Microviews Vol. 13: Bolano, Houellebecq, Appelfeld

on Monday, October 17, 2011
Thought I'd take a break from ranting about prizes (hey, it's two days from Booker day so I'm just reloading the cannon) and go back to bookworm basics. So here's the latest instalment of Microviews:

Tres by Roberto Bolano
Wake up ye slaves to literary fashion, it's Bolano'clock again! Yep, just when you thought the publishing earthworms had chomped all the flesh from the great Chilean's bones they hit us with another salvo of works to stuff in the festivus stockings. Later in the year we'll have the eagerly-awaited third mega-novel, The Third Reich, but to tide us over we have Tres, his second poetry collection to be translated into English. It is well-documented that Bolano considered himself first and foremost a poet. Flicking through the pieces that make up the three cycles in this collection, I'm a little confused as to why. They're good, sure. The circular rhythms are hypnotic, the images mostly beautiful. But they read more like bite-sized pieces of prose (yes, I'm aware of the concept of prose poetry) reminiscent of Kafka's aphorisms or Thomas Berhard's brilliant Voice Imitator sequence than anything in Bolano's first collection, The Romantic Dogs. Even The Neochileans, the one 'poem' in traditional form, seems more like a short story chopped into tiny lines. This new bi-lingual edition is, however, beautiful to behold and overall Tres is a worthy addition to any Bolano collection, even for metrophobes like me.

The Map And The Territory by Michel Houellebecq
I've never really bought into the whole Cult Of Houellebecq. After the undeniably brilliant Elementary Particles (aka Atomised), he seems to have underwhelmed on a regular basis with books that might have been the toast of some literary subcultural cadre but had little substance with which to back up the hype. That might all change with The Map And The Territory, a seriously good book that managed to snare the ageing enfant a Prix Goncourt. Unsurprisingly full of Houellebecq's usual self-aggrandising pretensions, this time the author assuages our collective annoyance by killing himself off, but not before riffing on the creative process and the nature of art (particularly portraiture) itself. Centred around the relationship between artiste extraordinaire Jed Martin and the author Michel Houellebecq (quelle post modern!!) whom the former cajoles into writing the text for his latest exhibition, it shows a more mature, even funny writer grappling with his own aspirations for immortality. And just when the philosophising begins to grate, the novel takes a weird art crime twist reminiscent of George Simenon (with an embarrassingly Patricia Cornwell denouement), with Houellebecq's body found torn to shreds and Martin's portrait of him nowhere to be found. Cue police procedural. I'll avoid giving any spoilers because for once this is a Houellebecq novel that is really worth reading. Maybe he should have topped himself earlier.

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld
Aharon Appelfeld is, to my mind, the finest ever Holocaust novelist. His single-minded focus on those six years is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he has, in almost twenty novels, never written about the camps themselves. Rather, Appelfeld dwells on the margins of catastrophe with particular focus on the decay of European society immediately beforehand (Baddneheim 1939, All Whom I Have Loved, To The Land Of The Cattails, etc). When he is writing about the war itself, he chooses to view it through the lens of the escapees, the Jews who managed to avoid roundup and went into hiding. For the most part, these are the untold stories, though they are every bit as harrowing as any other. Blooms of Darkness falls into this category; the story of eleven-year old Hugo, who is entrusted by his parents to the safekeeping of a kindly prostitute. Mariana tends to Hugo by day, feeding, washing and playing with the boy, but by night she locks him in her closet while she "entertains" the German troops. Although this is not one of his better books, Appelfeld has still managed to hit upon a fascinating variation of the saviour story. The dynamic between the two is suitably tense - Hugo is approaching puberty - and there is a permanent sense of impropriety pervading the story. Eventually, human weakness prevails; prostitute and young boy cross the line. It is awkward and sad, but terribly powerful. As the novel draws to a close, the relationship is inverted - Mariana is arrested by the liberating Russian troops for aiding the Germans and Hugo attempts to become her rescuer. And although he is only a thirteen year-old kid, there is something tragic, almost pathetic about Hugo's ultimate impotence in the face of her ordeal. Blooms of Darkness is a powerful, albeit minor, work that raises many questions about the nature of rescuers. Why were some elevated to the status of the righteous gentile while others were summarily executed? It is to Appelfeld's great credit that he doesn't even attempt to offer an answer.


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