Friday, March 21, 2014

Add Homonym: Raymond Roussel's Locus Solus

On a few very rare occasions, I’ve tasted foods so unutterably strange that my only reaction has been irrepressible laughter, an almost biochemical, nervous reflex as much as an appreciation of whatever undeniable humor I may have found in the thing itself. Reading Raymond Roussel’s 1914 novel Locus Solus, I experienced a similar effect; the sheer imaginative complexity of the book’s conceits sometimes produced such a degree of overstimulation that I could respond only with reflexive laughter.

My formal introduction to Roussel’s work came last year when I read his Impressions of Africa. In the first half of that book, a series of bizarre rituals, contraptions, and performances, unfolding in the central square of a mythical African republic, adds up to a dazzlingly poetic work that stretches reality into absurd, amusing, and occasionally macabre shapes. The second half of the book then gives intricate back-stories for each of these fabrications, each with an equally mystifying, glorious inventiveness.

Locus Solus largely provides more of the same, but the elaborations of some of Roussel’s conceits often attain an intricacy to which those in Impressions of Africa can merely aspire. Roussel constructs his “novel” upon a plot so thin and utilitarian that he could have stuck it up with thumbtacks: as the unidentified first person narrator explains, a group of friends has been invited by the renowned scientist Martial Canterel to Locus Solus, his estate just outside Paris. Other than that we never learn who’s in the group, how many they are, or why they’re there. Rather, Locus Solus leapfrogs such practical matters and plunges immediately into the wondrously and grotesquely bizarre. Before the group even reaches the villa on the property, they encounter an earthen statue of “a naked, smiling child,” standing in a niche upon a pedestal that presents a triptych composed of incomprehensibly odd, subtly-tinted reliefs melding baffling imagery with the occasional free-floating word. Canterel engages in a lengthy and outlandish set of entwined tales, stretching over centuries and from Timbuktu to sea caves off Bretagne, to explain the curious figure’s history. The group then follows Canterel to a broad, flat promenade where the scientist demonstrates a fantastical machine powered entirely by sun and wind. Directed by extraordinarily precise computational algorithms predicting the speed and direction of the slightest of breezes over a ten-day period, the machine executes a mosaic on the ground by placing human teeth, in all their varieties of discoloration, into a pattern illustrating a scene from a Scandinavian folkloric legend. Next comes a creation first glimpsed from a distance, a “monstrous jewel, two metres high by three wide, curved into the form of an ellipse [which gives] out, under the full radiance of the sun, an almost unbearable lustre, flashing in all directions” and emitting “vague strains of music.” Within this diamond, filled with a shimmering clear liquid, various scenes reveal themselves: the music emanates from the flowing blonde hair of a smiling young woman standing within the diamond, apparently able to breathe easily in the hyper-oxygenated liquid; an angry Atlas repeatedly drops and kicks at his globe; a figure of Voltaire is seen experiencing a moment of doubt about his atheism as he spies a young girl deep in prayer; the “internal remains” of the face of Danton, reduced to a thin skein of fibers, mouths unheard words in response to an unseen stimulus; a “pink and entirely hairless” Siamese cat (Khóng Dêk Lèn - surely one of the most memorable cats in literature) gaily swims about while a whimsical interpretation of Apollo and his chariot of fire, composed of a team of colored seahorses pulling, via some mysterious magnetic attraction, a round mass luminous like the sun, engages in a (sea)horse race. The glowing mass, it turns out, is Sauternes, which in contact with this aqua-micans coalesces and takes on an extraordinary glow (a genially exaggerated version of the chemical magic that occurs when water is added to pastis, for instance; this Sauternes in aqua-micans is a cocktail I’d certainly like to try). Next, the group passes slowly along a long transparent wall behind which elaborate tableaux vivants are being enacted – or rather, tableaux morts, since in each scene a reanimated corpse relives the most crucial moment of his or her life, thanks to Canterel’s ingenious invention of the chemical substances vitalium, resurrectine, and erythrite. Relatives flock to Locus Solus in hopes of gaining, through these recreations, an understanding of the loss of their loved ones.

These are but a few of the strange marvels of Locus Solus; as in Impressions of Africa, one story begets another, and it’s easy to lose track of where the first story began. Roussel nests tales within tales, concatenations that seem capable of leading one along infinitely (and tediously at times), like the reflections in facing mirrors, but he regularly sticks in a tack to reorient his narrative to the group visit to Locus Solus. His inventions – prose conceptions of creations that would put most contemporary conceptual art to shame - again bridge science and art, with a strong emphasis on writing, music, drama and painting as well as hybrid biological and mechanical mechanisms (“Only an animal, at once living and uncomprehending, would be able to give the required degree of unexpectedness to the performance”). Any artist, tinkering inventor or bright, open-minded bioengineer should be inspired.

The propagation of these inventive, poetic scenes lies in Roussel’s “procès.” Beginning with one set of words linked by the preposition “à,” Roussel would pair it with another set of similarly linked homonyms of those words. An example given by Roussel in his book on his own methodology, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, is “mou à raille” (mou – a wimpy, soft person : raille – like “the raillery heaped upon a lazy student by his comrades”) paired with “mou à rail” (mou – a culinary dish made of calves lungs : rail – a railroad line). The operation of these odd pairings, something akin to the mutations resulting from frameshifting of DNA, generates the nonsensical associations Roussel then takes and amplifies into his intricate constructions. The above example shows up in Impressions of Africa in the form of a cart that runs upon a track made of calves’ lungs. (The tremendous creative and humorous potential of this kind of homonymy is evident in an accessible, charming work employing something similar to Roussel’s method, Luis d’Antin van Rooten’s Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames, in which French homophones are used to create absurdist versions of the English lines that make up Mother Goose Rhymes – or, for another example, in this irreverent version of the Soviet national anthem).  

But Roussel’s process is only an initial, generative tool to help fabricate his creations, and hardly explains the prodigious imagination on display in his work. He then performs a further textual operation, similar to the surrealist game Exquisite Corpse (wherein a drawing made by one person on half of a folded sheet is completed by another on the other half, with the second able to see only minimal, connecting traces of the first’s design) by again inventing for each his conceits an explanation at least as fantastic as what it sets out to explain. In Locus Solus, Roussel collapses these concepts and their explanations into discrete chapters, each consecrated to one of Canterel’s contrivances as the group moves about the estate. In one such back-story, the mirror-like fingernails that play a critical role in the sudden collapse into insanity of a woman seen in one of the tableaux morts are explained in detail as a fashionable cosmetic treatment in which the nails are first removed, made transparent, provided a reflective tinned backing like the metal substrate on old mirrors, then replaced on the fingers (I’m surprised that I’ve yet to encounter this particular body manipulation on the streets of San Francisco).

Considering the games with homonyms at the heart of Roussel’s process, one might wonder if reading him in English entails a greater than ordinary loss in translation. But even educated French readers would be unlikely to divine the linguistic origins of Roussel’s ideas solely from his texts, and these uncommon concepts almost certainly taste as exhilaratingly strange in English as they do in French. What may come through of Roussel’s homonym games, though, is a palpable sense of drifting through an infinitely curved universe of words, a dream-like echo space in which language generates and regenerates itself. It’s mesmerizing, for the most part. And did I mention that “a cheerful dinner” is promised to the guests at the end? I feel almost cheated in not getting to sit down in the villa of Locus Solus to enjoy that meal.   

Monday, March 17, 2014

2666: The Part About the Crimes

Weeks before Roberto Bolaño’s death, an interviewer asked him how he envisioned hell. His response: “Cuidad Juarez.” At the center of his 2666 – quite literally, as it occupies roughly the second third of the book – The Part About the Crimes is the semi-fictionalized account of a real atrocity in and around this Mexican border city: the savage murders of hundreds of women, many subjected to brutal sexual abuse and torture, suggesting a serial, even systemic factor in the killings. The murders, tracked since 1993, certainly began well before the “first” case aroused suspicion that a serial killer or killers might be at work. At the time Bolaño’s novel appeared in 2004, the toll stood at somewhere around 280 victims, with few of the cases solved. Since then, murders of women have continued at a stunning rate, albeit with fewer of the serial-type killings described in 2666. Three hundred and four women were murdered in Cuidad Juarez in 2012 alone, most of the killings attributed by authorities to domestic violence, other altercations, involvement of drug cartels, or what the police consider isolated acts, a technical division that diminishes and obscures the magnitude and pervasiveness of the gender-driven violence Bolaño addresses.

Bolaño has seeded the first three parts of 2666 both with scattered violence and amplifying allusions to the particular crimes of Juarez. The increasingly powerful gravity that has drawn the novel’s principal characters into Santa Teresa now engulfs the reader in the city’s atmosphere of horror and impunity. Bolaño sets The Part About the Crimes not in Cuidad Juarez (which makes a cameo appearance in the novel), nor in the real Sonoran city of Santa Teresa further south, but in a fictional Santa Teresa, its name surely meant to evoke that self-mutilating, mystical, canonized nun. Perhaps it’s intended as well to stress the significance of the border, by borrowing the name of the U.S. town just northwest of Juarez, where the Santa Teresa border crossing is rapidly growing into a significant commercial trade corridor. Bolaño nearly always applies such torque to reality, twisting it into new yet still fully recognizable forms. Thus, while his forensic, sterile descriptions of the victims in The Part About the Crimes depart in names and details from the actual killings, this manipulation subtracts nothing from their impact. Forming a catalog that punctuates and interrupts the narrative for its 300 pages, these descriptions have a cumulative, concussive effect. Bolaño’s intermingling of factual details also seems to bring the magnitude of the crimes closer and to complement and extend existing journalistic accounts, such as Teresa Rodriguez’s The Daughters of Juarez, which, though it appeared after 2666, can be read in striking parallel with The Part About the Crimes (Rodriguez’s searing portrayal of an apathetic, complicit judicial authority in the state of Chihuahua is enraging enough for one to want to see the region’s entire, poisonous police apparatus encased in a Chernobyl-like concrete sarcophagus).

Bolaño’s explorations of the factors that could permit such horrors to continue for years with impunity range deeply and widely across a wretched physical and spiritual landscape that consumes its most vulnerable members. In place of an attempt to divine the psychopathology of the killer or killers is a far-reaching exploration of the multiple, “global” convergent elements that have allowed such atrocity to happen: the sharp economic and social disparities that exist along the border; the exponential growth in the number of foreign-owned maquiladoras; the exploding sprawl resulting from impoverished persons from the south pouring in to seek work; an enormous pool of cheap labor, including a significant contingent of young women and under-aged girls; the calculated, profiteering indifference of factory managers and distant factory owners, primarily from the U.S.; the almost complete absence of infrastructure such as paved roads, lighting and public transportation; the dominance of drug cartels operating with impunity; the corruption and complicity of local and state police and of the federal government; efforts by civic boosters to downplay the crimes and by the powerful to impede investigation; the shockingly pervasive manifestations of machismo and misogyny. Over it all a suffocating, paralytic inertia presses down relentlessly, enervating the possibility of action. Oscar Amalfitano’s geometrical attempts in the second part of the novel to link seemingly randomly generated names of writers and philosophers now seem a kind of psychological simulacrum of the effort to make sense of these victims, randomly discarded across the desert wastes in an elusive, impenetrable order. The city’s tepid response to the murders rises and falls according to their frequency, as if they were no more than a nuisance brought by the wind.

The imagination of a Dante or Bosch might have been used for painting this portrait of hell; instead, and all the more devastating for it, Bolaño remains, in his unembellished treatment of the victims, steady, factual and understated. His use of understatement is especially acidic: police who decide “to go along with the official story;” “samples sent to Hermosillo…lost, whether on the way there or on the way back it wasn’t clear;” victims “sent to swell the supply of corpses for medical school students at the University of Santa Teresa;” bodies “tossed without further ado into the public grave.” A maddening catalog of abysmal failures parallels the abysmal catalog of victims: “The case remained unsolved,,,the case was soon closed… the case was quietly closed…filed as unsolved …soon shelved…soon neglected and forgotten…the unidentified girl remained unclaimed, as if she had come to Santa Teresa alone and lived there invisibly until the murderer or murderers took notice of her and killed her.”

The broad scale of Bolaño’s literary treatment of the murders allows a depth of imagination, of immersion in the hell of Cuidad Juarez, that no journalistic account could likely accomplish, and the fragmentary aspects of Bolaño’s narrative, its breaks and jumps, disconnections and discontinuities, seem to echo the frustrating lack of resolution in the actual crimes. Woven into the body count, Bolaño offers multiple narrative threads that deeply contextualize the crimes, and not only the sadistic, serial killings (these given even less attention by authorities than are given to a madman desecrating churches), but also the “ordinary” violence inflicted upon women by husbands, boyfriends, strangers and others. A large cast of characters, major and minor, demonstrate varying degrees of culpability, acquiescence and confrontation with regard to the crimes. The desperateness of the situation is illustrated by Bolano’s choosing, as among the most clear-eyed of these characters, the clairvoyant Florita Almada, whose television appearances, disrupted in Santa Teresa by the fog of poor transmission, plead with the city to wake up: “I’m talking about the girls and the mothers of families and the workers from all works of life who turn up dead each day in the neighborhoods and on the edges of that industrious city in the northern part of our state. I’m talking about Santa Teresa. I’m talking about Santa Teresa.” And though Bolaño’s portrayals of the police may be unflattering, they are not one-dimensional. Amid the corrupt, dull-witted, and vicious officers, he offers glimpses (though depressingly few) of humanity in several others, most notably Juan de Dios Martínez, whose relationship with Elvira Campos, director of a psychiatric institute in Santa Teresa, at least involves grappling with the killings and who is one of the few officers to display any kind of emotional reaction to them (each time stifled, at once a poignant display of his humanity and an indictment of a macho culture that discourages such emotional openness in men). The young detective and former drug-boss bodyguard, Lalo Cura, whose hard life choices illustrate the fluid connections between the cartels and the police (a “lunacy” underscored by his very name), develops, through study, a degree of professionalism mocked by colleagues whose utter carelessness with evidence repeatedly impedes investigation of the crimes. A consultant from the United States, Albert Kessler, brought in primarily for public relations purposes, disappears in Santa Teresa, as does a violent American counterpart, Harry Magana, a sheriff from Arizona pursuing leads on his own. Others take a more strong, compulsive interest in the killings of the women, including an American journalist, Mary-Sue Bravo; a reporter from Mexico City, Sergio Gonzàlez (modeled transparently after Bolaño’s friend Sergio Gonzàlez-Rodriguez, who has published widely about the Juarez murders); and a determined PRI congresswoman, Azucena Esquivel Plata, who seeks Gonzàlez’s help in keeping the crimes in the public eye by urging him to “hit hard” in writing about them (in perhaps a nod to Bolaño’s approach in addressing the Juarez crimes, the character Gonzàlez, also a novelist, notes that “books aren’t censored or read here, but the press is another story”). Esquivel Plata’s determination is both professional and personal; the latter gets detailed in a lengthy anecdote concerning a vanished friend from childhood now likely mired in high-class prostitution and organization of private parties for wealthy clients and cartel bosses that may involve the sexual exploitation of young girls. But Esquivel Plata’s motivations go beyond the particular to encompass rage at the entire culture of misogyny, impunity and collusion. 

But for those readers who’ve been frustrated by the discontinuities of the earlier parts of 2666, perhaps the most intriguing character in The Part About the Crimes is Klaus Haas, the tall German first introduced at the end of The Part About Fate. Haas, established in Santa Teresa after leaving the United States, is suspected in the murder of one of the girls, imprisoned and expediently blamed for the most of the murders. In another example of torque, Bolaño borrows details about Haas from the case of Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif, a tall, fair-skinned Egyptian scientist wanted for rape charges in the U.S. Sharif had been arrested in Juarez and used as a scapegoat for the murders even as bodies to continued to pile up while he languished in prison, from which it was suggested he was somehow continuing to direct the crimes, resulting in other suspects, mainly young gang members, being rounded up indiscriminately and subjected to torture (Teresa Rodriguez quotes a prosecutor describing Sharif, in what might have been a line from Bolaño himself, as “the intellectual author of the crimes”). In Haas, who appears to fit the tenuous description the critics carried when they pursued rumors of Benno von Archimboldi to Santa Teresa, Bolaño brings together the two key questions of the novel thus far:  Who is responsible for the crimes? And who is the writer Benno von Archimboldi? To these questions he poses another: Is Klaus Haas both Benno von Archimboldi and the person responsible for these killings? Bolaño thus places the reader in the wondering position of the critics, dividing the reader’s attention uneasily between the successive, punishing body count and the mystery of Archimboldi.

The Part About the Crimes concludes without resolution of these questions; in the final lines, there is only laughter in the dark. But through this fictional treatment, Bolaño powerfully brings to the forefront the hellish actuality of Juarez; describes the intricate confluence of local and global forces that ignore the crimes and deny the victims justice; and, reveals, via the terrible panorama that has developed throughout 2666 to emerge in plain view in The Part About the Crimes, not only the deep pervasiveness of violence, but the myriad ways it is especially directed against women.

In The Part About Fate, Oscar Fate recalls someone – the journalist Guadalupe Roncal, or perhaps Rosa Amalfitano – stating that “no one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” With a jolt, Fate realizes or imagines that it was neither woman, but the incarcerated Klaus Haas, “the giant fucking albino,” who supplied the comment. And so, standing at the edge of the abyss, one turns, as though hoping for deliverance via a possible answer to the other mystery of 2666, from The Part About the Crimes to The Part About Archimboldi.  

The 2666 group read is sponsored by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos.