Monday, February 27, 2012

Natural Born Killers: J. A. Baker's The Peregrine

I knew right away that The Peregrine, J. A. Baker’s slim 1967 book about peregrine hawks, would be unlike any naturalist’s book I’d encountered before. Baker follows two opening paragraphs of detailed description of landscape by suddenly swooping down mercilessly on his own narrative: “Detailed descriptions of landscape are tedious.” I learned of The Peregrine from Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes, who listed it among his end-of-year favorites and in his review - which highlights some of the book's best passages - likened it to Moby Dick. This rather hyperbolic claim is one with which I now concur. To drag an old canard out into the open, saying that The Peregrine is a book about birds is like saying that Moby Dick is a book about…well, I don’t need to complete that. But The Peregrine does carry a similar weight and quality of obsession and the sense that its subjects range into territory well beyond the guileless promise of its simple title.

I love books like this, that appear to be one thing and turn out to be something quite else. Readers expecting a history of falconry or granular details of peregrine biology should look elsewhere. Without doubt, The Peregrine presents a fascinating naturalist’s appreciation of peregrine hawks, detailing their habits and behaviors and physical characteristics. And yes, as a naturalist’s book it fits a pattern, effectively and affectingly, of bemoaning man’s senseless destruction of nature and the tragic decline of a species. Baker also makes it impossible for one not to notice birds – any bird – and that is reason enough to value The Peregrine. But this is also a wildly personal, idiosyncratic, poetically daring book, not one of tender feelings or detached, scientific analysis. Baker is no Farley Mowat, lugging along a wealth of scientific background to go and live peaceably among the animals then returning to civilization to report on what they’re up to. Rather, Baker’s fixation with peregrines borders on madness, a kind of intimate, obsessive/compulsive ordering of the world in which he allies himself with his avian subjects, leaving those of us of his own species opposite some bitter demarcation zone. With an approach far more Grizzly Man than “Wild Kingdom,” Baker’s nearly daily rounds to observe peregrines see him gradually and furtively slipping into their world, beginning to identify with some of their characteristics and appetites (lucky for him, peregrines are not grizzly bears).

Baker’s distinctive style employs unusual verbs and adjectives in descriptions that create an untamed, sharp-edged narrative nonetheless arresting in its ability to capture certain scenes or experiences with stunning lyrical beauty. I repeatedly had to stop and relish a descriptive line or phrase. A lot of writers exhibit a magician’s dexterity with adjectives; few, though, come close to Baker’s exploitation of the descriptive potential of the verb. Skies “brim” with cloud; birds are “threshed up” from field and furrow, then “shoulder,” “jink,” and “claw” the air.

Early on, Baker warns us that he’ll “try to make plain the bloodiness of killing.” That he does, and how. Nature is red in beak and claw in The Peregrine, as on page after page Baker describes the brutal, explosively swift attacks of the peregrines and the ravaged bodies, crushed skulls and torn flesh of their victims. There are dozens of such descriptions:

He is overtaken, cut down. He drops with a squelching thud. The hawk lands on the softening bird, grips its neck in his bill. I hear the bone snap, like barbed wire cut by pliers. He nudges the dead bird over. Its wings wave, then it lites on its back. I hear the tearing of feathers, the tug of flesh, the crack and snap of gristle. I can see the black blood dripping from the gleam of the hawk’s bill.

Filing each day’s observations, Baker amasses a compendium of such murders that has a cumulative impact on the reader (in one of those accidents of juxtaposition, having read Roberto Bolaño just prior to picking up The Peregrine, I could not help but think of the similar concussive effect of the terrible catalog of murders in Bolaño’s 2666). More often than once, Baker’s morbid accounts drift into a nearly manic fascination with violence and death:

A day of blood; of sun, snow, and blood. Blood-red! What a useless adjective that is. Nothing is as beautifully, richly red as flowing blood on snow. It is strange that the eye can love what mind and body hate.

Compared to his interest in the birds’ plumage or their agile aerial acrobatics, Baker’s focus on the audacity of the attacks and the grisly details of their aftermath takes on a special, almost pathological flavor. It’s enough to make one wonder: What does this person do when he’s not out observing birds? How is his apparently solitary life (he mentions no friend, companion or even acquaintance) organized such that he can spend whole days observing his subjects, heedless of inclement weather, without apparent obligations on his time? Unlike those convocations of Sunday birdwatchers, together compiling lists of the birds they’ve sighted, Baker is pronounced in his solitariness, and his spectacularly voluptuous descriptions of death don’t fit any sort of scientific approach. This lends his narrative an eerily steady, practically creepy tone, a frisson of madness that makes his innocent birdwatching come across as akin to the stalker-ish obsessions of John Fowles’ Frederick Clegg in The Collector or those of the homicidal photographer in Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom.

It’s little surprise, then, to find these characteristics amplified in a book that seems to give the aberrant elements of Baker’s psychology a wicked push: mystery writer William Bayer’s Peregrine, in which Baker’s obsessive pathology and the effective killing machines that are his beloved tiercels and falcons come together in a grimly tongue-in-cheek crime novel in which peregrines are used as murder weapons. Bayer culls the cream (and the blood) from a modus operandi like Baker’s and makes them…well…blood-curdling (sorry). Bayer’s peregrines stoop from the sky at ferocious speeds to kill their human prey, just as they do their non-human victims in Baker’s book.

I intend by this comparison no denigration of Baker or of his beautiful book; it’s simply that the force of his fascination with death and violence broaches psychological areas on which such more sinister tales of obsession and violence are constructed. Baker’s stated intention at the beginning of The Peregrine is to sap the power of the word “predator” as applied to peregrines, since nearly all birds exhibit carnivorous traits and – more to the point – the peregrines’ rapaciousness has nothing on that of man. Baker’s success at describing the gruesomeness of death is perhaps only exceeded by his ability to describe - with devastating economy - the dismaying impact of pollutants, poisons and other manmade agents of destruction. Few books convey so strongly the wanton predations of human beings and our malign unconsciousness of the natural world around us. In one passage, Baker observes a man on a sea wall completely oblivious to a cloud of savage avian activity occurring directly above his head. With a nearly theological power, this scene limns the lamentable ridiculousness of our human ignorance of the unseen, unnoticed universe we inhabit. The creatures above the man’s head might as well be angels. And if one will never look at a bird the same way again after reading The Peregrine, it’s even more likely that one will emerge with a lasting awareness of the wild battles of life and death going on in those ostensibly tranquil marshes, forests and skies, and of the toxic bumblings of humanity that threaten not only the natural world, but also something wild and vital in ourselves. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Lives of the Poets: Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives

I’ve been cordially invited to join The Savage Detectives reading challenge.  I accepted of course, albeit with slight reluctance, and not just due to time constraints (I’m late, I’m sorry). I’ve been both fascinated and vaguely irritated by the previous works of Roberto Bolaño that I’ve read - in order: Distant Star, By Night in Chile, 2666, Nazi Literature in the Americas, Antwerp – good heavens, is it that many already? There’s something about him that’s prickled on a purely personal (visceral?) level, and I’ve been unable to put my finger on it, despite there being many candidates: he challenges his readers and makes us feel uneasy; he can be showy and self-conscious in his intellectualism; his world is so concentrated on the minutiae of writers and writing that one can feel left outside of some private club (or private joke); he can indulge in literary games with a fervor bordering on adolescent excess; he can even come across as tinged by a homophobic and slightly patriarchal streak.  To make matters worse and better at the same time, he can appear to do and be the opposite of all of these things as well. Anyway, none or all of this seemed to explain my light irritation. Maybe too it was that I’d been raised on a diet consisting of an excess of Beat literature, provoking something akin to an allergy, and Bolaño had clearly dined on a lot of the same. I don’t know. But I went into The Savage Detectives with a sense almost of duty, expecting to bear, throughout my reading of it, this same mild prickliness. Alas, The Savage Detectives smashed my petty, hypochondriacal presumptions to bits.

Where does one begin to get a grip on this work, or to avoid sticking to it, like a desert burr, wherever one tries to grab hold? How not to be reductionist, when there’s so much going on here that focusing on one aspect makes the others go out of focus, like trying to pin down a floater in one’s retina, or tugging at one thread and feeling the whole ensemble quiver with the possibility of destruction?

Perhaps it would be helpful (I really don’t know) to briefly summarize the arc of the novel’s three-part structure, which begins in Mexico City with a series of diary entries by 17-year old aspiring poet Juan Garcia Madero that stretch from Dia de los Muertos to New Year’s Eve, 1975; gets interrupted by 350 pages of testimonials (recordings?) made over a period of 20 years by some 50-odd narrators, all piecing together the travels and travails of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, leaders of the Visceral Realist poetry movement Garcia Madero has been invited to join; then finally returns to Garcia Madero’s diary from New Year’s Day through February 15, 1976, detailing a journey that began at the end of part one with Garcia Madero, Belano, Lima, and Lupe, a young prostitute, together in a borrowed Impala, heading to the Sonora desert both in flight from Lupe’s violent pimp and in search of the elusive, mysterious, lost poet of the original Visceral Realists of a previous generation, Cesárea Tinajero. That’s a rather long sentence; this is a rather long book.

The broad sweep of it encompasses generations of poets. Real and imagined, appearing and disappearing, they zing about like electrons in a vast chamber, from Garcia Madero to his heroes Belano and Lima to the target of their own rebellion, Octavio Paz, and to their lost hero Cesárea Tinajero, from the most famous to the most obscure, to all of Mexico’s poets and, radiating outward in straight lines, waves, and jagged zigzags to those of South America and the rest of the world. Like Frederic Prokosch’s The Asiatics, The Savage Detectives scurries around the globe with an astonishing ability to delve into the particulars of place. And if The Asiatics represented a new sort of “internationalist” novel, then The Savage Detectives maybe represents a new sort of “Google-ist” novel in its astounding array of details. It’s also an experimental work. Aside from the consecutive dates on Garcia Madero’s diary entries, time too follows myriad crooked directions, flashing backward and forward. Multiple stories intertwine and overlap. In addition to the scores of narrators, multitudes of literary forms are used to tell these multitudes of stories (which, for all of Bolaño ’s experimentalism, reveal a terrific storytelling ability and a sometimes surpassing tenderness).

So what’s it all about? Good lord. Literature. Biography and autobiography, youthful exuberance, literary aspiration and literary longevity. Literary pretension and literary humility. High and low culture. Intellectualism and anti-intellectualism and violence. Exile and exile’s return. Reliable friends and unreliable narrators. Rebellion and acquiescence. Interrogation and detective work. Writers who seek fame, writers who muddle through, writers who disappear, writers who are disappeared. Mexican painter Dr. Atl figures into the novel, though his most famous creation doesn’t, perhaps to encourage us to think of it ourselves: like his astonishing curtain in Mexico City’s Bellas Artes theater, The Savage Detectives glints and sparkles and reflects like two tons of glass forming an image from a million different pieces (would that an image of this stunning object had been used for the book’s cover).

Bolaño  has discovered a form for his book that admits of almost anything. It’s as though he’s simply reached around the back of the novel – while everyone looked on in horror and trepidation (hey, you can’t do that!) - and found the hidden spring that explodes the locks, opening the form to its capacity to encompass and absorb anything, a kind of gravitational energy like a black hole, but one in which everything swallowed remains visible - and visceral. This is not simple “metafiction,” which, in comparison to what Bolaño  is doing, seems to be just playing around the edges. Rather, for Bolaño , the key to the treasure is the treasure. By going directly to literature itself, into questions of what literature is and does, its possibilities and limitations, who writes and why, does any of it matter and why does it seem to matter so much, he turns the entirety of literary enterprise inside out to reveal its motivations, literary influences, schools and movements and attitudes, events in the poets’ lives and those of the poets’ associates, hero worship and jealousies and internecine fighting among writers (sometimes literalized, as in a duel fought on the beach between writer and critic, or in a physical altercation between Belano and his girlfriend, or more humorously, the orbital conjunctions of Ulises Lima and Octavio Paz as they perambulate in a park). In other words, perhaps, to reveal the visceral reality of literary enterprise?

Literature often (if not usually) involves a writer’s effort to erase traces of him or herself. In The Savage Detectives, this process is taken apart literally. As readers we’re detectives piecing together the lives of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima (not to mention the sense and sensibility of the whole work), while we’re also reading about characters trying to piece together, like detectives, the life of a vanished poet, whose sole surviving poem is a work without words, itself quite literally a mere trace, one that pushes the limits of poetry to where it borders on  - “poof” - just disappearing, as does another such wordless poem-object, with magically strange, majestic humor and poignancy at the end of the novel. And finally, we’re also reading about the pursuit of these detective poets by “savage detectives” of another order, Lupe’s pimp and the potential for violence that he brings with him. For as a counterbalance to all this literary effort, to this “gang” of Visceral Realists, there’s a dead weight of destructive violence inhabiting the space around the desire to create, where in the end (in yet another of Bolaño ’s comic/serious manifestations of the literal) it’s poets vs. thugs.

The Savage Detectives references literally hundreds (if not thousands) of poets, poetic terms and forms, movements and incidents in the history of poetry, from the ephemeral to the established to the imaginary. Some of this avalanche of particulars seems like name-dropping, but one of the astonishing things about Bolaño is the extent to which he seems to have absorbed, like someone with a photographic soul, everything he ever read or heard about literature, and is able to recapitulate it with its original sense intact, as well as with his reinvention of it, as well as with all the resonances it might have for a reader. In the novel’s lengthy laundry lists of poetic terms and forms, of types of experimental writing, and above all, of writers themselves, you sometimes come to doubt that Bolaño knows what he’s talking about; then you shudder at the possibility, then probability, then near certainty that he does (whatever else The Savage Detectives may be, it’s an astonishing phenomenon of intellect). Bolaño even anticipates your doubts. When Amadeo Salvatierra reads out of Manuel Maples Arce’s “Directory of the Avant-Garde,” an epic catalog of hundreds of names, he interrupts his reading of the list occasionally to interject things like, “Look…all we’re getting is last names now, “ or “Here I think Manuel was just pulling names out of a hat.” Naturally one wonders if Bolaño is doing the same thing.

Not that it would matter terribly if he was; Bolaño  knows where his knowledge matters and where it doesn’t. Everything in The Savage Detectives works to raise questions and play with those questions, constantly engaging the reader in puzzles and games. Some of them are light-hearted and gossamer thin, while others are magisterial re-workings of literary histories into his own imagination, as in the scene of the duel on the beach which flashes for a moment like a perfectly-tuned recreation of the tone and setting of Meursault’s fatal encounter on the beach in Camus’ The Stranger - before it takes off in a completely unexpected direction. While The Savage Detectives certainly rewards readers for the knowledge they bring to it (and makes what we don’t know seem a desert we could travel without end), there’s a refreshing lack of elitism and condescension in his gaming, which is also shot through with humor, from visual puns that would amuse a child to laugh-out loud funny intellectual conceits. One of the funniest of these involves one of Arturo Belano’s former lovers, female body builder Maria Teresa Solsona Ribot, the flabbiness of whose literary taste is in inverse proportion to the tightness of her muscles. While discussing Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” in particular the novel that the writer played by Jack Nicholson writes as he sinks into madness, Belano reminds Ribot that it consists of a single line – “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” – 500 pages of it written every possible way. He casually notes to her that “It might have been a good novel.” At Ribot’s incredulity that such a creation could be “a good novel,” he replies, “That shows a lack of respect for the reader.”  It’s a suggestion to Bolaño ’s own readers that he respects our abilities - and an instruction that we should have fun as well.

But Bolaño ’s games are more than just idle; they’re also rooted in something serious, as when a character notes that South American poets have a reason to be serious, given that most have spent time in prison for political reasons, and as further underscored by Bolaño ’s engagement with real world violence, such as the Tlatelolco massacre (or the heinous Juarez serial killings in 2666). As though to remind us that one can play literary games in fiction, but not to the extent that they simply become fiction’s sole, self-reflexive object, Bolaño culls something both playful and meaningful out of literature’s weighty accretion of texts and movements and history. Of the many writers who weave in and out of Bolaño ’s narratives, perhaps the most notable is Rimbaud, who haunts (should I have said “infects”?) The Savage Detectives. Using that Arthur Rimbaud/Roberto Bolaño  hybrid, Arturo Belano, Bolaño  interlaces the actual horror of the civil war in Liberia with a fictionalized version of the disappearance of the poet into Africa, just as Rimbaud appeared to give up poetry and vanish there, trailed through literary history by rumors and suppositions.

Of course the disappearance of a poet, trailed through literary history by rumors and suppositions, is also at the heart of the central plot of The Savage Detectives. Why does Cesárea Tinajero disappear? As in some lost chapter out of Silences, Tillie Olsen’s great book about literary disappearing acts, we learn that Cesárea’s disappearance is rooted in her defense of another young female poet, Encarnación Guzman, who has been ridiculed by male members of the earlier movement of Visceral Realists. Angered by their patronizing behavior, Tinajero refuses to come to their meetings again. She and Encarnación instead become even faster friends. And then after Encarnación vanishes into marriage, Cesárea herself vanishes, becoming magnified and distorted in legend, seen here, maybe seen there, thin in one recollection, fat in the next, imagined by Amadeo Salvatierra as “a spot moving along an endless ribbon.” Or perhaps a square along that ribbon.  Or a sailboat. We’re again in one of Bolaño’s games.

For those willing to play along, The Savage Detectives will likely have generous readers for a long time to come. While the traces of his alter egos may lead off into the world’s cities, into the Mexican desert, into the violence of Africa’s wars, and even right out the window, Bolaño’s own traces are in little danger of disappearing thanks to this glittering, sprawling, howling, ingenious, generous book, one powerful enough to bring even Cesárea Tinajero back from oblivion.

Many thanks to Richard and to Rise for organizing The Savage Detectives reading challenge.