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Sunday 14 December 2014

A Little Lumpen Novelita


I had to do things and not die – Roberto Bolaño, A Little Lumpen Novelita

When starting a new book it’s tempting to hurry through the first few pages. You want to get into the meat of the book and I can’t count the number of books when on finishing them and looking over the opening page or two I realise just how much was said in those four or five hundred words. In this novella it’s the opening clause that one needs to pay close attention to:

Now I’m a mother and a married woman…

It tells us that our narrator is now a grownup, a woman and, most importantly, a survivor. The events outlined in the novella are what she survives. Then she gets married and starts a family so it’s not enough to say she survives—she prospers. Things might’ve gone very differently for her because that short opening sentence ends

…but not long ago I led a life of crime.

She and her brother are orphaned at the start of the book—their parents are killed in a car crash—and they’re left to fend for themselves. Exactly how old they are we’re never told. Her older brother is still a teenager and they’re both still attending school. The dynamic suggests that the girl is younger but probably not by much. Suffice to say they’re old enough to take care of themselves. A small government pension helps. It’s smaller than they’d hoped and so it’s only a matter of time and they’ve drifted out of education and into employment, he as a cleaner in a gym and she as an assistant hairdresser. They both dream—as I suppose everyone in poverty does—of the future. In fact when the novella was adapted for the screen this was its title: Il Futuro:

Once [my brother] told me that he dreamed of being Mr. Rome and then Mr. Italy or Master of the Universe. I laughed in his face and gave him my frank opinion. To be Master of the Universe you have to train from the time you’re ten, I told him. I thought that bodybuilding was like chess. My brother said that if I could dream of owning a mini-salon, he had the right to dream of a better future too. That was the word he used: future. I went into the kitchen and got our dinner started. Spaghetti. Then I set out the plates and silverware. Still thinking. At last I said that I didn’t care about the future, that I had ideas, but those ideas, if I really thought about it, never extended into the future.

“Where do they go, then?” howled my brother.


Il_FuturoThe Future seems like a good title for this book. So why call it A Little Lumpen Novelita? For starters ‘little’ seems redundant. The key—and by ‘key’ I mean the key to the novel—must lie in the word ‘lumpen’. I’m British and I thought of ‘lumpen’ as “lumpy and misshapen; ugly and ponderous” but in a Marxist context it means “uninterested in revolutionary advancement” and that’s where we get the word ‘lumpenproletariat’ from, a term coined by Karl Marx to describe that layer of the working class that is unlikely ever to achieve class consciousness and is therefore lost to socially useful production, of no use to the revolutionary struggle, and perhaps even an impediment to the realization of a classless society—the dregs of the dregs in other words.

In some respects the siblings actually do alright for themselves. They have jobs and a place to live. They don’t hate each other. The brother had started to bring home dirty movies which he watched with his sister, to “[l]earn how to make love” he insists; she’s sceptical but doesn’t object strongly and continues to watch them with him. Things could be worse. And the day the brother returns home with two bodybuilders he’s befriended, a Libyan and a Bolognan, it looks like things are going to head in exactly that direction.

The two visitors do not live up to expectations however. They stay for five days and then leave:

Even I couldn’t deny that their conduct had been impeccable for the five days they’d stayed with us. They always washed the dishes, three times they made dinner themselves, and they didn’t try anything with me, which was important. I could sense the interest in their eyes, in the way they moved, and the way they talked to me, but I also noted their self-control and found it flattering.

Eventually they return and this time it looks like they’re there to stay. One night one of them slips into the girl’s bedroom and she doesn’t object and then the next night the other—she shows no preference nor even that much interest in who’s having sex with her—but they take advantage and eventually she cuts them off; a girl’s got to get some sleep. Relations do resume, however, after a time:

Once a week, sometimes twice, I let them into my room. I didn’t need to say anything, I just had to be more talkative than usual or give them a meaningful look (or what at the time I imagined was a meaningful look) and they knew immediately that they could visit me that night and they would find the door open.

So, as I’ve said, things could be worse. The men continue to take care of the flat and (supposedly) look for work—by this time the bother’s been (so he says) laid off but times are hard and there’s (so they say) no work to be had. They tighten their belts and feast on the future to come:

Deep down, I think I was afraid something bad would happen. I think I sensed that it was coming soon and I worried about my brother, whose fate seemed so bound up with his friends’ fate. I didn’t care what happened to them. They were older and they were used to hard times, but my brother was innocent and I didn’t want anything to happen to him.

One day, though, things change:

They had a plan. That much I do remember. A hazy plan on which each of them, my brother included, had gambled his future, and to which each had added his bit, his personal touch, his vision of fate and the turns of fate.

She listens, agrees it’s a good plan and thus begins her life of crime. At least one could call it a life of crime if one included planning and talking about committing a crime. In no court in the land will you be convicted for that. The crime to be committed is one of robbery and the man they intend to rob is known as Maciste, a now-blind and obese former bodybuilder and actor—‘Maciste’ was actually the name of a character he played in several films—who lives alone. The girl is to be the bait. In her account the girl is keen to emphasise, “I’m no prostitute. I used to lead a life of crime, but I was never a prostitute,” but that’s simply not the case. She lets her brother and his friends (effectively serving as pimps) deliver her to Maciste’s house on Via Germanico where she has sex with the old man for money. Any court in the land would call that prostitution but as far as she’s concerned that’s just a means to an end, an act. While there she’s supposed to scope out the place, locate his safe and report back. Finding the safe does not prove to be as easy as they expected and so she keeps having to go back—assuming there ever was a safe and this was all a ruse to get her to sell herself—and that’s where the real story begins because she develops feelings for Maciste and he for her.

film still

I’ve never read anything by Bolaño before but apparently he likes to puts his characters in positions where they must choose between what's right and utter depravity. And they usually choose the latter. While it’s true that the girl goes along with the three guys—and so willingly chooses depravity—as I pointed out at the beginning she survives it, she learns from her experiences. I guess it’s the whole you’ve-got-to-hit-rock-bottom-mentality. Rock bottom’s there for a reason.

In his lengthy review of this book Craig Epplin says that “Bolaño is a master of the simile.” Looking through the book carefully I came across several:

Sometimes I saw the negative of a whole life: a bigger house, a different neighbourhood, children, a better job, time passing, old age, a grandchild, death in the public hospital or covered with a sheet in my parents’ bed, a bed that I would have liked to hear creak, like an ocean liner as it goes down, but that instead was silent as a tomb.

[I]n that brief how are you I sensed an incredible fragility, a fragility like a manta ray falling from the ceiling, the dark foyer the bottom of the sea and the manta ray watching us from above, halfway between the sea floor and the surface.

[F]rom the moment I stepped into his house, from the moment I saw him naked and hulking and white, like a broken refrigerator, everything stopped (or I stopped) and now things were happening at a different speed, an imperceptible speed that was the same as stillness.

The stylist listened without getting up from her chair. It was as if the girl’s words were sliding off her face, a hard face without a hint of indulgence. That’s what I remember. And I remember the sunset, a sunset of rose and ochre that crept all the way to the back of the salon, but never touched me.

I’ve come to remember each of Maciste’s words as a key or a dark bridge that surely could have led me elsewhere, as if he were a fortune-telling machine designed exclusively for me, which I know isn’t true, though sometimes I like to think so, not often, because I don’t lie to myself the way I used to, but every once in a while.

Because much of what happens in this book is frankly banal it’s easy not to notice these little gems. There is poetry here but it’s deadpan, indifferent almost. And because of the book’s length it’s also easy to think of it as a slight work but it’s really not. Its central theme is about a young woman taking control of her life and of course since she’s telling her tale sometime in the future we know everything works out but there’s an underlying regret here. She survived—she did what she felt she had to to survive—but it cost her to get where she ends up. If she was a criminal then this is her confession. But what exactly is she owning up to? What was her crime?

The book has an interesting—but not especially helpful—quote at the beginning:

All writing is garbage.
People who come out of nowhere to try and put
into words any part of what goes on in their minds
All writers are pigs. Especially writers today.


The book’s not about being a writer. There are very few books in the novella; only the schoolbooks they turn away from. They only read newspapers and magazines when they can afford them. Most of their time is spent vegetating in front of the telly. Maciste has a room he calls a library “in which there wasn’t a single book” which is noteworthy because in an interview with Héctor Soto and Matías Bravo first published in Capital in 1999 Bolaño said:

A library is a metaphor for human beings or what’s best about human beings, the same way a concentration camp can be a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity.

So how am I to understand the novella’s opening quote?

In an interview Bolaño said:

The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. […] For me, the word writing is the exact opposite of the word waiting. Instead of waiting, there is writing. Well, I’m probably wrong—it’s possible that writing is another form of waiting, of delaying things. I’d like to think otherwise. But, as I said, I’m probably wrong.

The girl does admit to being a storyteller. Dan Piepenbring has some thoughts on the subject in The Paris Review as does Craig Epplin in his review. I also found a tweet from Aaron Boothby that expands on the quote: “All writing is garbage" because it pretends a solution to the unsayable. ... All are tormented because all words fail to do what they promise: communicate.” I wonder though if the answer to why Bolaño uses this opening quote might be explained by what Susan Sontag had to say in her essay ‘Artaud’:

For Artaud, the extreme mental—and also physical—pain that feeds (and authenticates) the act of writing is necessarily falsified when that energy is transformed into artistry: when it attains the benign status of a finished, literary product. The verbal humiliation of literature ("All writing is garbage," Artaud declares in The Nerve Meter) safeguards the dangerous, quasi-magical status of writing as a vessel worthy of bearing another's pain. Insulting art (like insulting the audience is an attempt to head off the corruption of art, the banalisation of suffering).

The link between suffering and writing is one of Artaud's leading themes: one earns the right to speak through having suffered, but the necessity of using language is itself the central occasion for suffering.

Let’s take an extreme example: Is a painting of Holocaust atrocities art? Technically, yes, of course, but what right does anyone have to record another’s suffering? And that is what Bolaño is doing even if the people involved are works of fiction. Only the girl can tell her story, can take the garbage that her life was comprised of and reform it into art or literature or something greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t know. You’ll have to read the book—it’s not long—and see what you come up with.

The film adaptation is mostly in Italian so if subtitles annoy you then you won’t much care for it. What might help is the casting of Rutger Hauer as Maciste. He only speaks English and so (conveniently) does the girl when she’s with him. When I was reading the book and imagining Maciste I couldn’t help but think of the character of Prétextat Tach in Amélie Nothomb’s Hygiene and the Assassin. The dynamic is different but for purely practical reasons neither actor cast in the films is nearly as obese as the characters they’re being asked to play. For a seventy-year-old Hauer is actually in pretty decent shape. That’s he’s not gross is really neither here nor there; it’s enough that he’s old enough to be her grandfather. I actually think he was a good choice. He’s no Marcello Mastroianni but he does a decent enough job. My only real problem was how chatty he is but that’s the scriptwriter’s fault. He’s not like that in the book. Here’s a clip of their first meeting which will give you an idea what I’m talking about. You can view the trailer (with subtitles) here.

The Future


Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile on April 28, 1953. He’s led a nomadic existence from an early age. His family moved between several towns in Chile, before they moved to Mexico City in 1968. Bolaño was dyslexic and as a result, no academic. He dropped out of high school in 1968 to focus on poetry and, as at this time there were often mass riots in the streets of Mexico City, he identified with the leftist movement and went off to El Salvador where he spent time with other leftist poets as well as an El Salvadorian left wing guerrilla group.

He returned to El Salvador in 1973 where he became a spy for the resistance during the coup of Augusto Pinochet. In 1974, Bolaño returned to Mexico City where, along with poet Mario Santiago and a handful of others, he formed the Infrarealists, a poetic movement that identified with both French Surrealism and Dadaism. He published two poetry collections during his time in Mexico before heading abroad in 1977.

Bolaño spent a year traveling France, Spain, and North Africa before settling near Barcelona. He job-jumped during those years, working as a dockworker, grape harvester, and campground watchman. He also continued to write poetry and short stories, which he would submit to contests. His switch to writing fiction—short stories and later novels—had much to do with his maturation and the birth of his son in 1990, which instilled in him a sense of responsibility to earn a living, which he knew he could barely do as a poet.

Bolaño was most prolific during his forties and fifties. He wrote a dozen novels during these years, poetic works that concerned themselves largely with the purpose of literature and its relationship to life. His most famous work, The Savage Detectives, concerns the life and adventures of Arturo Bolaño, an alter-ego who appears in other stories and novels.

Written in 1989 and published posthumously, Bolaño's The Third Reich predates The Savage Detectives and shows some of the traits that Bolaño had yet to fully develop—particularly surrealism and an obsessive attention to detail. Between Parentheses similarly provides an excellent retrospective on Bolaño's work, bolano2collecting as it does many of the newspaper columns and articles that he wrote during the last five years of his life.

Perhaps the most well-known of the posthumously published Bolaño oeuvre is 2666, 900 apocalyptic pages of stories within stories and murder after murder. Bolaño was posthumously awarded the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for 2666, and Time also awarded it the honour of Best Fiction Book of 2008.

Roberto Bolaño died in 2003 from liver disease.

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