Of Lion Tamers and Tents
Roberto Bolano, 2666 (2004)
This novel is divided into five parts, four of which contain references to Canada. This isn’t too surprising, as 2666 seems to have ambitions to be an “encyclopedic” novel, and what encyclopedia would be complete without Canada?
To prevent the post from becoming unwieldy, I’ve divided it into three.
From “1: The Part About the Critics”:
The owner was a Chicano in his fifties who had worked a long time in European circuses that crossed the continent from Copenhagen to Malaga, performing in small towns with middling success, until he decided to go back to Earlimart, California, where he was from, and start a circus of his own. He called it Circo Internacional because one of his original ideas was to have performers from all over the world, although in the end they were mostly Mexican and American, except that every so often some Central American came looking for work and once he had a Canadian lion tamer in his seventies whom no other circus in the United States would employ. (132)
I think it’s meant to appear rather pathetic that, in hoping to be truly international, all the circus owner can get are a few Central Americans and one Canadian – not even a European. And why will no other circus (in the United States) employ the Canadian lion tamer? Is this a slight on our (notional?) national ability to tame large carnivores? Or is it because, being in his seventies, the Canadian lion tamer is considered too old to be reliable?
Certainly the overall impression is that the “Chicano” who owns the circus is the only one desperate enough to employ this (presumably incompetent or semi-senile) Canadian lion tamer. And then there is the word “once” – no details are given, but it seems to suggest that the Canadian’s time at the Circo Internacional was brief and not altogether successful. One imagines the owner going through a stack of résumés and muttering, “A Canadian lion tamer? I’m not making that mistake again.”
And why does the narrative specify that he can’t be employed anywhere else in the United States? Are we to assume that in some other country with less stringent standards (Canada, perhaps?) he could find work? If so, why is a Canadian lion tamer so desperate to work in the United States that he will take a job at the Circo Internacional if he has options in his homeland?
More questions than answers. Perhaps this is Bolano’s comment on the frequently noted fact that no Canadian is considered a success by other Canadians until they succeed in the United States.
From “2: The Part About Amalfitano”:
For two days, said Lola, we were working at a roadside restaurant in Lerida, for a man who also owned an apple orchard. It was a big orchard and there were already green apples on the trees. In a little while the apple harvest would begin, and the owner had asked them to stay till then. Imma had gone to talk to him while Lola read a book by the Mondragon poet (she had all the books he’d published so far in her backpack), sitting by the Canadian tent where the two of them slept. (166-7)
A Canadian tent – not exactly paradigm-breaking. Being (apparently) nothing more than a vast wilderness with a few widely spaced population centres huddled along our southern border, as if cuddling up to the hectic machine of the United States in search of warmth, Canada is associated with nature, the outdoors, hiking and camping – we Canadians know all about that sort of thing, so no doubt we make good tents.
Camping was also central to the experience of Canada portrayed in the Sylvia Plath poem that we considered recently, and the idea that we are essentially a wilderness nation crops up again and again – in fact, it was there at our literary inception.
This Canadian tent sits in Bolano’s novel like a two-word symbol crystallizing everything our country means to the world. We’ll just have to learn to accept it.