Years ago, in fact in 1977, in my first weeks of expatriation in London (when, had things been otherwise, I would have been standing before my English classes giving my usual opening talk of the year that I'm sure my former students can still recite by rote), I contacted the NY Times Book Review and asked if they would consider printing an interview with the respected English novelist Beryl Bainbridge (now Dame Beryl, thank you very much). Beryl was a favorite writer of mine back then, and I still find her work to be utterly original, darkly amusing, and always worth rereading. Not many novelists could, in one year, write about Hitler's youthful trip to (her native) Liverpool, and in another the Titanic, and in yet another, the ill-fated Scott expedition to the South Pole.
So I wrote her, and she asked me to call, and we sat for three hours in her Camden Town bedroom/study, smoking furiously (mostly my cigarettes, as she was trying to quit) while I ran a rented tape-recorder in trying to capture her responses. One question I asked her was why her books so often touched on the death of a main character. And she said something to the effect of: "Death is all we really have left to write about, isn't it? I mean, no one knows for sure what's going to happen, so it's fair game."
Of course she's right. It's the first and last great mystery of life, or, if we follow Wittgenstein's dictum, the thing that isn't part of life since it comes when life is finished. Birth is no mystery, though some like to think it is. To put it bluntly, it's the end-product of a biological process, though this process usually begins with a pleasant few hours with the one you love. Death is also a biological process, or the end of a process, but what happens after that is a true mystery. So, as writers, we're all on the same footing when it comes to writing about it. Hamlet called death "The undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns."
Well, yes; exactly.
Proust wrote eloquently about the death of the narrator's grandmother in his great novel; Tolstoy touched upon it profoundly on many occasions, most notably in "The Death of Ivan Ilych". In fact, every writer worth his salt has confronted the subject. As Dame Beryl said, it's all we really have left. Isn't it?
I bring this up because last night I finished reading Roberto Bolaño's 2666, which I blogged about when I was halfway through the work. I won't go into any details on the plot or the structure, as these have been discussed in other, more widely-read, reviews. But this is a 900-page book that is really about death; more specifically, death in the 20th and 21st centuries, which is somehow different from death as we knew it before. This may sound mad (and it may well be), but in the 20th century we began to see death in a very different way. No longer the individual deaths in a family, or in a small society, but the mass deaths of whole peoples. And because of that, because in the end it was statistics that was confronting us--hundreds of thousands, millions, and so forth--those of us who lost no one near and dear to us in these tragedies became used to the destruction of the population of a city (my grandparents' Pinsk, in Belorussia, for instance), a territory, or even a great percentage of a race.
This, I think, is what lies at the dark heart of Bolaño's masterpiece which, it must be said, is also at times a gripping and at times an extremely funny book. The tragedy here, as I noted earlier, is the death of girls and women in a northern region of Mexico, based on factual, largely unsolved, deaths in Ciudad Juárez. But its larger view is death when it becomes something so big, so powerful, so strangely magnetic, that by the very anonymity of its victims it draws us near, makes us peer over the brim, makes us want to see what this thing is that can destroy so casually, and with so much violence. This is death in the last century and our current one. We read about villages going up in flames, or earthquakes devouring so many thousands of people, or tsunamis washing away families, sometimes forty or fifty at a time. Concentration camps gas their prisoners and then send them up as ash into the air over Germany and Poland. Pol Pot had fields filled with the bones of his perceived enemies. And we turn the page and we read the next story, or change the channel and watch something else.
Not because we don't want to see it, but because we've seen it before. Many times. We've grown used to it. It's becomes part of our daily lives. Outrage has become diminished to a simple shrug.
Roberto Bolaño takes us on a tour of our own minds in such instances and leads us to the edge to have a look and a think and to consider the world we've inherited. And he's written what may well be the first true masterpiece of the 21s century. In fact, it's our Heart of Darkness.
Causes J.P. Smith Supports