Woes of the True Policeman, p.13Roberto Bolaño
Two Arcimboldi Novels Read in Three Days
The Librarian (Gallimard, 1966, 185 pages)
The protagonist’s name is Jean Marchand. He’s young, from a good family, and wants to be a writer. He has a manuscript, The Librarian, on which he’s been working for a long time. A publishing house, recognizable as Gallimard, hires him as a reader. Overnight, Marchand finds himself buried in hundreds of unpublished novels. First he decides to set his book aside for a while. Then he decides to give up his literary aspirations (the practice of writing, if not his passion for it) to devote himself to the careers of other writers. He sees himself as a doctor at a leper colony in India, a monk pledged to a higher cause.
He reads manuscripts, has long discussions with writers, gives them advice, calls them on the phone, inquires after their health, lends them money. Soon there’s a group of about ten whom he can consider his own, whose novels he’s been involved with. Some—a few—find publishers. Parties are thrown and plans made. The rest come imperceptibly to swell the ranks of a collection of unpublished manuscripts guarded jealously by Marchand. Among these manuscripts by others is his own novel, The Librarian, unfinished and perfectly typed, neatly bound, a beauty among grubby, smudged, crumpled, dirty originals; a lady cat among tomcats. Marchand dreams that in one magical and endless night the rejected manuscripts make love every way possible with his abandoned manuscript: they sodomize it, rape it orally and genitally, come in its hair, on its body, in its ears, in its armpits, etc., but when morning comes his manuscript hasn’t been fertilized. It’s sterile. In that sterility, Marchand believes, lies its uniqueness, its magnetism. He also dreams that he’s the leader of a gang that scavenges metal from mines and that the mountain they must plunder by the light of the moon is hollow, empty. His prestige at the publishing house grows, as it must. He has recommended the publication of a young writer who is the hit of the season. Marchand knows that for every writer he allows to breathe, there are five who endure with him (with the best Marchand, the most improbable) the airlessness and darkness of their labyrinthine works.
Eventually, one of his writers kills himself. Another turns to journalism. Another, of independent means, writes a second and a third novel that only Marchand will read and praise. Another is published by a small regional press. Another becomes an encyclopedia salesman. By this point Marchand has abandoned any scruples, any hesitation: not only does he maintain steady relationships with the writers but in more than one case he has become acquainted with their families (dear M. Marchand), their girlfriends and wives, their generous grandmothers, their best friends. In his imagination, his manuscript lives on in the novels that he stores at his house: the character of The Librarian enters the lives of the other characters—the characters from the other books—just as he works his way into the lives of the writers. Of the first ten, only one takes the tempestuous world of publishing by storm (and even so, Marchand controls him to the point of making him write stories that only he will read, rewrite novels whose discarded fragments only he will possess); as the years go by, the others find new interests, stop writing, readapt themselves, grow up. But the flow of new manuscripts is unceasing: Marchand takes on another ten writers, then another ten, and so on until his library is filled with manuscripts—strange ones, bad ones sometimes; surprising ones, delightful ones, dark ones sometimes—that he personally takes care to see are rejected by publishers. There comes a moment when Marchand reads only unpublished works: the novel gives brief plot summaries of about forty.
Marchand has dreams: a great fire in his building, described by Arcimboldi with the precision of an architect and a firefighter; the appearance of a thundering Messiah who publishes all the filched manuscripts and condemns him to burn in hell, the Librarian’s greatest fear; the hatching of a generation of novelists who are as quick as lightning and whom he’ll coddle and lead, step by step, into his library of rejected writers. The novel ends abruptly. Marchand dies of a heart attack. Present at his burial, along with the employees of the publishing house, are many former writers. A moving truck transports his collection of manuscripts to a warehouse. Arcimboldi describes the warehouse in great detail.
Racine (Gallimard, 1979, 140 pages)
A fragmented biography, divided into cold and seemingly unconnected bits; perhaps a collection of prose poems, as one critic notes. Scenes from the life of Racine, following one after another like closed and stifling rooms: the death of the girl Jeanne-Thérèse Olivier, recounted with evident pain despite the chilliness—the purported objectivity—of the prose; the death of Jeanne Sconin, mother of the poet, two years after the poet’s birth; the death of Marquise Du Parc, the poet’s lover, in the year of the publication of Andromaque; work with Boileau, the head of Boileau, his profile; friendship with Molière and their subsequent falling-out; the death of Jean Racine, the poet’s father; early mornings in 1644 when the poet was a five-year-old orphan living with his grandparents; the unfinished and lost tragedies, the incalculable spent energy; life in Uzès, the birds of Languedoc, the poet’s uncle Antoine Sconin; the lie that surrounds him like a barbed and dirty cloud; marriage to Catherine de Romanet; the accusation that he poisoned Marquise Du Parc for her jewels; the study of Latin; the premiere of Andromaque with Marquise Du Parc in the leading role; the period when Marquise Du Parc worked with Molière; La Champmeslé’s bed; children; life in Versailles; the great blocks of ice of the seventeenth century; the music of Lully and Port-Royal.
Two Arcimboldi Novels Read in Seven Days
Sam O’Rourke’s Search (Gallimard, 1960, 230 pages)
At first, this sad and rambling novel most resembles a plagiarized version of James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish, or at best an adaptation. Despite the unremitting description of objects (beds, curtains, camp beds, guns, chairs, boxes of crackers, bottles, plates), very much in the style of the nouveau roman, the arc of James Hadley Chase’s story impresses itself with great force: some small-time crooks kidnap the daughter of a tycoon; before long, the bungling kidnappers lose their captive to another gang; the brains behind the new gang is a fat, surly woman (Mona); Mona’s deputies are her son (Chuck) and her godson (Jim, a.k.a. Kansas Jim). That same night—the night of the double kidnapping—we learn that Chuck is a dangerous psychopath and that he’s about to fall for the beautiful heiress, and that Jim is handsome and clever and hates the heiress with a passion: his reasons, explained at great length, fluctuate between a very personal sense of class struggle and an appreciation of the charms and natural camaraderie of chorus girls, whom he clearly prefers.
The rest of the gang consists of four drab and ruthless individuals: a black man, two ex-farmers, and a fifty-five-year-old Polish dancer. The daily existence of these characters is something that seems to fascinate Arcimboldi: their routines, their hideouts, their interests, their obsessions, the ease with which they “slide through cracks in time.” We soon learn all kinds of things about them: their favorite foods, their dreams, their favorite subjects of conversation, their hopes, their dark loves, their dark fates (cf. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables). Chuck and the kidnapped girl are like a kind of diabolical Romeo and Juliet, with Mona and the Pole (who sleep together once every two weeks, though almost without touching, masturbating each other from opposite sides of the bed with hands like insect antennae) as their antithesis: the old couple has attained or is about to attain wisdom, the state of a celestial Romeo and Juliet. Standing between the two couples in a space where everything is antagonism are the godson, the black man, sometimes the two ex-farmers: they are the spectators of love, the chorus that gives life and takes it away, that licenses it.
The two cities where the first part of the novel is set are described with seeming objectivity (another cascade of details), revealing glimpses of a dream landscape: clouds that hang incredibly low, at nearly the level of lightning rods; twisted, solitary trees (that Arcimboldi, for reasons unknown, calls Oklahomas) loaded with birds and ro
Between the end of the first part of the novel and the start of the second, a washroom door is opened by someone unknown to reveal a dwarf brushing his teeth at a dwarf-sized sink. It’s at precisely this point that the second part begins: a private detective (Sam O’Rourke) kneels at a dwarf-sized sink brushing his teeth and staring at himself in the mirror—which is also dwarf-height—with an expression of infinite sadness on his face. Someone opens the door (presumably the same person who opened the door earlier and found the dwarf) and orders him to go in search of the missing heiress. The image of the detective on his knees brushing his teeth is one to which Arcimboldi will return over and over again: a man shrunk to his true size; the description of the washroom tiles (Hardee-Royston, green and gray flowers on a matte surface); the description of the single lightbulb hanging naked over the mirror; the shadow of the door as it opens; the bulky form in the doorway and the eyes of the stranger, invisible to O’Rourke but in which he intuits a gleam of surprise and fear; the gaze of O’Rourke, first in the mirror (in which he sees only the reflection of the stranger’s legs) and then upon turning to seek the face; voices that echo with strange limpidity; the water that runs in the chipped sink and trickles between the tiles.
O’Rourke’s search is limited to the two cities and the network of farms scattered between them. A single city, concludes Arcimboldi, is by its very nature unfathomable; two cities are an infinity. O’Rourke navigates this infinity with American simplicity and integrity. The senseless deaths (despite the author’s efforts to demonstrate—by the enumeration of causal events—that everything has a hidden meaning as unyielding as fate) follow upon one another with horrifying monotony. O’Rourke’s inquiries lead him to a church, an orphanage, the charred shell of a farm, a brothel. During the investigation, which is like a voyage, he makes new friends and enemies, reencounters forgotten lovers, is nearly killed, kills, loses his car, makes love with his secretary. The conversations that O’Rourke has with policemen, pickpockets, thugs, night watchmen, gas station attendants, informers, whores, and dealers are reproduced in full and concern the existence of God, progress, mathematics, life after death, the reading of the Bible, fallen women and saintly wives, flying saucers, the role of Christ on strange planets, the role of man on earth, the advantages of life in the country over life in the city (clean air, fresh vegetables and milk, guaranteed daily exercise), the ravages of time, miracle drugs, the secret recipe for Coca-Cola, the choice to bring children into this mixed-up world, work as a social good.
As might be expected, the search for the heiress never ends. The cities, A and B, increasingly resemble each other. Mona’s gang, once the ransom is collected, tries to flee but something nameless (and ominous) stands in the way. They end up settling in B, where they buy a nightclub in the suburbs. The nightclub is described as a castle or a fortress: from a secret room the heiress and Chuck watch the sunsets and the Oklahomas stretching into infinity. O’Rourke loses himself doubly: in the cities and in momentous and futile conversations. And yet, at the end of the novel, he has a dream. He dreams that Mona’s entire gang is climbing a flight of stairs. Mona is in the lead and Kansas Jim brings up the rear. In the middle is the kidnapped heiress with Chuck’s arm around her waist. They climb slowly but with steady and unfaltering steps—the stairs are wooden and uncarpeted—until they come to a hallway, dark or faintly lit by a yellowish bulb covered with fly droppings. There’s a door. They open it. They see a dwarf sink. Kneeling at the tiny sink is O’Rourke, brushing his teeth. They remain on the threshhold without greeting him. O’Rourke turns, still on his knees, and gazes at them. The novel ends a few lines later with some disquisitions on love and repentance.
Railroad Perfection (Gallimard, 1964, 206 pages)
Novel consisting of ninety-nine apparently unrelated two-page dialogues. All the dialogues take place aboard a train. But not the same train, or even during the same time period. Chronologically, the first dialogue (page 101) takes place in 1899, between a priest and a clerk for a foreign company; the last (page 59) in 1957, between a young widow and a retired cavalry captain. Following the order in which they appear in the book, the first dialogue (page 9) takes place in 1940, between a landscape painter and a surrealist painter whose nerves are shot, presumably on a train to Marseille; the last (page 205) takes place in 1930, between a woman traveling with two children and an old woman who is deathly ill but who never dies, among other reasons because the dialogue, like those that precede it, is interrupted: in general, the reader encounters conversations that he doesn’t see begin (and whose beginnings he can’t even imagine) and that after two pages will inevitably be cut off. Still, the careful reader will find clues that occasionally explain how a conversation started, what motivated it, the reasons behind it. Although most, at least on the surface, arise from the monotony of the trip, some have a more specific origin: a remark about the crime novel that a passenger is reading, a significant political or social event, a third person who has attracted the attention of two passengers. Each dialogue is given a short title that sometimes informs us of the profession of the speakers or their marital status or the destination of the train or the year or the age of the travelers, but not always, so that some chapters begin simply with a notation of the time: 3 a.m., 9 a.m., 11 p.m., etc. In addition, the careful reader will soon realize (though a second or third reading is often required) that this isn’t a collection of stories or of ninety-nine fragments connected solely by train travel: as if this were a mystery novel, we learn to recognize at least two travelers through the fragments of dialogue, two ambiguous characters who, despite changes of job, age, and sometimes even sex (but then the young woman who works as a secretary at a chocolate factory in the Jura is no such young woman), are the same person, and both are fleeing, or chasing each other, or one is chasing and the other is hiding. It’s also possible to piece together the clues to solve a crime, though the order in which the dialogues are presented tends to muddy the waters (conversation between the prefect of Narbonne and the Turkish intellectual, page 161; conversation between the train conductor and the sailor from Toulon, page 95; conversation between the proofreader whose mother has died and the town architect of Brest, page 51; conversation between the Italian immigrant and the watchmaker from Geneva, page 87; conversation between the fifty-year-old whore and the twenty-year-old whore, page 115); it’s possible to spin a comic tale (conversation between the bride and groom off on their honeymoon, page 27; conversation between the man of independent means and the owner of vineyards in the Roussillon, page 77; conversation between the vaudeville performer and the highway engineer—or is he a German spy? or a Strasbourg bohemian?—page 109); a story of devotion (conversation between the elderly baker and the elderly country doctor, page 153; conversation between the soldier on leave and the woman of mystery, page 163; conversation between the stutterer from Lille and the Paris taxi driver, page 171); the story of a trip—to Spain, the Maghreb?—that ends in the death of the traveler (conversation between the professor of medieval literature and the traveling salesman, page 143; conversation between the woman of mystery and the married woman, page 69; conversation between the twenty-year-old athlete and the twenty-eight-year-old college graduate, page 181; conversation between the bridge player and the Englishwoman of a certain age, page 197); and the story of a house that burned down (conversation between the gravedigger from the south and the gravedigger from the north, page 39; conversation between the housewife who likes to write poetry but doesn’t like to read it and the proofreader whose mother has died, page 119; conversation between the man who has never taken trains an
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