Sunday, March 15, 2009

Reading the top 10 translated novels

I started off with Robert Bolaño's 2666, a very long novel in five sections. One reviewer on Amazon gave the book one star because the fourth section was filthy, in their mind, and "unless you like reading 'anally raped' over and over you shouldn't bother," they said. Now, this part of the book is the hardest to read and by far the longest, but what makes it difficult is the nature of the crimes described, not the manner of the description. It's not snuff that describes violence with pleasure. It's detached, clinical, in the manner of a police report, and technical rather than graphic. That Bolaño could come up with this doesn't suggest he has a depraved mind - the crimes in the book are based on a series of real murders - so much as it suggests that the world around us is, at times, depraved. (Still, if you prefer not to read about this sort of topic, aesthetically or morally, fine, but then you're something of an idiot to pick up a book about the murder of hundreds of women in the first place.)

The fourth section ("The Part About the Crimes") is wonderfully effective at inducing shame. In the first three parts, I found myself despising the characters to some degree because all these terrible crimes are going on around them, and they pay little to no attention to them. Then in the fourth section, I began to wish I was reading about anything else. The crimes and the larger milieu of Santa Teresa, with its corruption and poverty, become overwhelming, and I wanted to go back to reading about boxing and Pynchonesque authors. Of course, then I could no longer look down on the characters that momentarily deplored the crimes before turning to something else.

The second book I read was one I didn't have high hopes for - Attila Bartis' Tranquility promised to be in the vein of Philip Roth. It's about a man who lives with his crazy homebound mother, a former actress. I unexpectedly enjoyed it, although after the fact I was bemused by the jacket description of the work as laugh-out-loud funny. It never occurred to me to laugh - not because it was unfunny, like Larry the Cable Guy, but because for the most part it didn't occur to me it was supposed to be chortle-inducing.

I then went back to Bolaño for Nazi Literature in the Americas. If you love Lambshead, you'll like Nazi Literature. It's an encyclopedia of (fictional) fascist authors from the North America, Central America, and South America. (No Canadians though.) It's a small work compared to 2666, but still fun.

After reading three books in a row about authors, I was ready for something else and turned to Voice Over by Céline Curiol. I wasn't expecting to like it, and I liked it even less than I expected. It is no doubt a failing on my part, but I'd much rather sympathize with a main character who is something vile like a murderer than someone passively amoral. I have no patience for characters like our protagonist here, a needy woman screwing up her own life, someone I don't like or understand spending time with other unlikable people in tacky situations. And I really don't want to be stuck in her head for 250 pages of stream of consciousness. After only 25 pages I would prefer to go back to section four of 2666. I might have to put this one down and come back.

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