Bolaño in the Americas: Old Debates Demand New Languageby Will Fenstermaker
Latin America is at peace. Civil wars have ended. Insurgencies have been pushed back. Old border disputes have been resolved. And just as old conflicts have receded, so too have the ideological battles that often fueled them—the old stale debates between state-run economies and unbridled capitalism; between the abuses of right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing insurgents… Those are false choices, and they don’t reflect today’s realities.
— Barack Obama, March 21, 2011, Santiago, Chile
On Friday, August 11, 2017, and throughout the subsequent weekend, Elle Reeve, a correspondent for VICE News Tonight, was embedded with an extremist cell that had traveled to North Carolina to attend the “Unite the Right” rally, which brought together the disparate alt-right confederacy. They came with guns. “They’re supposedly here to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee,” Reeve says in a documentary that aired that Sunday. “But they’re really here to show that they’re more than an internet meme—that they’re a big, real presence that can organize in physical space.”
This particular group’s leader is Christopher Cantwell, a self-identified neo-Nazi who, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “has called for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, and, in previous years, for the assassination of ordinary law enforcement officers and other government workers.” On November 8, 2016, Cantwell voted for the “God Emperor” Donald Trump, but not without some hesitations. He admits to Reeve that he’s bothered Trump “gave away” his daughter to a Jew. SPLC writes that Cantwell “sees Jews as agents of a communist menace” and holds “twisted fantasies involving Trump’s deputizing ‘Right Wing Death Squads’ and issuing ‘communist hunting license by executive order…’” As he speaks with Reeve, he wears a black t-shirt with white block letters across the front reading “Radical Agenda.” On the rear, also in white, is an image of a helicopter. Beneath it, near the small of Cantwell’s back, is a silhouette of a falling man.
The following day, “Unite the Right” erupted in violence. Three people—two police officers and a counter-protestor, Heather Heyer—died: Heyer struck by a vehicle as it ran through a crowd; Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen and State Trooper Berke M. M. Bates when their helicopter fell from the sky.
“I think that a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here, frankly,” Cantwell said. “Why? Because people die every day. […] These people want violence and the right is just meeting market demand.”
As these events unfolded, Caborca, a Brooklyn-based theater company, was preparing for the opening of its adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s 1996 novel, Distant Star. Narrated by Bolaño’s semi-autobiographical pseudonym, Arturo Belano (who also narrates Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666), the novel dramatizes—or, perhaps, poeticizes—a group of students living under Chile’s military junta. Their time, like ours, is one in which any promise of a better world seems suspended. It was only eighteen days after the world’s first democratically elected Marxist president appointed his commander-in-chief that Salvador Allende—according to official Chilean reports—committed suicide while under siege in his presidential palace. The date was September 11, 1973. Some estimates say that under General Augusto Pinochet’s regime that followed as many as 30,000 people were killed by the Chilean government and up to an estimated million more were tortured. In addition, a 1992 Truth Commission uncovered documentation of 3,428 disappearances, the source of the term los desaparecidos (the disappeared) in modern political lexicon. It’s a mistake to believe all of los desaparecidos are dead. Some escaped. Many were children, made orphans by the coup and relocated into families by the Catholic Church. In Argentina, Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo dedicate themselves to finding los desaparecidos of their country’s Dirty War and have had some successes. But of those murdered in Chile, at least 120 people were infamously thrown through the open door of a helicopter—executions that gave birth to a far-right meme depicting ads for “Pinochet’s Helicopter Company.”
Caborca’s production, which ran in late September at Abrons Arts Center in the Lower East Side, doesn’t deviate far from the plot-points from the novel, apart from streamlining some of the author’s more-fanciful asides. In fact, most of the play is a straight narration of Bolaño’s prose. (The resonances between then and now, there and here, are apparent enough as-is. People may not be disappearing, but they are being murdered, and they’re being sentenced to exile.) In this environment, in which the young idealists have seen everything overturned, the students write poetry and critique each other’s work, they study for classes and talk politics, they hook up—but mostly they try to survive. This isn’t so easy. When several of them begin to go missing, two members of the group suspect another among their ranks.
In this, as in all Bolaño’s novels, the author’s prose swings across countries, even continents, across literatures, both real and invented, and across most of the 20th century. French novelists, Olympian mascots, Nazis, pornographers, and collectors of rare board games all come into contact with each other in events that seem natural enough in a micro-view but are absurd in summary. Bolaño can get away with a lot—his novels are riddled with what generally amount to clichés: bohemians, professors, and noir detectives, juvenile poetry and jokes, girls who are beautiful and pure and not much else, an inclination toward metaphors made through dreams and mirrors. And yet, while a visit to any creative writing class will reveal a thousand disciples, none can pull off this cocktail quite as satisfyingly as he can.
Caborca, which draws its name from The Savage Detectives, avoids this dilemma by not daring to alter the text too greatly, and instead expanding the scope of the stage to make room for the world. At Abrons, the actors spread across the room, rushing across the stage, up the wings, and over the balcony, at times leaping from it to return. They call to each other over the audience, causing heads to whip, and throw images of one another across four walls with a handheld video camera. Undergirding the vigor in Bolaño’s novel is a deadly seriousness, the awareness that this youthful idealism, which embodies the art and literature of a young country, turns too often toward violence. In one powerfully wrought scene, performer Jon Froehlich reenacts the apocryphal story of a Lorenzo, a Chilean boy who lost his arms in an accident. “He also grew up in Pinochet’s Chile, which turned unfortunate situations into desperate ones,” Belano (David Skeist) narrates, “on top of which he soon discovered that he was homosexual, which made his already desperate situation inconceivable and indescribable.”[i] And yet, Caborca finds a way both to conceive and to describe it: when the scene settles after Froehlich’s acrobatic monologue, there’s no doubt, as Bolaño writes, that between Lorenzo and Belano’s two literary models, “he was the best poet of the three.”
Elsewhere, though, Caborca loses Bolaño’s gravitas. When Juan Stein (also played by Froehlich)—Belano and Bibiano O’Ryan’s university professor—goes missing, the writers hope the old poet was inspired to take-up arms. They trace rumors of his appearances across Latin America like the ghost of an ideal. When Belano and Bibi (Luis Moreno) visit the poet’s old home, they’re met by an unfamiliar woman (Tania Molina). In both the novel and the play, she asks, “This man was a good friend of yours and he left suddenly, without telling you?”
“Yes,” Bibi says. “Something like that.”[ii]
Caborca plays these lines for laughs, and although there are many moments of humor in the story, this isn’t exactly one of them. Absent from the production is any sense of the woman’s realization: that she’s living in the house of a man who disappeared—a Jew, a Bolshevik, an enemy of the state—and that the presence of these two young men at her doorstep places her in danger.
The very next line in Bolaño’s novel: “Shortly afterwards I left Chile for good.”
Another instance—slighter, though more illustrative—of such changes in inflection occurs in the final scene. During a stakeout, Belano has brought a book to provide cover. Detective Abel Romero (Anne Gridley) questions whether the book was a good choice. “Don’t worry,” Belano says, “this is a writer I like a lot.” The joke, here, is that the detective has questioned his literary taste, but by the time it’s delivered we already know that Romero prefers soccer and television. Omitted, seemingly without reason, is Romero’s previous line, “A magazine or a newspaper might have been better.”[iii] Here, the joke is slightly different, encapsulating Bolaño’s darker, less-redemptive humor—that literates themselves are suspicious and untrustworthy by their very nature. That the mere presence of a book is enough to signal danger.
Importantly, this speaks directly to the anti-intellectualism expressed by the antagonist, Carlos Wieder, a poet, photographer, and performance artist of sorts, an air force officer who produces agitprop in support of the regime. “Literature should be written by non-literary people,” Wieder writes, “just as politics should be and indeed is being taken over by non-politicians.” Although referring to Pinochet, this is where he brings us to the United States today. “The corresponding revolution in writing […] would, in a sense, abolish literature itself. When poetry is written by non-poets and read by non-readers.”
Bolaño himself closes the loop. “What can I say? It was one of Carlos Wieder’s ultimate jokes. And it was deadly serious.”[iv]
The most substantial section of the novel removed by Caborca relates to Stein’s background. A Trotskyite, Stein was first-cousin-once-removed to a Soviet general and Stalinist, a hero of the Red Army. (In fact, Caborca glosses any nuance of the ideological infighting that occupies the group, portraying them instead as unified and generic leftists—perhaps understandable given an audience that can hardly differentiate a communist and a Bernie Bro. The United States, as a people, just isn’t primed on those differences.) When Stein—so the poets believe—sets down his pen and joins the freedom fighters, Bolaño places the Chilean struggle in the legacy of WWII. It’s not enough that Wieder bears a Germanic name and flies a Messerschmitt, writing neoclassical poetry in the sky. His is only half of the story: there can be no proper resistance without resistors, no redemption without suffering, no literature without the necessity of new language. They’re tautologies, but they’re true.
Caborca invented a simple and captivating technique for conveying Wieder’s poetry in the sky. A small glass box, filled with smoke, is illuminated with a handheld flashlight, shone through a lettered stencil. A second actor films the smoke, a live feed of which is projected around the theater. It’s a small gesture by necessity, still grand but also more intimate—and, therefore, more subversive in how it redirects another’s aesthetic gesture. Walter Benjamin famously wrote that fascists aestheticize politics and communists politicize aesthetics. No writer has greater embodied this dynamic than Bolaño. Bolaño portrays poetry, art, and politics as directions along the same spectrum. Wieder may be a lesser poet than Stein and Diego Soto (“Stein’s best friend and rival”), but he has the support of the state. Rather than tear down such hero-worship in its own right, Bolaño crafts different kinds of heroes, youthful and vivacious like Rimbaud, who resist becoming monuments by pursing the intangible, leaving art, like clouds, in their wake.
As a young leftist in the time of Allende, Bolaño was arrested after the coup but secretly released from prison by a guard who happened to be an old friend.[v] He spent the rest of his life in exile. In a lecture on Chilean literature, titled “The Corridor With No Apparent Way Out” and delivered on one of the few instances he returned to his homeland, Bolaño relays the story that also composes the climax of his novel By Night In Chile, a deathbed confession of a priest who hid from the state’s violence behind art. It’s a true story, about a guest at the house of a Chilean writer and her husband from the United States, who’s possibly a C.I.A. spy, in the suburbs of Santiago:
One night a guest goes looking for the bathroom and gets lost. It’s his first time there and he doesn’t know the house. Probably he’s a bit tipsy or maybe he’s already lost in the alcoholic haze of the weekend. In any case, instead of turning right he turns left and then he goes down a flight of stairs that he shouldn’t have gone down and he opens a door at the end of a long hallway, long like Chile. The room is dark but even so he can make out a bound figure, in pain or possibly drugged. He knows what he’s seeing. He closes the door and returns to the party. He isn’t drunk anymore.
The poet who hosted the party then goes on to win numerous awards from leftist literary magazines. For Bolaño, the separation of political art and state-sponsored terror is composed of only a single corridor, which we navigate without full comprehension, and in which we find both suppression and expression. “This,” he concludes, “is how the literature of every country is built.”[vi]
If it’s true in Chile, it’s true in the United States. After all, the two countries have a storied history. In 1999, United States documents declassified by the federal government revealed the backing of Augusto Pinochet’s coup by then-President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, as part of their larger policy of Containment. Kissinger referred to Pinochet as a “friend.” The previous year, Pinochet had become the first head of state to be indicted on charges under universal jurisdiction, a crucial concept in the jurisprudence of war crimes. (Kissinger, who claims universal jurisdiction undermines national sovereignty, was also called for questioning by the same magistrate in Madrid regarding his support of regimes in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.) In recent history, Kissinger lamented the lack of “world order” in his 2014 book and keynoted an Oscar-nominated film, Last Days in Vietnam, in which he speaks about the 1973 Peace Accords that lead to the Fall of Saigon, misrepresenting both the degree to which he and Nixon actually believed in the efficacy of the ceasefire,[vii] and the efforts of the U.S. military to evacuate South Vietnamese allies. In 2011, Barack Obama dismissed questions of Kissinger’s direction of U.S. interference in Chile as part of an outdated ideological battle; then, during the most recent election, Kissinger’s role as an advisor to and ideological influence on Hillary Clinton contributed in no uncertain terms to the candidate’s loss. Clinton’s embrace of Kissinger—she referred to him as a “friend”—lent an air of credence to the conception of her as a hawk whose tenure as Secretary of State was marred by mismanagement. Undeterred, Kissinger, now 94, has since pivoted to advising the Trump administration, coinciding with the president’s embrace of staunchly neoconservative, interventionist policies.
Bolaño wondered how many years until the next curfew. He knew it would come eventually. He knew that, today, we’d still be walking the same corridor, with still no apparent way out. The literature and art of every country is built on deception and hope, complicity and exile. Only politicians believe they can resolve this condition. Poets merely offer another direction.
* * *
“So you think it was justified?”
“I think it was more than justified. I can’t believe—the amount of restraint that our people showed out there, I think was astounding.”
“What do you think this means for the next alt right protest?”
“I say it’s going to be really tough to top, but we’re up to the challenge.”
“Wait, why? Tough to top? I mean, someone died.”
“I think that a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here, frankly. Why? Because people die every day.”
“But not, like, because of a heart attack. I mean a violent death.”
“Well, people die violent deaths all the time, right? Like, this is part of the reason we want an ethno state, right? … These people want violence and the right is just meeting market demand.”[viii]
[i] Roberto Bolaño, Distant Star, trans. Chris Andrews (New York: New Directions, 1996), 72.
[ii] Ibid, 56.
[iii] Ibid, 143.
[iv] Ibid, 135.
[v] Though some who knew Bolaño insist this story is exaggerated.
[vi] Bolaño, Between Parenthesis: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998–2003, trans. Natasha Wimmer (New York: New Directions, 2004), 82–83.
[vii] Nixon’s tapes reveal the two men mostly saw the Peace Accord—for which negotiations began in 1968—as an attempt to delay Hanoi’s invasion of the south until after the 1972 U.S. election. Nixon was reelected and Kissinger was awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize alongside Viet Cong general Lê Đức Thọ (who declined to accept) for withdrawing the United States from a war he helped orchestrate.
[viii] “Charlottesville: Race and Terror,” VICE News Tonight, August 21, 2017.
Will Fenstermaker is associate editor of the ArtSeen section of the Brooklyn Rail and digital editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He holds an MFA in Art Criticism & Writing from the School of Visual Arts.