Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño

Even the most enthusiastic admirers of the late Roberto Bolaño must wonder sometimes if there is really a case for posthumously publishing everything that he ever wrote.
You could be forgiven for thinking that some of the material being presented as lost masterpieces originated as a few scribbled notes on a torn cigarette packet.
Certainly the first story in this collection, “Jim,” would seem to fit into that category—a brief sketch of the sort of character who weaves in and out of Bolaño’s novels, but who has gotten lost and ended up stranded here by himself with nowhere to go.
However, the other four stories and the two essays in this collection are pure Bolaño gold.
Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey, rather than the collection’s title story—“The Insufferable Gaucho ”—is the stand-out piece.
Another writer could easily have spun out and entire novel from the premise, but in just under 40 pages Bolaño sets the scene, establishes his main character, takes him through a life-changing adventure, and leaves him on the final page psychologically battered and bruised but with new insights into the world.
Álvaro Rousselot is an Argentinian writer, working in the middle of the last century who realizes that the plots of his novels are being plagiarized by a French film director. Three of Rousselot’s novels are thematically outlined by Bolaño, and the character’s development as a writer analyzed before we are even 10 pages into the story.
It gathers pace when Rousselot is given an opportunity to travel to Europe with a delegation of Argentinian authors, some of whose characteristics are briefly outlined—does Bolaño want us to identify them as Borges or Macedonio Fernandez?
When the rest of the delegation returns to Europe, Rousselot travels to Paris where he intends to confront the plagiarist film director. However, he becomes caught up in a swirl of debauchery, drink, and a passionate affair with a prostitute. The scenario has all the hallmarks of a 1970s French movie—perhaps Bolaño knowingly plagiarized the trope, in a self-knowing reversal to the premise of his short story?
The final story is also worth mentioning. “Two Catholic Tales” contains a pair of seemingly disparate narratives that suddenly come together in a twist that Roald Dahl would have been proud of.
Of the two essays which round off the collection, “Literature + Illness = Illness” is the most illuminating, giving us an insight into Bolaño’s psyche as he comes to terms with his own terminal illness. It is not as grim as it sounds and we are given some enlightening insights into the late Chilean’s take on poetry and poetic inspiration.
The Insufferable Gaucho will please existing Bolaño aficionados and serve as a good introduction to newcomers.
(This review was written for and first published on The New York Journal of Books.)

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Venus on Earth by Dengue Fever

Californian psychedelia fused with Asian pop and clever whimsical lyrics fuse together to give Dengue Fever their signature sound.
Occasionally the lyrics are sung in Khmer by Cambodian vocalist Chhom Nimo. Her Yoko Onoish singing is layered over indie guitar riffs and an organ sound that would not be out of place in a 1960s sci-fi movie.
The strongest tracks on Venus on Earth are the earliers ones on the album, in particular Tiger Phone Card (my own particular favourite) and Sober Driver, both which involve vocal interplay between Nimo and guitarist Zac Holtzman.
Compared to Nimo’s assured delivery Holtzman’s voice by contrast is vulnerable, almost whinging as he berates his Asian muse for mistreating him.
Vocals aside the Cambodian influences are there, but never overstated. Dengue Fever’s sound is said to be based on a briefly flourishing Cambodian pop scene from the early 1970s, whose musicians were mostly murdered by the Khmer Rouge.
Knowing this is not essential to an appreciation of Venus on Earth but it does serve as a dark subtext to its cheery infectiousness.
Dengue Fever have a new album out, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, and an earlier one, Escape from Dragon House, which on the basis of Venue on Earth will definitely have to be sampled.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Tranquillity of Stone

Tranquillity of Stone is my new collection of poems and has just been published by Lapwing Publications. The cover is by critically-acclaimed artist Maurice Burns. You can preview and read the first few pages at Google Books. Copies are available from the publisher at Lapwing Publications, Amazon.co.uk or directly from me.
It includes a sequence called Sweeny King which is very loosely based on the story of a seventh century king who went mad after being cursed by a christian monk.
The 16th century middle Irish text has been translated by Trevor Joyce and Seamus Heaney and even Flann O'Brien in At Swim Two Birds. Joyce's rendition, which is included in the fantastically titled With The First Dream of Fire They Hunt the Cold, is my favourite.
My own take on the story is by no means a translation, although it does use some of the imagery, but a starting point for a modern take on some of the themes.

from Sweeny King


His skin has been gouged
by bramble and briar
torn by wind-whipped thorn
plucked open by whin
and frozen by snow,
flesh, raw and on fire.
Naked and bleeding
half alive
he shivers under a bush
blood drops quiver
like new-sprung blooms
stolen bundles of fruit.

This second poem is a stand-alone piece and I think is my favourite one in the collection.


The rooks chant vespers
in their leafy stalls,
black-cowled monks
croaking pagan prayers
to their crow god,
late comers circle in twilight,
dark angels among elms
that caw
throaty hymns of praise.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

My Life As A Russian Novel by Emmanuel Carrère

Emmanuel Carrère occasionally reaches Dostoyevskian heights of anguish in this memoir. Although he doesn’t actually murder anyone like Rasklonikov in Crime and Punishment, he plunges into states of intense introspection and despair to produce some psychologically tortured prose.
Carrère is a French filmmaker, novelist, and biographer. My Life As A Russian Novel, translated from French, is written mostly in the first person but occasionally in the second, as he addresses both his former lover Sophie, and his mother, a leading French academic. Carrère utilizes various other literary tricks—changing tenses, planting information, laying false trails, and switching story lines at moments of crisis—to keep his readers in suspense.
There are two key strands to this memoir: his Russian ancestry, with a dark family secret, and his emotionally harrowing relationship with Sophie.
In the opening chapters he tells us of how he became involved in a film project focusing on the life of a Hungarian who was captured by the USSR during the Second World War and ended up spending half a century in a Russian asylum.
Carrère travels with a film crew to the town of Kotelnich, where the Hungarian was held, to investigate the story and while there finds Russian—a language that he has not spoken since childhood—coming back to him.
While the Hungarian’s story weaves in and out of the early pages, the focus shifts toward Kotelnich, the people who Carrère and his film crew meet there, and ultimately the writer’s Russian/Georgian background on his mother’s side.
Early on we are told that her father, whose family fled to France from Georgia to escape the Soviet regime, became a Nazi collaborator during the Second World War and disappeared without trace following France’s liberation.
Carrère’s relationship with his mother becomes strained as his interest in his grandfather grows. She fears that her son will write about the shameful family legacy that she has kept secret all her life and taint her with her father’s guilt.
Meanwhile, Sophie, who is much younger than him, has a fairly average job and is uncomfortable in the smug literary circles in which he moves.
A pornographic story he writes and addresses directly to her is published in the leading French newspaper Le Monde. It is supposed to be played out in real time as she sits on a train and contains precise instructions, often sexually explicit, about what she should do on her journey. Carrère, anticipating that other people on the train will be reading the story at the same time, encourages them to observe and take part.
The memoir gathers pace in the second half, and there are some extremely uncomfortable scenes in which Carrère’s domestic life rapidly unravels in a series of dramatic revelations.
My Life as a Russian Novel has a diary feel to it in which the writer has laid bare his soul, and this reviewer was left wondering if he should really be reading something so personal. Carrère’s portrait of himself is unflinchingly self-critical as he comes to realize how self-absorbed he is and the impact of his behavior on both Sophie and his mother.
Several shocks and disturbing twists in the narrative, along with attempts at psychological self-analysis, make this an intriguing, often unsettling, but extremely rewarding read. Fyodor would approve.
This review was written for and first published on The New York Journal of Books.