review at the Nation written by the Translator Natasha Wimmer about the Black Minutes from Martín Solares. I’ve mentioned this book before and I continue to be intrigued by it. I think I will have to read it soon (and turn my gaze from Spain back to Mexico). Considering the troubles in Mexico the book seems timely, which may also be why it has been translated. Along with her praise of the book Wimmer gives some context to Mexican Noir, which is a new phenomenon, something that surprised me since I’m so used to the noir genre, even its imports from abroad. I wonder, though, if anyone can name noir works from Latin America as I’m at a loss at the moment?

Depending on how you look at it, the noir novel is either perfectly suited to Mexico or beside the point. It’s hard to imagine a plot that somehow encompasses the August massacre of seventy-two migrants in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, for example, or the Zacatecas jailbreak in late May when fifty-three inmates simply walked out of their cells. The scale of real-life crime is such that it dwarfs the classic private eye and makes him irrelevant.

And yet Martín Solares’s first novel, The Black Minutes, an uncommonly nuanced neo-noir—set, as it happens, in Tamaulipas—may be exactly the right book to read at the end of 2010, a particularly dark year in recent Mexican history. It’s crime fiction, but it’s also a meditation on corruption, and it captures the kind of nightmarish helplessness that many feel in the face of the tide of narco-violence sweeping the north of Mexico. In Tamaulipas alone, assassinations since June include the front-runner candidate for governor of the state and two mayors of a single small town over the course of two weeks. On September 19, after the killing of a photography intern, the Ciudad Juárez paper El Diario ran an extraordinary editorial asking the drug gangs for instruction: “We want you to explain to us what…we are supposed to publish or not publish…. You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city.” Scraping away some of the cool remove of the traditional noir, The Black Minutes gives a gorgeous, suffocating sense of life in Mexico’s sweltering northeast and an equally smothering sense of a justice system in which the concept of justice has been leached of meaning.