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Review of Jerry García's Looking Like the Enemy: Japanese Mexicans, the Mexican State, and US Hegemony, 1897-1945.
Jerry García. Looking Like the Enemy: Japanese Mexicans, the Mexican State, and US
Hegemony, 1897-1945. Tucson: University of Arizona Press: 2014. History: Reviews of
New Books 44:1, (Feb. 2014): 25-26.
University of California, Merced
For a copy of the published review, click here
Jerry García. Looking Like the Enemy: Japanese Mexicans, the Mexican State, and US Hegemony, 1897-1945. Tucson: University of Arizona Press: 2014. 249 pages. ISBN 978-0-8165-3025-0
Evelyn Hu-DeHart's pioneering work on the Chinese in Mexico was followed by the recent publications of Robert Chao Romero's The Chinese in Mexico 1882-1940, Grace Peña Delgado's Making the Chinese Mexican and María Schiavone Camacho's Chinese Mexicans. These three hemispheric approaches revise the social history of Chinese community in Mexico, covering a lacuna in the history of Mexico and the Mexico-U.S. borderlands. Proving the vitality of the relatively new subfield of the history of Asians in the Americas, Jerry García, an expert of the Chicano and Mexican experience in the United States, like Robert Chao Romero, expands the reach of his research in his outstanding study Looking Like the Enemy: Japanese Mexicans, the Mexican State, and US Hegemony, 1897-1945.
This eye-opening book, the first English-language history of the Japanese experience in Mexico, reveals the very different experience that the Nikkei community has had in Mexico, in comparison with the Chinese community in Mexico and the Nikkei communities in other countries of the Americas. It also offers new information on the modus operandi of the Mexican government, in particular in relations with its trilateral relations with the United States and Japan: “Although Mexico denied any alliance with the Japanese empire, it nevertheless used the deteriorating Japanese-US relations as leverage to antagonize the United States as an early form of diplomatic weapons of the weak” (187). According to García, among the reasons for the more positive experience of the Nikkei community in Mexico are the high level of social integration and intermarriage between Japanese men and Mexican women; the friendly relations between the Mexican and Japanese governments; the relatively small community that was not seen as an economic threat (unlike the Chinese community); and the general acceptance of the Japanese by the Mexican population. Yet, like other Nikkei communities in the Americas, it also suffered discrimination, racism and displacement.
Generally following a chronological order, García explains that, although the small presence of Japanese nationals in Mexico goes back to the colonial era, the massive arrival of Japanese immigrants as unskilled labor began in the late nineteenth century, with the Enomoto Colony in Chiapas. In fact, it took place earlier than in any other Latin American country. In the following decades, the Japanese settled in the northern states, looking for jobs in agriculture, mining and mercantile businesses, but also attracted by the proximity to the United States, were many eventually moved without authorization. The military rise of the Japanese Empire had negative consequences for them, as they began to be seen with suspicion as a fifth column, “yellow peril,” and unfit for citizenship, particularly after the intense political propaganda and the “impact of hemispheric Orientalism” (11) promoted by the United States. On the other hand, many Mexicans admired Japan’s economic and political challenge to the West, and believed that this military prowess was innate to all Japanese: “most of the revolutionary factions welcomed with open arms any Japanese male who wanted to fight within their ranks based on the belief that all Japanese had been trained as imperial soldiers” (187). This, according to García, “imbued them with elements of whiteness, due to a perception that Japan not only reached parity with Western military powers but also defeated them, thus placing them on par with the West” (186).
García also studies the participation of Japanese Mexicans during the Mexican Revolution as combatants, mercenaries, spies, and casualties. Among the mercenaries were two Japanese nationals who reportedly were hired by the U.S. to assassinate Pancho Villa and who actually tried to poison him. But perhaps the most fascinating episode of the Japanese diaspora in Mexico is their forced removal from coastal and northern areas, relocating thousands of them in haciendas, which functioned as quasi-internment camps (with no barbwire or soldiers aiming at them) in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Since the Mexican government ordered the removal but provided no economic or logistical support, the Nikkei had to fund their own exile (“self-exile” is the term used by García) and organize themselves under the guidance of the Comité Japonés de Ayuda Mutua, which provided valuable resistance against the Mexican and U.S. governments. Many, however, resisted this removal. That is the case of the Nikkei in Chiapas who, taking advantage of the decentered political apparatus, convinced the state government to protect them. Eventually, in García’s view, this relocation ended up reinforcing Japanese ethnic identity. However, some Japanese were detained, interrogated, and sent to internment camps in the United States and Mexico.
While this is a commendable study, I would like to point out a few problematic areas. For example, the author seems to purposely avoid the terms such as “Issei” or “Nikkei” and, at time, it becomes unclear whether the “Japanese Mexicans” he mentions, are first, second, or third generation. A case in point is the following confusing phrase: “since the majority of the Japanese in Mexico were loyal Mexicans” (140). This use of terminology also creates difficulties in understanding the numbers used to represent the Japanese community. Thus, while in one chapter we learn that by the end of the 1930s there were only 7,785 of Japanese in Mexico (it is unclear whether the author is referring to Japanese nationals, without including their descendants), later we are told that in 1940 there were 18,197 Nikkei. To continue with the use of terms, the explanation about the different uses of “concentration camp” or “internment camp” should have been provided earlier in the book, rather than in the conclusion. Likewise, the victimization of Japanese who were confused with Chinese nationals during the massacre of Torreón, only mentioned in passing in the conclusion, should have been analyzed in the chapter devoted to the Mexican Revolution. In other cases, the author mentions historical events, such as the Plan the San Diego, seemingly assuming that his readers are familiar with them.
On the other hand, in Chapter 3, García claims that “Mexico became the first nation to sign a treaty with Japan based on equal treatment, not once, but twice” (81). Yet, he does not provide a date for this treaty. It is important to note here that the Peruvian government established formal commercial ties with Japan as early as 1873, which granted most favored nation status to Peru; this was, however, an "unequal" treaty in favor of Peru. And finally, besides a tendency toward repetition throughout the text, and a few minor errors (the Spanish Civil War did not begin in 1935, pg. 134), there are some unfortunate word choices, such as the title of the section “Kiso Tsuru: The Enigmatic Japanese Mexican,” if we consider that the word “enigmatic” is a stereotypical epithet that has been used to essentialize Asians over the years.
In any case, overall, this is a highly recommended book for scholars interested in the Asian diaspora in the Americas as well as in the workings of the Mexican state. One of its many virtues is the use of a hemispheric approach, which compares the Japanese experience in Mexico with those of the Japanese in the United States, Brazil and Peru. It is very well written and it provides a wealth of information on a virtually unknown aspect of Mexican history and of the history of the Japanese diaspora in the Americas.
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Why didn’t Amberes embarrass Roberto Bolaño? The Reification of Anti-Realism and an Interest in Disinterestedness
University of California, Merced
Critical Insights: Roberto Bolaño. Ed. Ignacio López-Calvo. Hackensack, NJ. Salem Press, 2015. 189-206.
For a printed copy, click here
In the second chapter of his Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews argues that “Bolaño’s work insistently invites us to construct a figure of the author, which we should distinguish conceptually from the writer Roberto Bolaño” (x). In this essay, I use the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories to contend that, while it is true that the Chilean often invites his readers to construct a mental image of the author, we should not always distinguish this author in his texts from real-life Bolaño himself. In fact, in several texts, and particularly in the opening remarks of Amberes (Antwerp, 2002), a sort of preface tellingly titled “Anarquía total: veintidós años después” (“Total Anarchy: Twenty-Two Years later), the real-life author does strive to portray himself (or a certain stage of his writing career) as a Latin American bohemian or poète maudit, hoping that the marginality that marked many years of his life will add to his credibility as a “pure” and “disinterested” writer. Along these lines, Andrews denies any sort of nostalgia for marginality or any desire to remain pure from corruption by honors and commercial success on the part of Bolaño: “I think it would be wrong to draw such a conclusion, for two reasons. First, Bolaño was closely acquainted with the practical discomfort of a marginality unsupported by cultural institutions. And second, in his work, marginality is not guarantee of aesthetic achievement or ethical integrity” (7). Yet, this is not what transpires from Bolaño’s descriptions of his own life in interviews or in the preface to Amberes, for example, where, in my view, the recollection of his idealist youth, bohemian lifestyle, and economic insecurities (living “A la intemperie” [“Out in the Cold”], as the title of one of the essays in Entre Paréntesis [Between Parentheses] defines it) is aimed precisely at gaining credibility as a “pure” writer.
Bolaño is better known for his masterpieces 2666 (2004), Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives, 1998), Nocturno de Chile (By Night in Chile, 1999), and Estrella distante (Distant Star, 1996). His eighth published novel (or novella), Amberes, has not received similar critical attention mostly because, among other factors, it is not as reader-friendly as the other ones. The illegibility and hermeticism of Amberes was apparently intentional, as evident in one of Bolaño’s answers in an interview with Felipe Ossandón, in the Chilean journal El Mercurio, on February 14, 2003: “I like Amberes very much, perhaps because when I wrote that novel I was another person, in principle much younger and perhaps braver than now. And the exercise of literature was much more radical than today, because now I try, within certain limits, to be intelligible. Back then, I didn’t give a damn if I was understood or not.”1. In Bolaño’s mind, therefore, the experimental form and structure of this novella reflected his view of a type of personal writing that was pure, devoid of conventions and far from traditional, realist models in which successful communication with the reader was a priority. Amberes, in other words, reminded Bolaño of his youth, which he associated with radicalism, bravery, innocence, and selflessness.
In this essay, I explore plausible reasons Bolaño claimed that Amberes was the only one of his novels that did not embarrass him (and, by extension, why he also stated, in an interview with Mónica Maristáin, that his poetry collections embarrassed him less than his prose books). I argue that one of the reasons is that Amberes embodies the radical, anti-realist novel that Julio Cortázar proposed in the “dispensable” chapters of Rayuela (Hopscotch, 1963), even though the Argentine author fell short of implementing his own rules in the rest of the novel, leaving the challenge for his experimental novel 62 modelo para armar (62: A Model Kit, 1968). Indeed, Bolaño declared his admiration for Cortázar in his 2004 volume Entre paréntesis. Ensayos, artículos y discursos (1998-2003) (Between Parentheses. Essays, Articles, and Speeches, [1998-2003]), edited by his friend Ignacio Echevarría. Writing about Argentine literature in the essay “Derivas de la pesada” (“The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom”), included in this book, he states: “there’s Cortázar, best of them all” (20).2 In particular, as we see in another essay of this collection titled “Bomarzo,” he admires his originality (“the most forward-looking in devising literary structures that could make strides into undiscovered territory [like Borges and Cortázar]” ),3 which he finds in Rayuela: “My generation, it goes without saying, fell in love with Hopscotch, because it was exactly what we needed, our salvation” (317). 4
Language and aesthetics have similar centrality in both texts, Amberes and Rayuela. Whereas Rayuela is not known as a reader-friendly novel, Amberes pushes the boundaries even further, forcing active readers to collaborate in the creation of meanings and challenging them to make sense of its disordered and non-linear structure. Its fragmented narrative, rather than a story, is a collage of sketches, motifs, and drifting, marginal characters that reappear time and again. Bolaño blends together impressionistic brush strokes of different stories in a confusing manner and without paying much attention to the conventions of traditional plot or narrative perspective. While in some passages Bolaño approaches the epistolary genre, others are close to a surrealist automatic writing and oneiric prose poetry, as seen in the following passage: “With the first puff, it occurs to him that monogamy moves with the same rigidity as the train. A cloud of opaline smoke covers his face. It occurs to him that the word ‘face’ creates its own blue eyes. Someone shouts. He looks at his feet planted on the floor. The word ‘shoes’ will never levitate. He sighs” (5-6).5 Or later, “The boss pays in heroin and the farm workers snort it in the furrows, on blankets, under scrawled plan trees that someone edits away” (10).6
Some passages flirt with incoherence, in part because some sentences are left hanging, seemingly disconnected with the rest of the paragraph, as if they were verses extracted from an unrelated poem. These loose sentences, according to Salas Durazo, sometimes “signal the reported speech of a character,” while other times they are part “of the written notes of an elusive author working on his text” (196). Along these lines, the almost telegraphic use of asyndeton typifies the strange language of this text, which shares similarities with stream of consciousness and the surrealists’ automatic writing technique: “I wanted to be alone too. In Antwerp or Barcelona. The moon. Animals fleeing. Highway accident. Fear! (Amberes 68).7 And although the avant-gardist Vicente Huidobro, one of the greatest Chilean poets, was not among Bolaño’s favorites, several passages of Amberes are certainly reminiscent of the metaphysical poem “Altazor o el viaje en paracaídas” (“Altazor or Voyage in parachute” 1931).
Besides including what seem to be passages from letters, verses from poems, synopses, scattered thoughts, memories, and dreams (“Yesterday I dreamed that I lived inside a hollow tree—soon the tree began to spin like a carousel and I felt as if the walls were closing on me” ),8 there are asides throughout the plot of Amberes explaining that someone applauds, thus suggesting that we are reading a dramatic text. The feeling of spontaneity and even improvisation is enhanced in some passages where one of Bolaño’s narrators, using the present tense, reviews his own life and his expatriate condition, often from a negative and pessimistic perspective. The plot also creates intertextualities with epigraphs about the end of life by seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal and American filmmaker David O. Selznick, included before the preface and the first chapter respectively. Through all this experimentalism, Bolaño avowedly tries to avoid the narrative techniques of Realism and of “bourgeois literature” in general.
There is no logical plot development or denouement in Amberes. Although the editors of Anagrama, Bolaño’s publishing house, go to great pains to establish some sort of plot in the back cover of the edition, their summary is somewhat misleading. We find out that there is a policeman (who becomes a first-person narrator in some chapters) lost in the route between Castelldefels and Barcelona; a mysterious red haired woman lost in a campsite everyone talks about but no one has seen; a hunchback homeless man who lives in the forest; mysterious murders that only a few locals remember; a few scattered sadomasochistic scenes with the policeman and the red haired woman; people walking by the ocean; and a film someone is projecting on a cloth hung between trees in the forest that may hide to the key to the story. This blurb may mislead the reader into assuming that it is a typical detective novel, rather than a loosely connected collection of fragmentary sentences and texts whose tenuous plot is full of narrative silences and, as is typical in Bolaño’s writing, eventually leaves the mystery unresolved. In addition, all characters in Amberes are underdeveloped and flat. But it is precisely the text’s lack of readability, its inaccessibility for readers without the literary competence to decode complex structures, which makes its author so proud.
Bolaño, therefore, brings to fruition the anti-realist advice provided by Cortázar in Rayuela. This anti-realist approach is noticeable in the misleading title of the novella, since the action does not take place in Antwerp, but in Catalonia. Only chapter 49 mentions that a man was killed in Antwerp after being run over by a truck full of pigs. Bolaño blends this information with a dialogue, in Barcelona, between an inebriated man and a woman who wants to be alone. Unsuccessful communication among human beings, the topic of this chapter, turns out to be a leitmotif throughout the novella. Amberes is, after all, a metatext about language, the role of the writer, and writing itself, as evidenced in chapter 47: “All writing on the edge hides a white mask. The rest: poor Bolaño writing at a pit stop. . . (‘Tell that stupid Arnold Bennet that all his rules about plot only apply to novels that are copies of other novels’) (64).9 In this passage, we first find Bolaño’s self-assessment of the autobiographical nature of his own writing. He then rejects realist models and announces a quest for uniqueness and originality that is noticeable throughout the novella. Completing this approach, the “Post scriptum,” signed in Barcelona in 1980, turns into a manifesto about writing as a tool for immortality as well as about the inseparability of life/ethics and writing/aesthetics: “Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength. (Significant, said the foreigner.) Odes to the human and the divine. Let my writing be like the verses by Leopardi that Daniel Biga recited on a Nordic bridge to gird himself with courage” (78).10
The Chilean author eliminates the realist novel’s dependence on cause and effect, turning instead confusion and disorder (rather than realist order) into acceptable parameters. As Andrews points out, Bolaño, even though he would eventually become an outstanding storyteller, spent decades trying to escape the art of storytelling, which he considered an “atavism”: “He had been writing and publishing postsurrealist poetry for twenty years. He had written but not published Antwerp, in which the story is pulverized thoroughly enough to satisfy the most radical advocates of the ‘new novel’” (70). Amberes is, indeed, as self-reflective and auto-referential as Rayuela, and even more experimental, less linear. Within this apparent disorder, however, the implicit author and his alter ego see in their writing a representation of reality, which they perceive as always already fragmented: “All I can come up with are stray sentences, he said, maybe because reality seems to me like a swarm of stray sentences” (42).11
Amberes and Rayuela also share philosophical leanings, as they approach the topics of love and life from a metaphysical perspective. Characters that feel overwhelmed by a barely veiled pessimism, existential angst, and sense of impotence populate both texts. Thus, perhaps marked by Bolaño’s precarious health and sense of mortality, one of his narrators in the second chapter confesses: “Then all that’s left is emptiness” (4).12 Later, in the eighth chapter, we read: “When you think about it, we’re not allowed much time here on Earth to make lives for ourselves: I mean, to scrape something together, get married, wait for death” (11).13 Characters in both texts also share an inability to communicate with others: “The language of others is unintelligible to me” (7),14 states a narrator also called Roberto Bolaño in Amberes.
Although in the preface to Amberes Bolaño claims that it took him several years to write the novella, in a note he wrote for the posthumous poetry collection La universidad desconocida (The Unknown University, 2007) the author states that it was written in 1980, while working as a night watchman at the Estrella de Mar campground in Casteldefels (443-56). However, it was not published until 2002, a year before his death, when the publishing house was aware that Bolaño’s fame would guarantee its sales. That he uncritically describes Amberes, a fragmented and disordered poetic narrative, as a novel is also noteworthy. In reality, none of his other novels is closer to his poetry collections than this novella, which he wrote when he was still mostly devoted to poetry. Tellingly, in 2007 an almost identical text to Amberes (but now titled “Gente que se aleja” [“People Walking Away”]) was included as poetry in La universidad desconocida. This ambivalence suggests that Amberes could be considered the missing link between Bolaño’s poetry writing and his narrative.
As Enrique Salas-Durazo and other scholars have pointed out, one of the most interesting traits of Amberes is the way in which it reveals, in a condensed fashion, many of the topics, tones, and traits of Bolaño’s writing. For this reason, the Argentine writer Rodrigo Fresán has called this novella the big bang of Bolaño’s literary world. In Amberes—as in 2666, Los detectives salvajes and other texts written by Bolaño—there are crimes, violence, and unresolved murders in a world of frustrated, misfit poets, who constantly write, overwhelmed by a Romantic melancholia. We also find corrupt policemen who foreshadow the ones in 2666; chapter 20 is the synopsis of a plot that is1996); and chapters 21 and 22 include similar drawings to the ones found in Los detectives salvajes. Moreover, in the preface to Amberes we learn that the original manuscript had many more pages: “the text tended to multiply itself, spreading like a sickness” (ix).15 This type of expanding literature is, of course, typical of Bolaño’s oeuvre. Many of Bolaño’s paragraphs are recycled (sometimes verbatim, others they are non-hierarchical variations) in different texts without falling into self-plagiarism, expanding rhizomatically without a clear conclusion and gaining additional connotations as they move from one text to the text. In fact, even in this short final version that ended up being published under the title Amberes, there are repetitions of the same scenes (like the first sentence in chapter 31), anecdotes, and motives, which resurface in other parts of the novella from a different perspective.
An Interest in Disinterestedness
But there is a second reason Amberes did not embarrass Bolaño, as his other works allegedly did: it reifies his interest in disinterestedness, as did his poetry collections. Bolaño shared this attitude with the rest of the infrarrealista movement, as Rubén Medina explains:
Publication was never the main goal of Infrarrealismo. In fact, on several occasions—during the final years of the 1970s and the entire following decade in Mexico—we, the infrarrealistas, consistently refused to be included in the anthologies and magazines of that time, either as a group or individually. The goal, to be precise, was to maintain our ethics: the ethics of writing even if it implied self-marginalization, a fragile existence as poets, remaining unpublished and in the black holes, not having a “legitimate” presence in the Mexican literary space or being seen as the expression of a Romantic infantilism for our intransigent position, as happened to the Dadaists. Rather than publishing, the fundamental thing was to explore the binomial life-writing as far as the senses, the forms would allow it.16
Following these infrarrealista premises, in his interviews, autobiographical writings, and declarations, Bolaño made it clear how his life and his writing (poetry writing initially) were inseparable. He wanted to make sure that his readers understood that the ethical-aesthetic mantra of Infrarrealismo had guided his life as well as his writing. In fact, his literary career, notwithstanding his lack of publications, was his life. Thus, addressing the ethical principles written by Bolaño in the infrarrealista manifesto “Déjenlo todo nuevamente” (Leave Everything Again), Medina clarifies: “The poet is characterized, in this context, by a precarious life, but not as a pre-condition to his true identity and search . . . but as a result of keeping one’s ethics while still being surrounded by the imposing economy of the modern and global world.”17
In the prologue to Amberes, Bolaño seems to claim that—in line with what he declared in the infrarrealista manifesto—he always fought against the norms of the cultural world: throughout his life he kept his ethics intact, always refusing to make writing just another profession and rejecting opportunism; always refusing to acquire respect, social mobility, and privilege through his writing in order to join a guild of people who feel superior to the rest of society. In other words, he went well beyond the changes that were limited to the aesthetic realm, as supposedly André Breton proposed in his 1922 surrealist manifesto “Lâchez tout” (Leave Everything). Yet, as Medina reminds us, at one point writing did become Bolaño’s profession, in contrast with his best friend, Mario Santiago, who continued with his marginal life until his death in 1998: “Bolaño assumes writing as his profession since the mid-1990s, he enters a powerful editorial market and during the last five years of his life, he reaches a great worldwide recognition for his writing, particularly for his narrative.”18 Bolaño even wrote Una novelita lumpen (A Little Lumpen Novelita, 2002), the last novel he published while still alive, to fulfill his contract obligation with a publishing house. In Medina’s view, “Bolaño’s entry to the editorial market, however, does not transform either his writing or his ethical position as a writer.”19 Indeed, he continued to be critical of the literary world and never took advantage of his new fame and prestige: “At no moment did Bolaño seek to create a literary mafia, obtain a position in a cultural institution for his personal benefit, or use his power to publish his friends’ texts or to destroy a fledging writer.”20
In line with these principles of interest in disinterestedness, Bolaño expressed on several occasions his disregard for either his critics’ or his readers’ opinions. For instance, he predicted, during a 1998 televised interview in Chile, that the publication of Los detectives salvajes would create many enemies for him. In Chris Andrews’s view, this suggests that the author “was working against his own success in the final years of his life. Another such indication is the choice he made in 2002 to publish the jagged and disoriented Antwerp, a manuscript dating back to 1979 and published posthumously in 2010. Of Antwerp he said in his last interview that it was the only novel of which he was not ashamed, perhaps because it remained unintelligible” (6). In the same vein, in the preface to Amberes, Bolaño declares that he had no target readers when he wrote this novella: “I wrote this book for myself, and even that I can’t be sure of. For a long time these were just loose pages that I reread and maybe tinkered with, convinced I had no time. . . . I wrote this book for the ghosts, who, because they’re outside of time, are the only ones with time” (ix).21 Similarly, he assured Maristain, in an interview, that he almost never thought about his readers (Between Parentheses 363). Regardless of their probable sincerity, all these answers, in my view, form part of the careful construction of his public persona.
Bolaño complemented the construction of this public persona in interviews with his autobiographical writing. Although, in his opus, one must be cautious not to assume the existence of autobiographical traits, one of the main narrators in Amberes (there is un unclear number of narrative voices) is seemingly autobiographic, a young Bolaño living in Barcelona in 1980: he is a South American expatriate in Catalonia named Roberto Bolaño, who works at night as a security guard at a campground, has had numerous odd jobs, foresees his upcoming death, suffers from insomnia, writes poetry, and smokes. Yet in chapter 19, another narrator suddenly speaks about Roberto Bolaño in the third person, making the reader wonder whether there has been a sudden change in narrative perspective or whether the narrator until this point in the novella was not really Bolaño. In any case, it is in the preface to Amberes where there is no doubt that the real-life Bolaño is painting a picture of himself for his readers, highlighting a rebellious attitude as a writer that, for many years, was translated to his daily life. He states, for example, that in his last year in Barcelona, thinking that he would not live much longer, he led the same bohemian and antisocial life of his admired poètes maudits, including Arthur Rimbaud: “In those days, if memory serves, I lived exposed to the elements, without my papers, the way other people live in castles” (ix).22 And a few paragraphs later, he adds, “Those things (rage, violence) are exhausting and I spent my days uselessly tired. I worked at night. During the day I wrote and read. I never slept. To keep awake, I drank coffee and smoked” (ix-x).23 Writing his preface in Blanes in 2002, twenty-two years after the events took place, Bolaño summarizes his irreverent way of being in the world by recalling the two words written in Polish on a paper, “Total anarchy,”24 which he stuck on the wall by his bed one day. Bolaño claims that at the time he was happy, as if the lack of attachment to material things or nationalities (“I felt equally distant from all the countries in the world [x])25 had freed his soul. As Salas Durazo points out, “One of the main themes in Antwerp is the relationship between the aspiring writer and the world, along with his attempt to express it” (194) and, indeed, this is a tortuous relationship in which the author repeatedly makes it clear that, for many years, he refused to abide by the rules of bourgeois society.
In this context, Pierre Bourdieu, in The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (1993), describes a similar disposition: “Gladiator or prostitute, the artist invents himself in suffering, in revolt, against the bourgeois, against money, by inventing a separate world where the laws of economic necessity are suspended, at least for a while, and where value is not measured by commercial success” (169). Bourdieu explains this phenomenon by studying the “habitus” of authors and artists, which he describes as lasting, acquired schemes of perception, thought, taste, and action. These patterns or dispositions, according to him, are the result of their individual or collective internalization of social structures or culture. In Bolaño’s case, it could be described—to use Bourdieu’s vocabulary again—as “a feel for the game” of literature, which provided him with the practical skills to navigate it without necessarily abiding by prescribed rules.
In this sense, I argue that Bolaño’s avowed decision to disregard his critics’ or readers’ opinions, declaring his “interest in disinterestedness,” is intimately associated to his desire for an associated symbolic capital in the field of literature. Thus, in the first page of the preface to Amberes, he proudly explains: “I never brought this novel to any publishing house, of course. They would’ve slammed the door in my face and I’d lost the copy” (ix).26 By initially turning his back to the sanction of the market, cultural agents (publishers, critics, editors) and cultural institutions (“literary mafias,” academies, prizes, honors), and, therefore, to economic profit, the Chilean author assumes to be gaining a “credit” that may eventually bring him recognition, once his “authenticity” and reputation have been established (in his case, with the recognition, also came celebrity and economic profits). This is evident in the preface, where he explains that his disease back then was rage, violence, and pride (could this pride be related to his detachment from literary circles?): “The scorn I felt for so-called official literature was great, though only a little greater than my scorn for marginal literature. But I believed in literature; or rather, I didn’t believe in arrivisme or opportunism or the whispering of sycophants. I did believe in vain gestures. I did believe in fate” (x).27 This fondness for “gestos inútiles” (vein gestures) is reminiscent of what Bourdieu termed “interest in disinterestedness.” Along these lines, the Chilean’s belief in “fate” perhaps refers to his faith in achieving literary recognition by following this path, which he considers the one chosen by genuine writers. His resentment against the literary world reappears in the seventh chapter, when one of the narrators states: “I’m alone, all the literary shit gradually falling by the way-side—poetry journals, limited editions, the whole dreary joke behind me now…” (10).28 As Andrews points out, Bolaño’s work “stigmatizes attraction to institutionally vested power and prestige” (186).
To return to Bourdieu’s theories, in contrast with the principles of ordinary economy, in the artistic and literary fields a lack of monetary gains, honors, or academic training may be considered actual virtues. Indeed, in Bolaño’s mind, the disinterested approach becomes a sine-qua-non condition for the path to becoming a consecrated writer. In his interview with Maristain, for instance, he declares not to care at all about the sales rankings of his books. Also for this reason, he cultivates a rebel image in his interviews and writings, as well as in his antagonistic interactions with most established artists during his youth—a sort of struggle to make his own mark (although the infrarrealista Rubén Medina claims that Bolaño was rarely present among the infrarrealistas who boycotted poetry readings [Andrews 22]). Bolaño’s initial decision to choose poetry and drama instead of more economically profitable literary genres, such as the novel and the essay, may also obey to this same frame of mind. Along these lines, one can sense an obvious pride in his having withstood so many hardships for so many years. Thus, in his interview with Maristain, he answers the question, “Have you experienced terrible hunger, bone-chilling cold, choking heat?,” with a veiled sense of pride: “I quote Vittorio Gassman from a movie: In all modesty, yes” (360).29 In the 1990s, however, his precarious economic situation and his desire to support his family would force him to go against his infrarrealista principles: he first turned to short narrative (even though, in a televised interview in Chile, he half-jokingly stated that writing in prose was in bad taste) in order to win Spanish regional literary awards and once his health began to deteriorate, to the novel, excelling at a more traditional style of storytelling, which at one time he had considered archaic.
For Bolaño, therefore, Amberes, unlike his other novels, represents the work of a pure writer in a confrontational relationship with the bourgeoisie, cultural agents, and institutions of the Republic of Letters. In this sense, according to Bourdieu,
the works produced by the field of restricted production . . . are “pure” because they demand of the receiver a specifically aesthetic disposition in accordance with the principles of their production. They are “abstract” because they call for a multiplicity of specific approaches . . . They are “esoteric” for all the above reasons and because their complex structure continually implies tacit reference to the entire history of previous structures, and is accessible only to those who possess practical or theoretical mastery of a refined code, of successive codes, and of the codes of these codes. (120)
Amberes consciously displays these traits summarized by Bourdieu: besides boasting novelty, originality, and the marks of rupture with its antecedents, it is a pure text because it demands a literary preparation and competence on the readers’ part, including an ability to accept a non-linear, non-realist narrative; it is also pure because, in its open and open-ended nature, it accepts multiple approaches and readings; and it is definitely esoteric in its hermeticism, only accessible to or decipherable by the initiated in both Bolaño’s writing and the principles or codes of the avant-garde.
Among other rituals in this almost ontological search for the image of the pure writer, Bolaño performed the typical prophetic denunciations, such as his derogative proclaims against Octavio Paz, the Boom and Post-Boom authors, or against the Chilean literature in exile, for example. Behind the rebellious demeanor, therefore, this provocative stance and the presumed disregard for material gratification were probably aimed, whether consciously or unconsciously, at accumulating a symbolic and cultural capital that would gain him the desired recognition among literary peers and, consequently, literary prestige and legitimacy. It would not be too far-fetched to assume that these lifestyle and demeanor were part of the life performance of the poète maudit personage that he so admired. But this disposition was, of course, not new. Bourdieu reminds us how advocates of pure art, such as Charles Baudelaire, invented “art for art’s sake” and a
social personage without precedent—the modern artist, full-time professional, indifferent to the exigencies for politics and morality, and recognizing no jurisdiction other than the specific norm of art. Through this they invented pure aesthetics, a point of view with universal applicability, with no other justification than that which if finds in itself. . . . Against bourgeois art, they wanted ethical freedom, even transgression, and above all distance from every institution, the state, the Academy, journalism. (199)
Overall, Amberes, and particularly its preface, is a testimony of Bolaño’s careful construction of a rebellious public persona that aligned itself with his image of the French poètes maudits whom he admired. But as Bourdieu has demonstrated, these choices, rather than rebellious or atypical, are in fact in line with the artistic and literary fields, where priorities actually run counter to societal economic rules. While it is true that it would be a mistake to identify all characters called Bolaño, Belano or B with the author himself, it is also true that the Chilean author did construct a detailed bohemian image of himself through his interviews, prefaces, and fiction that has undoubtedly contributed to the so-called Bolaño myth.
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1. “Amberes me gusta mucho, tal vez porque cuando escribí esa novela yo era otro, en principio mucho más joven y quizás más valiente y mejor que ahora. Y el ejercicio de la literatura era mucho más radical que hoy, que procuro, dentro de ciertos límites, ser inteligible. Entonces me importaba un comino que me entendieran o no” (113).
2. “Está Cortázar, que es el mejor” (Braithwaite 24).
3. “El más adelantado en concebir estructuras literarias capaces de internarse en territorios ignotos (como Borges y Cortázar)” (292).
4. “Mi generación, de más está decirlo, se enamoró de Rayuela, porque eso era lo justo y lo necesario y lo que nos salvaba” (293).
5. “Cuando exhale la primera bocanada piensa que la fidelidad se mueve con la misma rigidez que el tren. Una nube de humo opalino cubre su rostro. Piensa que la palabra ‘rostro’ crea sus propios ojos azules. Alguien grita. Observa sus pies fijos en el suelo. La palabra ‘zapatos’ jamás levitará” (19).
6. “El patrón paga con heroína y los campesinos esnifan en los surcos, tirados sobre las mantas, bajo palmeras escritas que alguien corrige y hace desaparecer” (26).
7. “También yo quise estar solo. En Amberes o en Barcelona. La luna. Animales que huyen. Accidente en la carretera. El miedo” (106).
8. “Ayer soñé que vivía en el interior de un árbol hueco, al poco rato el árbol empezaba a girar como un carrusel y yo sentía que las paredes se comprimían” (81).
9. “Toda escritura en el límite esconde una máscara blanca. Eso es todo. Siempre hay una jodida máscara. El resto: pobre Bolaño escribiendo en un alto en el camino. . . : (‘¡Díganle al estúpido de Arnold Benner que todas las reglas de construcción siguen siendo válidas sólo para las novelas que son copias de otras’)” (102).
10. “De lo perdido, de lo irremediablemente perdido, sólo deseo recuperar la disponibilidad cotidiana de mi escritura, líneas capaces de cogerme el pelo y levantarme cuando mi cuerpo ya no quiera aguantar más. (Significativo, dijo el extranjero.) A lo humano y a lo divino. Como esos versos de Leopardi que Daniel Biga recitaba en un puente nórdico para armarse de coraje, así sea mi escritura” (119).
11. “Sólo me salen frases sueltas, le dijo, tal vez porque la realidad me parece un enjambre de frases sueltas” (69).
12. “Después sólo resta el vacío” (17).
13. “Bien mirado, es poco el tiempo que nos dan para construir nuestra vida en la tierra, quiero decir: asegurar algo, casarse, esperar la muerte” (27).
14. “El lenguaje de los otros es ininteligible para mí” (22).
15. “El texto tendía a multiplicarse y a reproducirse como una enfermedad” (10).
16. “La consigna del infrarrealismo nunca fue la de publicar. De hecho, en varias ocasione—durante los años finales de los setenta y toda la siguiente década de los ochenta en México—los infrarrealistas nos negamos de manera consistente a ser incluidos en antologías y revistas de la época, como grupo o individualmente. La consigna, para ser precisos, era mantener una ética: una ética de la escritura aun si ésta implicaba la auto-marginación, una frágil existencia como poetas, permanecer inéditos y en los agujeros negros, no tener una presencia ‘legítima’ en el espacio literario mexicano y ser vistos como la expresión de un infantilismo romántico por nuestra posición intransigente, a la manera de los dadaístas. Más que la publicación, lo fundamental era explorar el binomio vida-escritura hasta donde lo permitieran los sentidos, las formas” (17)
17. “El poeta se caracteriza, en este contexto, por una vida precaria pero no como precondición de su verdadera identidad y búsqueda . . . , sino como resultado de mantener una ética en la impositiva economía del mundo moderno y global” (23).
18. “Bolaño asume la escritura como profesión desde mediados de los 90, entra a un poderoso mercado editorial y durante los últimos cinco años de su vida alcanza un gran reconocimiento mundial por su escritura, particularmente por su narrativa” (44).
19. “La entrada de Bolaño al mercado editorial, no obstante, no transforma su escritura ni posición ética como escritor” (51).
20. “En ningún momento Bolaño busca crear alguna mafia literaria, conseguir alguna posición en instituciones culturales para beneficio personal, ni usar su poder para publicar a sus amigos o destruir a un naciente escritor” (Medina 52).
21. “Escribí este libro para mí mismo, y ni de eso estoy muy seguro. Durante mucho tiempo sólo fueron páginas sueltas que releía y tal vez corregía convencido de que no tenía tiempo. . . . Escribí este libro para los fantasmas, que son los únicos que tienen tiempo porque están fuera del tiempo” (9).
22. “En aquellos días, si mal no recuerdo, vivía a la intemperie y sin permiso de residencia tal como otros viven en un castillo” (9).
23. “Estas cosas (rabia, violencia) agotan y yo me pasaba los días inútilmente cansado. Por las noches trabajaba. Durante el día escribía y leía. No dormía nunca. Me mantenía despierto tomando café y fumando” (10).
24. “Anarquía total.”
25. “Me sentía a una distancia equidistante de todos los países del mundo” (11).
26. “Por supuesto, nunca llevé esta novela a ninguna editorial. Me hubieran cerrado la puerta en las narices y habría perdido una copia. Ni siquiera la pasé, como se suele decir, a limpio” (9).
27. “El desprecio que sentía por la llamada literatura oficial era enorme, aunque solo un poco más grande que el que sentía por la literatura marginal. Pero creía en la literatura: es decir no creía ni en el arribismo ni en el oportunismo ni en los murmullos cortesanos. Sí en los gestos inútiles, sí en el destino” (10).
28. “Estoy solo, toda la mierda literaria ha ido quedando atrás, revistas de poesía, ediciones limitadas, todo ese chiste gris quedó atrás…” (25).
29. “¿Ha experimentado el hambre feroz, el frío que cala los huesos, el calor que deja sin aliento?”; “Cito a Vittorio Gassman en una película: Modestamente, sí” (335).
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