Many writers turn to their craft in an effort to conquer grief and past trauma, and Marcos Giralt Torrente is no exception. What’s curious about Father and Son is its circularity in this regard, as Giralt Torrente seems to also be lassoing his grief in order to spur on his writing. As the book progresses, the act of grieving and the act of writing become one, and the result is peculiar, visceral, and powerful. There’s an immediacy throughout, aided by Giralt Torrente’s frequent deployment of the present tense, and it’s a reminder that the past is a living document, one that can be perpetually reexamined and reworked.
So, while Father and Son is a poignant, personal examination of the remnants of his relationship with his father, it’s also about writing–in particular, how to write about the past. It’s about losing as well as gaining and creating something meaningful out of that which was all but destroyed. It’s about “Death and life mingling, as always, but shaded by something that supplants life by merging with it and moreover aspires to triumph over death itself.” (p. 81)
Midway through Boyhood–book three of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle–a young Karl Ove earns himself a dose of comeuppance after emphatically pointing out that a classmate cannot read. “But it’s true,” he retorts, not understanding why voicing something that everyone is already aware of could be the source of conflict. In the end, it’s Karl Ove who’s in tears, trying to understand why it is that some truths are stones better left unturned. This episode is an interesting choice for inclusion on the part of Knausgaard because, in many ways, it seems that he never learned his lesson (or, perhaps, he has simply chosen to disregard adhering to this particular nicety). After all, 1000+ pages into this epic, it’s quite clear that a key method is to attempt to write about everything, including the messes and traumas that we’ve been told should stay packed away in the closet.
I’m now at the midpoint of the six-part series, and I still find it hard to articulate why I find Knausgaard’s work so riveting. And I’m not the only one. With each appearance of a new installment in english, another bevy of critics scramble to spell out exactly why these are “good” books (or, at least, why we keep reading them so intently). But I’m starting to think that the passage above may hold some semblance of an answer. With snark and sarcasm at the core of so much of contemporary discourse, operating in the realms of unbridled expression–be it in the form of passion or honesty or hatred–without at least an equal dose of qualification and skepticism is risking being labeled an unmannered rube. In this regard, Knausgaard is quite the outlier. He doesn’t avoid cliche, he doesn’t veil his opinions (however uncouth), he doesn’t let doubt cripple his motivation, and he (seemingly) doesn’t edit, but, instead, unapologetically gushes out these big, sloppy books. Such an effort is a breath of fresh air, frankly, if for no other reason that it provides a striking alternative to our current social dialogue.
Of course, whether it’s “great” writing or not is another topic (one that I see being debated ad nauseum–“He’s Proust for Gen-X!”). I’ll leave that debate for others. Issues of craft aside, his approach is not without other consequences, too–as Knausgaard has admitted, “I feel guilt for almost everything around this book…I was saying, ‘My book is more important than your life.’” This is very valid concern and one with complex ramifications, as it’s not exclusively his life that’s being shared with the world. I’m not exactly sure where I fall on this issue, but I do think that there is something deeply moving and human in such a bold approach, and, thus, I ultimately applaud Knausgaard for his willingness to take such a risk.
Isn’t art simply mediation? A negotiation between artist, medium, and subject, often the goal is to shrink the distance between representation and represented. But can this gap ever be fully brought to a close? César Aira seems to think not, referring to this inherent and inevitable disconnect as an abyss.
If abyss sounds daunting, it is, though Aira insists that this is no cause for worry. In fact, it’s these very chasms that art is charged with bridging. When successful, divisions become blurred to such a degree that it becomes unclear–and, frankly, unimportant–which is art and which is life. As Aira eventually declares: “What the world was saying was the world.” (pp. 78)
But traversing these kinds of landscapes–in the spirit of discovery and transcendence–requires compensation on the part of the artist, often an unequal transaction in which a tremendous toll is exacted. In the case of Aira’s painter, it’s something that marks him forever–physically, emotionally, psychologically, and artistically–but it’s also what allows him to move wholly into terra incognita (both in life and in art).
So, is it worth it? That’s what Aira is asking us.
There were moments, mid-text, that I nearly forgot that this is an unfinished work. After all, Woes of the True Policeman isn’t the first of Bolaño’s works to experiment with fragmentation (in both phrase and plot), and there are also some stunningly beautiful passages. The five-page, single sentence barrage that glosses Amalfitano’s life is powerful–enough so that I got to wondering why it didn’t make the 2666 cut. But this early passage proved to be an exception. As other reviewers have noted, Woes of the True Policeman reads, by-and-large, like the literary equivalent to an outtakes album, and any close examination exposes prose that’s a bit too rough around the edges to be considered top shelf Bolaño. (To be clear, this is in no way a dig at Natasha Wimmer’s translation, which is potent and vibrant, as I’ve come to expect.)
As one who’s partaken in and enjoyed a fair bit of Bolaño’s oeuvre–and whose favorite chapter in 2666 is quite possibly “The Part About Amalfitano”–I’m appreciative of the opportunity to follow the evolution of both characters and ideas that go on to play key roles in Bolaño’s most ambitious text. But that’s about all that Woes of the True Policeman offers, and, while likely meaningful to Bolaño enthusiasts, I must ask: is this alone enough to justify publication? If, as the afterward claims, Bolaño worked on this text for upwards of thirty years but left it unpublished, and seeing as much of the text was adapted to fit into other works, I can’t help but wonder how Bolaño would feel seeing this “novel” on the shelves. I generally try to avoid spending too much time and analysis on extra-textual musings, but I can’t shake it in this case. Regardless, Woes of the True Policeman is out in the world, so you might as well dig in.