Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Kindred Spirits

It’s always a good feeling to know you’re not alone. So I was predictably excited to find Amy Jo Espetveidt’s piece about the search for fiction set in Calgary on the Calgary Is Awesome blog. It focuses on Canadian writers, so it’s not perfectly in line with my own search; on the other hand, looking for references to Calgary in Canadian fiction is probably a lot like looking for references to Canada in world literature.

I found this through Sam Hester’s blog — which also features a reference to Wow – Canada! in the Notes section of one of her posts. (She’s even tracked down a reference to Canada in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which I read years ago but don’t recall that clearly. I may have to investigate further.) The post itself talks about the importance of local settings, and raises the question of why certain cities are considered “appropriate” places to set novels while others aren’t. It also touches on the thrill of finding a book set in a place that you’re familiar with, which is relevant to what this blog is all about. I expect the thrill is greater in proportion to the obscurity of the place – no doubt people who live in New York don’t jump up and down for joy every time they come across a book set in New York.

Perhaps, if you live in a city that features constantly in fiction, you require a higher level of specificity to get you excited. I know I’m thrilled just to see the world “Canada” on the page, but maybe if you live in New York, you’re not that interested until you see a reference to your own neighbourhood, or even your own street, or the subway station where you board a train every day, or a park you walk past, or a favourite store.

Or perhaps, at a certain point, the process begins to work in the opposite direction: are New Yorkers sick of reading books about New York? Do they gag every time they come across the phrase “Brooklyn novelist”? There could be an untapped market here – Londoners sick of books set in London; Parisians who are bored of reading about Paris; New Yorkers who have been living next to the pulsing heart of the universe for so long that it has induced a throbbing headache.

They want to escape the ubiquity of the places they live. They’re desperate to read books set somewhere – anywhere – else, books that introduce them to a place they know nothing about. Books set somewhere like … Calgary. Why not?


Swine, Swine, Swine

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666 (2004)

From “5: The Part About Archimboldi”:

“Americans are swine, of course. And Canadians are big ruthless swine, although the worst swine from Canada are the French-Canadians, just as the worst swine from America are the Irish-American swine.” (642-3)

This comes from a page-long catalogue in which pretty well all the nationalities of the world are said to be swine. The lines are spoken to Hans Reiter by his father when Hans is a boy, in the 1920s or 30s; Hans will grow up to become the mysterious writer (Reiter = Writer?) known by the pen-name Archimboldi.

Since Canadians are “swine” just like the English, Welsh, Scots, Bavarians, Russians and so on, we can’t really draw any particular inference from this. It’s unfortunate that our French-Canadian brethren come in for even harsher treatment; at the same time, the idea of Canadians as “big” and, in particular, “ruthless” is a surprising one; aren’t we normally supposed to be polite to a fault? And so, while our presence in the catalogue is clearly meant as an insult, it’s hard not to take it as a back-handed compliment; we actually sound rather impressive and dangerous, instead of just dull and anodyne, which is more what we’ve come to expect.

I bought 2666 after reading the first couple of pages, which are about a group of literary critics obsessed with the mysterious Archimboldi. Based on that, I expected the novel to be a satirical romp through the field of literary criticism; what I got was – well, something quite different. The literary critics at the centre of the first section never appear in the novel again; in fact, their only purpose seems to be to travel to Mexico, where the main story begins to take over. With each passing section the novel is drawn, almost as if by an irresistible force acting against its will, toward “the crimes,” the brutal murders of women in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Theresa (presumably based on the murders in Ciudad Juárez), until the fourth section is completely taken over by a catalogue of the murders. The fifth section seemingly moves outward again, narrating the life of Hans Reiter/Archimboldi, but at the end of that section he, too, is drawn to Santa Theresa, as though the events there have a universal significance that makes them unavoidable. All of life, Bolano seems to suggest, is inevitably drawn into this vortex of death; but perhaps that’s a bit grandiose; to put it another way, it is impossible to avoid grappling with the events in Santa Theresa/Juárez; they are central to an understanding of modern life and tell us something we cannot ignore.

The novel ends with Reiter/Archimboldi leaving for Mexico, and never completely resolves the questions it has raised. This open-endedness made the rumours that an unpublished sixth part of 2666 had been found among Bolano’s papers after he died rather bewitching – there’s an undeniable appeal (at least to me) in the idea of a final section where “everything is explained”. But perhaps the uncertainty of the current ending is precisely what Bolano wanted; my impression is that he’s not a writer who traffics in tidy resolutions.

A word (or two) on epigraphs

The novel’s epigraph quotes a line from Baudelaire’s poem “Le Voyage” in Fleurs du Mal – “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” – and that seems to sum up the novel and Bolano’s view of contemporary life as well: we are all trapped in such a mind-numbingly pointless existence that the truly horrifying comes as a bizarre sort of relief. The line seems worthy of further contemplation:

An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom

The more I think about that quote, the more profound it seems. (I had similar feelings about Willa Cather’s My Antonia, which I bought because of the Virgil quote at the beginning (“Optima dies prima fugit”) and, while I enjoyed the novel, I felt it never quite lived up to its epigraph. Those four words say so much; more, perhaps, than Cather’s entire book.)

Likewise, that Baudelaire quote sums up the contents of Bolano’s novel so completely that, at times, I wonder if 2666 is a book with an epigraph so perfectly chosen that it renders the novel itself superfluous; everything in the book seems to simply amplify and illustrate the contents of Baudelaire’s single line.

A Destination for Furniture

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666 (2004)

From “4: The Part About the Crimes”:

Two weeks later, in May 1994, Monica Duran Reyes was kidnapped on her way out of the Diego Rivera School in Colonia Lomas del Toro. She was twelve years old and she was a little scatterbrained but a good student. It was her first year of secondary school. Both her mother and father worked at Maderas de Mexico, a maquiladora that built colonial- and rustic-style furniture that was exported to the United States and Canada. (412)

It perhaps sounds awful to say this, but it’s really in Part 4 that 2666 gets going; this is the longest section of the novel (almost 300 pages on its own) and it is mainly a catalogue of the grisly murders of women.

And yet Bolano constructs his narrative so artfully that it comes to seem much more than a mere catalogue. The fact that the girl is a little scatterbrained, the mention of where her mother and father work – he uses this technique throughout the section to humanize the victims, just as Homer does in the Iliad, when he mentions some little detail about the life or home of a warrior just as he is killed, to add context and pathos and remind us that every death removes a unique personality and set of experiences from the world.

Here’s one somewhat lengthy but characteristic example from the Loeb translation by Murray, revised by Wyatt:

For the son of Telamon darted through the throng and struck him from close at hand through the helmet with cheekpieces of bronze; and the helmet with horsehair crest was split about the spearpoint, struck by the great spear and the stout hand; and the brain all mingled with blood spurted out from the wound along the socket of the spear. There then his strength was loosed, and from his hands he let fall the foot of great-hearted Patroclus to lie on the ground, and close by he himself fell forward on the corpse, far from deep-soiled Larisa; nor did he pay back to his dear parents the recompense of his upbringing, and brief was the span of his life, since he was laid low by the spear of great-hearted Aias. (XVII.293-303)

(On the off-chance that anyone knows Greek, you can read the original, courtesy of the Perseus Project.)

The idea that the warrior did not live long enough to “pay back to his dear parents the recompense of his upbringing” addresses a sense of loss that is so universal it could be transferred to the paragraph from Bolano without markedly altering its tone.

In the fourth part of 2666, then, Bolano is consciously imitating and updating the “catalogue” aspect of ancient epic, making this part of his novel a catalogue of the ways women can be violated and murdered in the same way Homer’s battle books are catalogues of the ways men can kill other men with swords and spears. It’s probably an illusion, but in reading the Iliad one sometimes feels that no two warriors die in exactly the same way; likewise, in 2666, every death is unique, and uniquely horrifying:

When she was found, two days later, her body showed unmistakeable signs of strangulation, with a fracture of the hyoid bone. She had been anally and vaginally raped. There was tumefaction of the wrists, as if they had been bound. Both ankles presented lacerations, by which it was deduced that her feet had also been tied. (392)

When the body reached the medical examiner, he discovered, in astonishment, that under the hot pants the woman still had on white underpants with little bows on the sides. He also noted that she had been anally and vaginally raped, and that the cause of death was massive craniocerebral trauma, although she had been stabbed twice too, once in the chest and once in the back, wounds that had caused her to lose blood but weren’t necessarily fatal. Her face, as the truck drivers had observed, was unrecognizable. (400)

Four days later, the mutilated corpse of Beatriz Concepción Roldán appeared by the side of the Santa Teresa-Cananea highway. The casue of death was a gash that sliced her open from navel to chest, presumably inflicted with a big machete or knife. (494)

Compare these with the following examples, all taken from Book 20 of the Iliad, when Achilles returns to battle and goes on what would nowadays be called a killing spree (“aristeia” to the scholars). Links to the relevant Greek passage on the Perseus Project appear after the line numbers for those who want to seek them out:

… and over him [Iphition] Demeleon, Antenor’s son, a mighty warder off of battle, did Achilles strike in the temple through the helmet with cheek pieces of bronze. And the bronze helmet stopped not the spear, but through it sped the spear point and broke apart the bone; and all his brain was scattered about within…. (XX.395-400; Greek)

… he [Tros] sought to clasp Achilles’ knees with his hands, eager to beg him; but he struck him on the liver with his sword, and the liver slipped out, and the dark blood welling out from it filled his chest; and darkness enfolded his eyes as his breath failed. (XX.468-472; Greek)

Then, at the point where the sinews of the elbow join, there he pierced Deucalion through the arm with spear point of bronze; and he awaited his coming with arm weighed down, looking upon death before him; but Achilles, striking him with the sword on his neck, hurled afar his head and with it his helmet; and the marrow spurted out from the spine, and the corpse lay stretched on the ground. (XX.478-83; Greek)

That’s probably enough of that, but you get the idea: Homer pays minute attention to the way specific parts of the body interact with weapons, such as the sinews of the elbow with the spear point in the last example. Bolano pays just this kind of attention to the details of the victims in the fourth part of 2666, and that attention, which is simultaneously both tender and gruesome, is part of what lends this section of the novel its overwhelming power.

But to return to Canada: our nation features here as a distant, safe country where people have the luxury of relaxing on colonial-style furniture, never giving a thought to the horrifying details of life in the distant place where it is made.

I’m no furniture expert, but here’s a definition of Colonial Style and an illustrated guide to recognizing it. (There’s even an app!) Genuine Colonial furniture was made from 1700-1780; the furniture being made in Mexico is an imitation of this style, for contemporary Canadians who want to sit around their living rooms on chairs with flared arms and cushioned upholstery and rest their tea cups on refined, elegant tables with animal-paw feet.

There seems to be an irony buried here: Canada, a former colony, has a taste for Colonial-style furniture. No doubt this is the tail end of colonialism: the experience of being colonized leads to a unique insecurity in which those who were colonized live out a fantasy in which they take on the style and behaviour of those who colonized them. Rather pathetic.

Our Greatest Export: Neil Young

Two references to Neil Young from two very disparate sources; I think of Neil as so much a national icon that a reference to him is essentially a reference to Canada as a whole.

Carlos Reygadas, Post Tenebras Lux (2013)

Unfortunately I can’t find an actual film clip, only these “intellectuals” from The Guardian rattling on, but if you look/listen closely at the very beginning of the segment you’ll hear one character ask for a  Neil Young song; the woman at the piano then launches into “It’s A Dream” from Young’s 2005 album Prairie Wind.

I haven’t seen the entire film (though I did watch the trailer), so I have no idea whether the song runs through it or plays a larger thematic role, or whether it’s just a bit of music in a single scene. I have seen Battle in Heaven, also by Reygadas; no Neil Young that I recall,but I did spend a lot of time staring at the blank, affectless faces of non-actors (Reygadas is somewhat of the Bresson school) feeling that I was supposed to conjure for myself the emotions the characters were feeling rather than watch the (non)actors express them. This grew tedious after a while.

Moving on to another part of the universe…

Peter King, “Monday Morning Quarterback” (May 6, 2013)

From the “Tweets of the Week” section of Peter King’s NFL column at

Tweet of the Week IV

“Randy called me and said.’..Got mashed potatoes…can’t get no T-Bone!!!..’.so I said we’ll float that rent fer a little bit n keep rockin’ ”

 @jimirsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts.

I’ve been told Irsay gave $75,000 to keep a Colts-themed bar in Indianapolis, the Blue Crew Sports Grill, alive. Kudos to him for that.

Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, is a well-known fan of classic rock, and according to Wikipedia he “has a habit of quoting rock music”. (You can get a glimpse of his conversational style in this profile and see some of his guitar collection here.) So apparently people who know Irsay know that quoting rock lyrics is the perfect way to communicate with him; and if you use Neil Young lyrics, even slightly obscure ones, he’ll still understand what you mean. (Though it’s impossible to tell whether the Neil Young quote was used by “Randy” when speaking to Irsay or whether it’s just Irsay’s way of summing up the situation; I’m inclined to think the latter.)

So we have a Mexican art-film director and a billionaire NFL franchise-owner, connected by their love for the music of a Canadian: Neil Young. That indicates the remarkable reach of Young’s art and its ability to connect very different people, and shows how deeply it has seeped into the North American cultural consciousness. It makes you wonder whether a lot of his fans even know he’s Canadian; and that, somehow, seems like a very Canadian definition of success.

And now, a little music. Here’s the album version of “It’s A Dream”:

Here’s Patti Smith covering the song in, of all places, Ottawa (I’m still a bit ticked off that she wasn’t the opening act when I saw him last fall in Toronto; she clearly opened for him in Ottawa, as well as at most of his other shows around that time):

And here’s “T-Bone” – be warned that it’s not his most lyrically inventive song – from the oddly titled re•ac•tor album:

And finally, with thanks to Craig Proctor, here’s the encore he did when I saw him; a rare performance of “Helpless” by Crazy Horse. The critics sneered, but we cheered:

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