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Observing official literature

Convulsions from the kingdom of enjoyment

Juan Manuel Vial
Journalist and literary critic Cover photo: Juan Pablo Molina Santiago, Chile Á - N.1

Although Roberto Bolaño was generous with Fernando Vallejo and Vallejo mean to Bolaño, there was a certain conviction that united them beyond the contempt for García Márquez and the suicidal capacity of gaining enemies: the bristling intransigence towards the figure of the falsifying writer. In the political incorrectness of both, in their diatribes and in their elaborated insults, an ethics of writing is discerned.


Some years ago I participated in a lunch that was not very memorable, in honour of the Colombian writer Fernando Vallejo in a restaurant downtown, organized by the editorial that publishes his books. Along with Vallejo, if my memory is correct, there was a bookseller, a bad novelist, a person from the editorial and a couple of literary critics.


At this point, let’s say 10 years ago, I had admiration and respect for Vallejo, not only because he had built the bulk of linguistics called Logoi, but also because he would strike quite boldly, with insolence and grace, against those that were unfortunate enough to cross his path: Muhammad, Yahweh, the Catholic Church, people that don’t treat animals as their neighbours, politicians of his country, in fact, his entire country. At the time, no one expressed their political stances with such virulence, as Vallejo, whose opinions are all political, neither has any one of his contemporaries managed to overcome him on his management of the insult or the Churrigueresque diatribe.


The bookseller presented a copy of El desbarrancadero for Vallejo to dedicate it to him, the bad novelist tried to fall into his grace deepening precisely into the subject that he least dominated (the mysteries of linguistics) and the representative of the editorial was probably the one who best complied with her role as hostess and paid the bill. On my part, I asked him something about the Argentinian writer that didn’t seem to be taken politely. In reality, all I remember of the lunch was that far from being the impertinent character of his books, the “gay sonofabitch”, ready to set alight the circus without the least provocation, Vallejo was a kind guy, retrained and extremely well spoken.


I don’t know if at this time the Colombian had already pronounced an excessive opinion, even for his standards (I don’t know if he was even Colombian at this time, as in 2007 he negated his Colombian-ness and took on Mexican nationality). Vallejo was a lover and cultivator of the Baroque, once Mujica Lainez said that the prose of Roberto Bolaño was at the level of “I’m Tarzan, you’re Chita”. What is certain is that no one touched the subject during the lunch.



Against García Márquez

In El gaucho insufrible (2003), Bolaño included a conference that is now quite famous, whose title, we can’t forget, comes from a magnificent series of horror stories written by a racist North American who was tortured for his repressed homosexuality: H.P Lovecraft, who published his stories between 1921 and 1935 and then joined them in one volume later named Los mitos de Cthulhu.

In Los mitos de Cthulhu, a diatribe that as I’ve already said was first pronounced as discourse, Bolaño along with other white people goes against writers that sell a lot but are worth little or nothing, in a literary sense. Of course the subject is not a novelty, and he himself had developed it in his stories, his novels, in his journalistic conversation: the impostors, the phonies and careerists of the literary world occupy an established place within the Bolañian universe. But on this occasion, Bolaño also focuses on the reader that consumes bad books:

“There is a rhetorical question that I would like someone to respond: Why do Pérez Reverte o Vázquez Figueroa or any successful author as for example Muñoz Molina or the young De Prada with the sonorous name, sell so much? Is it only because they are clear? Only because they tell stories that keep the reader in the air? Does no one respond? Who dares respond? No one say anything. I hate it when people lose friends. I will respond. The answer is no. Those aren’t the only reasons they sell. They sell and enjoy the public’s good opinion because their stories are understood. It is to say: because readers, who are never wrong, clearly not in terms of readers, but in terms of consumers, in this case of books, perfectly understand their novels or stories”.

Further on, Bolaño again points to the true object of his contempt: the mediocre Latin American authors of our day, the bastards of the boom, the graceless imitators, “the moron children of García Márquez”. It is the era, he says “of the writer who goes to the gym, the writer who cures his ills at the Mayo Clinic of New York”. And goes on to unveil the key concept of his idea: «Writers of today are no longer, as Pere Gimferrer showed us, little men ready to fulminate social respectability, much less a pack of misfits, but middle-class people and proletariat ready to climb the Everest of respectability, eager for respectability».


«Let us not forget that it is politicians who decide on national literature, occasionally Ministers of Educations that have read little or nothing in their lives and that, if they did read, were dumbstruck by the formal tricks of Isabel Allende and Antonio Skármeta».


Respectability brings with it sweat: “Signing books, smiling, travelling to unknown places, smiling, playing the clown in programs of the heart, smiling a lot, and above all not biting the hands that feed you, assisting book fairs and answering stupid questions kindly, smiling in the worst situations, putting on a clever face, controlling the demographic growth, and always saying thank you”.


The interest for García Márquez that Bolaño and Vallejo fed was daring, given that not many relevant writers dared to humiliate the Latin American patriarch of literature. Ultimately, they see it as a patting of the powerful; a characteristic that at first instance could sound paradoxical if we consider that he himself was a guy with some power. In his myths, Bolaño sustains that the best lesson of literature of García Márquez “was to receive the Pope of Rome in La Habana, wearing leather boots, García, not the Pope, who I suppose would have worn sandals, along with Castro, who wore boots. I still recall the smiles that García Márquez, at that great feast, could not completely hide. The half-closed eyes, stretched skin that seemed as though he had had a lifting, the lightly gathered lips, the Saracen lips, Amado Nervo would have said, with envy”.


On his part, Vallejo rebukes it in “Cursillo de orientación ideológica para García Márquez”, a text included in Peroratas (2013): “I first arrived in Cuba with diplomatic immunity, on the official tour of a company of Mexican comics that protected the president of Mexico, who in turn protected Vuba, Luis Echeverría. I don’t know if you know him. I’ve never seen you pictured with him. I’ve seen you in the newspaper with Fidelito Castro, Felipito González, Cesarito Gaviria, Miguelito of Madrid, Carlitos Andrés Pérez, Carlitos Salinas de G., Ernestico Samper. All gentlemen through and through, without accounts in Switzerland neither with the law, without a doubt. Also with the Pope? I don’t know about that, I don’t remember anymore, I have Alzheimer. I know you had your eye on him, your eagle eye, a Luis Donaldo Colosio, but they killed him for you. I remember when they exposed him (it was your little friend Carlitos Salinas de G. who did it so that he could take over his place on the presidency of Mexico, high supremacy) you woke up early to congratulate him. You gave him (as they say in Mexico) “a madrugón”».


Bonnie and Clyde

“What can Sergio Pitol, Fernando Vallejo and Ricardo Piglia do against the avalanche of glamour?” Bolaño asks, naming three authors that he rightly considers to be magnificent. The question is actually quite embarrassing knowing what we know, even sad, there are enough reasons to overlook the fact that Bolaño was generous with Vallejo, when Vallejo in turn, was not so kind to Bolaño. It would be useful to ponder on the fact that they share something more than the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, a distaste for García Márquez and a manifested vocation that sometimes proved suicidal, for gaining enemies: an absolute disparagement of the politically correct writer, who in order to ascend choses not to make enemies, a vice that Bolaño’s ethical guerrilla attacked, or that which Vallejo would more succinctly define, with no hairs on their tongues, as a cocksucker”.


At this point we can already enter fully into the field of Chilean literature. In no other country, and I say it with all seriousness, have the governments favoured politically correct authors with similar enthusiasm, the cultivators of enjoyment, of the legible and the clear. You don’t have to be too careful when looking through the list of poets and narrators that have been awarded the National Literature Prize, constantly names appear that won solely for being doted with respectability or mediocrity, that in this case are the same: muscle, tendon, bone and blood of political correctness. The simple exercise of looking at the gaps, at those that did not win, is enough to have an idea: Vicente Huidobro the poet, Roberto Bolaño the narrator. Convulsions from the kingdom of enjoyment.


The two latest National Literature prizes awarded by the Chilean government in narration were to Isabel Allende and Antonio Skármeta, a situation that conduces us to an apparent dead-end, as this is like saying the Bonnie and Clyde of the movement that Vallejo and Bolaño attack from their respective trenches. Bonnie, hardworking, vivacious, pizpireta, intriguing, lascivious, champion of fashionable causes, always ready to give to her millions of readers a story that oscillates between the cheesy and uplifting, all with an amazing ease of digestion. And Clyde, that literarily speaking is less than Bonnie, reason for which he has been forced to smile much more in life, incarnates with a particular enchantment and kindness the “functional writer”, denounced by Bolaño, who from so much bending his back to political power, ended up not only gargling an enviable prebendary, but also gaining literary glory, if that’s what we can call the recognition with which friends of a political party pay certain favours of campaigns and more than one accomplice smile.


The prizes awarded by the Chilean government to Isabel Allende and Antonio Skármeta embarrass us, it’s true, they make us look bad, it’s true, they promote bad taste and laziness, it’s true, and occasionally they make us angry, of course, but this would be nothing compared to the disturbing precedent that they could now establish that political correctness and plain politics have been found to have more than something in common. Let’s not forget that it is politicians that decide on national literature, occasionally education ministers that have read little or nothing in their lives, and when they did, they were dumbstruck with the formal trickery of Allende and Skármeta. The way things are going, it wouldn’t surprise me if one day they awarded any of those that, with nothing else to do, compulsively write letters to the director of El Mercurio with causes such as the improvement of public lighting or the control of migration flows.


The comfort, which sometimes exists, would be the cloak of political correctness that hovers heavily over other literatures on a global scale. Neofeminism and Islam, two implacable religions, have literature from Europe, the United States, Africa and Asia, on their knees. We in Latin America can enjoy a certain breath, at least in what refers to Islam, because we have never been safe from neofeminists. Here, leading the rankings and the sales counts, we can distinguish impostors, phonies, mediocre subjects, bureaucrats, imitators and careerists, but all of them – may God hold them close – can still refer to Muhammad or any ayatollah or magnet as they please, but, of course, if they went past the line of mentioning an exotic name, they would run the risk of dynamiting the bridge of friendship and ease and understanding and sweetness that they have had with a lot of effort, towards the common reader, which they surely deserve.


In “Los mitos de Cthulhu”, Bolaño mocks Mullah Omar, while the pages that Vallejo has dedicated to develop Muhammad in flesh are at this stage innumerable. I think about this because exactly 30 years ago in London, The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie, was published, an extensive, colourful, sarcastic novel that owes more than one line to García Márquez, a novel that, unsuspectingly, would trace a before and after in the artistic development of part of the West, even if not for aesthetic reasons.


Enemies of the writer

Five months after the launching of the book, the morning of the 14th February 1989, Rushdie assisted the funeral of his good friend Bruce Chatwin, who had hidden from everyone that he was dying of aids (he maintained until the end that the cause was an infection produced by a rather exotic Chinese fungus). Just before leaving his house for the service, Rushdie was informed that very far away, in Teherán, Jomeini the Ayatollah had proclaimed a fault against him, which is to say a direct exhortation, which included a metallic reward, for any Muslim believer to assassinate him. The reason? The Satanic Verses, and particularly a blasphemous passage of the novel in which Muhammad or an Ayatollah or magnet was made to look bad. It became a topic of conversation during the ceremony, but that day no one took it seriously. Paul Theroux, being funny, told Rushdie that the following week they would all gather there again to bid him farewell. The following day Rushdie disappeared from the scene. And although one year later he negated his writings using the traditional formula —“There is no other God than Allah and Muhammad is his last prophet”— understanding that the fault, although mild, still stands. “Apologising”, he admitted years later, “was the biggest mistake of my life”.


Bolaño and Vallejo are not the kinds of people who apologise for what they say. Bolaño cannot do it anyway, dead as he is. But the ethics against the political correctness that he developed in life is distinguishable throughout his work, and this, as we well know, is what endures. And Vallejo would die before apologising. Either way, no one can sustain that the writings of Bolaño and Vallejo are dark and encrypted for the solace of the highly sophisticated and cultured reader. “Of course it is advisable to accept and demand, even more, the incessant exercise of clarity and the amenity of the novel”, says Bolaño in the diatribe quoted. And Vallejo has a good phrase against contortion and pedantry: Heidegger’s Being and Time is horrible, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is horrible, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is horrible, Descarte’s Discourse on the Method is horrible, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is horrible. Horrible all of them, don’t waste time on that, believe me, and learn from second hand experience to save time, which is scarce. It’s good that they didn’t give me a Doctorate in Philosophy, thank you very much!”


In another of his perorations, the ex Colombian argues that “journalists annihilate the writer. They distort everything, they banalize everything, they stupidize everything. Someone says something good? They repeat it badly. Someone makes a mistake? They leave it mistaken. Someone says a great phrase? They erase it. The principal enemies of the writer are: the proofreader, the journalist, the editor and the reader. In that order”.


«For Bolaño, respectability brings with it sweat: “Signing books, smiling, travelling to unknown places, smiling, playing the clown in programs of the heart, smiling a lot, and above all not biting the hands that feed you»


Was Vallejo wrongly interpreted when he said that Bolaño’s prose was at the level of “I’m Tarzan, you’re Chita”? It doesn’t matter because the judgement is gross however you look at it. Today, would he regret this slip? Not at all, precisely because he believes that “each person is his words”. In that way the first phrase of El don de la vida (2010), one of the many novels in which the narrator is none other than Vallejo himself: “Who has the biggest dick in this gay bar? —I asked when entering drunk and they brought me a boy”.


The reader as the enemy of the writer is a concept that maintains its relation with what is said here, but the most pressing subject is another: the manifest pact between politicians and politically correct writers can end up making us, the readers, confined to a damn wasteland, in the ghetto of bad taste in which the recluses that don’t die of boredom, die in mental malnutrition, which at the end of the day is the same thing. Therefore we hope that united in malediction and incendiary hoards, the little men and the badly adapted will free us from the enclosure and sweep with the respectability of contemporary letters, as the way things are going it’s probable that we will only find refuge in the bookshops of old, also a smelly and claustrophobic wasteland.


Juan Manuel Vial