Saturday, January 24, 2009

Saturday Story Hour: Bolaño Sci-Fi

A new feature here at Fosco Lives!: Saturday Story Hour.

Last weekend, Fosco finished reading Roberto Bolaño's novel The Savage Detectives. You may remember that Fosco's obsession with Bolaño was sparked by last year's blockbuster novel, 2666. You may also recall Fosco's recent post on Bolaño's Amulet. The Savage Detectives is incredible. It's not as harrowing as 2666, nor as sprawling (although it does contain respectable sprawl of its own). It's also funnier and sexier.

The Savage Detectives is a meditation on the relationship between literature and biography. The novel attempts to offer a portrait of two influential Latin American poets ("Arturo Belano" stands in for Roberto Bolaño in the narrative) who came of age primarily in Mexico in the 1970s. The first and third sections of the book take the form of journal entries by one of the poetry groupies who hangs around with the "visceral realists" (a funny fake name for a Bolaño's poetry movement) in Mexico. The mammoth center section of the novel is a collection of anecdotes, reminiscences, and testimonies from people all over the world who encountered Arturo Belano or his compatriot Ulises Lima over a period of twenty years. We never hear from either Belano or Lima directly; all our knowledge of them is filtered through the stories of others.

This center section allows Bolaño to do what he's best at: tell lots of different stories in the voices of lots of different characters, many of them only peripherally related to the main narratives of Belano and Lima. Some critics have found this multiplicity of voices and stories to scatter narrative momentum, and Fosco can see this. At the same time, however, every damn one of the individual reports/anecdotes is an absolute joy to read. Fosco is willing to accept that trade-off.

For your Saturday reading pleasure (and because you need to read more this year), Fosco would like to reprint here one of his favorite stories from The Savage Detectives. To enjoy this passage, you really don't need to know more about the novel than I've already explained--this is a stand-alone story, in its way. It's got a sci-fi vibe to it, but the Bolaño wit shines through.

From The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer:

Felipe Müller, sitting on a bench in Plaza Martorell, Barcelona, October 1991. I'm almost sure it was Arturo Belano who told me this story, because he was the only one of us who liked to read science fiction. It's by Theodore Sturgeon, or so Arturo said, although it might be by some other author or even Arturo himself; the name Theodore Sturgeon means nothing to me.

The story, a love story, is about a hugely rich and extremely intelligent girl who one day falls in love with her gardener or her gardener's son or a young tramp who just happens to end up on one of the estates she owns and becomes her gardener. The girl, who's not only rich and smart but also headstrong and a little impulsive, lures him into bed the first chance she gets, and without quite knowing how, falls madly in love with him. The tramp, who's nowhere near as smart as she is and who doesn't have a high school degree but who makes up for it by being angelically pure, falls in love with her too, though naturally not without a few complications. In the first phase of the romance, they live in her palatial mansion, where they spend their time looking at art books, eating exquisite delicacies, watching old movies, and mostly making love all day. Then they live for a while in the gardener's cottage and then on a boat (maybe the kind that cruises the rivers of France, like in the Jean Vigo film) and then they roam the vast expanse of the United States on a couple of Harleys, which was one of the tramp's long-cherished dreams.

As the girl lives out her love, her interests continue to prosper, and since money begets money, she gets richer by the day. Of course, the tramp, who's generally clueless, is decent enough to convince her to devote part of her fortune to good works or charity (which is something the girl has always done anyway, through lawyers and a network of various foundations, though she doesn't tell him so, in order to make him think she's doing it on his account) and then he forgets all about it, because ultimately the tramp has only the vaguest idea of the mass of money that trails like a shadow behind his beloved. Anyway, for a while, months, maybe a year or two, the girl millionaire and her lover are indescribably happy. But one day (or one evening), the tramp falls ill and although the best doctors in the world come to examine him, there's nothing to be done. His health has been ruined by an unhappy childhood, an adolescence plagued by hardships, a troubled life that the short time he's spent with the girl has barely managed to ease or sweeten. Despite all the efforts of science, he dies of cancer.

For a few days the girl seems to lose her mind. She travels all over the globe, takes lovers, immerses herself in dark pursuits. But she ends up coming home, and soon, when it becomes clear that she's more obsessed than ever, she decides to embark on a project that in some way had already begun to take root in her mind just before the tramp's death. A team of scientists moves into the mansion. In record time, the house is doubly transformed, the inside into a sophisticated laboratory, and the outside, the lawns and the gardener's cottage, into a replica of Eden. To shield it all from the gaze of strangers, an extremely high wall is erected around the grounds. Then the work begins. Soon, the scientists implant a clone of the tramp in the womb of a whore, who will be generously compensated. Nine months later the whore has a boy, hands him over to the girl, and disappears.

For five years the girl and a team of specialists care for the boy. Then the scientists implant a clone of the girl in her own womb. Nine months later the girl has a child. The laboratory in the mansion is dismantled and the scientists disappear, replaced by teachers, the tutor-specialists who will keep watch from a distance as both children are raised according to a plan previously drawn up by the girl. When everything is set in motion the girl disappears. She travels, she attends society parties again, she plunges headfirst into perilous adventures, takes lovers: her name shines like a star's. But every once in a while, cloaked in the greatest secrecy, she returns to the mansion and observes the children's progress, unseen by them. The clone of the tramp is an exact replica of the man she fell in love with, his purity and innocence intact. Except that now all his needs are met and his childhood is a peaceful succession of games and teachers who instruct him in all he needs to know. The female clone is an exact replica of the girl herself, and her teachers repeat the same successes and failures, the same actions of the past.

The girl, of course, hardly ever lets herself be seen by the children, although occasionally the clone of the tramp, who is never tired of playing and is a bold child, spots her through the lace curtains of the mansion's upper floors and goes running after her, always in vain.

The years pass and the children grow up, becoming more and more inseparable. One day the millionairess falls ill, with whatever, a deadly virus, cancer, and after a purely symbolic struggle, gives in and prepares to die. She's still young, forty-two. Her only heirs are the two clones and she leaves everything ready for them to inherit part of her immense fortune the moment they're married. Then she dies and her lawyers and scientists weep bitterly for her.

The story ends with a meeting of her staff after the reading of the will. Some, the most innocent and farthest from the millionairess's inner circle, ask the questions that Sturgeon guesses readers might ask themselves. What if the clones refuse to marry? What if the boy and girl love each other, as seems indisputable, but their love never goes beyond the strictly fraternal? Will their lives be ruined? Will they be condemned to live together like two prisoners serving life sentences?

Arguments and debates break out. Moral and ethical questions are raised. The oldest lawyer and scientist, however, soon take it upon themselves to clear up all doubts. Even if the boy and girl don't agree to marry, even if they don't fall in love, they'll still be given the money they're due and they'll be free to do as they like. No matter how the relationship between them develops, within a year the scientists will implant a new clone of the tramp in the body of a surrogate, and five years later they'll repeat the operation with a new clone of the millionairess. And when these new clones are twenty-three and eighteen, no matter what their interpersonal relationship might be--in other words, whether they love each other like brother and sister or like lovers--the scientists or the scientists' successors will implant two more clones, and so on until the end of time or until the millionairess's immense fortune in exhausted.

This is where the story ends, with the faces of the millionairess and the tramp silhouetted against the sunset, and then the stars, and then infinite space. A little creepy, isn't it? Sublime, in a way, but creepy too. Like all crazy loves, don't you think? If you add infinity to infinity, you get infinity. If you mix the sublime and the creepy, what you end up with is creepy. Right? (447-50)


Jill said...

Creepy obsessive and sad...but interesting.

FOSCO said...

Yes, I agree, very sad.

Anonymous said...

I too am working my way through a heap of Bolano! Now, if you tell me your next project is Brothers, well, I'll be forced to conclude that you're surveilling my library - and didn't we just kick those bums out?


FOSCO said...

@AEJ: I finished "Last Evenings On Earth" tonight and I only have a book of his poems left on my shelf (I think there is still one minor novel that I don't own, though). If "Last Evenings" isn't on your pile, I can recommend it highly.

As for my next project, it is NOT "Brothers"--as much as I would love to be surveilling your library! Actually, I have a W.G. Sebald and a Cormac McCarthy waiting for me. I don't know which I'll do first, though.