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SWF LogoThe theme of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival was ‘have we got a story for you’. Right from an opening ‘address’ that was performance rather than talk from story-teller Daniel Morden, which you can listen to here, the tone was set.

My highlights:

1. James Wood’s finger drumming. (Oh, and his thoughts on Winton, Stead, Carey, Naipaul, Sebald, Franzen, DeLillo, Austen, Auster, Zadie Smith, Lydia Davis (winner of 2013 Man Booker International), and his love for Keith Moon’s drumming.)

2. Novelists Edward Rutherfurd and Hannah Kent ‘sparring’ with Oxford University historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala on the nature of truth in history fact and fiction. I say ‘sparring’ because at times they seemed to be in agreement: Rutherfurd argued history students should be made to write a short story every term so they can visualise the past rather than recite mere facts and figures. Dabhoiwala responded by saying he has his students write the history of today or tomorrow in order to show them that writing history is indeed a matter of perspective and selection. I’ll be writing more on historical imagination soon.

3. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, a literary gentleman, talking lovingly about old book stores, the art of translation, the fact his Shadow of the Wind series will never be made into films because it would be a betrayal of the books. What resonated most, though, was him urging us to resist the ‘cultural deforestation’ underway at the hands of global technology companies.

4. The annual book design panel, with design luminaries like Hall of Famer W.H. Chong from Text Publishing, which you can read more about here.

DSC03676 - Saturday sun

Saturday sun @ SWF

5. The Silent History story ‘app’ as one possible future avenue for e-books. Purely digital, its serialisation is nothing new — Dickens and others used to sell stories in the same manner. But the geo-delivered ‘field reports’, which are an adjunct to the serialised story and which you only receive to your phone or tablet if you’re standing within 10 metres of a particular point, is exciting. They can provide a sort of fictional walking tour of places you visit.

6. ‘Love and laughter’ with Graeme Simsion and William McInnes. There was plenty of both. When he was bored working on an old TV series, McInnes used to write disturbing fan letters to fellow cast members! Simision wrote the screenplay for The Rosie Project but couldn’t find funding for the project, so asked his agent if writing it is a book would help, to which the agent said, ‘Only if it’s a bestseller’. The rest as they say is history. The movie rights have been optioned, and there are two book sequels in the pipeline as well.

DSC03668 - Saturday sun at SWF

Sun-spangled waters @ SWF

7. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists, and in particular Majok Tulba, a Sudanese-born Aussie, with a wonderful smile and charming nature, who spoke of how he came within an inch of becoming a child soldier, and how that experience inspired his Beneath the Darkening Sky; how a friend in a refugee camp showed Majok a book and told him there were machines you could speak into that made your voice into a book; and how, despite the struggle  to learn English, the real struggle was to get the painful images of civil war onto the page.

8. Gillian Mears discussing Foal’s Bread. Heart-rending and heroic. I’ll never forget it. For more, click here.

9. Daniel Morden’s performances, both the opening night ‘address’ and his (unbelievably free!) rendition of (most) of Homer’s Odyssey. There was good reason the likes of Cate Kennedy were in attendance to hear the epic tale retold. It was spellbinding stuff, proof of the power of story-telling and of aural story-telling in particular. If it goes up on a podcast, check it out. Also, Morden has put many stories, including The Odyssey into book form for young (and young-at-heart) readers.

DSC03688 - Vivid Customs House in Circular Quay

Vivid Customs House in Circular Quay

10. Talking books against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour under clear skies (on the weekend at least!), with the amazing Vivid Festival adding even more interest for both locals and visitors after dark. In response to The Guardian’s quip that Sydney doesn’t do rain well (true) Carlos Ruiz Zafón said that Sydney was beautiful even in the wild rain we had on Saturday night. As for sunshine…well, we do that pretty well!  

Did the Sydney Writers’ Festival have a story for us? No. It had hundreds of them, enough to sustain us until next year’s festival. The 2013 edition was a resounding success for new director Jemma Birrell. Congratulations to her and her team. And a huge thank you to all those blue-shirted volunteers.

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SWF LogoIt was a grey, cold and wet start to the 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) today, but I kicked it off in great style with ‘The Uncommon Reader’. Tegan Bennett Daylight chaired an engaging panel discussion with respected critics James Wood, Geordie Williamson and Jane Gleeson-White on what books have inspired them, from their formative years through to their predictions on the classics of tomorrow. I’ll just pick out a few talking points…

There was a discussion about the moment they began to feel like they wanted or needed to reply to books. James said it wasn’t until university that he was taught to read better, at which point he began to be a better reader, or observer, of the world as well. I think this is true of all us readers.

Both Geordie and Jane spoke of the enthusiasm that works such as Wood’s The Broken Estate allowed them to have. Jane said she still reads with a child’s enthusiasm now, something that was evident when she spoke about her favourites.

For James, he wanted to be able to write about things that made him DSC03665 - Harbour Bridge in Mistwant to burst out and say ‘this is bloody good!’. He writes not for academics, but for other readers.

Tegan asked a great question about what are the books that these avid readers return to, time and again. For Geordie, it is V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. From Naipaul, post-colonial literature emerges. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a most ‘writerly’ book, something he leafs through when he feels a little stale.

James also admires Naipaul, noting A House for Mr Biswas as a very funny and poignant work. But for him, ‘the one’ is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a favourite of mine too. It has, he said, the thing so many works of fiction lack: the ideal ending.

Jane gets excited about any new translations of works by Homer and Tolstoy. But the two works she picked out are F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with its ‘flawless prose’ (she read a passage of this out, endearingly trying not to cry!), and a favourite of mine: Emily Bronte’s  Wuthering Heights (my review).

Thoughts then turned to books and writers of today that will last. Tegan offered Alice Munro and Kazuo Ishiguro. Geordie split the discussion into local and international contexts. For his local, he gave Tim Winton, admiring Winton’s ability to pull off writing that appeals to a wide audience and is also ‘pregnant with intelligence’. He had a smile when saying Stephen Romei had rung him to say the new Winton has just been delivered (expect it on your nearest bookshelf soon! – no title was given). For a global context, he offered David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a ‘generational shift’, and praised the first page of Wallace’s unfinished work The Pale King.

James echoed Geordie’s praise of the opening to The Pale King, and agreed with Tim Winton. To that he added his admiration for Peter Carey, saying that while he liked his more recent works, he is eagerly hoping for the next ‘great novel’ from him, something to rival Illywhacker (my review) and Oscar and Lucinda (my review). (Given they are two of my favourite novels, I couldn’t agree more!) He also noted Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel. For his international, he picked out W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, (which is featured in Wood’s most recent work of criticism The Fun Stuff and Other Essays). 

For Jane, it is Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. But the one that ‘knocked her socks off’ recently was Atomised by French author Michel Houellebecq, which had James Wood nodding too. Jane was positively gushing in her praise, and has blogged about Atomised at Bookish Girl.

For all that, the one author not mentioned, but mentioned by an audience member in a question was Jane Austen. Geordie swung this to Tegan, who re-reads every Austen each year, (and is an admirer of Northanger Abbey, whereas Jane Gleeson-White said she’s more a Persuasion fan (as am I).

I left with the feeling that if I had only attended one session at this years’ festival, then this would have been a great one to choose. The reading list alone would keep me going with great reads for a good while. The panel spoke with intelligence, wit, and above all, enthusiasm about the thing that brings us all together: books.

I’ll have more SWF musings over the coming days and weeks.

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The Savage Detectives follows two poets, Arturo Belano (Roberto Bolaño’s alter-ego) and Ulises Lima (based on Bolaño’s good friend Mario Santiago), as they try to track down a missing poet named Cesárea Tinajero, as well as their subsequent wanderings through Europe as they grow into adulthood.

Written by Roberto Bolaño – the enfant terrible of post-‘Boom’ Latin American literature – it is structured in three, non-linear sections.  The first (entitled ‘Mexicans Lost in Mexico —1975’) and third (‘The Sonora Desert — 1976’) are both narrated in a first-person diary format by an aspiring poet named Juan García Madero.  Madero has joined a group of poets lead by Belano and Lima that is known as the ‘Visceral Realists’ in the bohemian Mexico City of 1975-6.   The Savage Detectives is quite autobiographical: Bolaño himself started a movement in 1976 in Mexico called the ‘infra-realists’.  When Belano and Lima go travelling to Europe, we are travelling in the footsteps of Bolaño himself who lived in Barcelona, and settled in a small Spanish town on the Costa Brava after marrying.  But who are the visceral realists really?  For all the posturing about getting published, Lima and Belano never seem to have had anything of theirs put in print.  Will they ever amount to anything?  And what becomes of their search for Tinajero (and related attempt to outrun a pimp and corrupt cop who are chasing after them)?

The middle section is by far the longest at some 400 pages.  It’s entitled ‘The Savage Detectives’ and comprises small to long ‘snapshots’, narrated in first-person interviews by some 52 separate characters, all of whom came into contact with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, whether from their time in Mexico or in Europe.  Many of these narrators are fellow writers, some are lovers, friends, enemies.  The anecdotes span twenty years, from 1976 to 1996, and provide us with an impression of who these two drifter poets were and what became of them.  But it is only ever an impression, for both Lima and Belano are like ghosts.  They came in and out of focus, literally disappearing and reappearing, while many of the narrators can only give oblique impressions or hazy recollections of their interactions with the men, be they short-lived or more meaningful.

As for the visceral realists, one of poet narrators, Laura Jauregui, who was one of Belano’s lovers, believes she worked out what the whole movement was about: (p134-5):  “…it occurred to me that is was all a message for me.  It was a way of saying don’t leave me, see what I’m capable of, stay with me.  …  The whole visceral realism thing was a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless.  But that wasn’t what I meant to say.”

Indeed!  Are we getting the right picture here, or the deluded imaginings of a jilted lover?  Later, another friend writes that “they weren’t revolutionaries.  They weren’t writers.  Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don’t think they were poets either.  They sold drugs.”

The change in structure and narration is quite a jolt and for the first 50 pages or so I was wondering what was going on.  As we progress in a more or less chronological fashion (with short time hops here and there), the effect becomes clear and there is a gradual darkening in the stories being told.  There is a real menace to the final pages, with characters we met in Mexico City dying or being killed or just disappearing.  In the afterword, Natasha Wimmer talks about how Bolaño thought of The Savage Detectives as his ‘own answer to Huckleberry Finn.’  Both novels are about friendship and the loss of innocence.  But where we follow Huck Finn on his journey first hand, here everything is cloaked through the lens of all these other narrators, something which adds to the sense of unease.

As soon as p136 we get a glimpse when a publisher talks about Belano and Lima thus: “I noticed something strange about them, it was as if they were there but at the same time they weren’t there.”

This sense of absence reflects one of Bolaño’s motifs.  Bolaño was a Chilean in exile, but as Wimmer points out, he was never comfortable with Chile or Chileans in general.  He is quoted as saying his home was the Spanish language.

Other narrators tell of hopes being dashed, of ‘doing what we could, but nothing worked out’, of smells of death on the blankets of Lima.  One is a backpacker camping at a site where Belano is the night watchman and writes that “I was sure something bad was going to happen.”  Another talks about how they were losing things without knowing it.  Often in these versions of history, Lima goes missing and Belano sets off to find him.  Later, when they arrive back from Europe, Lima goes off to a fictitious Latin American country and disappears for two years!  The publisher of Belano’s book says that Belano was a ‘phantom author’.  Joaquin Font, who takes Madero under his wing in the first section of the novel in Mexico City, narrates tales from a mental asylum and when he was told a friend of his committed suicide in 1980, he writes, (p281), “…that’s when I knew beyond a doubt that everything was about to go from bad to worse.”  Another: “We didn’t realize, but in those days everything was sliding inexorably toward the edge of a cliff.”

The sense of increasing despair is also reflected in the poetry of the missing Tinajero.  Like the poet, much of her work has been lost.  The one poem they find is actually three pictures.  In each picture there is a square placed on a line.  The first line is flat, like a becalmed sea.  In the second picture the line is wavy, and in the third the line is like a jagged mountain range.  It looks like a little boat without its sails tossed on stormy seas.  That, it seems, is life’s progression: from calm through unease to outright storms.

One of the earlier ‘stories’ in the middle section is narrated by Auxilio Lacouture and forms the basis of Bolaño’s novella Amulet (see my review) which was published two years after Detectives.  This is another feature of Bolaño’s oeuvre: the way characters from one work pitch up in another (like David Mitchell), and also the way stories themselves overlap.  Auxilio tells the story of how the military overran the University of Mexico in 1968: a metaphor for the real-life massacre of Tlatelolco.

When accepting the Premio Romulo Gallegos award in 1999 for The Savage Detectives, Bolaño said: “All of Latin America is sown with the bones of its forgotten youths.”   As Wimmer points out, in The Savage Detectives he “brings those youths back to life.”

The hallucinatory nature of the middle section is also true of the book-ends narrated by Madero as he describes how he is sucked into Belano and Lima’s strange quest to find Tinajero alongside a prostitute named Lupe, and chased by Lupe’s pimp and a corrupt Mexican cop.  We get arm-length views of Belano and Lima, and though we get close at times, we then find ourselves shunted away again.

It’s not all doom and gloom.  There are some very funny sections and stories.  There is a very humorous scene in which Belano challenges a literary critic to a duel after he becomes convinced the man is about to publish a bad review of one of his novels.  And duel they do, with sabres no less, on a Spanish beach watched by their ‘seconds’, who look on with a mixture of bemusement, astonishment, and jocularity.  (Pity the poor reviewer!  For a moment I wondered whether, had he still been alive, I would have found a use for the fencing lessons I enjoyed in my youth!  Alas, we’ll never know, for I’m not writing a bad review and, more to the point, Bolaño is no longer with us, though, having read stories of his very forthright personality it wouldn’t surprise me if a challenge was forthcoming from beyond the grave were I to do so.)  During the duel, the narrator realises that “this scene was the logical outcome of our ridiculous lives.  It wasn’t a punishment but a new wrinkle.  It gave us a glimpse of ourselves in our common humanity.  It wasn’t proof of our idle guilt but a sign of our miraculous and pointless innocence.”

There is also a very funny anecdote from a lawyer who intersperses his testimonial with Latin proverbs and who witnesses Belano make love to his daughter.  And there is the nice post-modern pay-off of the Belano-Bolaño relationship when the only scholar interested in the visceral realists, (who comes across as very strange), says, (p520): “Ulises Lima still lives in Mexico City. … About Arturo Belano I know nothing.”

Of course, about Bolaño we know an awful lot.  A combative personality, he eschewed the great and celebrated Latin American ‘Boom’ authors, many of which are seen differently at home than in the English-speaking world.  Take for instance Garcia Marquez’s very close relationship with Fidel Castro.  Bolaño dismissed Marquez as “a man thrilled to have known so many presidents and archbishops; Mario Vargas Llosa: same thing, but more polished.”(!)  Bolaño’s views are coloured by his personal experience: he got caught up in the Pinochet overthrow of the Allende government in Chile on a return visit, and was briefly jailed.  The revolutionary Mexican PRI party was responsible for the Tlatelolco massacre.  Bolaño and his infra-realist buddies went to the readings of other Mexican poets to disrupt them because they took money from the PRI.  One of his authorial predecessors he had time for was Borges, which is hardly a surprise, for Bolaño’s writing is in many ways as mysterious as Borges’ Labyrinths.  Bolaño is not of the Boom, but he gives us all another way to view the same madnesses that plagued Latin America in the 20th Century and still do so today albeit to a lesser extent.  But he extends the rage to include more modern illnesses, such as the all-powerful drug cartels that seem to run most of Mexico.  He recasts what it means to be a Latin American writer.

The Savage Detectives is one of two of Bolaño’s on the ‘1,001 Books to Read Before You Die’ list, (along with 2666), though many including James Wood and Natasha Wimmer point to his other novel By Night in Chile to be even better.  I for one am looking forward to reading it.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Picador

1998

ISBN: 97803305509527

577 pages (plus an insightful afterword by Natasha Wimmer)

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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