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bookish pharmacists

...Amalfitano asked him what books he liked and what book he was reading, just to make conversation. Without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Simple Heart, A Christmas Carol. And then he said that he was reading Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. Leaving aside the fact that A Simple Heart and A Christmas Carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been Trakl or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

- Roberto Bolaño, from '2666'

As in 'The Savage Detectives', Bolaño slyly lets one of his characters describe the book itself, which definitely ranks as a "great, imperfect, torrential work". '2666' was Bolaño's last work, a sprawling novel clocking in at almost 900 pages, of which only the first draft was completed before his death in 2004. It is a novel like a hurricane, violently revolving around an empty center, a deliberately unspecified linking pin - except that it is "something, that something that terrifies us all..."

Another interesting link with 'The Savage Detectives' is provided in the book's afterword by Ignacio Echevarría, who writes:

Among Bolaño's notes for 2666 there appears the single line: "The narrator of 2666 is Arturo Belano."

the savage detectives

What an impossible book to summarize, Roberto Bolaño 's ' The Savage Detectives '. An exploded novel with dozens of narrators and a frenzied story spilling out from 1975 Mexico City into three continents and two decades... A tragi… Read the full post »

four comments

And, dear B, do you agree with this hierarchical categorization of 'books' and 'stories'? I'm afraid I do not - I feel Mr Bolano, or his literary spokesman, got it wrong - it is not a question of the one being superior to the other. Even if so, one might just as well argue that the density of a (short) story is similar to that of a poem - and hasn't poetry always been regarded as (rightly so...?) superior to the art of the novel (which I think the narrator intends to refer to when speaking of 'books')? I am, nonetheless, intrigued by the words "now even" in combination with "bookish pharmacists": "What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown." What is the narrator trying to say about "now" - is he perhaps reproaching "our times" or "2666" for being cowardly (when it comes to literature)? Or am I getting it all wrong? You have obviously read 2666 - do tell me! Kind regards, T

Tessa , 06-09-’09 12:50

Glad you like the paradox, Tessa. Tho I don't think it's meant as a hierarchy, but more as a difference in scale of ambition. Stories like The Metamorphosis and Breakfast at Tiffany's are obviously brilliant, but they're limited in scope (that's the point of a short story, right?). On the other hand "the great, imperfect, torrential works" can be brilliant because of their vast scope and their attempt to contain the whole world in one great sweep. Of course this usually fails (they're "imperfect" works) but I think what Bolano is getting at is that there's a kind of tragic beauty in the attempt, in watching "the great masters struggle" - which in Bolano's bookish world becomes a metaphor for life as well...

So bookish pharmacists sounds like the type of reader who is willing to follow these "paths into the unknown". But if even they start preferring the little gems to the great unpolished standing stones, what's the world coming to? Who will be left to read 2666?

bv (URL), 06-09-’09 21:50

Thanks, Bernard, for an enlighting explanation of Bolano's ideas about novels vs. short stories. I was rather fond of my comparison between poetry and short stories, brought to life only to prove the latter's "superiority" to novels - but I realize it's a very dangerous one as it has a most awful limp (or two), if you'll excuse the Dutchism. Anyhow, I'll gladly abandon arguments in favour or against this or that genre's superiority over another for a good metaphor, and I do like Bolano's one, if I understand it correctly: books that (struggle to) 'blaze paths into the unknown' as a metaphor for (human) life. Seems like one the great master Dylan Thomas would have appreciated.

Tessa , 09-09-’09 20:37

Well, if you're looking for arguments for poetry's superiority, you'd better read 'The Savage Detectives' -- that's all about poetry (most of its protagonists are poets). By contrast, '2666' is about prose (novelists and critics). In fact, in '2666' Bolano mentions how all poetry can be contained in fiction. Not sure I agree with that, but it characterizes the book...

Here's the whole quote (which also nicely sums up Bolano's obsessional trinity of literature - sex - death):

"They talked about books, about poetry (Ingeborg asked Reiter why he didn't write poetry and he answered that all poetry, of any style, was contained or could be contained in fiction), about sex (they had made love in every possible way, or so they believed, and they theorized about new ways but came up only with death), and death."

bv (URL), 09-09-’09 22:33

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